Mainstream Stars in Movie Musicals: Are Broadway Vets the Better Choice?

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Okay, here goes. Hugh Jackman was miscast as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables.

That’s a pretty bold statement, wouldn’t you say? Yet many are in firm agreement that Jackman was not right for the role – not even a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture (Musical/Comedy) could convince them otherwise. Still others believe that Jackman was the perfect choice for the escaped convict and gave the performance of his career.

What do you think?

I’m still undecided about Jackman, but I will say this: I am a firm believer that casting mainstream stars in movie musicals is a risky business, and not just financially.

We all know why studio executives do it – they want to make money. Who wouldn’t want to see Johnny Depp as a demonic, hell-bent barber, Meryl Streep tackling a musical in general, John Travolta in drag, Beyoncé as a Dreamgirl, or Gerard Butler behind the infamous Phantom mask? There’s something about seeing well-known celebrities in movie musicals that whets an audience’s appetite: they love seeing someone they recognize in the role, even if they’re not necessarily an avid fan of music theatre.

But what happens when miscast celebrities jeopardize the integrity of the film? And what about the trained, seasoned Broadway veterans with film experience who are equally talented, if not more so? After the Christmas Day release of Les Mis, these are the questions now coming to light.

There has been much controversy surrounding Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Inspector Javert in the film. Crowe, who has previously sung in multiple rock bands, was even mocked by fellow cast member Sacha Baron Cohen at this year’s Golden Globe Awards. While most of the banter has been playful in nature, it is important to stop and consider an alternate scenario: would the film have been better if a different actor had been cast? Perhaps someone who has played the role to great acclaim on stage, such as Norm Lewis in the 25th Anniversary Concert version at Royal Albert Hall? Even if it’s not a question of “better,” could the film have been filled with more depth, characterization, emotion, or nuance?

It’s impossible to say, especially since Les Mis is now a project of the past. What is possible is the ability to learn from past mistakes to create stronger works of art for future audiences.

Of course, there have been several success stories in movie musicals of the past decade. Catherine Zeta-Jones gave a masterful performance as Velma Kelly in 2002’s Chicago and went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work. Jennifer Hudson followed in 2006 with a heart-stopping turn as Effie White in Dreamgirls, also going on to win a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. And who will soon forget the mesmerizing, heartbreaking, and utterly gripping portrayal of Fantine by new Best Supporting Actress Oscar-recipient Anne Hathaway? (And what is it about that darn Supporting Actress category that keeps nabbing movie musical winners?) These women, all talented singers and actresses, had the chops to pull off the roles they received. Zeta-Jones has a music theatre background, as does Hathaway. Hudson was a finalist on American Idol (and was told by Simon Cowell that she would never amount to anything…take that, Simon).

But then there are those that left us scratching our heads, like Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia and the entire cast of Rock of Ages. What went wrong with these films, especially when the musicals themselves are still playing on Broadway? The simple and unfortunate truth is that a group of talented film stars can all be thrown into a musical together and it can still fail. And while I love Mamma Mia for the fun, visually picturesque film that it is, seriously – Pierce Brosnan?

Let’s examine an alternative solution. Instead of cramming movie musicals with as many known movie stars as possible – all of whom can “kind of” sing – what if music theatre professionals were put in instead? What if Ramin Karimloo had played the Phantom, Patti LuPone took on Mrs. Lovett, and the original Broadway cast of Rock of Ages tapped the film cast on the back, whispered “Nice try,” and stepped in to save the day? (Tom Cruise does get an honorable mention for his who-knew rock-singing chops). How much more dynamic would the films be? How much more would we listen to the soundtracks? My guess is that the difference would be night and day, at least for well-versed fans of the theatre.

By the same token, I can see why studio executives opt for higher-profile stars. Actors like Hugh Jackman and Johnny Depp would understandably draw more moviegoers than Hadley Fraser and Brian d’Arcy James, even if the latter have better singing voices. Unfortunately, if it wasn’t all about money and star power, we would at least have an opportunity to see the difference featured performers who understand music theatre better than anyone would make.

I think 2011’s Footloose is the best example of what to do with a film when a production company is unsure of whether or not it will be a successful movie musical: don’t make it into a musical! Instead, find two leads who can dance well, add a killer soundtrack with most of the musical’s beloved songs playing in the background, and sprinkle in talented actors who can do what they do best, all while keeping the heart of the story intact and adding a contemporary flair to it. When Kenny Ortega dropped out of the project as choreographer and Zac Efron decided not to play the lead role, the team could have easily still gone ahead and attempted to make what could have been a second-rate musical. Instead, they were smart and played to a different set of strengths. It paid off, too: reviewers of the film were surprisingly impressed by it.

Perhaps a sort of compromise can be reached. If a mainstream star can sing, dance, and act the musical role without a shadow of a doubt, then he should by all means be cast. But if there is even the slightest chance that he might mess it up—or even deliver a sub-par performance—then the role should go to a seasoned stage performer. At the very least, the stage performer should be given an equal opportunity. For example, the decision to cast Samantha Barks as Eponine in Les Mis instead of Taylor Swift was the right choice; the decision to cast Nick Jonas as Marius in the 25th Anniversary Concert version was the wrong one. I do not believe that the film would have been better with Swift as Eponine, but the 25th Anniversary would undoubtedly have been even more powerful with a legit baritenor playing Marius.

I believe major changes must be made in order to preserve the reputation of the movie musical. If West Side Story is re-made, I don’t believe any less people would flock to see it if it didn’t star an actor with a big name. If Wicked were made into a film, even if it didn’t star original Broadway vets Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth, it would draw just as many viewers as the stage show did simply because it’s Wicked. So wouldn’t you rather spend your time listening to genuinely gifted musicians and actresses than two film stars who had a few months of vocal training? After seeing the way movie musicals are being commercialized and shepherded along the Hollywood Walk of Fame like cattle, I know I would. Who cares if Rent wasn’t exactly like the stage version? Most of the cast was made up of original Broadway cast members, so the soundtrack was as pleasing to the ears as it was nostalgic. And while the ensemble roles in movie musicals are often filled with trained professionals (Patrick Wilson as Raoul, Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, Anika Noni Rose as Lorrell), the films would be better off if the leads were as good as the supporting characters.

Need I say “Best Supporting Actress” one more time?

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  1. I completely agree that more leads need to be trained singers as I think some performances have been upstaged by the supporting actors (Patrick Wilson and Aaron Tveit are great examples of that. They were both more memorable to me than the leads ). Unfortunately, the studios will keep casting mainstream actors to ensure profits. What a shame.