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Some musicals belong on the boards, not the screen

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A high-stakes gamble has turned into a high-stepping cinematic trend: The movie musical is back, and it's proliferating to an extent not seen since the early 1960s. The question is whether that's a good thing.

Just this year, Broadway juggernauts "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Rent" have been put up for mass screen consumption, and critics and audiences have largely spit them back. Next up for your consideration is Sunday's release of "The Producers," the dated and overrated but nevertheless most-honored musical in stage history.

When "Chicago" tangoed all the way to $305 million at the box office in 2002, no one saw it coming. The only hint that audiences were ready for some razzle-dazzle with their popcorn again had been "Moulin Rouge," Baz Luhrmann's quirky 2001 creation. Still, there hadn't been a modestly successful film adaptation of an existing stage musical since "Little Shop of Horrors" in 1986, and no blockbuster from that genre since "Grease" in 1978.

And many might say, "Just as well." The musical had grown so moldy that instead of Hollywood looking to stage spectaculars for their screen inspiration, the theater was now ripping off all it could find by musicalizing everything from animation ("Beauty and the Beast") to independent films ("The Full Monty") to rock catalogs ("Mamma Mia" and "Movin' Out"). The two biggest hits on Broadway were "The Producers" and "Hairspray," both newly musicalized versions of straight films -- and both once again cinema-bound.

Before "Chicago," the idea of a movie simply stopping for a song and dance had grown hopelessly old-fashioned. Audiences have become accustomed to music performance within the context of the storytelling, not as an interruption from it. Today movies are all about the ubiquitous montage set to popular contemporary music, or biopics such as "Eight Mile," "Ray" and the new "Walk the Line."

But "Chicago" broke all of the dusty old rules for filming stage musicals. Conventional wisdom demanded that director Rob Marshall respect Bob Fosse's legendary choreography by turning the camera on wide and simply leaving it running until a number was over. Marshall knew such patient old reverence would kill his film.

So he turned out a sexy vaudevillian epic that never gave audiences one second to grouse about having to sit through a musical.

"Chicago" greenlighted its many followers, but "Phantom" and "Rent" were not even able to please all their existing fans, much less wider, more fickle audiences. That has resurrected the old debate about whether it is wise to take a three-dimensional live theater experience and flatten it onto a megaplex screen.

Into that fray comes "The Producers," which likely will only polarize the debate further, since director Susan Stroman stays so beholden to both the 2001 stage musical and the 1968 Mel Brooks film that inspired it. That fans of the megahit stage musical likely will be pleased with Stroman's straightforward spectacle all but guarantees a lukewarm response from a wider audience base.

That's because in the entertainment industry, "megahit" is a relative term. On Broadway, "The Producers" minted $1 million a week -- a monster success. But filmmakers will need the movie to generate that much revenue about every four hours to be a hit.

That will require the kind of massive crossover appeal that was presumed in the era of "The Sound of Music" in 1965. But that is no longer possible, probably because today's moviegoing public was not raised on theater.

So taking a page from 1986's "Little Shop," which is most remembered for a great cameo by Steve Martin as a semi-sadistic dentist, "The Producers" is smartly peppered with stars including Uma Thurman, Jon Lovitz and Will Ferrell (who delivers the best work of his career as a Nazi-sympathizing birdbrain). And a treat for theater types is an ensemble of big-time stage stars such as Hunter Foster and Karen Ziemba.

But it's most telling that Gary Beach and Roger Bart steal the show as the worst director of all time and his gloriously gay assistant, Carmen Ghia.

How is that possible when the Broadway run rose and fell with the presence or absence of stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick?

Because, shockingly, neither fares all that well in the film. Lane plays it as big on camera as he did on the stage, and Broderick adopts creepy affectations. It's as if Stroman was afraid to direct them.

Writing in The New York Times this week, A.O. Scott noted that because Broadway audiences happily paid $100, the movie, at $10, should feel like a bargain. "So how is it that the movie feels, in every sense, like a rip-off?" he aptly wrote.

Having been born as a groundbreaking comedy that offended, well, everyone, its now 37-year-old jokes seem not so much blissfully inappropriate as simply retrograde vulgarity and tired stereotypes.

"The Producers" is essentially a treat for its existing fans.

But that is a small percentage of the filmgoing population.

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