Don’t freak out, this isn’t a post about my love life. At least, not my romantic life. This is about my first love: musicals.
Within my general obsession with musical theater, there are a few areas I find particularly interesting, all of which can be grouped under the rubric of transformations. I am fascinated with the way stories are told and retold, and few storytelling arenas are as obsessed with retelling as musical theater.
I love to read/watch the books, plays, and movies that musicals were based on to see how the composers, lyricists, bookwriters, directors et al applied their craft. For example, my already huge admiration for Oscar Hammerstein II grew exponentially after reading Edna Ferber’s original novel Show Boat. The way that Hammerstein transformed the central metaphor of the book — Magnolia’s relationship with the Mississippi River — into the central metaphor of the show — Magnolia’s relationship with the musical stage — is genius.
I am also intrigued by the ways in which musicals change of time. No theater piece is ever as static as film (unless the film in question belongs to George Lucas), but this seems even more the case with musicals. Maybe it’s due to the ways in which technology has changed (bringing in microphones, mixing boards, and electronic instruments), or the fussiness of living composers (I’m looking at you, Mr. Sondheim), or the egos of contemporary directors… but musicals seem to change. A lot. I’m not only talking about contemporary auteurs like Sam Mendes deciding that Cabaret needed the injection of a half-dozen extra songs from the film or cut from the original production. Even the first Broadway production of Show Boat added new numbers, including “Nobody Else But Me” which has become a standard. And no production of Annie Get Your Gun today would dare omit “Old Fashioned Wedding,” added for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival. Some shows, such as Beauty and the Beast, even added songs to their original productions after they opened (and after the cast albums were recorded).
A third, related fascination of mine is songs added for the film versions of musicals. And that is where our friend Madonna comes in. Musicals made from Broadway shows have added songs since films first had sound. Seriously, The Jazz Singer is based on a Broadway show, but the film score is augmented with plenty of songs that weren’t in the original play. (Wikipedia tells me the original play had no on stage singing, so maybe this isn’t the best example, but if I use Show Boat for every single example here, it will get tiresome. However, the song “I Have the Room above Her,” added for the 1936 film version of Show Boat, is a favorite.)
I have other, related interests, such as songs cut from shows and films, and songs from shows that never got recorded by their original cast, and cover versions of showtunes… but future blog posts can examine those categories.
Why do songs get added to film versions of successful musicals? There are several reasons, some more artistically driven, others commercially driven, and of course, not a few are ego-driven.
In the best cases, songs get added because film is a different medium than the stage, and storytelling works differently on film. Take, for example, Little Shop of Horrors. I’m not going to argue that “Mean Green Mother from Outer-Space” is a fantastic song, but it takes advantage of the special effects capabilities of the screen in a way that the stage production never could. In the film, Audrey II is even more of a star, and the song gives the star his 11:00 number. But the song hasn’t migrated back to the stage because it wouldn’t work delivered by the considerably more Muppet-like plant used on stage.
Sometimes songs get added in order to create a hit single, court an Oscar, or give more screen time to a star whose character sang less in the original. Some of those examples are interchangeable. But commerce is commerce, and often one commercial move can support multiple commercial reasons.
Which brings us back to Evita and “You Must Love Me.” When it was announced that Madonna would star in the long-anticipated film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice’s musical, there was little doubt she would get a new song written just for her. No one was going to deny Madge her shot at another hit single, nor would anyone get between Lloyd Webber and his Oscar. And it worked.
But did it work? I remember rushing out to buy the single (because it was released in advance of the soundtrack) and feeling underwhelmed by the song. It was a pretty enough melody, and Madonna sang it well, but… the lyrics sat awkwardly on the tune. Whenever Madonna sang the title phrase, she treated each word as though it were it’s own sentence. You. Must. Love. Me. The effect was similar to the film’s real hit song, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” The song might be catchy, but I defy anyone to say what the title really means.
But the more I’ve come to know “You Must Love Me,” the more I like it. When I hear it, I find myself wondering, is Evita giving her husband a command (you must love me!) or having a realization (you must love me!). I’m not sure Madonna is capable of playing the nuance (forgive me, Madonna! I love you… just not when you “act”). But the song has migrated back into the show, and I’d love to see a better actress play the scene.
However much I might dislike Madonna the actress — in other post, I will detail my long and sordid history with Dick Tracy — I do love that she has incorporated several songs from Evita into her concert repertoire. The video above is from her Sticky & Sweet Tour DVD, in which “You Must Love Me” is paired with “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” On the tour documented in I’m Going To Tell You A Secret, she sang “Lament,” my favorite piece from the show. I’m still waiting for a really dance-able take on “Buenos Aires,” but who knows, that may come with the next tour.