Earlier this month Steven Spielberg expressed strong interest in remaking "West Side Story," and my first thought (via Twitter) was a quick gut reaction: Why not "Gypsy" instead?
I've been second-guessing that tweet ever since. So many major Broadway musicals have died en route to the screen and could use another shot — a corrective movie version. Still, "Gypsy" first sprang to mind because its 1962 film version, directed, flatly, by Mervyn LeRoy, kept a great 1959 Broadway musical's greatness a secret. It's tame, sanitized and, although Rosalind Russell might've made a dynamic Mama Rose under more persuasive circumstances, she didn't have those circumstances. The musical's pungent showbiz atmosphere and end-of-vaudeville pathos are almost entirely missing.
The right director — and the right Mama Rose, and the right Gypsy — could work wonders on film with "Gypsy." The early 20th century history of American vaudeville and American burlesque, its black-sheep cousin, is practically a mirage now. In its way "Gypsy," which I saw on stage again the other day at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is an American frontier story. Like "Show Boat" two generations earlier, it canvasses a stunning variety of musical styles and settings. It's about the end of an era, and the beginning of something else, something less innocent, though the show's degree of sleaze is positively PG today.
Ever since the jitterbug fight sequence in "1941," that film's clear highlight, people have noted Spielberg's facility with movie musical tropes and dynamism. "West Side Story," which would be the director's first musical if it comes to fruition, likely appeals to Spielberg for a lot of reasons, one being the opportunity to capture, cinematically, a dance-driven story on camera.
A new screen version of "West Side Story," the 1957 Broadway landmark about the Jets and the Sharks, with a score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, remains a tantalizing prospect. While the 1961 film version harrumphed its way to glory and many Oscars, including the statuette for best picture, like "Gypsy" (though with better choreography) it remains a work of uncertain and rather cloddish stylization. A lot of people love it because it's not afraid of its crucial Jerome Robbins choreographic element. But it's not a great screen musical; it's more like a half-faithful, half-compromised translation of a stage property.
Too many movie musicals fit that description. One is "Guys and Dolls," from 1955, taken from the 1950 Broadway musical. It's my favorite show in the world, practically, though not a film I particularly like. Like "West Side Story," and the vastly inferior "Gypsy" film, it's stuck halfway between theatricality and cinematics.
Wouldn't it be great to see someone — Spielberg, or David O. Russell, who has talked about making a movie musical — honor "Guys and Dolls" and activate its joyous, raucous Damon Runyon universe on screen?
Movie musicals come and go in waves. Ryan Gosling may be headlining and even directing a Busby Berkeley biopic, thereby introducing a new generation to a name they do not know. It's heartening even when a clodhopper like the recent "Les Miserables" film finds a big global audience. It means people still accept the conventions and are open to anything, as long as it makes them cry, or laugh, or in meager circumstances, simply remember why they loved the stage version.
Someone — Lee Daniels has been mentioned — may yet make "Miss Saigon" into a screen musical. If anything makes me long for a good, juicy new attack on "Gypsy" or "Guys and Dolls," it's the specter of "Miss Saigon" and all its power ballads swamping the world's multiplexes.
Movies on the radio: Michael fills in for "Filmspotting" co-host Adam Kempenaar,opposite Josh Larsen, 11 p.m. Friday and midnight Saturday on WBEZ-FM (91.5).