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Stage to screen, it's all in the translation

A new book revels in the stories behind the adaptations of Broadway hits and their on-film alter egos.

September 25, 2005|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

MAE WEST as Norma Desmond? She was first choice for "Sunset Boulevard." "Sound of Music," the movie? Due to lack of interest, it nearly didn't happen.

So just what does it take to adapt a film for the stage, or vice versa? Creativity, vision, determination, serendipity -- and often a bit of arm-twisting and Machiavellian scheming.

In her book, "A Fine Romance" (Watson-Guptill Publications), Darcie Denkert, an entertainment attorney, president of MGM On Stage and longtime Hollywood and Broadway insider, offers intimate, behind-the-scenes tales about how such iconic movie and stage musicals as "Sunset Boulevard," "My Fair Lady," "Cabaret" and "Gypsy" were adapted.

A combination of dish and detailed research, this glossy 352-page book is peppered with quotes and reminiscences from a stage and screen who's who: Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury, the late Jerry Orbach and Robert Wise, Jerry Herman, Hal Prince, Arthur Laurents and a host of other actors, writers, composers, lyricists, choreographers, designers, directors and producers.

Its wealth of photographs -- many rarely or never seen in print -- are often juxtaposed as contrasts between the different versions of the shows.

"There are hundreds of books about Hollywood musicals and Broadway musicals," Denkert says. "I wanted this one to be unique in talking about the relationship between the two businesses and what happened to so many of the properties that we've grown to love as cultural icons."

"Sunset Boulevard," Denkert found, was initially conceived as a satire with West in mind. But West was loath to interrupt her long-running nightclub act with its cadre of "near-naked and overly oiled musclemen."

No one was interested in a movie version of "The Sound of Music" when 27-year-old Richard Zanuck, son of 20th Century Fox founder Darryl F. Zanuck, decided that the near-bankrupt studio should produce it. Gene Kelly, Denkert writes, turned down an offer to direct the film with a choice expletive.

Stage stars often get short shrift when shows get the Hollywood treatment, and some remained bitter. When Broadway's "Gypsy" star Ethel Merman lost the film role to a miscast Rosalind Russell, "for years afterward," Denkert writes, Merman would entertain at parties with "a scathing imitation" of Russell "trying to croak her way" through Rose's big solo."

"I thought because of my background that I knew most of the stories," Denkert says, "but in putting together a work like this you find out how much you don't know."

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