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A CurtainUp Review
From Screen to Stage, Sung and Unsung

Acclaim greeted Emma Rice, the Kneehigh Theatre's artistic director, for her stage adaptation of David Lean's 1945 film classic Brief Encounter when it transferred last year from London,s West End to Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse for a limited run. The public and critical response to her imaginative music-filled and dance-enhanced staging was such that it has been transferred to Broadway where it is currently playing previews prior to its official opening on September 28.

Although this stage version is, as was the screenplay, based on playwright Noel Coward's 1935 short one-act (half-hour) little performed stage play Still Life, it is very much its own creation. Since it contains nine songs by Coward (many with lyrics and arrangements by Stu Barker) and a generous amount of choreography supplied by Rice, it is perhaps best summed up as a musical version of an endearing romantic drama Add its generous use of film, projections and live performance, and it certainly defies easy classification.

For Film Buffs Brief Encounter Was Always Almost a Musical

For some of us, the film of Brief Encounter was always almost a musical, given the rapturous use of music by Rachmaninoff that underscores many scenes, and his Piano Concerto #2 which is heard during the credits. You can be assured that Rice has not disallowed Rachmaninoff's motifs to be incorporated with the delicacies from the Coward canon.

Don't assume that Rice,s vision for the stage version remains fixed on the affair between Laura and Alec. Expect to see comical/romantic shenanigans for the station master, the lusty proprietressof the café and the precocious platform vendor and young waitress. Multiple role-playing is part of this adaptation's conceit, and so are the five versatile musicians.

Purists may consider Rice's reverence for the source material as secondary to her affection for it. I suspect that is a good thing.

Some Staged Films Say It Without Music

Broadway has been home to many musical versions of dramatic films including Applause (from All About Eve), Sunset Boulevard, Woman of the Year, Little Women, Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities, to name but a few. Not all dramatic films that make the transition to the stage, however, become musicals. These are some notable exceptions.

The comically-twisty adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock,s The 39 Steps (which recently celebrated its one thousandth performance) is the most recent example of a stage adaptation of a film that didn't get or need a supplementary score to justify itself. Hits or misses, there have been more than you might think.

Screen to Stage Hits and Misses

In no particular order, I have included some adaptations that so far have not made it across the sea, as Brief Encounter has, or have otherwise remained relegated, regardless of their popularity, to our regional theaters. I must also give credit for some of the titles listed below to my friend/critic/journalist and living cornucopia of theatrical trivia Peter Filichia. I respectfully submit and admit that some of his amazing on-the-spot recollections occurred as we stood together and chatted during a recent press preview intermission. Some of these might easily have been missed by me.

To Kill a Mockingbird: Christopher Sergel adapted Harper Lee's novel for the stage in 1970, but it wasn't performed professionally until 1990 and has since been very popular in regional theaters. It has yet to be produced in a major New York City theatre.

On The Waterfront: Budd Schulberg, collaborating with Stan Silverman, adapted his own 1954 award-winning screenplay for the stage. It opened on Broadway in 1995, but only managed to eke out 8 performances. Director Steven Berkoff did his own adaptation for the London stage in 2009.

The Manchurian Candidate: John Lahr's adaptation of Richard Condon,s 1959 novel and the lauded 1962 film version by producer/director John Frankenheimer, had a brief run in an Equity Showcase production Off Broadway in 2003. An even less successful film re-make appeared in 2004.

Twelve Angry Men: Reginald Rose expanded his 1954 fifty minutes TV script for the movies in 1957. The Roundabout Theatre presented a successful, updated stage version in 2004.

Carnal Knowledge: Jules Feiffer's 1971 film about casual sex was dramatized by the writer in 1988 and produced at the Pasadena Playhouse. It has since been pulled from circulation.

Requiem for a Heavyweight: Rod Serling adapted his 1956 teleplay for the screen in 1962 starring Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney. He adapted it for the stage in 1985, but it only lasted three performances on Broadway.

Rain Man: We all remember Dustin Hoffman in the award-winning screenplay by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass. It was adapted for the stage by Dan Gordon and produced on the London stage in 2008 and in Australia in 2010. New York is waiting.

Donnie Darko: Richard Kelly,s cult 2001 sci-fi film was adapted for the stage by Marcus Stern for the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge in 2007. New York is waiting.

The Graduate: The stage adaptation by Terry Johnson was based on the novel by Charles Webb and the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry. Johnson also directed it in London in 2000 and in New York in 2002 where it arrived as a pre-sold hit featuring the exposed derriere of Kathleen Turner.

All About My Mother: Samuel Adamson adapted Pedro Almodovar,s acclaimed theater-within-the-theater screenplay for London,s Old Vic in 2007. A Broadway production is currently under consideration. Currently in previews prior to its opening on November 4 is a musical version of Pedro Almadovar's acclaimed 1988 film comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, about an actress jilted by her husband, it has been adapted for the stage by composer/lyricist David Yazbek and librettist Jeffrey Lane

John Cassavetes, Husbands: Doris Mirescu adapted the 1970 Cassavetes film about three middle-aged husbands. It had its premiere 2010 in the "Under the Radar" series at the Public Theatre.

Burnt By the Sun: Peter Flannery adapted Nikita Mikhalkov,s 1994 Academy Award-winning film about a red army hero and his extended family. The play was well received at it premiere at London's National Theatre. New York is waiting.

It remains to be seen whether Brief Encounter will delight CurtainUp' s chief critic Elyse Sommer, or whether she will find Rice's way of letting us get inside Laura's and Alec's emotions being is going a bit too far.

Brief Encounter is at Studio 54, 254 West 54
th Street.

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