Broadway Success: 15 Outstanding Broadway to Film Casting Decisions

*This feature is a response to my feature, Musical Failure: 10 Disastrous Broadway to Film Miscasting Decisions

As referenced before, casting is integral when adapting a Broadway show into a feature film for audiences nationwide. To take on a Broadway show, especially a successful one, it places a studio in a conundrum. There are multiple obstacles a studio must face in order to adequately frame and produce a Broadway show that is appealing to its audience. The studio must first accept that it cannot simply mirror the actions of the stage. Copying stage direction is a disastrous decision because the actions of the stage simply do not translate well onto film. 2012’s Les Miserables is an example of such filmmaking, which was daring, yet failed to provide a genuine FILM experience to moviegoers. Instead, audiences were left with the awkward visuals of actors staring and singing directly into the narrative frame. This directing tactic undoubtedly would have worked on the stage, but within film, certain creatives licenses must be taken in order for the Broadway show to have fluidity for moviegoers. A disjointed film immediately destroys whatever attributes are positive within that given film.

This conversation of the necessity for proper Broadway to film translation now extends towards the actors within such films. Regardless of whether the adaptation is a musical or a play, the actor must be up for the task of re-interpreting a character that has already been established by another actor. The exception to this rule is if the actor who originated the role on stage is cast in the film version. This is extremely rare considering film studios typically seek out bigger-name actors to take on on the role within the film. Yet even these actors face the challenge of having to convert the more manic style of acting that works for the stage to a more nuanced and subtle performance is functional for film.

Regarding Hollywood actors who take on Broadway roles, they often fail to provide a performance that is worthy of the Broadway show (as evidenced in my previous feature) because they cannot shy away from long scenes of dialogue. Broadway is dialogue-driven and the acting must transcend beyond the words, but also be conveyed through body language and demeanor. For many Hollywood actors who merely read their lines, such acting is beyond their capacities. However, sometimes actors who did not originate their performances on the stage have the capacity to be captivating or offer a career-defining performance. Yet this achievement is two-sided: The actor must be able to exhibit stage and film acting within a single performance, knowing when to utilize each style. Also, the actor’s performance is entirely dependent upon a competent director who knows how to showcase his actors without over-emphasizing them as well. The success of the actor goes hand-in-hand with a director who is aware of what he is doing.

Below are 15 examples of highly successful Broadway to Film casting decisions:

1. Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) – Nominated for an Oscar
Originated the Broadway role (1947)

Marlon BrandoBrando was virtually unknown when he starred in both the play and film versions of A Streetcar Named Desire and it was his determination to maintain the repulsiveness of Stanley Kowalski that propelled him to instant stardom. Brando provided a fearless performance that very easily could have backfired and kept him from starring in any films afterwards, but he offered a vile representation of masculinity, dominance, and sociopathic manipulation. This is perhaps one of the greatest Broadway to Film adaptations ever in the history of cinema.

2. Catherine Zeta Jones in Chicago (2002) – Won the Oscar
Role Originator: Chita Rivera (1975) – Won the Tony

Catherine Zeta JonesOne of the most glaring flaws of Broadway to Film musicals is how obvious it is that the actor or actresses is not truly singing or dancing. That was not the scenario with Catherine Zeta Jones, who insisted on doing all of her own singing and dancing and refused to allow body-doubles to do any of her dancing. To even make sure nobody could ever refute this claim, Zeta Jones insisted on Velma Kelly’s hair being short and in a bob so that her hair would never get in her face while dancing. Zeta Jones deservingly won an Oscar for her performance.

3. Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) – Nominated for an Oscar
Role Originator: Joe Mantegna (1984) – Won the Tony

Al PacinoIn perhaps one of his best roles, Al Pacino is explosive in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross as Richard Roma, the golden salesman. Pacino was strategic in his performance by portraying Roma two different ways: Professionally and Personally. Professionally, he is a shark and knows exactly how to manipulate a sale. Personally, he is a bitter and easily furious individual, yet still maintains his arrogant stature of knowing that he is the best.

4. Deborah Kerr in Separate Tables (1958) – Nominated for an Oscar
Role Originator: Margaret Leighton (1954) – Won the Tony

Deborah KerrRaw emotion is essential on a Broadway stage, to which a character will often break down in a dramatic manner. When translating such a role to film, it is essential for such raw emotion to come off realistically, but for the actor or actress to hold just enough restraint so that the performance doesn’t become over-done. Deborah Kerr perfectly strikes that balance in Separate Tables as a repressed woman who is controlled by her domineering mother. Kerr’s performance is so beautifully fragile that it is remarkable to note that this is the same actress who portrayed such bravado performances in From Here To Eternity and The King and I.

5. Daniel Day Lewis in The Crucible (1996)
Role Originator: Arthur Kennedy (1953)

Daniel Day LewisDaniel Day Lewis has had a tremendous career and there is no doubt it will continue to grow over the years, but one of his lesser known performances was that of John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. By proxy of the play, the film adaptation is dialogue-driven, which required capable actors to deliver the various monologues throughout the film. Daniel Day Lewis does not disappoint in the slightest, providing much needed intensity with the dialogue by usage of body language. The pain in his eyes, especially when he speaks the famous “let me keep my name” speech, is astounding.

6. Jodie Foster in Carnage (2011)
Role Originator: Hope Davis (2009) – Nominated for a Tony

Jodie FosterJodie Foster provided one of the most unique performances of her career in Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play, God of Carnage. Critics cited Foster’s performance as being “too hysterical,” yet that is precisely what makes her performance in this film perfect. Foster’s character is a woman who desires control and finds it utterly insufferable that she doesn’t. Her hysteria, which heightens as the film progresses, is entirely indicative of her character further realizing that she lacks any control in her life.

7. Clive Owen in Closer (2004) – Nominated for an Oscar
Role Originator: Ciaran Hinds (1999)

Clive OwenClive Owen did something rather daring, much in the style that Marlon Brando did with A Streetcar Named Desire: He offered a performance that was utterly repulsive and completely unforgiving. His performance is selfish, vindictive, and self-serving, yet he provides enough complexity into the performance that one cannot help but be intrigued as to what his character will do next.

8. Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944) – Won the Oscar
Role Originator: Judith Evelyn (1944)

Ingrid GaslightGaslight embellishes and elaborates on the content of Patrick Hamilton’s original play, Gas Light, by showing a slow descent into madness for the film’s lead actress. Ingrid Bergman offers one of the best performances of her career as a woman who believes she has married the love of her life, only to have him demean her and slowly convince her that she is going insane. The progression of submissiveness Bergman exhibits is heartbreaking to watch, so much so that the viewer begins to feel her torment and pain as it is displayed on screen.

9. Meryl Streep in Doubt (2008) – Nominated for an Oscar
Role Originator: Cherry Jones (2004) – Won the Tony

Meryl StreepMeryl Streep has had one of the most versatile careers of any actor or actress in the history of cinema. Part of what makes Streep such an exquisite actress is her ability to not only completely transform herself in any role she does, but to also give each role she stars in a certain level of respect in order for it to truly shine. With Doubt, Streep convincingly transformed herself as a mother superior with a thick Brooklyn accent. Streep was up for the challenge of a dialogue-heavy film that entirely relied upon her delivery and her character’s conviction in finding the truth about a crime she cannot physically prove has happened. This is one of the best performances of Meryl Streep’s career.

10. Laurence Olivier in Sleuth (1972) – Nominated for an Oscar
Role Originator: Anthony Quayle (1970)

Laurence OlivierWhen moviegoers or critics think of Laurence Olivier and stage performances, normally one immediately associates him with the plays from William Shakespeare. Yet Olivier starred in a film adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play about a wealthy mystery novel writer who lures in his wife’s lover to his mansion for an afternoon of deliciously diabolical games. This was a role that was perfect for Olivier who portrayed the character as eccentric with ulterior motives. Additionally, his performance is highly animated, to which he utilizes the physical set and props to his advantage. This is perhaps one of Olivier’s most colorful performances, one that all should see at least once.

11. Natalie Portman in Closer (2004) – Nominated for an Oscar
Role Originator: Anna Friel

Natalie PortmanNatalie Portman proved to moviegoers and critics alike that she was capable of acting when she starred in Mike Nichols’ adaptation of the Patrick Marber play as Alice, the mysterious American who is the catalyst to the film’s plot. The true beauty of Portman’s performance is how she played her character as repressing her inner emotions to appear brave in the face of dishonesty of those all around her. It is when she can no longer repress such feelings that her reactions are that of devastation, indicating she is reacting based upon something she has already suspected of being true. Her character trusts her inhibitions and they are rarely incorrect.

12. F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus (1984) – Won the Oscar
Role Originator: Ian McKellen
(1980) – Won the Tony

F. Murray AbrahamPerhaps one of the greatest Broadway to Film adaptations of a performance comes from F. Murray Abraham, who showed tremendous respect to the original Broadway performance while integrating his own interpretation of the character with subtle loathing that is displayed through his body language and facial expressions. His obsession to escape from the shadow of mediocrity and achieve fame is conveyed so chillingly by Abraham that it is no mystery as to why he was awarded the Oscar for his performance.

13. Kate Winslet in Carnage (2011)
Role Originator: Marcia Gay Harden (2009) – Won the Tony

Kate WinsletLike Jodie Foster in this film, this a unique performance from Kate Winslet’s vast resume of film performances, yet a highly effective one. Winslet’s character is of someone who embodies perfection and attempts to represent herself as such. However, she discreetly is aware that she is hardly what she projects herself to be and when that reality threatens to become public, her behavior becomes manic and anxiety-ridden. The pinnacle scene in this film is when Winslet’s character endures too much anxiety, which triggers a reaction that viewers are unlikely to forget.

14. Joel Grey in Cabaret (1972) – Won the Oscar
Originated the Broadway role (1966) – Won the Tony

Joel GreyJoel Grey achieved the impossible with the film adaptation of the Broadway musical in that the film drastically chopped the content of Grey’s character from the play. Instead, he was left with merely the musical numbers to work with, which limited the scope of his performance. However, Joel Grey didn’t let that deter him, nor did he allow for it to diminish his performance. What truly makes Grey’s performance remarkable is not only how he perfected a German accent while singing, but by how he also managed to metaphorically guide the movie, which much of that credit should be given to director Bob Fosse. As a result, Grey, despite not being a principle character in the film, became the most memorable. What is especially most memorable is Joel Grey’s scene with Liza Minnelli as they sing the now-famous Broadway song, Money.

15. Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) – Won the Oscar
Role Originator: Uta Hagen (1962) – Won the Tony

Elizabeth TaylorWhose Afraid of Virginia Woolf was a controversial film when it was first released into theaters due to its themes of sexuality, profanity-laced dialogue, and a bitter representation of marriage and alcoholism. More glaring within the film was how Elizabeth Taylor completely transformed herself from the eloquent beauty that she was to Martha, a verbally vicious alcoholic who continually instigates arguments with her husband she loathes to exhibit superiority over him. Elizabeth Taylor’s performance is the very example of successful Broadway to Film acting by firstly becoming the role, but then also merging both cinematic and theater acting into a single performance. Elizabeth Taylor provides subtlety in her acting by which the moviegoer can discreetly witness her character’s ulterior motives as they unfold, while she exhibits extreme theater-like acting in all her scenes when she engages in argumentative behavior. Taylor especially made sure to exaggerate her character’s fury in such scenes to maximize shock-value. Yet Taylor is tremendously effective by being able to still inject moments of sadness into her performance, to which the viewer cannot help but pity her for willingly putting herself in a predicament she resents. It can be also be argued that this performance was one of the first in which an actor physically transformed themselves to become the role. Elizabeth Taylor gained twenty pounds for the role and stripped herself from her good-girl image for the part, which shocked audiences at the time, but is now common today with contemporary method actors.


3 thoughts on “Broadway Success: 15 Outstanding Broadway to Film Casting Decisions

  1. I agree about Chicago! Seriously what an amazing performance! I do think you can add Renee Zellweger to the worst cast list.. I hated her in that movie! Amadeus… One of the best movies of all time. My dad and I love that movie. I still need to watch closer and doubt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Renee Zellweger was good enough. Not extraordinary, but passable enough to enjoy the film. Her singing did leave something to be desired and she clearly did not do her own dancing.


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