I can’t say that I’m 100% opposed to making changes in a musical when it moves from the stage to the silver screen. Two of my favorite movie musicals of all time were changed deeply and fundamentally in translation. Bob Fosse’s Cabaret made huge changes to the stage version, and Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend did, too. I love them all, movie and stage versions, because each one, considered on its own, works well in its particular medium. But I never felt either of them did actual violence to the basic spirit of the play, and I’m afraid this one did.
Not long after the show opened on Broadway, maybe a year or so later, I saw an amateur version at the theater that is now the Nickelodeon, in Hollywood. I can’t say I remember all the plot, but I refreshed my memory at Wikipedia. (What I chiefly recall is that all the cast members got naked at the end of Act I—the idea of the authors was that only those who felt comfortable with it should disrobe; clearly they all did—and then were joined by well over a hundred of the audience members. Ah, those were the days!) And I agree with the book and lyric writers, James Rado and Jerome Ragni, that they fucked it up badly. Quote: “Any resemblance between the 1979 film and the original Biltmore version, other than some of the songs, the names of the characters, and a common title, eludes us.”
No shit! Consider this:
The play was the story of a tribe of “tribe” of hippies/activists living in New York City. They are:
Claude. In the play, he is one of the leaders of the Tribe. In the movie he has morphed into a cowboy shitkicker from Oklahoma, awed and amazed by all these crazy people.
Sheila. A fierce feminist leader of the Tribe. So why not re-write her as a slumming socialite who joins the Tribe just because of an inexplicable fascination with the shitkicker?
Berger. Another leader of the Tribe, who now becomes a really objectionable asshole who enjoys poking fun at the “straights” around him. I really, really, really didn’t like him. He personifies the sense of entitlement the more radical members of my generation had.
So that’s the characters. Next I should mention that no less than ten songs were omitted from the film. There is hardly any focus on the political side of my generation at all, which was at the heart of the play. And to put the icing on the cake, in the play Claude allowed himself to be drafted (as he does in the movie) and is assumed to be killed in Vietnam. In the movie … oh, this is painful … He is accidentally replaced by Berger in a series of unlikely events that makes you wonder how anyone could have written them, and goes to Nam and dies in Claude’s place.
So the film, largely, sucks the big one. However, I must mention that, as a spectacle, it has its moments. It is very colorful and good to look at. Some of the songs still work (though an embarrassing number of them seem horribly dated). The best thing by far is the dancing, choreographed by Twyla Tharp. There are two main types on display. There are scenes of movement so frantic and energetic that it might be an early version of break dancing. The second sort is sensual, dreamy, stoned-out, lovely to look at. At one point early on she even has police horses dancing!
So all I can really say about this is that it might be worth watching for the dancing and the music, but it is a textbook example of how not to adapt a musical for the movies.