Thanks in no small part to the success of 2002's Chicago, the movie musical genre is back in business. Case in point: The Tony Award-winning Broadway blockbusters Rent and The Producers make the journey from stage to screen this holiday season. But unlike Chicago, both Rent and The Producers bring the majority of their original Broadway casts along with them for the movie and accompanying soundtrack.
Loosely based on Puccini's operatic masterpiece La Boheme, Jonathan Larson's Rent debuted on Broadway in 1996. An utterly engrossing millennial rock opera, Rent follows a group of young artists and nonconformists struggling with love, loss and AIDS in New York's East Village circa 1989. With echoes of Hair and Tommy and the occasional lyrical cleverness of Sondheim, Larson's score sets a new standard for the rock musical.
Six of the eight original Broadway cast members make the transition to the big screen, joined by newcomers Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson. The soundtrack recording, with only minor cuts to Larson's original score, is superior in many ways to its predecessor. In true Hollywood style, everything is bigger. The driving drums and bass lines and rocking electric guitars have been pumped up, and the performances feel more impassioned and urgent.
The soundtrack kicks of with ''Seasons of Love,'' now repositioned as a prologue. Newcomer Tracie Thoms immediately dispels any doubts about her singing ability as her solo soars to new heights. She even holds her own against Idina Menzel (Wicked) in the lovers' quarrel duet ''Take Me Or Leave Me,'' a virtual diva showdown.
Dawson also proves her musical merit early on as she brings a playful seductiveness to ''Light My Candle,'' her first of several duets with Adam Pascal. The same can't be said for Pascal, whose voice sounds a bit ragged, especially on the ballads. The awkward sung-through dialogue of ''Light My Candle'' is more befitting of a traditional opera than a rock musical.
Dawson delivers a stellar performance on ''Out Tonight,'' an album highlight, her playful howl reminiscent of Warren Zevon's ''Werewolves of London.'' Its lyrics succinctly convey her character's carefree essence, yet the song can easily stand alone outside of the soundtrack setting. Indeed, a music video for ''Out Tonight'' is in rotation on several cable channels and could easily be the springboard for a Dawson solo singing career.
Of the original cast members, Anthony Rapp sounds better than ever, losing the occasional nasal delivery that marred the original cast recording. He carries both the title track and Rent's centerpiece, ''La Vie Boheme,'' a tongue-twistingly exuberant celebration of nonconformity. Jesse L. Martin's voice has also grown deeper and richer over the past decade.
The soundtrack closes with the bonus track ''Love Heals,'' a gospel-tinged number also written by Larson. Intended as a tribute to the show's now deceased creator, the song leans too heavily on the all-inclusive, ''why can't we all just get along'' sentiment of the musical, resulting in a sickeningly sweet coda that should have been left on the cutting room floor.
If the gritty reality of Rent isn't to your liking, then step back another 30 years to 1959, the setting of Mel Brooks' hysterical musical comedy The Producers.
With a delightfully droll book and score by Brooks himself, The Producers is both a send up and celebration of the golden age of Broadway. A past-his-prime producer and his accountant hatch a get-rich-quick scheme to stage a surefire bomb of a Broadway show and plan to run off to Rio with the investors' money.
Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprise their roles as the scheming producer and his nebbishy accountant. New to the screen adaptation (in a blatant bid for box office attention) are Uma Thurman as Swedish sexpot Ulla and Will Ferrell as pigeon-loving Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind.
The soundtrack finds The Producers in fine form. The orchestrations are large and lush, and Lane and Broderick sound better than ever. In fact, Broderick's voice sounds slightly richer and more confident. The duo's comic timing is prominently on display throughout the recording.
While Thurman's pipes are passable for a movie musical, she lacks the power of Cady Huffman, Ulla's Broadway originator. Thurman falls short on ''When You Got It, Flaunt It,'' one of her two solos. She performs the song in a lower key than Huffman and lacks the ability to belt out the finale, which she calls attention to by declaring ''now Ulla belt.'' She fares better on ''That Face,'' her duet with Broderick, though her voice is still a bit wispy.
Ferrell proves himself a natural at playing the mentally unstable Franz. With a thick German accent, he displays his musical chops on ''Haben Sie Gehört Das Deutsche Band?'' and ''Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop,'' which resurfaces in the closing credits as new track ''The Hop-Clop Goes On,'' a sappy tongue-in-cheek ballad. After years of mangling pop tunes as inept music teacher Marty Culp on Saturday Night Live, it's a pleasure to hear him sing on-key for a change.
Noticeably absent from the soundtrack are ''Where Did We Go Right?'' and ''In Old Bavaria.'' The Fiddler on the Roof-inspired ''The King of Broadway'' has also been cut from the movie, but it appears as a bonus track on the soundtrack. In their place: the flamenco guitar driven ensemble interlude ''You'll Find Your Happiness in Rio'' and the newly written ''There's Nothing Like a Show on Broadway.''
At the soundtrack's center is the brilliantly garish musical within a musical number ''Springtime for Hitler.'' With lines like ''We're marching to a faster pace/Look out, here comes the master race,'' references to the ''German Ethel Merman'' and a song called ''Keep it Gay,'' how can you not love this campy musical extravaganza?
As Lane and Broderick sing, ''There's nothing like a show on Broadway... 'till you're in movies.''