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'Jersey Boys' proves again that movie musicals are risky business

MoviesMusical TheaterBroadway TheaterJohnny DeppMamma Mia! (musical)Les Miserables (movie)Warner Bros.
'Jersey Boys' shows that adapting Broadway musicals isn't for the faint of heart
There's little rhyme or reason to which musicals succeed on the big screen

In the wake of the underwhelming fourth-place debut last weekend for “Jersey Boys,” Monday-morning quarterbacks are weighing in with varying degrees of glee and schadenfreude about what may have gone wrong with the movie musical.

Did the cast lack sufficient star power to draw in moviegoers? Was the summertime release date ill-advised? Did the film’s rather somber aesthetic fail to convey the toe-tapping tone of the long-running Broadway hit? Was director Clint Eastwood — a man known more for his steely gazed growling than his crooning — simply the wrong guy to bring the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to the screen?

Assuming you consider a $13.5-million opening for a film that reportedly cost only $40 million an out-and-out failure (an assumption Warner Bros. would likely dispute), the answer is probably a little of all of the above. But as anyone who’s ever mounted a big-screen musical can tell you, translating a stage show to the screen is a tricky bit of business, both creatively and financially.

While a handful of adaptations of Broadway musicals have broken through commercially in recent years — most notably “Mamma Mia!” and “Les Miserables” — other apparent sure things, like “Rent” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” have faltered. Who would have predicted that the movie version of “The Producers,” once as hot a ticket as Broadway has ever seen, would face-plant at the box office in the spectacular fashion that it did?

If you look at which recent movie musicals have succeeded and which have failed, it’s hard to find much rhyme or reason, aside from the rhymes being sung onscreen. Big stars? Yeah, they never hurt, but then again, 2007’s “Sweeney Todd” opened to just $9 million despite starring Johnny Depp fresh off the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy. A holiday-season release date? That didn’t work out so well for “Rent,” which opened in late November 2005 to a meager $10 million. A zippy, let’s-put-on-a-show tone? That worked for “Mamma Mia!” and “Hairspray” but for “The Producers,” not so much, while “Les Miserables” proved a hit despite boasting a title that literally promised moviegoers utter misery.

Not surprisingly given its doo-wop-era subject matter, the opening-weekend audience for "Jersey Boys" skewed older; nearly three-quarters of those who saw it were over 50. Along with nostalgia, that audience tends to be heavily swayed by reviews, and generally speaking critics weren't altogether enamored with "Jersey Boys." By contrast, 2002's "Chicago" — a period musical set in the even more distant past of the 1920s — rode a wave of critical raves to an eventual $170 million box office haul. That said, older audiences often don't hurry to see movies their opening weekend, so it's possible that "Jersey Boys" will have decent legs as the summer goes on.

Later this year, two more highly anticipated movie musicals will hit theaters within a single week: “Annie” (opening Dec. 19) and “Into the Woods” (opening Dec. 25). Both boast storied Broadway pedigrees and well-known songs. Both feature major stars — Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz in the former; Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Depp in the latter. Both have plum holiday-season release dates. And yet odds are the teams behind those films are looking at the box office opening of “Jersey Boys” and feeling slightly queasy. 

But no one ever said that making a big-screen musical was easy. If you wade into that genre, you have to be prepared to take some lumps. And to paraphrase the Four Seasons, big girls (and boys) don’t cry. 

Follow @joshrottenberg for the stories behind Hollywood's biggest movies

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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MoviesMusical TheaterBroadway TheaterJohnny DeppMamma Mia! (musical)Les Miserables (movie)Warner Bros.
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