I love theater; but then again, I hate theater.
Unlike almost any other art form, theater is transient: it is there one moment and then gone the next. Many of these ephemeral stage productions are preserved on film or tape, courtesy the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive which records Broadway productions, but this only started in 1970, and these recorded productions are not readily available for viewing by the average person. And, what about everything else?
For example, you can’t see the Broadway production of “Bus Stop” (1955) that made Elaine Stritch a star before her star-making turn in “Company” (1970). And you can’t see Jessica Tandy’s Tony Award-winning performance of Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947). And no one will ever see the theater performances of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in “The Guardsman” (1924) which was apparently the greatest theater experience since the invention of the wheel.
So, what to do? Thankfully, this is one of the rare times Hollywood has come to the rescue by allowing brilliant actors to turn brilliant stage performances into brilliant film performances that are still available for the average Joe to see.
Here are five examples of great Broadway performances that were transferred (perhaps not exactly) to film, allowing future generations to see what all the fuss has been about all these years:
Shirley Booth: I grew up watching Booth on the television show “Hazel.” I was amazed to find out she had acted in films. Then I was more amazed to find out she acted on Broadway and even won two Tony Awards -- one for “Goodbye My Fancy” (1948), the other for “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1950). She was brought to Hollywood to reprise her roll in Come Back, Little Sheba and justly won an Oscar and a handful of other major awards.
[Photograph: Booth with Sidney Blackmer in the 1950 production of “Come Back, Little Sheba]
Marlon Brando: What can I say about the young, hungry Brando that hasn’t already been said a million times before? He fought for and won the role of Tennessee Williams’ Stanley Kowalski for the Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) and won raves. Wisely, Hollywood cast him in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire and he was nominated for an Oscar.
[Photograph: Brando with co-star Jessica Tandy in the 1947 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”]
Joel Grey: Grey won a Tony Award for his performance as the Master of Ceremonies in the Broadway production of “Cabaret” (1966). He then won an Oscar for recreating his performance in the film version of Cabaret.
[Photograph: Grey in the 1966 production of “Cabaret”]
Katharine Hepburn: Hepburn was a movie star. Then, in the 1930s, she became “box-office poison.” Determined to prove Hollywood wrong about her, she went back to her Broadway roots and signed on to do Philip Barry’s play “The Philadelphia Story” (1939). It was a huge hit. Hepburn starred in the film version of The Philadelphia Story
and was nominated for her third Oscar. [Photograph: Hepburn and Dan Tobin in the 1939 production of "The Philadelphia Story]
Robert Preston: Preston won a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway production of “The Music Man” (1957). The musical’s creator, Meredith Willson, insisted Preston be brought over to Hollywood. Despite the objections of Jack Warner (who wanted Frank Sinatra), Preston appeared in the film version of The Music Man.
[Photograph: Preston and co-star Barbara Cook in the 1957 production of “The Music Man”]