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Handicapping this Year’s Movie Musicals, from ‘Jersey Boys’ to ‘Annie’ to ‘Into the Woods’

Handicapping this Year's Movie Musicals, from 'Jersey Boys' to 'Annie' to 'Into the Woods'

The multiplex is alive once more with the sound of Broadway show tunes. Whatever damage was done by 2012’s hair-band tribute “Rock of Ages” was quickly forgotten after the big-screen adaptation of “Les Misérables” had the people singing (and sobbing) along by year’s end.

“Les Mis,” the first musical since 2002’s “Chicago” to make the cut as a Best Picture Oscar-candidate, was just a warm-up act for 2014. A trio of popular shows, all aimed at distinctly different audiences, will take a bow in movie theaters this year. First up: “Jersey Boys,” the backstage story of the ’60s pop group the Four Seasons, opening Friday.

Meanwhile, the holiday season will deliver a pair of tune-filled presents for fans of the musical genre, a diversified and updated twist on the comic-strip-inspired “Annie” and an all-star presentation of Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale-inspired “Into the Woods.”

Will these three titles turn into global sensations like 2008’s “Mamma Mia!” or will they end up hitting a sour note like 2009’s “Nine”? Here is an assessment of each stage musical’s cinematic potential.   

“Jersey Boys” (June 20)

Stage roots:  The jukebox musical about the Four Seasons, the chart toppers fronted by Frankie Valli and his trademark falsetto, premiered Nov. 6, 2005 on Broadway–and is on the brink of being the 12th longest-running show on the Great White Way. “Jersey Boys” was nominated for eight Tonys and won four, including best musical and lead actor in musical for John Lloyd Young as Valli.    

Other adaptations: None yet. But much like the band, which sold 100 million records worldwide with such No. 1 hits as “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,’ the show has proven to have international appeal. Besides two North American tours and an ongoing Las Vegas production, “Jersey Boys” has played in London’s West End, Toronto, Melbourne, Singapore, South Africa and the Netherlands. Whether that popularity translates into box-office bucks remains to be seen.

Behind the camera: Never mind Eastwood’s own big-screen attempt to sing (“I Talk to the Trees,” no less) and act at the same time in the tin-eared oddity “Paint Your Wagon” from 1969. He might be best known for Westerns and action thrillers, but he also has had a career steeped in music. The piano-playing jazz aficionado directed and warbled country-Western tunes in 1982’s “Honkytonk Man” and he helmed the 1988 biopic “Bird,” about saxophonist Charlie Parker. He has also penned the scores, often with son Kyle, for most of his films released in the past 10 years. 

The cast: Despite pressure to do otherwise, Eastwood took a pass on hiring big names (and avoided their big paychecks) and went with many of the seasoned performers from stage versions — most notably vocal standout Young. The lone well-known quantity is Christopher Walken as Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo, a mobster who helped the group get out of financial jams.

The budget: No estimate available. Warner Bros. initially had put “Jersey Boys” in turn-around two years ago when Jon Favreau was set to direct, supposedly because of concerns over cost and a potential lack of foreign ticket sales. That they then turned to Eastwood, known for the frugality of his shooting methods and for being on schedule, suggests that overspending has not been a problem.

Oscar prospects: Don’t expect “Grease 3.” Sure there are those toe-tapping numbers everyone knows, but the movie doesn’t skimp the downbeat side of showbiz–which allows for dramatic acting opportunities. And Eastwood is an Academy favorite, winning twice as best director (as well for best picture) with 1992’s “Unforgiven” and 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.” However, a June release date suggests weaker potential for awards gold. Besides, the studio is probably more focused on going after adults, often under-served in the summer blockbuster months, who might respond to such counter-programming. 

On the plus side: Those wonderful songs.

On the minus side: An R rating combined with a lack of star power and buzz, partly because of a late-arriving trailer.

Prediction: Nostalgic baby boomers and women, who helped propel “Mamma Mia!” to a take of $610 million worldwide  that summer, are the surest bets to show up on opening weekend. But “Jersey Boys” doesn’t offer anything as surefire as the sight of Meryl Streep in disco garb singing ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” 

“Annie” (Dec. 19)

Stage roots: The Depression-era musical that gave us such standards as “Tomorrow” and “It’s a Hard Knock Life” premiered April 21, 1977, on Broadway with Andrea McArdle in the title role as the adorable curly-topped orphan who wins the heart of billionaire Daddy Warbucks. Nominated for 10 Tonys, the show won seven including best musical. “Annie” has been successfully revived twice on Broadway, in 1997 and 2012.

Other adaptations: Besides stage productions that spanned the globe, there has been an underwhelming 1982 theatrical film directed by John Huston and starring Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks and Carol Burnett as orphan wrangler Miss Hannigan. Better received was the Emmy-winning 1999 TV version that aired as part of  The Wonderful World of Disney directed by Rob Marshall (who would do the  movie version of “Chicago”) and starring Victor Garber as Daddy Warbucks and Kathy Bates as Miss Hannigan. 

Behind the camera: When “Glee’s” Ryan Murphy declined the chance to direct Sony’s current-day “Annie,” comedy specialist Will Gluck (“Easy A”)–who shares screenwriting credit with Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”) and Emma Thompson–stepped in. However, fellow producers Will Smith and Jay-Z probably had more than a little say in how the film turned out, with its multi-racial mix of actors and a tweaked-for-today soundtrack.

The cast: When Smith’s daughter, Willow, outgrew the part of Annie before shooting could commence, the role went to 10-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, a best-actress Oscar nominee for 2012’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Jamie Foxx, in his first musical since 2006’s “Dreamgirls,” plays a variation on Daddy Warbucks as wealthy mayoral candidate William Stacks while Cameron Diaz tackles Miss Hannigan, who now cares for foster children.

The budget: Unknown, but with recognizable draws like Diaz and Foxx on board, this production shot on location in New York City is probably the priciest of the three.

Oscar prospects: With two Academy Award nominees (Diaz and Wallis) and a winner (Foxx) as the leads, you would think the potential for such honors might be pretty good. But judging by the trailers, especially the first one that focused on a charmlessly shrill Diaz, the humor came off as rather broad while the music was under-emphasized. Meanwhile, the powerful raw talent displayed by Wallis as Hushpuppy in her film debut seems to have been replaced by “Cosby Show”-kid perkiness.

On the plus side: Name recognition and all-ages appeal.  A perfect upbeat post-holiday feast distraction to share with visiting relatives.

On the minus side: The modernizing updates to the songs and story could prove gimmicky while weakening the plot’s emotional warmth. Plus, some people would pay good money to never hear “Tomorrow” performed ever again. 

Prediction: A box-office bonanza. Its only competition for the tween-and-under audience in December is “Paddington,” about the fictional storybook bear, and “A Night at the Museum 3.”

“Into the Woods” (Dec. 25)

Stage roots:  Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fracturing of such Grimm Brothers fairy tales as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Cinderella” that reveals what happens after ‘happily ever after’ opened Nov. 5, 1987 on Broadway.  It was nominated for 10 Tonys, including best musical, and won three.

Other adaptations: Performed around the world and revived on Broadway in 2002, “Into the Woods” was filmed in 1991 with the original cast including Bernadette Peters as the Witch and Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife for PBS’ “American Playhouse” series. In 2012, the show was presented outdoors with Amy Adams as the Baker’s Wife at the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park.  

Behind the camera: After a tortuous route to the big screen that began in the early ’90s (one version would have featured Robin Williams, Goldie Hawn and Cher while another had Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan and Susan Sarandon), Disney tapped “Annie” TV veteran Marshall to shepherd “Into the Woods” into film theaters. Let’s hope he has learned from his movie musical success with “Chicago” as well as from his failure with “Nine.” Also good news: Lapine is once again handling script chores and Sondheim has written a new song for the movie.

The cast: An array of top talent that should please film fans and theater lovers alike. The wisest move was hiring Meryl Streep as the Witch and Johnny Depp as the Wolf. Both are proven box-office boosters when placed in the right roles and each has earned their movie musical stripes–she with “Mamma Mia!” and he with 2007’s “Sweeney Todd.” Joining them are Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife and rising British star James Corden as the Baker,  who are cursed with childlessness by the Witch. Also in the cast: Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Chris Pine as her Prince and Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother.      

The budget: Estimated at $40 million, which allows for some wiggle room if the masses don’t quite cotton to this approach to ‘once upon a time.’

Oscar prospects: Certainly the best of the three, especially with academy regular Streep involved and if Marshall is on his game. Besides, those loyal Sondheim-ites consider every iteration of their idol’s work to be an event. Despite misgivings from purists, “Sweeney Todd”–also a Sodheim effort–managed to receive three nominations (including best actor for Depp) and took the trophy for art direction.  

On the plus side: Glowing credits that promise quality entertainment. It also doesn’t hurt that fables spun from fairy tales are in vogue these days both at the movies (“Maleficent” as the latest example) and on TV. 

On the minus side: No breakout songs familiar with the general public for one. And the material, if true to the play, may not be appropriate for all ages and could shrink potential ticket sales despite Disney’s involvement. No MPAA rating yet, but as fun and family-friendly as the first act is, the second half treads darker and more sophisticated territory. Then again, most children seemed to handle the disturbing portions of “Maleficent” just fine. 

Prediction: “Sweeney Todd” made just $53 million domestically, although worldwide it collected $153 million. Not bad considering that the macabre tale cost $50 million and is about a mad barber who kills his customers and turns them into meat pie filling. If the reviews are good enough to bring in audiences beyond the Sondheim faithful, “Into the Woods” could do much better.

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