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More musicals to come, or is it a Phantom of Hollywood’s imagination, writes Nick Roddick in this month’s Hollywood round up (Part 2 next week).

The jury is still out on whether the musical is making a comeback or whether Chicago was just a very successful one-off. No doubt everyone who can hold a tune (and, given current Broadway trends, quite a few who can’t) will be studying the results very carefully. And the results at the moment would seem to be that Americans love Chicago (it is, after all, their town), while the rest of the world is not quite so sure. 

"city slickers go for it, but hicks nix it"

The multi-Oscar-winner has yielded lacklustre results in Germany; and in France, the Parisian per-screen average has been almost exactly twice what it is in the provinces. In other words, city slickers go for it, but hicks nix it.

Now, Hollywood trendspotting is a dangerous activity, a little like waiting for a British bus: you can hang around for what seems like for ever, and then two films with very similar stories come along at once. Think Les liaisons dangereuses / Valmont back in 1989, the virus movie logjam in the mid-nineties and the current, somewhat puzzling saga of the battling Alexander the Great epics (one directed by Oliver Stone and starring Colin Farrell, the other from Martin Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio).

As a journalist in the movie business, however, you spend a lot of your time looking for trends. Indeed, that august trade journal Variety, in what must have been a slow news week, recently devoted its lead story to whether or not the ‘comeback’ of the musical would prove any more enduring than the comeback of the western in the wake of Unforgiven’s Oscars. The answer seemed to be a definite maybe, with studio execs giving that auto-pilot answer of ‘We’ll look at all proposals on their merits’.

My own feeling is that the two most recent hit musicals - Moulin Rouge and Chicago - were both pretty much one-offs (with the added proviso that the latter took 18 years to bring to the screen). And what about all the misfires? The Fantasticks, anyone?

"based on the stage hit The Phantom of the Opera"

One definite maybe, meanwhile, is that Joel Schumacher will be directing a movie based on the stage hit The Phantom of the Opera. I put it like that because, however decisive the announcement - and the one from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Films in mid-February sounded pretty chipper - with Schumacher, you never know. That man has been attached to more films he hasn’t made than I’ve had cheese sandwiches before screenings. In the present context, it’s interesting to note that he was heavily tipped to make a movie version of another hit musical, Dreamgirls, in late 1996.

Phantom opened in the West End in 1986, hit Broadway two years later, and has been up for screen adaptation since the early nineties. The currently planned film will be an indie production: Lloyd Webber has bought back the rights from Warner Bros, although the latter still has an option to distribute the finished film in the US. Meanwhile, Phantom looks likely to be one of the tastier upcoming titles staring down at festivaliers from the Croisette billboards in Cannes.

SPEAKING OF SERIAL originality - that specifically Hollywood phenomenon referred to above, which guarantees that, no sooner does someone somewhere have a smart idea, someone else independently has the same idea somewhere else - it seems to be happening once again with witchcraft.

The Harry Potter phenomenon has been with us too long to blame: if the Hogwarts saga was going to beget a string of spin-offs about witches, it would have done so long ago. No, Columbia has managed to come up with two strikingly similar projects all on its own and with no apparent help from anyone.

"a big-screen version of that twinkly old TV favourite, Bewitched"

First came the announcement that Nora Ephron, writer and director of Sleepless in Seattle and Michael, would be scripting and directing a big-screen version of that twinkly old TV favourite, Bewitched. Nicole Kidman is tipped to play Samantha, whose nose-twitching magic was practiced for eight years on television by Elizabeth Montgomery.

Then, a week later, ex-husband Tom Cruise fell under a similar spell - or cast one over Columbia: the same studio provisionally agreed to provide a berth for I Married a Witch, which Danny DeVito is scheduled to direct. He won’t, though, be doing it for Jersey Films (the shingle was shut down earlier this year), but for Tom and Paula’s Cruise/Wagner Productions. The original film, directed by the legendary René Clair, was released in 1942, and starred Veronica Lake and Fredric March. And it, too, went on to have an afterlife as a TV sitcom.

The original Married was based, incidentally, on a story by Thorne Smith, best-known for writing the stories of the Topper films, about a man haunted by a pair of playful ghosts. And that, too, is up for a remake, with Steve Martin supposedly taking the part originally played by Cary Grant.

"into the world of whimsical fantasy"

What is more, Michael star John Travolta (who reportedly turned down the Richard Gere role in Chicago because he didn’t think it would work as a film) could be taking another trip into the world of whimsical fantasy later in the year, if he signs on to play Elwood P Dowd in a remake of Harvey, the movie in which a permanently tipsy James Stewart had long conversations with an imaginary white rabbit - sorry, pooka.

I Married a Witch was, of course, a comedy, but not quite as frothy as Bewitched: Lake’s Jennifer was a witch burned at Salem in the 18th century, and her main reason for coming back was to haunt a descendant of the man who had prosecuted her - played, of course, by March. If the film gets made, Cruise may take on that character (it’s a while, after all, since he did romantic comedy). And perhaps the stories are different enough not to have audiences wondering which witch is which.

Actually, in the current cycle, Hamburg-based director Hermine Huntgeburth kind of got there first: the best-performing German film of last year was a little number called Bibi Blocksberg, about a very young witch who makes such a good job of her craft that she gets a full-size adult broomstick years ahead of normal.

Probably won’t be long before we learn that there’s going to be a Hollywood remake of that, too…

May 22, 2003

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Phantom of the Opera

Richard Gere in Chicago

Moulin Rouge

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