I saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels last night. No, not the Steve Martin/Michael Caine film, but the musical, presented at Hart House Theatre.
Let me say first off that I love adaptations. Whenever I hear someone complain that the original was better—book or film—I try not to look too exasperated. Why do some people resist a new adaptation? I don’t get it. Surely there’s room for many versions.
There’s certainly nothing sacred about the 1988 Frank Oz film, considering that it’s a thinly disguised adaptation of Bedtime Story, a 1964 film with Marlon Brando and David Niven.
Comparing the films is as much a study of adapters as of two cultural epochs. Both of the older continental swindlers (Michael Caine or David Niven) pretends at one point to have a dimwitted brother.
Steve Martin’s Ruprecht (who appears 1:45 into this clip)… is completely different from Marlon Brando’s more physical approach .
A musical requires a few big ideas that can then be expanded into songs, in effect removing some of the subtlety of the original: a delicate process and not to be undertaken lightly. The laughs of the original become a different kind of laugh, that is, if they’re not lost altogether in translation.
In the case of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (the musical), David Yazbek (music and lyrics) & Jeffrey Lane (book) made a few clever choices. The language is surprisingly racy, making the book often funnier than the original. But if you consider how a film works –where you can clearly hear the lines—vs a musical—where someone singing a line may not be easily intelligible—that was a necessary choice. I didn’t hear all the lines because there was at times so much laughter. For example, look at the lyrics of “Big stuff,” a song that is like Freddy’s credo.
You can have a censored listen in this Tony Awards show broadcast, although two hot lines were too hot for the live TV broadcast:
- Now I know Where I belong-A life of taste and class
With culture and sophisitication pouring out my ass.
- The Islands in the winter, The Hamptons in the summer,
The fashion plate I date’ll give me Hummers in my Hummer.
or read the complete version.
That song is a big clue of a shift in the musical from the film. Where the conflict between Steve Martin’s Freddy and Michael Caine’s Lawrence is largely a contrast between American & Brit, the musical takes a few things far deeper, and in my view far more interesting. Our musical Freddy needs to be rough and guttural, given his earthy sentiments. The underlying class issues of the story are closer to the surface, as Freddy’s raw greed is contrasted to Lawrence’s classy con artist. Where Steve Martin was given a few moments to raise his voice, the musical Freddy gets to sing a virtual aria to his id, and the tone shifts as a result. My God it’s funny.
I saw one of the last performances of the recent production at Hart House Theatre, a student production with a professional feel. Everybody was in tune, moved well in their dance numbers, and the show’s pace never lagged. I was especially impressed with Evan Dowling, whose Freddy reminded me of John Belushi both for his powerful singing and his physical presence onstage. Director Jeremy Hutton, Hart House Theatre’s Artistic Director, is to be congratulated, both for this taut and hysterical production, and for consistently choosing challenging and interesting repertoire the past few years.