How Music Bridge the Gap Between Stage Plays and the Big Screen

By  · Published on January 30th, 2014

In an interview with Rolling Stone, “August: Osage County” playwright, Tracy Letts, said the difference between watching a movie and a play is “…the way people take them in. You don’t work as hard to watch a movie. You work harder to watch a play, so what the audience puts into it is interesting.”

Going to the movies is definitely a communal experience, but watching a play can be an intense experience because you are not simply escaping into a story as a passive viewer, you are in a theater with the actors, the presence making you a participant in the overall experience.

Before the premiere of the film adaptation of August: Osage County at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Letts expanded on this comparison saying, “There are a lot of people in a room [when watching a play] and everyone is a living person as opposed to an image that’s already been shot. Meryl Streep is not in the house tonight, just her picture’s up there, so it’s a different experience.” Movies allow for quick location changes and close ups of an actor’s face, but the feeling of being in the same room with an actor is lost when it’s solely their image on a screen ‐ and that is where music comes in.

Music is able to bridge this gap and expand on those feelings and emotions in lieu of having the actual actor on stage in front of you, but music can also help to create a more fully realized world to help immerse one in the story.

August: Osage County’s harsh matriarch, Violet Weston (Streep), is a force to be reckoned with, but she is also a character full of unspoken sadness and melancholy. On a stage, you are able to see that hidden emotion reflected off Violet’s family. On screen, the choice to use a close-up of Violet helps increase the dramatic impact, but limits the broader perspective of who this woman truly is.

JD & The Straight Shot wrote “Violet’s Song” for the film, a catchy ballard, but one that helps expand on Violet’s true nature with lyrics singing, “Born and raised to stand my ground/To this house I am bound, forever, forever/I will not break, I will not bend/Always ready to defend forever, forever.” The lyrics are as stubborn as Violet herself, but they also suggest how she feels trapped and scared.

Bill Naughton’s play “Alfie,” which features another dynamic lead character, made a splash in 1963 thanks to its provocative storyline. Michael Caine and Jude Law both successfully brought the titillating Alfie to life when the play was turned into two films separated by decades, but it was the music featured in both versions that helped set them apart from the stage play.

In the 1966 version starring Caine, saxophonist Sonny Rollins created a jazz filled soundtrack that helped create the feeling of 1960s London, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote the title track “Alfie” which became a hit for Cher and Dionne Warwick.

When director Charles Shyer remade the film in 2004, he moved the location from London to Manhattan and approached Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger to create the film’s music. The the song Jagger co-wrote with David Stewart, “Old Habits Die Hard” perfectly reflected stubborn Alfie and went on to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song.

Beyond capturing a single character’s richer meaning, the palpable tension created on stage when two actors are at odds with one another is often more difficult to recreate on screen, but music helps here as well. Frost/Nixon and The Ides of March (based on the play “Farragut North”) each feature two strong leads going head to head with one another and both Hans Zimmer, with the Frost/Nixon film and Alexadre Desplat, with The Ides of March, created thrilling scores that increased the adrenaline in these films climactic scenes while also creating a feeling of foreboding leading up to them.

Desplat incorporated a raw sense of patriotism in his score for The Ides of March which helped reinforce the mood of this political thriller, but sometimes going for the obvious musical nod can distract from the impact of the story rather than add to it, as was the case with portions of Howard Shore’s score for Doubt (based on the play “Doubt: A Parable”).

Taking place in a church, the obvious idea would be to incorporate organ and choral elements into the score, which Shore did, but within the context of the film it felt a bit too on the nose. Streep owns her character of Sister Aloysius Beauvier (as Meryl Streep does) and her performance did not need an additional reminder of her occupation or her driving force. Overall the score works quite well, but tracks like “Daybreak,” “Sister James,” and “Doubts” were almost too obvious compared to the rest of the music, which succeeds thanks to its subtly.

The excitement of live theater is a unique experience, but when bringing these stories to the big screen, you can keep that sense of immediacy thanks to the scores and soundtracks which ‐ if done correctly ‐ can help deliver that in-the-room feeling while also allowing films stand on their own.