Casting Coups — Actors Who Successfully Transferred Iconic Roles from Stage to Screen

by Christopher Ehlers

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 24, 2021
Originally published on September 23, 2021

When it comes to film adaptations of plays or musicals, there is no shortage of opinions about casting. And depending on how many years it may have taken to get the film made, there is usually one big question that looms front and center: should anyone from the original cast make the leap from stage to screen?

As soon as the "Dear Evan Hansen" trailer dropped in May—giving the world its first glimpse of a 27-year-old Ben Platt playing the titular high school teenager—the internet exploded with snarky chatter over Platt's age and how absurd he looks in the role.

While not all the reviews for "Dean Evan Hansen" have come in yet, things aren't looking good, with most reviews calling out Platt's unconvincing casting. Mike LaSalle, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, put it bluntly: "Adolescence can be difficult, but never so difficult as actually sitting through all 137 minutes of 'Dear Evan Hansen,' an insufferably twee film adaptation of the Broadway musical." He also slammed the age-inappropriate casting of Platt: "Clearly something went wrong, something beyond Platt looking no more like a high school student than George Bernard Shaw."

You may recall that "Rent," which took a decade to make, retained most of its original cast, who were all nearly twice the age of the band of East Village dreamers they portrayed, and the film suffered greatly, regardless of its other flaws.

But there have been plenty of times when original cast members have reprised their roles on film to sublime effect, offering a permanent record of the genius that would have otherwise been relegated to the memories of those lucky enough to see them live. Here are 10 of the best such performances:

Yul Brynner, "The King and I"

Brynner's performance as the King of Siam in this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is so monumental, so exquisite, that none who have stepped into his silken robes since have ever been able to step out from underneath his shadow. His commanding presence, surprising vulnerability, and childlike curiosity remains an awe-inspiring feat. It's no wonder that Brynner is one of the few actors who have won a Tony and an Oscar for the same role.

Joel Grey, "Cabaret"

Bob Fosse's 1972 film adaptation of "Cabaret" was a big departure from the 1966 Kander and Ebb stage musical, but one of the things Fosse retained was Grey, who—like Brynner—won both a Tony and an Oscar for his unforgettably creepy performance as the devilish Master of Ceremonies.

Ellen Greene, "Little Shop of Horrors"

"Little Shop of Horrors" was one of the unlikeliest New York hits of the 1980s. It was so popular, in fact, that it only took four years for the bloodthirsty Audrey II to make the leap from tiny Off-Off-Broadway theatre to the silver screen. Like Brynner and Grey, Ellen Greene is still the gold standard when it comes to Audrey, a rough-around-the-edges New Yorker with terrible taste in men and a heart of gold. When Greene returned to the role in 2015 for a concert production opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, there wasn't a ticket to be found, and she stopped the show each night with a minutes-long standing ovation.

Barbra Streisand, "Funny Girl"

There is no role in musical theater that an artist can claim complete ownership of in quite the same way that Streisand can with Fanny Brice. So big are the shoes to fill, in fact, that it has taken six decades for anyone to muster up enough guts to take the show back to Broadway (Beanie Feldstein is slated to star in a forthcoming revival). No matter who it is, though, there's no way they'll ever reach Streisand's stratosphere. While she didn't win the Tony—she lost to Carol Channing in "Hello, Dolly!"—she did win the Oscar, and got her revenge four years later when she won Channing's role in the film version of "Hello, Dolly!."

Robert Preston, "The Music Man"

It is true that Harold Hill, the fast-talking con man that swindles an entire Iowan town, is not quite as nuanced or challenging as some of the others on this list, but I'll be damned if Preston's performance isn't a work of art. I've seen others do impressive imitations of Preston in the role, which has become something of a requirement it would seem, but none have gotten it entirely right. All eyes will be on Hugh Jackman this winter when he tries to put his own spin on the role in the first Broadway revival in 20 years.

Ron Moody, "Oliver!"

There's only one performance on this list that gave me nightmares as a child, and it's this one; I'd be lying if I said that I ever feel totally at ease when I re-watch now as an adult. But that's the genius of Moody in this role, and regardless of how many Fagins I have seen on stage and on film, none approach Moody's mastery. Although Moody originated the role of Fagin in the 1960 West End production, he did not cross the Atlantic with the musical when it opened on Broadway in 1964, but thankfully starred in the 1968 film, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. However, Moody would finally take the role to the US in 1984, his sole Broadway credit.

John Cameron Mitchell, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch"

To see John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig is to experience a certain kind of magic, and that goes for live performance just as much as it does this film, for which he scored a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. Of course, Mitchell dreamed up "Hedwig" himself, and directed the film, so it makes sense that no one will ever be as good in the role. But it takes a remarkable amount of skill to successfully translate a larger-than-life role in an innately live musical to the screen, but he managed that hat trick brilliantly. It's still only one of a handful of musicals in the last several decades that bridge the gap between stage and screen without so much as a hiccup.

Tim Curry, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"

When Tim Curry accepted the role of Frank-N-Furter in a tiny London theatre in 1973, he couldn't have known that it would jumpstart his entire career. After all, it's a pretty bizarre place to start, especially for the early 70's. Curry took the musical to Los Angeles the following year, Broadway the year after that, and five months later was burning up midnight showings around the world in the cult classic, $170 million grossing film. Almost 50 years later, no one does Frank quite like Curry.

Marlon Brando, "A Streetcar Named Desire"

Marlon Brando was 23 years old when he created the role of Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire," and by the time he earned his first Oscar nomination for the role in 1951, he would only be 27 years old. He would win four years later for "On the Waterfront," generally regarded as his best performance, but his work on "Streetcar" remains one of the most searing examples of raw talent ever committed to screen. It is a brutish, fearsome, and slyly vulnerable performance that gives us a glimpse of what it might have been like to be in the audience as the curtain rose on the young career of a future legend.

Shirley Booth, "Come Back, Little Sheba"

Unlike Brando, Shirley Booth found her greatest success later in life, winning her second of three Tony Awards for "Come Back, Little Sheba" at 52 years of age; two years later, she would go on to win an Oscar for the same role. And nine years after that, at 63, she would achieve nationwide fame—and an Emmy—for the very popular "Hazel." As Lola, the doting wife of an alcoholic in "Come Back, Little Sheba," Booth retains a wide-eyed lust for life while walking a thin line between resignation and resentment. It's a towering performance, one that immortalizes the talents of one of our mostly forgotten legends.