“Sweet Charity” is originally a “Broadway production, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, opened on 1966 at the Palace Theatre” in midtown Manhattan (Furia and Lasser 287). Just like most of the classical theatrical plays, Sweet Charity is later adapted or translated to the screen. To make an adaptation from theater to film is somehow challenging since there will be a lot of adjustments because of the respective differences of theatre and film in terms of portrayal and production. Theatre has the “on the spot” nature especially in terms of acting; thus, most of the time, it is prone to criticisms. Film, on the other hand, can be subjected to editing and many “takes” when things go wrong, but the great challenge lies in the director’s ability to affect the narration through camera movements. After watching the stage and film version, it is inevitable to make a point of comparison on how the film revealed more or less of the playwright’s intentions and messages than the theater, how the camera becomes the leading actor, and how film time differs from stage time.
One may also notice that on-screen, it is dominantly controlled by the director, whereas in theatre, the focus of the viewers is flexible or unpredictable. However, the film “Sweet Charity, just like its theatre version, successfully illustrates the play’s original themes and messages through characterization, musicals, and settings.
“Sweet Charity” is a musical play by “Cy Coleman, [with the] lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and book by Neil Simon” (Furria and Lasser 288). This American musical and movie version is based on “Fellini’s screenplay Nights of Cabiria, an Italian film about a naïve prostitute in Ostia and Rome who searches for love but encounters frequent heartbreak” (Furria and Lasser 288). The story of Sweet Charity is about a dance hall hostess (or prostitute, considering her personality) who is in love with being in love and optimistically searches for the one, but every man she falls for walks all over her. She believes in happily-ever-after but is always trapped with unfortunate circumstances with every man she meets. Although she comes from a low station in life, Charity (played by Shirley MacLaine) refuses to believe that tomorrow does not hold a promise of happiness and is thus never tired to seek for it in every moment. Thus, the film ideally illustrates a woman who escapes a hard reality through fantasy. In the film, Charity works in a sleazy and cheap working environment, but her romantic adventures occur in realistic settings—a street, a lavish apartment, an extravagant restaurant, rooftops, flashy nightclubs, and discos. While her adventures are truly believable, her unfortunate fate in every man she falls for affirms that, most of the time, her adventures are only external illusions that do not guarantee a long-term kind of relationship.
The film, which is both sad and funny, is full of stereotypes in terms of the story, characterization and setting. It tells about a woman who stereotypically and externally seeks a sense of fulfillment through fantasy as a way to escape her bitter present situation – her work in a tavern-like environment. Since the story happened in New York, the film captures the fashion trends and funky style during 60s and its urban culture. Most males often demonstrate the “Sammy Davis Jr. fashion,” with the girls in their miniskirts, go-go boots, and pillbox hats.
With two hours and thirty minutes running time, it can be regarded as a long film, but when the music cranks up and shows those dancers and their unmistakably wild fashion, one will not feel bored. The song and dance numbers look very contemporary and significant to the narration, as they signify transition of events and characters’ emotions. The non-singing and no-dancing, scenes on the other hand, mostly demonstrate something about the real world of Charity.
The ending is somehow intriguing. Although the courtship between Oscar and Charity is genuinely charming, the director seemed to have avoided sentimentality and the happily-ever-after cliché. Thus, the alternate ending is surprisingly an unpredictable one since the story manages to bring Charity and Oscar together without creating any illusion about their future. Therefore, there are limitless possibilities on what may be their life together after or if they will end up together, as the dialogue says: “OSCAR: The odds against us are at least a hundred to one. / CHARITY: Those are the best odds I ever had” (“Sweet Charity”).
Hence, they walk off together after. While the ending is arbitrary or abstract, the movie gave Charity some hope to hold on to, which she deserves. Even though some may say that the ending has no social justice, the ending’s unpredictability undeniably provides the audience with overwhelming feeling of hope, which I guess is the true happy ending. Hence, with hope in mind after watching it, one may regard it as a “true” happy ending.
This play is rare since it is not sugar-coated and meaningless. It is very observable that even though the play has a simple story line, the director gives Charity strong character development. In the beginning, Charity had a small world at the Fan Dango Ballroom, a dance hall where girls give more than dances, but has wide eyes and wide dreams. Charity readily gives her heart and love to anybody. She willingly gives it even to one undeserving man after another. Helene and Nickie, her two best friends, are the ones who help Charity every time she is ultimately betrayed by each lover who comes into her life. She is almost hopeless, but when Charity meets the mild-mannered and noble like Oscar, she believes that he will rescue her from her sordid past and profession, but will Oscar be as understanding? She begins dating Oscar and decides not to reveal to him her job for a living since she is afraid of another rejection, but Oscar eventually finds out and assures her that her sordid dance hall job does not matter. However, at the engagement party one day, Oscar, with his Puritan cultural background, walks out on Charity and leaves her heart broken once more. With the consecutive heart breaking experiences of Charity with various men that almost left her surrendering, she became strong enough to pick herself up again and start living “Hopefully ever After.”
The film is well-paced that even though it contains dark and depressing circumstances, it is undeniable that the characters’ journeys are full of wits and humor. Shirley MacLaine’s sad, awkward, and hopeful character pulls the viewers quickly into the young woman’s world, making them feel her joys, her love of life, and the truly sorrowful realities of her existence as if they were their own.
The movie truly delivered the playwright’s messages especially in terms of storytelling since the choice of music, with its lyrics and tunes, perfectly complements the narration. The series of dances performed by Charity in a nightclub when she visits Vittorio, an Italian movie star, impeccably complement its real and joyous setting. Moreover, Charity celebrates Oscar’s love by dancing and goose-stepping through the many streets of New York dressed in a brilliantly flashy red majorette’s uniform in the company of a marching band and Big Daddy (Sammy Davis Jr.), an outlandish, very contemporary and hippy preacher who sings and cavorts wildly with his stoned and austere congregation. Every song apparently tells a story that is very much associated with the narrative. Although the musical numbers and choreography may seem routinely, the film is absolutely filled with joyous, lively, and colorful songs and dances that are sure to amuse and delight the viewers.
The movie Sweet Charity attests that one can adapt a theatrical play into film successfully. The loyalty to the original masterpiece is really important. To make the adaptation successful, there must be a complementary combination of effective narration, cinematography, editing, props and setting, camera movements, acting, and most importantly the incorporation of the director’s skills on how to portray the movie successfully.
Furia, Philip and Michael Lasser. America’s Songs: The Stories Behind the Songs of
Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley. New York: CRC Press, 2006
Sweet Charity. Dir. Bob Fosse. Perfs. Shirley MacLaine and John McMartin. Universal
Studios, 2003. DVD.