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Are movie-musicals a thing of the past?

(Editor's note: A "movie-musical" refers to a film based on a work that was originally produced for the stage, as opposed to one written directly for the screen.)


(Editor's note part 2: If you are easily upset about a movie musical being criticized, you may not want to continue reading.)


There was a time, believe it or not, when Broadway musicals becoming movies went together like womp-bop-a-loo-bop.... (you know the rest). Many people say that the "golden age" of movie musicals ran for 20 years -- from the 1940s to the 19660s -- where almost every successful stage musical (and a gaggle of less successful ones too) made it to the silver screen (Calamity Jane, anyone?)


One could say that the past twenty years have been a second golden age of the movie musical, beginning in 2002 with Chicago and giving us gems like Dreamgirls and Evita), before going on to suffer a drawn-out death which began with Les Miserables just ten years later. Audiences had heard the people sing, and were ready to hear them stop now (especially Russell Crowe).


I'm not purposely avoiding the movie-musicals that have hit the big and small screens since then -- although I wish I could forget NBC's The Wiz Live! or the remake of Aladdin; I personally liked Sweeney Todd and the updated Hairspray, but the parade had already passed by for most people. So while movie-musicals are still being made, they are, in fact, becoming less memorable. The reason? The wrong musicals are being turned into movies. You'd think this would be common sense; why make a movie for a musical no one cares about? Apparently, movie studios haven't gotten the memo.


When you stop to think about the musicals that got turned into movies over the past twenty years, there were more missteps than standing O's; among them: Into the Woods (which broke my heart...in a bad way), The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, the two different versions of Annie, Nine, Rock of Ages, The Music Man (with the grievously miscast Matthew Broderick), and don't even get me started on Dear Evan Hansen.


On the one hand, I will admit I'm slightly biased; I think any movie-musicals are better than no movie-musicals, and I will pay my $15 to see whatever Hollywood decides to contribute to this genre, no matter how bad, so I am quick to defend them. That said, here's the truth: Many of these musicals were created for the stage, and while you may think that there is not much of a difference between the two formats, I would heartily disagree.


When you go to a Broadway show, you tend to accept the idea of people breaking into song more willingly than on a wall-to-wall screen in your multiplex. The best live theatre allows you to feel you are part of the drama unfolding onstage, rather than a more passive viewer in a sticky, soda-stained recliner. The musical numbers, performed by people in the same room with you and a live orchestra, can rock you in a way the best Dolby Surround speakers cannot. (And as far as the theatres I frequent, their sound systems are usually turned too low, or the EQ isn't balanced, or the speakers are blown out). It's like seeing your favorite band in concert, or watching the concert at one of those Fathom Events; it's not the same.


Then there's this uncomfortable truth: Some of the musicals that have been made into movies didn't need to be.


I enjoyed The Prom, but the all-star cast (even if James Corden was in it) didn't save it from being just cute. Most non-theatre folks have no idea what The Prom is; there's no name recognition. And when Cats, one of the biggest musicals of all time was adapted into a film, it was a pedigree for success. Except it was anything but. It was almost embarrassingly bad for all involved, and I'd be very surprised if director Tom Hooper (who also did Les Mis) ever did a movie-musical again. What happened? It's simple; the suspension of disbelief, especially for a show so mired in fantasy, belongs on a stage, not surrounded by subpar CGI. We know they're not actual cats singing, and we accept this poetic license in a Broadway theatre, but not a Hollywood one, because we don't want to see realistic-looking felines singing and dancing. Cats was the movie-musical to send this genre to the Heavyside Lair. But there may be another life in it yet.


The key to movie-musicals succeeding in the future, I believe, lies in the following:


1. Stop adapting stage shows, and work in reverse. The best movie-musicals of late (read: not the same as highest-grossing) originated on-screen as opposed to on a stage; The Greatest Showman, Sing Street, Yesterday, Begin Again, Bohemian Rhapsody (heck, keep the musical biopics coming!), and Encanto were all made for the movies. Three of those titles are already in the works to become a staged musical, with another set for a sequel (a la Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! which, no matter how you feel about the same songs being used in both movies, blew the roof off the box office.)

The new source for original musicals might first be found in your neighborhood multiplex, or even on Netflix (like the stellar Jingle Jangle). Some of the best musicals being created today are for "kids," (although I think adults are playing the soundtracks more often). Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote two family musicals during the pandemic, Vivo and Encanto, and streaming services are leading the charge in this genre with Netflix's beautiful film Over the Moon and Disney's musical update of Freaky Friday. When you think about it, this reverse-engineering will only help boost Broadway ticket sales; movies are much more accessible to people than theatre, so if you already have them sold on it, you'll get them in the seats when it's on stage.


2. Don't use the same actors in the movie as in the show. How else do you explain the worldwide phenomenon, and subsequent crash-and-burn failure, of Dear Evan Hansen? Ben Platt's mugging and hamming worked on stage because he's playing to big houses, but movies are much more intimate (and lets us get a closer look at Platt who, on screen, is clearly too old to play the high schooler). A film that knew this was The Last Five Years, which replaced Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Renee Scott with Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick, respectively. The latter pair know how to play-it-down for the camera, whereas the former can't help but upstage (see Butz in the miniseries' Bloodline or Mercy Street).


2.5 Stop casting Corden, Streep, and Kidman. They're all fine actors and performers, but it's too much. We're tired of seeing them, even if they're nice to listen to and can emote appropriately on-screen. Additionally, younger crowds don't really know them, so they're not a pull, and other actors are waiting in the wings for the spotlight; the best actor in Into the Woods, for example, was Chris Pine, as was Luke Evans in Beauty & the Beast. Go with some new blood to get the heart of movie-musicals pumping again.


3. Choose better shows to adapt. This might seem like common sense, and you might use Cats as an example of how I don't know what I'm talking about. But "better" does not equal "bigger." Go back to the basics: dive into the vault for shows needing a remake, a la Spielberg's West Side Story. I'd love to see a new Brigadoon or Guys & Dolls (minus Vin Diesel, who has been in the rumor mill to be a part of the cast.) Many musicals are having their books rewritten to fit modern audiences, and this is the way forward for movie-musicals too.

What can a film give an audience that a stage show can't? Look back at all the movie-musicals that have tanked in recent years and think about if they offered up anything much different than the show. In addition to the aforementioned West Side, whose script by playwright Tony Kushner added a lot more depth to the Sharks/Jets rivalry, Tick, Tick, Boom! took what is just a three-person cast on stage and turned into a show encompassing all of Jonathan Larson's world (thanks to the adept hands of Lin-Manuel Miranda. Heck, maybe we should just let him be in charge of all movie-musicals henceforth). Filmmakers do not need to completely overhaul a show when adapting it to the screen, but it needs to have something different, or it won't work (and that doesn't mean just tweaking the ending, as in Dear Evan Hanson's case, which was only a marginal improvement over the original climax).


4. Adapt the classics that haven't been adapted yet! There are so many classic musicals that have never been adapted, while lesser-known or liked ones have. Where's our Annie Get Your Gun, or the more modern classic Miss Saigon? Many shows that already have built-in audiences are ripe for the picking.


Is another renaissance for movie-musicals on the way? It may well be, when the first half of Wicked lands in theatres Christmas 2023 (the second half a year later). It's got all the makings of a hit -- a talented director, John Chu (who did the recent In the Heights adaptation), a diverse and talented cast (Cynthia Erivo and Arianna Grande), and the 20 year run on Broadway and world tours proving it's got an audience. But even so, I'm not ready to say that movie-musicals are going to come roaring back like a not-so-Cowardly Lion. Not until I see that this genre is able to also think about the heart and brain behind the work, too.

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