As we’ve all been spending more time than ever stuck inside our houses with nothing but Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, Sky, Now TV, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, not to mention good old fashioned books, DVDs, video games, jigsaws, baking, friends and family (and one burst of exercise a day… if you can fit it in) to keep us entertained, it seems that people around the world are turning to musicals for some much needed cheering up.
With productions from London’s West End, including “Wind in the Willows”, “Eugenius!”, “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat” and a variety of shows from The National Theatre becoming readily available on various platforms over the last few weeks, I can’t help but to wonder if this could be a renaissance period for movie musicals.
Then and Now
Musicals, although remaining a constant attraction on the West End and Broadway, seem to come and go from the cinemas in waves. Movie musicals were at their most appealing in the 1940s when, in 1943, Hollywood studios released a combined 65 musicals in just one calendar year. By the early 1960s, the production of musicals had declined substantially, resulting in a mere 4 musicals being released from Hollywood in 1963. More recent years have seen financial (although not necessarily critical) success in the forms of La La Land (2016), The Greatest Showman (2017) and Mary Poppins Returns (2018).
Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood it was a guaranteed success for a studio to be producing a musical. Films like Singin’ In The Rain (1952), White Christmas (1954) and High Society (1956) paved the way for what seemed like an ongoing success of a genre tied more tightly to the introduction of sound in cinema than any. Big hits such as the aforementioned La La Land and The Greatest Showman still follow the general conventions attached to the genre by these golden periods of Hollywood, each offering their own takes on what made the classics so great: big musical numbers, appealing lead characters, daring staging and vibrant costumes.
La La Land won 6 Oscars at the 89th Academy Awards due to its sophisticated original content. 11 months later The Greatest Showman, starring Hollywood royalty Hugh Jackman and his apparent successor Zac Efron, didn’t achieve the same awards success, largely struggling to earn critical praise.
However, with an overall box office taking of over £351million worldwide, The Greatest Showman had a different kind of success and, of course, bad reviews don’t stop us all singing along to “The Greatest Show” every time we hear it. There’s something that proves to be completely addictive about a catchy tune and a well choreographed dance routine – throw in some CGI elephants and an attractive lead in a top hat and you may not impress the critics but you’ve definitely got yourself a strong fan base.
It has become a common trait for stage musicals to be reimagined for the big screen. The Greatest Showman itself was a reimagined telling of the founder of the circus, P.T Barnum, based on the 1980s Broadway musical “Barnum”.
As for Mary Poppins (1964), starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, awards success was only the start of a long life for the Disney live action/animation hybrid. Julie Andrews won best actress at the 1965 Academy Awards and the same award respectively at the Golden Globes. In 2004, 40 years after the release of the original film, the musical made its transfer to Broadway with rave reviews leading to a long and successful life on the stage. 2018 then brought about the release of its long-awaited sequel, the appropriately titled Mary Poppins Returns starring Emily Blunt, Lin Manuel Miranda and (again) Dick Van Dyke. The success of the sequel then led to the stage show reopening on the West End in 2019. Mary Poppins remains the only musical to go from screen to stage to screen and to stage again.
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Musicals At the Awards
The transition from stage to screen usually comes in a bid to get the stories and songs to a wider audience, often resulting in huge awards success, especially at the Oscars. Movie musicals have been a hit for the Academy of Motion Pictures ever since The Broadway Melody won best picture in 1929 at the 2nd Annual Academy Awards.
As well as being the first musical to win the academy award for Best Picture, The Broadway Melody was one of the first musicals to ever exist in the form, using the fairly new technology of sound on film to set a new standard silver screen classics that other great musicals such as The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music would follow in the decades to follow.
1952 saw the first screen musical win the specifically titled “Best Motion Picture: Comedy or Musical” at the annual Golden Globes awards ceremony, the award going to the George Gershwin hit An American in Paris starring Gene Kelly. Although not originating on the stage, An American in Paris set the precedent for the continued success of movie musicals at the Golden Globes. The first stage to screen adaptation to win at the awards was in 1955 and went to Guys and Dolls, starring award favourites Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Jean Simmons. Guys and Dolls was already a huge success on Broadway after opening in 1950 and going on to win 5 Tony awards including Best Musical, so it seemed destined for the success its silver screen adaptation found.
The next few decades did, however, see musicals start to fade out of the box office, with exceptions only proving the rule – the (at the time) controversial The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986) being among the most memorable, though neither earning any Oscars success.
This was all due to change with the film debut of Chicago, released in 2002 and directed by Rob Marshall (who has long been making his mark as the director of musicals with films like Nine, Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns). Chicago went on to win 6 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actress for leading star Catherine Zeta-Jones. The Bob Fosse classic was released to outstanding reviews and gained an 86% critics approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Even now, 18 years later, it is still considered to be one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, proving that in the early 00s there was still a place for musicals in the film release calendar.
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Jukebox musicals have always presented themselves well on stage with huge amounts of fans and expected long runs in theatres. “We Will Rock You”, the Queen jukebox, had a 12 year run on the West End, making it the longest running jukebox musical to date, but a film adaptation was never made. Others like “Mamma Mia” and “Jersey Boys” have had successful stage and film tenures, despite neither reaching the same level of critical praise on film as previous movie musical and now being considered “guilty pleasures”.
“Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” are two of the biggest stage musicals in the history of theatre and had been on the West End for nearly 30 years when they were both adapted to screen. Phantom of the Opera (2004) earned itself an unfortunate 5/10 average critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and is often forgotten about, whereas the Les Miserables film adaptation of 2012 went on to win 3 Oscars and 3 Golden Globes, including the aforementioned Best Picture: Musical or Comedy category won by An American in Paris.
What’s To Come?
It seems it’s impossible to predict whether or not a musical is destined for success at the cinema, so what does this mean for the three scheduled to be released in 2020?
Despite the delays on most Hollywood blockbusters originally due for release this summer, we are still expecting to see the releases of three highly anticipated movie musicals which have been adapted from pre-existing source material…
In The Heights is Lin Manuel Miranda’s original project, before the birth of Hamilton took the world by storm. Based on the original Broadway musical of the same name and following a successful run at the Kings Cross Theatre, London, In The Heights already has a strong buzz around it and is likely to be hugely successful. Miranda has become a household name thanks to his involvement in Disney’s Moana, his star turn in Mary Poppins Returns and of course his importance to the previously mentioned “Hamilton”, the first hip hop musical based on the history of the United States. In The Heights goes back to Miranda’s roots and was originally written by him whilst he was at college. It’s set in the Washington Heights district of New York and involves characters from a Dominican/American heritage.
West Side Story is getting a modern facelift.
Steven Spielberg has directed the remake of the most celebrated on screen musical of all time. The original 1961 release earned the most Oscars for any musical to date with 10 awards including Best Picture. Based on the famous Shakespeare play “Romeo and Juliet”, West Side Story features some of the most beloved musical numbers of all time, including “I Want To Be In America” and “Somewhere”. Ansel Elgort (The Fault In Our Stars; Baby Driver) is set to star as the lead character Tony, with the likes of Rita Moreno and Corey Stoll also named as cast members. The film has already been delayed due to the virus outbreak, but when it eventually gets its cinematic release it is likely to be a huge hit with fans and encourage a new generation to fall in love with the Stephen Sondheim classic.
Moving on from the vibrant streets of New York as seen in both In The Heights and West Side Story, we travel across the pond to the less vibrant northern England town of Sheffield where, it seems, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie.
Making its West End debut in November 2017 after a successful run in its home town, Jamie took London by storm. Based on the 2011 BBC documentary, “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16”, it tells the story of Jamie New, a young boy growing up in a heterosexual world where being a drag queen belongs in Vegas, not Sheffield. Making its move to the big screen in November of this year (release calendar dependent), it looks set to be a musical must-see, especially if its success on the West End is anything to go by.
Trusting that these three are made to a higher standard than 2019’s Tom Hooper screen adaptation of the hit stage show “Cats” (TFM’s review here), it’s safe to say they will reach out to a huge audience.
Studios in modern cinema are still trying to perfect the genre, and the fate of the film industry might be a bit uncertain at the moment, but audiences are still finding ways to watch their favourite musicals so maybe, just maybe, this is the start of a new wave of movie musical fandom and a shift in studio output back to the escapist classics of years gone by.