The Year of the Movie Musical
We are 80% through the so-called “year of the movie musical,” and things have not progressed well for the Rachel Berries and Kurt Hummels of the world.
By the end of 2021, ten notable, non-animated movie musicals will have been released into the world in one calendar year. They include adaptations of recent stage hits like “Dear Evan Hansen,” “In the Heights” and “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” filmed versions of live stage performances like “Come From Away” and “Diana: The Musical,” reworkings of existing stories already in the public consciousness like Camila Cabello’s “Cinderella,” the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” and the new iteration of “West Side Story” and miscellaneous passion projects like Lin Manuel-Miranda’s adaptation of “tick, tick… Boom!” and Leos Carax’s “Annette.”
This is all a bit surprising, given how long movie musicals were considered box office poison. You can probably count the major movie musicals released from around 2000 to 2015 on two hands (e.g. “Les Misérables,” “Hairspray,” “Moulin Rouge!”, “Sweeney Todd,” etc.). After the golden age of the movie musical ended with “Hello, Dolly,” major movie musicals were considered too expensive to be worth the investment for decades at a time. Suddenly, we’re at ten in one year. That’s probably in part because studio executives suddenly have faith in the genre after the “Hamilton” sensation, but, just as “Hamilton” has quickly aged poorly, none of these musicals have been widely successful with film audiences.
While, “tick, tick… Boom!” and the new “West Side Story” have yet to debut, the musical films that have come out so far have been one unoriginal disappointment after another. None have managed to meet the basic necessities: originality, contemporary thought and basic levels of quality. Take “In the Heights” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” for example. Both were critically acclaimed, blockbuster musicals in their stage incarnations. Both won Best Musical at the Tony Awards, both had instantly iconic musical numbers and, despite expectations, both failed the transition from the specific audiences of the theatre to the mass market of film.
Tickets to Broadway musicals are very expensive and are thus marketed to audiences who are stereotyped to have disposable income (upper and middle-class white people). Movies, on the other hand, especially expensive ones like musicals, are marketed to everybody, so the monetary barrier to entry for an audience member is much lower.
That is why when the “In the Heights” film debuted, the response from the audience was not the excitement that its Broadway run had received and the studio expected; the response was instead bewilderment and anger. While Broadway audiences might not notice, film audiences certainly noticed that there were virtually no Afro-Latine cast members, despite the film selling itself as a representation of the population of Washington Heights and a celebration of diversity. Even though there were some positive reviews, the narrative around the film turned negative, and it made almost no money.
Similarly, Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen” relied on the audience avoiding the impulse to think too hard about all of its unsavory plot points. It concerns a high school-aged boy, Evan Hansen, with intense anxiety and depression, who, after people wrongly assumed he was friends with a boy who committed suicide, just goes with the lie. Evan then uses this situation to seduce the boy’s sister and goes viral with a speech given at the boy’s funeral. To mitigate how unethical the plot reads, the stage musical depended upon the audience having an emotional response to Ben Platt, who played Evan, giving the performance of a lifetime, spitting, sobbing and screaming right in front of you. It worked. The screen version, meanwhile, relies on a Ben Platt that is four years older, in a bad wig, and unable to replicate the thrill of the stage version, onscreen. The film has been ravaged from the moment its trailer dropped to its opening on the big screen by critics and audiences alike.
Meanwhile, the non-stage adaptations have not done any better. They may not be adaptations, but that does not mean they are original. Camila Cabello’s “Cinderella” is a tired story, done and redone, that uses modern pop songs repurposed into a thinly written “girlboss” narrative to tell its rote story. It was torn apart, not just by traditional critics but also on multiple social media platforms, especially TikTok.
“Diana: The Musical” is one of three separate Diana-related performances to be released in about a year’s time (the other’s being Emma Corrin’s performance on “The Crown” season 3 and Kristen Stewart’s upcoming film “Spencer”). Despite growing public interest in the figure it examines, “Diana: The Musical” simply doesn’t work. It is a terribly written “Evita” redux and has become, depending on who you ask, either the best hate-watch of the year or too bad to even hate-watch.
As the last two movie musicals are set to debut in the coming month, the question remains: what do audiences want from their musicals? Perhaps it might be worthwhile to turn to the most successful movie musicals that came out since the collapse of the last movie musical age: “Chicago,” “Moulin Rouge!,” “Cabaret” etc. What do these movies have in common? Something that none that has come out this year has managed — original, high-quality filmmaking.
If studios are committed to making the movie musical come back, they should stop focusing on trying to directly replicate Broadway success or create something audiences have already seen. “Cabaret” and “Chicago” may have been on Broadway, but their film adaptations wildly changed their content to make them applicable to film audiences. “Moulin Rouge!” used familiar songs, but the filmmaking felt totally original. The more studios try to replicate what was already successful, the more their movies will continue to fail. The movie musical may be “back,” but we need the quality to come with it.