There was a time in Hollywood when musicals were the top box-office earners. They were the award winners, being lauded by audiences and critics alike. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the top toe-tapping stars of their day, giving box-office smashes such as Top Hat and Swing Time. Then along came the likes of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in their collaborations, a little guy by the name of Frank Sinatra came on the scene and helped make Gene Kelly a star. Before Hollywood knew it, musicals were winning Best Picture. Films like An American in Paris and Gigi (which are both now hated winners) took home the big prize and in the mid-60s, we even had back to back musical best picture winners with My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, not to mention a few years earlier West Side Story took home the glory. And we can’t forget Oliver winning just some years later.
Then along came the modern-era of filmmaking, focused on more realistic direction and acting and the theatrical musical was no longer in. Instead, grittier, darker musicals such as Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret were the (rare) musicals of the time to gain awards traction and audience interest. Musicals wouldn’t become big again until the 80s, when the Disney Renaissance brought in the animated musical, with hits like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. These films would eventually make their way to Broadway. As a matter of fact, the live-action musical wouldn’t make its comeback until the early 2000s when Moulin Rouge and Chicago gained Best Picture nominations, with the latter winning. Then suddenly the 2000s began a resurgence in musical films. This time, mixing the gritty style of the 70s with the fun, theatrical style of Classic Hollywood, like in Dreamgirls or even Hairspray.
The turn of the century brought in a new age of cinema, I believe, an age that doesn’t necessarily have a preference, since fantasy films and realistic films both became audience and critic pleasers. See, in the 70s, suspending disbelief for something in your face and theatrical wasn’t in. Gritty, “honest” styles of filmmaking were preferred even in sci-fi films and horror films (a la The Exorcist and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). But, the advent of more advanced special effects and the resurgence in animated films, brought back a simple, childlike yearning of movie audiences. So the musical was back in business. Mind you, they are still directed with a sense of realism and awards caliber acting, but audiences are again willing to sit through singing and dancing.
Now they aren’t coming out as often as they once did in the classic Hollywood days, but films such as Les Miserables and Into the Woods made money and were favored by critics. But, in this decade, we’ve yet to have the dance musical. We’ve had more dramatic musicals without any classic flair of innocence and good fun. Of the upcoming musicals being rumored about being created, not many of them are dance musicals, nor are they well known within the film industry. Now, my worry is that this generation of filmgoers, which is rooted in the comic book film, the dark drama and the dry comedy, won’t see musicals. This is unfortunate because musicals are a very legitimate genre that mixes the aural beauty of music with the visuals of film. Looking at Into the Woods which made money because it is a Disney film and it has princesses and fairy tales attached. Les Miserables made money because it’s been etched in American culture since the 80s. But will In the Heights make money? Or Jekyll and Hyde? Or even Gypsy? Musical theater nerds like me will flock to the theaters to see these stage musicals on the big screen in cinematic form, because we know them. But the theatrical world isn’t the money making world, unfortunately and theater isn’t very accessible to the mainstream, unless it’s something like The Phantom of the Opera or a Disney adaptation.
To conclude, I’m expressing my worry that the cinematic musical will once again be forgotten within a generation. Despite the fact a show such as Hamilton is crossing the barrier between theater and the mainstream world, there is still, it seems, a vendetta against movie musicals – particularly ones with dance and family friendly fun. It’s just a shame, I think, that musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town wouldn’t make a buck today.