The film musical has been out of fashion for 20 years. Christopher Tookey explains why it is now suddenly backby Christopher Tookey / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Beverly Hills are alive with the sound of music. The film musical is back. Until recently, it was box office poison. Some of the biggest Broadway hits, such as A Chorus Line, performed horribly at the cinema; and any list of the worst movies of the last two decades would have to include such all-singing, all-dancing turkeys as Staying Alive (“It’s staying awake that’s the problem,” said a critic) and Can’t Stop The Music, of which a reviewer simply wrote “Why not?”
Times change, however, and the latest productions by Woody Allen (Everyone Says I Love You), Martin Scorsese (Grace of My Heart) and Alan Parker (Evita) are all musicals, as are new works by three Hollywood filmmakers not previously associated with musicals, Tom Hanks (That Thing You Do!), Paul Verhoeven (Showgirls) and Penny Marshall (The Preacher’s Wife).
Elsewhere in Hollywood, the Disney cash machine rolls on, with the Muppet movies continuing to turn a healthy profit, Toy Story discovering an undreamed of audience for songs by Randy Newman, and a run of cartoons-including Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast-widely credited as among the best musicals of all time.
The effects of the resurgence can be seen in unlikely places. Song and dance are used increasingly to add glamour to gnomic art-house movies (Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad), and create a climax for non-musical films which run out of steam, such as Michael and The First Wives’ Club.
The revival will confuse those who argue that musicals do best in depressions. This orthodoxy dates from the 1930s, which coincided with the rise of Busby Berkeley, Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire; but it ignores the fact that musicals were equally popular in the 1920s, when the screen (being silent) was ill equipped to deal with them.
Besides, the heyday of the film musical was surely the 1950s and early 1960s, which produced the Rogers and Hammerstein successes, and MGM master…