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 masterpieces such as Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon. Some of the biggest hits of the 1960s boom were musicals-My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, West Side Story and The Sound of Music. So why did the musical go out of fashion? One factor was inflation. The cost of musicals spiralled during the 1970s so that studios could no longer cope with the inevitable flops which come between successes. A string of commercial catastrophes-including such interesting films as Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York and Herbert Ross’s Pennies From Heaven-made every studio well aware of the risks. Despite such hit musicals of the 1970s as Grease and Saturday Night Fever, movies and pop music drifted further and further apart, especially towards the end of the decade, when pop splintered into heavy metal, punk, soul and funk, with little regard to older, mainstream audiences. The rising intellectual pretensions of the Broadway musical also played a negative role. Broadway’s most talented composer-lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, became increasingly cerebral, plainly aiming his shows at a sophisticated, adult audience at a time when movie audiences were getting younger and less interested in words. The other giant of musical theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber, was widely seen to write shows which only worked on stage. So why are movie musicals back? They no longer seem quite such a forbidding investment, now that the costs of making other kinds of blockbuster-notably the special effects action spectacular-have risen above the $100m mark. It has become scarcely more expensive to produce a musical on film than it is to produce a show on Broadway. Digital sampling has made it cheap to achieve a full choral and orchestral sound on a film soundtrack-whereas in the theatre, producers are bound by costly restrictive practices. The musical genre never perished during the 1980s; it just went underground in films which were musicals but did not admit to the description, including The Fabulous Baker Boys, This is Spinal Tap, The Commitments and Strictly Ballroom. Song and dance played an integral part in such audience-pleasers as Beaches, The Blues Brothers, Dirty Dancing, Flashdance, Footloose, La Bamba and the Sister Act films. It’s not really so strange that Woody Allen should make a musical, for he has always made music an integral part of his films. Diane Keaton sang in Annie Hall and Radio Days. Gershwin melodies helped make Manhattan. Allen believes the taste for musicals has never gone away, and that people would flock to Singin’ in the Rain if it were new and opened tomorrow-“and the same with My Fair Lady and Gigi.” Genres are as cyclical as fashion is fickle. Musicals were bound to revive eventually because, at their best, they connect with our desire for romance, and with feelings we can express most eloquently through song and dance.