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Musical Revival Needs More Than Just... Revival

The old song and dance could use a new tune.

by Mark D. Johnson
April 4, 2003

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Musical Revival Needs More Than Just... Revival_Mark D. Johnson-The old song and dance could use a new tune. [Author's Note: This week, I have strayed from the small screen to write about the big screen. "Program Notes" will return to television topics next week.]
"I'll tell you the first thing I'm going to do, and that is to begin work on a new musical. Right away. First thing tomorrow." – Miramax producer Harvey Weinstein, quoted in The New York Times after Chicago took home the Best Picture Oscar®.
After all these years of neglect, the movie musical is purportedly making a comeback. At least, that’s the buzz in Hollywood based on a pair of recent hits: Chicago, the 2002 Best Picture winner, and Moulin Rouge, nominated for the 2001 Award for Best Picture. The last musical to win that category was 1968’s Oliver!. There have been occasional attempts to resuscitate the genre over the years, and Disney has kept the faith through a string of animated features (which don’t really count as musicals), but not until Chicago’s success did Tinsel Town start thinking “it’s back.” Unknown, however, is whether audiences really want more musicals, and if they do, what kind do they want?

As much as I would like the musical to come back strong, it is premature to say that the musical has returned because Chicago and Moulin Rouge are atypical examples of the genre. The highly entertaining Chicago is, of course, a traditional musical, based on the 1975 Broadway version, but the film owes much more to the stage than its origin. The story revolves around showbiz and stage performance, which provides natural segues from drama to music, and from reality to fantasy. The flow from dialogue to song is seamless under Rob Marshall's clever direction, and the cynical themes fall in line with today’s cultural attitudes. It remains to be seen whether today's audiences will accept the innate corniness of characters bursting into song in a non-theatrical setting, where musicals flourished in days of yore, like on New York’s West Side, the hills of Austria, and the Russian farmland.

Director Baz Luhrman's extremely imaginative Moulin Rouge is a sophisticated musical that should, in some ways, be considered the foundation of the genre's future. There are some stage scenes here as well, but this is clearly not a redundant adaptation of a Broadway production. This is a musical exclusive to film. Unfortunately, all of the songs were pre-existing pop songs not original to the film, which may have been part of its appeal. Fresh story, familiar songs, a popular actress in the leading role... in that sense, Rouge’s success is not that surprising. Then again, by my unofficial reckoning, for every person who absolutely loved it, there were two who absolutely hated it.

The one idea no one seems willing to try is a film musical with original songs and an original story with no ties to Broadway. The main problem here is that musical composers are a rare breed these days. The most recent stage musical composer of note was the formerly prolific Andrew Lloyd Webber, who hasn't had a hit in years, and no one has taken up the slack. Instead, Broadway producers now rely on revivals like Oklahoma and Cabaret since mega-musicals like Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, and Webber's shows have seemingly become a thing of the past. A handful of modest off-Broadway efforts lack the mass adult appeal that attracted audiences during the musical's heyday. The theatre could also find inspiration from Luhrmann, who recently directed his vision of Puccini’s La Boheme on Broadway to rave reviews.

Also in question is the depth of talent in Hollywood’s singing and dancing department. There will be heavy demand in Hollywood for vocal and dance coaches in the months ahead. Actors already in the known small pool of talented singers and dancers may avoid musical work for fear of typecasting, while talented unknowns may suddenly find themselves in the limelight. That's not necessarily bad, but it could present a problem for studio marketing departments.

If Hollywood simply remakes old musicals or adapts Broadway shows, the trend will be short-lived. The film musical must evolve for long-term survival. Unfortunately, upcoming projects lean heavily on prior success stories. Chicago producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who also recently produced a remake of The Music Man for television, will soon be producing a remake of Guys and Dolls and turn the 1984 movie Footloose into a full-fledged big screen musical. They were also behind a 1999 television remake of Annie. Director Joel Schumacher will soon bring Webber’s Phantom of the Opera to the big screen after more than a decade of delay. Also being considered is a movie version of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical Sweeney Todd.

Rather than giving the movie musical art form a promising future, studios are seeking no more than to temporarily provide echoes of a glorious past. Perhaps as audiences become reacquainted with old-school musicals they will learn once again how to suspend their disbelief. Until that day, we can scarcely believe the new musical revival is more than a mere fad. Enjoy it again for the first time.

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