I love musicals! There, I said it! Well, wrote it. OK, if you knew me, this is hardly a shocking revelation. Perhaps more controversial (at least amongst theatre purists) is my love for movie musicals. I enjoy them. I’m glad they exist. They are important. And fortunately it seems like I’ll have plenty to choose from in the next few years.
Every so often, I scour the internet looking for news, posts, and threads about upcoming Tinseltown adaptations of stage shows, whether confirmed, in production or just rumored. From what I’ve discovered there’s a healthy list of options coming soon to a movie theatre near you.
Some I’m quite excited for, like The Drowsy Chaperone (starring Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman) and In The Heights (penned by Hamilton’s Lin Manuel Miranda). Some I’m wary of, like rumored film versions of Cats, Miss Saigon, and Wicked. I just feel they work better as live performances. And there are those that I’ll believe when I see. Like the supposed Spielberg directed remake of West Side Story (why?) and the long delayed Streisand remake of Gypsy (why not?).
All are fine. All are welcome. I just wish all weren’t so safe.
It appears Hollywood is willing to dive back into the movie musical waters as long as it’s shallow. In recent years, the few productions we’ve seen range from flashy, star-heavy ensembles (Les Misérables, Into The Woods), jukebox sing-alongs (Rock of Ages, Jersey Boys) and old reliable animated features (Frozen, and all the ones that weren’t Frozen). For the record, the Pitch Perfect and Chipmunk franchises are NOT musicals. But I digress.
There seems to be a deliberate avoidance of risk. Remakes are often hyped as re-introducing classic works to a new generation. But they just end up feeling lazy. An excuse for Hollywood heavyweights to play dress-up like the unnecessary recent revamps of Annie, Sparkle, and Fame. Oh you didn’t catch those? You weren’t alone.
Soon, at the upcoming Venice Film Festival, we are to expect an original musical for once. Titled La La Land, it will star Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (and you can watch the trailer here). According to the press release it’s a story of a jazz pianist who falls for an aspiring actress and will “attempt to recapture the magic of movie musicals.”
So I must now pose a question to the powers that be…is that all you got? Is that all we get? Where are the non-traditional plotlines? Taboo subjects? Where are the subcultures, challenging and complicating the status quo? That magic you seek can still be recaptured off the beaten yellow brick road.
Remember Tracy Turnblad bringing racial harmony by shaking her hips? Or Brad and Janet, stranded in the rain, making their way to a strange distant castle? Or Seymour Krelborn, bleeding his fingers to feed a ravenous potted plant? All singing. All dancing. All amazing.
It’s worth noting that these three beloved musicals, anomalies of their time, are now considered tame and standard. Hairspray was made into a family friendly stage show, which in turn was adapted for the screen in 2007. Along with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it will be broadcast in a live performance on TV later this year. As for Little Shop of Horrors, rumors of a film remake starring Joseph Gordon Levitt as Seymour have buzzed around for years. That is, when he isn’t attached to a planned reboot of Guys and Dolls with Channing Tatum.
Perhaps to move forward, we must first look back. History time!
During the golden age of Hollywood musicals, studios pumped out family-friendly fare with a dizzying degree of consistency. Between 1929 and 1969 nearly 1400 musicals were produced for the screen. They averaged approximately 30 per year following the smash success of The Wizard of Oz and eventually whittled down to over a dozen a year in the time of Funny Girl.
Whether original or based on a stage show, the bulk of these movies were squeaky clean, had hummable hit songs, and featured relatively wholesome stars like Gene Kelly, Doris Day, and Julie Andrews. If your parents and grandparents have a favorite musical, it’s most likely from these four decades.
During the 1970s, there was a shift. The tide turned away from the classic song and dance formula to the more subversive. Cabaret portrayed sexual freedom under Nazi rule. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory seemingly killed off children amidst psychedelic elements (that boat ride!). Hair, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar all brought anti-war and religious countercultures to the forefront. This was nothing new for Broadway, but on the silver screen it was a revolution.
Some movies were successes, others bombed. But the creative machine kept on turning well into the next decade. Studios big and small took more chances on odd rock operas like Tommy, 200 Motels, and Phantom of the Paradise. Fever dream fantasies like Xanadu, Lisztomania, and Shock Treatment. Even work aimed at the younger market got more surreal, like Bugsy Malone and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Revered now, at their time they were a far cry from Julie Andrews dressed as a nun, spinning around the hills.
A few others made their mark during the 80s—the Cult Golden Age, if you will. While by no means a complete list they include The Apple (1980), Forbidden Zone (1980), Starstruck (1982), Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984), and Meet The Feebles (1989) directed by Peter Jackson and featuring puppets singing about STDs. Fun!
Then as quickly as it progressed, it regressed. You can blame Disney, as many do for one thing or another. Their animation “Renaissance” period set off another round of wholesome movie musicals helmed by the behemoth that was The Little Mermaid in 1989. Ironically, the music was co-written by the late Howard Ashman, who gave us Little Shop of Horrors not much earlier in the same decade.
Throughout the 1990s movie musicals were made primarily for children by the House of Mouse as well as Jim Henson and Don Bluth studios. A handful of adult-focused underground features tried to creep through, like Cannibal! The Musical and Cry-Baby, but for the most part it was a drought. There were barely ten musicals filmed per year.
The early 2000s brought back some offbeat treasures for a time: Dancer in the Dark, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical, and The Saddest Music in the World, to name a few. But by and large the spell was broken.
As time progresses we get less and less transgressive variety from musicals like Repo: The Genetic Opera and more and more overcrowded star vehicles that vie for as many Oscars as they can. Just like they did in the mid-20th century.
Why? Are audiences deemed too sensitive for anything new or shocking? Studios can’t really think that dusting off old chestnuts is the only option. There are some fine non-musical films produced every year beyond superhero sequels and bawdy comedies. Treat movie musicals like that, with more variety. Take a chance on the smaller, lesser-known productions or even an original score alongside the big names. Plus, we have learned many times that Broadway hits do not always translate to box office gold. (This is where I cough sarcastically and list them all but honestly I’ll be hacking up my lungs for hours. )
True, many of these flicks were flops. Actually, most of them. They had to wait for years to find their audience, before earning the status as “cult.” It’s a badge of honor. But with nerd culture being as mainstream as it is these days, new movie musicals don’t need all that time to pass. It won’t be long before people cosplay the characters, go to midnight screenings, and know every line and lyric by heart. If box office and TV ratings are anything to go by, there’s already an audience for these musical films alongside the zombies, dragons, aliens, and light bondage Hollywood has no problem churning out. You could make your money back in merchandise.
As I mentioned, movie musicals are important. Speaking as an immigrant, there are millions of people all over the world who love western theatre but will never get the chance to visit New York or London to see a live production. Even those who do make a trip or maybe live in a town/country hosting a touring company have to face crowds, high demand, and ever skyrocketing ticket prices.
But going to a movie theatre, buying a DVD (people still do that right?) or downloading/streaming any one of these pieces of art is a little luxury available to the majority of the population. Fortunately filmed productions of live performances are getting more frequent but there is still a gargantuan pile of musicals that only exist in memories, scratchy original soundtracks and grainy clips online of Tony Awards past.
That’s not to say the theatre industry is the hotbed of creativity it once was. For every Hamilton, Fun Home, and Book Of Mormon (all shows guaranteed a film transfer) are dozens of productions that are either revivals themselves, high-priced karaoke, or (in an odd twist) based on movies. But just around the corner are still weird, wacky, wonderful shows that push the limits of art and taste. Those in the know love them for it, as we did their predecessors decades ago.
You guys in actual La La Land need some inspiration? Here’s a short list of weird theatre musicals to help you get started:
Bat Boy: The Musical
Longtime favorite of that weird kid you took stagecraft with in high school, this wacky wonder has all the makings of an instant cult classic. With parallels to today’s issues of bigotry and hate crimes, this half boy-half bat will half steal your heart. There, I wrote your tag line.
You know the story. The original movie itself suffered through a subpar remake and has been referenced countless times. But with a winning soundtrack and built-in fan base, this long time campy classic is ripe for a screen debut. The same can be said for Silence! The Musical, a parody of Silence Of The Lambs. Family fun indeed. Plus, they share a distinct heritage with the aforementioned Mean Green Mother from Outer Space as being Off Broadway shows based on a non-musical movie.
A small hamlet where you have to pay to take a piss. Enough said. During a highly charged election year it’s the perfect satire on the power struggle between the haves and have-nots. One of the higher profile shows of the early 2000s, it was nominated for a Tony for Best Musical of the Year and won for Best Book, Original Score and Director. How is this not a movie yet?
Recently revived on Broadway, this sweet strange musical is a love story at heart. Focusing on conjoined twins and other “freaks” in a carnival attraction, this show has beautiful songs, heartbreaking moments and powerful messages about pride, sisterhood, and following one’s dreams. I can smell the Oscar. Or at the very least a Razzie. Also, just get Sarah Paulson to play the twins, she’s done it before.
Now here’s a few upcoming movie musicals that give me hope…
London Road (Sept 2016)
A murder mystery in a small English town rattles the neighborhood community—who incidentally serve as the chorus, singing the transcripts recorded in interviews verbatim. Critically lauded and criminally under-marketed. All the makings of a cult hit.
Hello Again (In Production)
Based on the 1993 Off-Broadway production and littered with theatre’s finest (Audra McDonald, Martha Plimpton, Cheyenne Jackson) the film, as described by the producers, “Follows ten lost souls who skip across ten periods in New York City history, slipping in and out of one another’s arms and beds in a daisy-chained exploration of lust’s bittersweet embrace of love.” Sounds delightfully bonkers! I’m sold.
Pippin (Release date TBD)
Hear me out. The show is no discovery for a theatre buff but its subversive plotline, offbeat song-list and throwback to the days of cool/creepy Fosse choreography will be a welcome change. Reportedly backed by the Weinstein Company, I just hope it doesn’t fall into the hands of Rob Marshall or Baz Luhrmann and turn into a star-fucker seizure-inducing debacle. Or do I?
The Last Five Years (2015)
I love this show. It…wait…I’m too late? It happened already? How did it do? Oh God…I’m so sorry! Well, I guess I’ll see you at the anniversary midnight screening in about 15 years. I’ll be the weirdo in the front quoting every line. I promise to save you a seat.
Reneysh Vittal is a writer, editor and cultural critic. His work has appeared on Narratively, The Rumpus and The Good Men Project. Read more work at www.RVittal.com and follow him on Twitter @ReneyshV