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When did we get so restless, so cynical, so jaded that we no longer enjoy musicals? And I’m not talking about the modern movie musical that either has to have a rock score (Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), use existing pop music (Moulin Rouge!, Mamma Mia, the impending Rock of Ages, starring Tom Fucking Cruise) or make the entire thing a fantasy in the main character’s head (Chicago, Dancer in the Dark). I’m talking about the classics starring Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire; movies where characters broke into song and dance for no reason and no one batted an eye. If the Academy is any arbiter of greatness (which is a dubious statement at best), then the shift must have happened, along with the death of the auteur movement, at the end of the 70s. Before Moulin Rouge‘s nomination in 2001 (and Chicago‘s subsequent win the following year), a musical hadn’t been nominated for Best Picture since All That Jazz in 1979 (or 1991, if you count Beauty and the Beast, which I will address shortly). Before Jazz’s nomination, 23 musicals gained a bid for top honors (winners have been marked with an asterisk):
The Love Parade, 1929
The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931
One Hour with You, 1932
The Gay Divorcee, 1934
Naughty Marietta, 1936
Top Hat, 1936
The Wizard of Oz, 1939
Anchors Aweigh, 1945
*An American in Paris, 1951
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954
The King & I, 1956
*West Side Story, 1961
The Music Man, 1962
*My Fair Lady, 1964
Mary Poppins, 1964
*The Sound of Music, 1965
Doctor Dolittle, 1967
Funny Girl, 1968
Hello, Dolly, 1969
Fiddler on the Roof, 1971
All That Jazz, 1979
[I have purposefully omitted fake musicals such as *The Broadway Melody, 42nd Street, *The Great Ziegfeld, Yankee Doodle Dandy, *Going My Way, and Nashville – just because there is music or musicians (or Bing Crosby singing a ditty) in it doesn’t make it a musical! A musical is where characters sing their feelings and dance as an extension of their emotions, not merely a film that has the protagonists perform a number or boogie to the Bee Gees while rocking chest hair and ridiculously tight pants. This also eliminates eventual Oscar winners *Amadeus (1984) and Ray (2004) from the pantheon of “musicals” as well as the films of Shirley Temple and Abbott and Costello; however, Marx Brothers’ films Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1934) do count as musicals because the songs comment on the action and emotions of its characters and progress the story]
Then of course there are the innumerable crowd pleasers and masterpieces that never got to dance with Oscar:
For Me and My Gal (1942)
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Easter Parade (1948)
Summer Stock (1950)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
The Band Wagon (1954)
White Christmas (1954)
Guys and Dolls (1955)
South Pacific (1958)
Peter Pan (1960)
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Pete’s Dragon (1977)
The Wiz (1978)
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
The Chipmunk Adventure (1987)
Just to name a handful…
[Again, I have omitted one of the greatest “musicals” of all time, A Star is Born, because it is not a musical in the traditional sense, but a showcase for Judy Garland to perform – brilliantly]
If you want to watch some of the best musicals made post All That Jazz, you have to look to Disney. Not only does the incredible output of The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), Hercules (1997), and Mulan (1998) challenge the great and powerful MGM for greatest film musicals of all time – how Louis B. Mayer would have used and abused Ashman and Menken! – but they are contenders for some of the best films ever made, period.
But even Disney has veered from the musical formula when they started hiring Phil Collins and Randy Newman to write (and sing) all of the numbers as voice over commentary instead of direct professions of faith from the characters.
It has been ten years since Chicago won Best Picture and the Academy has yet to honor a musical since, despite incredible films Dreamgirls (2006) and Sweeney Todd (2007) winning nominations and awards in the acting categories. But to be fair, the pickings are slim. Sure, we have had The Producers (2005), Idlewild (2006), Hairspray (2007), Nine (2009), Burlesque (2010) – although that seems to be more in the vein of 42nd Street than the Cabaret it blatantly is ripping off – and the High School Musical saga, but long gone are the days of the Freed Unit. Why? The dismantling of the Studio System?
People claimed that the musical was back when Glee hit the scene, but again, most of their music is pop based, not original, and very rarely stemming from the Broadway stage.
Now we have Smash, which seems to be a true resurrection of interest in the genre because it is at least about the making of a Broadway show instead of about sexy kids who are incredibly talented yet are somehow the outcasts, but how long will it last? Musical variety shows certainly don’t. Remember The Nick and Jessica Variety Hour? Or Rosie Live? Or The Wayne Brady Show? Didn’t think so. Dinah Shore, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, and Sonny Bono must be turning in their graves. Could Carol Burnett or Cher even have a variety show now? Why not? People love musicals. The Phantom of the Opera has been running on Broadway for almost 25 years because people from all over the world still want to see it. Mamma Mia, Chicago, The Lion King, and Wicked still have their doors open. American Idol, America’s Got Talent, The X Factor, and The Voice prove that Americans love singing and dancing so why is it still a risky venture for producers and stars alike? It’s not like we don’t have the talent to make big musicals anymore. Nick Jonas, Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Usher, Justin Bieber, Hugh Jackman, Beyonce, Goldie Hawn, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, and numerous stage stars like Bernadette Peters would not only draw in the audience, but tear down the house. So why aren’t we?
Is it because most of the big (and small) stage musicals have already made it to the screen? Since when has that stopped Hollywood from remaking them? Gypsy is heading back to the cinema, but that’s because Barbra Streisand – one of the last stalwarts from a bygone era – is the producer and star. And Les Miserables is finally happening with of course an A-List cast. But where is Into the Woods? Company? Pippin? Follies? The Apple Tree? The Secret Garden? You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown? The Drowsy Chaperone? Miss Saigon? Avenue Q? To be clear, I am not clamoring for remakes of West Side Story or Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris; please, no – Heavens, no. But why don’t we have the stomach for 15 – hell, even five – minute dance sequences anymore? Has MTV ruined our appreciation of the epic dance? Maybe?
Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video – borrowed heavily from Bob Fosse – was an international sensation and the musical theatre inspired works of Madonna, Janet, and Michael Jackson are still loved and emulated by their disciples, but when was the last time you saw a dance routine in the movies just allowed to unfold in front of the camera without Baz Luhrman epilepsy?
Michel Hazanavicius channeled Astaire and Rogers in the climax of The Artist, but that was an arty-farty foreign film set 85 years in the past; America has clearly lost its spunk.
So how do we get it back? Busby Berkeley is dead. Vincente Minnelli is dead. So are Jerome Robbins, Fosse, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Gershwin. But their work lives on. Have the people in power truly forgotten it or has our culture “evolved” so much that this a futile battle cry? Watch this and tell me it is stale. I dare you.