Movie musicals are in the midst of a resurgence. There were nine film adaptations of musicals released in 2021. Adaptations like In the Heights and West Side Story were delayed from their planned 2020 releases because of the pandemic. While some movie musicals are originals created for film, the majority are pulled from the stage.
Adapting a stage musical into a movie comes with its challenges. The suspension of disbelief is much higher for theater than it is for movies, and this includes transitioning from plain speech to song. Some people deride musicals because, according to them, it does not make sense that people will just break into song with no apparent rhyme or reason. However the location of the musical numbers in a show is not random. A common theatrical principle is the idea that the songs begin at points of heightened emotion. They occur at points where plain speech is no longer enough for a character to express what they are feeling. Additionally, more fantastical numbers can be harder to represent in live-action movies, which are much more grounded in tangible reality. This article will take a look at the different ways that some of the movie musicals of 2021 approached the challenge of adapting musicals meant for the stage into film.
West Side Story (2021)
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021) is the second film adaptation of the musical conceived by Jerome Robbins. Spielberg’s version of New York is heavily stylized, and the songs fit right in, aided by the constant musicality of the film that extends beyond the songs themselves. The movie establishes the rules of its world from the beginning with the overture and dance prologue, which chronicles the clash between the rivaling Jets and Sharks. The world of West Side Story established in this prologue is not meant to be perfectly realistic, with its color-coded gangs, finger snapping, and ballet leaps, so characters declaring love through song is not a stretch. Unlike some of the other musicals featured in this article, the characters are never transported to a fantastical “song-world” when they start singing. Instead, the songs are a natural extension of the world’s rules, taking place as part of the movie’s world.
Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021)
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) is adapted from Johnathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical about his struggles as an artist. The current conception of the musical is based on Larson’s one-man rock monologue of the same name. Miranda pays homage to this throughout the film. The story scenes and numbers of the movie are frequently intercut with clips of Andrew Garfield, as Larson, performing Tick, Tick… Boom! as a concert. They shot these scenes at the New York Theatre Workshop, where Larson actually performed the material. These concert scenes act as a framing device for much of the movie. Other numbers, such as the Broadway legend-packed “Sunday,” take place in the fantastical song-world of Larson’s churning mind. Both of these separations between the real-world story and the songs are very clear, and both cleverly and neatly connect form to content.
Kay Cannon’s 2021 take on the classic fairy tale had a mixed response from critics and audiences. The movie uses existing songs in lieu of original musical numbers, with the exception of an original “I want” song for Cinderella, written by Camila Cabello, who stars as Cinderella. Despite many of the movie’s flaws ranging from heavy handed writing and messaging, strange choreography, and all-over-the-place costuming, the musical numbers are not among those flaws. Even when the song choices themselves are odd, the song placements make sense. Cinderella sings about her desire for freedom and independence, the Prince yearns through song for a marriage of love, not politics, and once they have properly met the couple sing about their newfound love together. In a film that faced a lot of criticism, the musical numbers are well done, setting key moments and high emotions to music.
In The Heights (2021)
In the first minutes of the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical, director Jon M. Chu deftly establishes the musicality of In The Heights’ New York. Near the beginning of the film, Usnavi, the main character, fondly says that the streets of Washington Heights “were made of music” and this could not be more true in this film. A hose sprays in time with the iconic claves beat that opens the musical, and a manhole cover spins like a record on a DJ’s turntable, immediately setting the tone for the next two hours. Every musical number takes the everyday world and heightens it to something more fantastical and less grounded in reality, whether it be busts in a hair salon bopping along to the music, a dance on the wall of an apartment building, or perfect synchronized choreography in a swimming pool. Chu uses details like these in conjunction with Miranda’s colorful soundtrack to build his world “made of music,” where it makes perfect sense for everyday people to break into song and dance.
Dear Evan Hansen (2021)
When they first announced the plans to adapt Dear Evan Hansen into a movie, people were skeptical. Fans questioned whether the filmmakers would be able to properly adapt a show whose moments are not as grounded in physical reality. The stage show utilizes the scenic ambiguity that comes with a simpler set. The Internet, depicted in David Korins’ set design as panels and screens that move around the stage, has been called “the ninth character” of the musical. Many of the songs take place in a song-world separate from the spoken scenes, and other musical adaptations like Tick Tick… Boom! have found ways to do that on film. This type of stylization is not present in this movie. The film attempts a more realistic approach, leaving the songs feeling sudden and out of place. Even in other movie musicals with no distinct song-world, the songs still feel and look different than the spoken dialogue thanks to lighting and stylization. In the film, the songs come with little transition, often leaving the viewer confused. This film, despite being helmed in part by the original creative team, had noticeable difficulty in adapting the source material, ultimately living up to the concerns of fans.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (2021)
The film adaptation of the West End hit musical starts with these words: “This story really happened. Then we added the [sic] singing and dancing.” This lets viewers know what kind of movie they are about to watch: one that is a little serious and a little sassy, and, more importantly, a musical. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie takes full advantage of being a movie with visually striking, music video-esque numbers that frequently push far beyond what’s possible on stage. In the stage production, the first number, in which Jamie fantasizes about how he is going to be a star, is done entirely in the classroom. In the film, the number goes first from the regular classroom, to the same classroom now adorned with glowing desks and dancing students, to finally a full blown catwalk and new glam look for Jamie. This movie makes the most of its new medium through visually creative musical numbers.
2021 was a big year for Broadway on the silver screen, and there are more movies on their way. The long-awaited Wicked movie (helmed by In The Heights’ Jon M. Chu) has finally announced casting for its leading ladies, as has the adaptation of The Color Purple. Theatre has once again become more mainstream in the last decade, thanks to massive hits like Hamilton (and the 2020 streaming release of the filmed version), and with even more upcoming high-profile film adaptations, theatre enthusiasts can hope that the genre continues to make a resurgence.
Edited by Anna Hilbun