The musical movie is an immensely versatile genre. Over the decades, it has branched out into countless directions, evolved, expanded, shrunk and, through it all, consistently captured something vital about the American spirit. Before action-packed epics or science fiction thrillers that commanded million-dollar budgets and deceived the eye with exhilarating special effects, there was the musical extravaganza. It was complete with drama, song, and dance, and packed cinema houses and thrilled audiences of all ages. As early as the 1920s and ‘30s, Americans weary of economic depression, political crisis, and increasing global tensions hankered for 90 minutes of frothy, lighthearted entertainment. They wanted stories where the hero always got the girl, the girl always warbled a clarion soprano, and upbeat, lively dance numbers softened whatever complications would arise along the way. If they were anything, these early movie musicals were first-rate diversions and distractions. The tap numbers that beat a joyous tattoo in 42nd Street, the sweeping schmaltzy orchestrations of Kismet, and the technicolor costumes and scenery in The Wizard of Oz all functioned equally to transport the viewer, however briefly or imperfectly, away from their daily cares and into a land of Pure Imagination.
When the youthful genre matured into its popularly accepted Golden Age, audiences were already fully aware of the tropes and techniques they liked and meant to go on consuming, so long as Hollywood remained amenable of course. The grandest musicals of the ‘50s and ‘60s, with their lush scores, pulchritudinous leads, and rousing dance breaks tended to follow a distinct formula. Shows such as Oklahoma!, The King and I, My Fair Lady, and Oliver differ almost exclusively in their choice of setting; structurally and musically, however, they hit many of the same notes. A recognizable vestige of vaudeville underpins each and every one, paving the way for sprightly athletic feats (“Everything’s Up to Date In Kansas City!”), comic B-plots and, more often than not, endearing children caroling to high heaven (“Food, Glorious Food!”) The key ingredient in these midcentury movies is undoubtedly its raw simplicity, which appeals to pathos and permits the viewer to envision themselves inside the action, singing, loving and carrying on with the rest of the charming cast. This rich tradition of humble and earnest artistry has demonstrated great endurance, even as new guiding principles for the genre have emerged in recent years.
Generally speaking, the movie musical of 2023 is different from earlier renditions. For one thing, it has become significantly more extensive and far-reaching. There are currently at least three sub-genres vying neck and neck for commercial supremacy. We have films that are built with original material (consider the smash-hit La La Land), movies adapted from pre-existing, award-winning stage productions (Dear Evan Hansen), and, in a class decidedly of its own, films that capture current or imminently closing Broadway and West End performances (Hamilton as streamed on Disney+). It may also be possible to identify live, made-for-television productions such as NBC’s Sound of Music and Hairspray as another brand of musical film. These productions blur the lines between real-time spectacular and carefully crafted cinematography. The ever-growing interest in Hollywood-helmed musicals can only intrigue and delight theater lovers eager for new content, though simultaneously, it points to an evolving and stylistically morphing conception of modern theater.
Of course, it is no secret that the American musical, now more than ever, doubles as a prime capitalist concern. Producers and investors are fairly obliged to shell out millions of dollars to see their pet productions illuminated in the famous neon lights. But somehow, in the close, crowded confines of a historic New York theater, it is possible to dismiss those massive production costs and manic demands for profit. Packed cheek by jowl among hundreds of flushed audience members face to face with actors who have dedicated their lives to performing on this very stage, we can at least temporarily inhabit an honest and earnest sphere where a tenor ranks higher than a tenner. Musical movies, whether viewed in impersonal, drafty cinema houses or in the comfort of one’s own living room, do not possess the same power of happy defamiliarization. We cannot, to the same degree, cease to think of massive salaries and soaring box office highs when a static screen separates us from pure actorly hearts and souls.
Indeed, this points to a larger problem: a paradox that exists at the crux of filmed theater. If a play or musical derives its unique essence from the incidental bond that grows between actors and audience, how can a filmed production, which is smoothed and refined behind closed doors, hope to invoke the same degrees of passion? Does theater forfeit its integrity when translated into a wildly different medium? These questions are complicated and uncomfortable, and they may seem trivial. After all, it is undeniable that the 21st-century musical film boasts virtues and advantages all its own. Each new addition to the genre pushes boundaries and demonstrates technical innovation.
Epics like Les Miserables (2012) and Into the Woods (2014) show us how complex, polyphonic narratives can benefit from added space, broader sets, bigger casts, and sweeping panoramic views. In the Heights (2021) developed considerably during its transition from stage to screen, as creators added new plotlines, enriched existing character backstories, and situated the show’s action within a fresh and compelling frame narrative. Mamma Mia (2008) brought the jukebox musical, an increasingly controversial form, into popular usage. Largely due to the songwriting duo Pasek and Paul (of Dear Evan Hansen fame), The Greatest Showman (2017) dispelled doubts that vibrant original theater can in fact be produced for cinematic release. Meanwhile, the 2021 remake of West Side Story gave us the proof in spades that the Golden Age musical is unique and conducive to renovation.
Of course, this very brief list only hits the high points, as it were, taking special care to avoid some less fortunate duds of recent years. Not every show can triumph, even when dressed to the nines and given the complete Hollywood makeover. But it is important to consider whether the most successful movie musicals succeed on their own terms, or according to classic theatrical arbiters. In other words, is a critically acclaimed work like the 2021 West Side Story a good movie or a good musical? To which artistic medium does it fully belong?
It could be argued that the defining conditions of theatrical performance are not replicated in pre-packaged, edited, and artificially amended productions. On the most fundamental level, theater, including musical theater, exists in the irreplicable present. It occupies specific temporal and spatial coordinates. No matter how many times actors rehearse in private, their brand of art cannot by definition vivify until the curtain rises before a kinetic audience. Theater, like opera and ballet, spontaneously arises within the intellectual and emotional space shared by the audience members. When we enter a theater, we agree, either consciously or unconsciously, to participate in the collective enactment of a story buoyed up by song and perhaps by dance. Naturally, we do not participate with our physical bodies, but with our minds and souls by reciprocating attention and passion to the actors who give onstage cues. No matter how grand or rarefied it may be, a musical movie simply cannot evoke the same level of participation; it is too much of an individualized genre. Perhaps it would be more accurate to categorize these often rich and consummate artistic products as heartfelt tributes to the theatrical form– a way to celebrate and disseminate theater without actually experiencing it firsthand. We must only make sure that the replica does not eventually end up replacing the original.
Edited by Natia Kirvalidze