Thoughts On: Movie Musicals

A few weeks ago, it was reported that Wicked was officially coming to theaters in 2019, with Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) set to direct. For many fans of the show, this was exciting news, with the movie having been teased for years. The musical movie itself appears to be having a bit of a renaissance, with Into the Woods and Annie being recent examples and about a dozen more in the pipeline, including adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, Miss Saigon, In the Heights, and West Side Story (directed by Steven Spielberg with a new screenplay by Tony Kushner). All these new movies may be great news for the vitality of musical theatre, but I remain unconvinced that modern movie musicals ever actually work artistically.

Just about everybody, including myself, loves the classic movie musicals like Singin’ in the Rain or Meet Me in St. Louis. They are wonderful works of art, with great songs, fantastic dancing, and an inescapable sense of glitz and glamor. But they also notably contain a heavy layer of artificiality. One could argue that it is just the nature of having characters break out in song and dance seemingly at random, but perhaps more accurately, it is the way that they were made so that when the characters broke out in song, it didn’t feel so jarring to the audience. If you look at the way that old movie musicals like Kiss Me, Kate or Guys and Dolls were made, you can clearly see that the way that they are framed and executed is designed to look like they are actually standing onstage. They were filmed on sound stages, but so were every other movie of the era. What sets these movies apart is in that in every scene there is clearly an upstage and a downstage. Characters are placed in such a way that they are facing an unseen “audience”, and deliver their lines thusly. It allows for dance numbers to have a direction to face, but it also gave the audience the sensation that they were watching an extremely elaborate live production. The artificiality was palpable, and it made is so that when characters suddenly had tap shoes on, nobody laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation.

But movies are not made on sound stages anymore, and a noticeable artificiality is the death knell of any mainstream movie. Naturalism is the name of the game, and modern movie musicals have suffered for it. When you watch a newer movie musical like Les Misérables or Rent, it is difficult to get a certain nagging sensation out of your brain, regardless of how good (or bad) the movie is. The problem is that when the characters in these movies stop singing, they go right back to acting like they are in a typical naturalistic drama. It’s a problem that plagues every new movie musical, and doesn’t have an easy answer. Movies like Chicago set its production numbers in a dreamlike burlesque to comment on the action, while movies like The Muppets uses the general ridiculousness of the form in the modern day as its own form of comedy. But the serious musical movie really only has one way to go, which is in animation. When characters are animated, the general rules of reality are easily broken, and thus musical numbers feel like a logical extension of them.

Upcoming musicals like Matilda and certainly Wicked would greatly benefit from the animated medium, and the sooner that producers realize that movie musicals aren’t really an option anymore, the sooner we all can start enjoying new great animated films, while remembering the golden era of the form with great fondness.

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