In musicals, as well as in most other areas, I am a traditionalist, a prescriptivist, and possibly a snob. As such, I have strong opinions about contemporary musicals, as compared to “classic” musicals. I love Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music, and Fiddler on the Roof, and I didn’t totally hate Hello, Dolly! (or South Pacific, or The King and I, or An American in Paris, or…). When I hear about a new musical being made, however, or someone tells me, “Oh, you’ll like it! It’s a musical!”, I am, at best, highly skeptical that it will be worth watching, and, at worst, instantly dismissive of the entire project. This is because a musical is high risk, high reward. When done well, the musical is so much fun you can hardly keep yourself from singing and/or dancing along. When done poorly… well, it can be hard to watch… and I’ve been scarred by some bad musicals.
To me, it sometimes feels as though the heyday of the musical passed us by decades ago, and that the true musical picture style is carried on almost exclusively in Disney cartoons (Frozen! You must see Frozen!). I’m not sure this is true, and, even if it is, I’m not certain that it’s always bad for musicals to move away from the traditional style (as much as I do love that style). There is the fairly recent subgenre of the musical coming out of the Indie scene, wherein artists who are primarily musicians apply their songwriting and narrative talent to film. This stands in contrast to other, more popular contemporary musicals, in which the composers, lyricists, and instrumentalists are, for the most part, separate from the actors. Then there are musicals that subvert the genre while at the same time adhering to it – and these are also worth watching. I suppose, upon reflection, that what occasionally leads me to the rather dramatic conclusion that the classic musical is dead, is the last of the contemporary subgenres: the jukebox musical.
To illustrate to myself and to you that the musical is very, very far from being dead, and that, in fact, it might have more life and variety than ever before, I have selected three of my favorite musical films from the past fifteen years, followed by my two least favorites.
There were two musicals, both released when I was in high school and starring pop singers from that time, that changed how I thought about musicals: Moulin Rouge and Chicago. I’ve chosen Chicago because, quite simply, I liked it better. It was dark, it was gritty, and it was so. much. fun. Nobody was making clothes out of curtains, nobody was wholesome, but the music was great, the costumes were fabulous, and the story was enjoyable. Who among you didn’t try singing “All That Jazz” like Roxie Hart when you were sure you were alone? WHO?
2. Phantom of the Opera
Technically, this musical is from the 80s, although the film wasn’t released in 2004. Since we’re talking about musical film here, I’m going to allow this one in my list as proof that the rock opera still has mass appeal. Also, Gerard Butler. Also, much fun to sing along to, even if it’s been claimed that Andrew Lloyd Webber borrowed some of his motifs from other musicians.
Enchanted’s playful mockery of the musical and its self-referential humor (Disney makes fun of Disney) make this film hilarious. Disney knew what it was about, however, and made it not only hilarious, but also a great musical. When the guileless princess Giselle leads a park full of jaded New Yorkers into a song and dance in “That’s How You Know,” my musical-loving heart fills with as much joy as when Motel swings Tzeitel around during “Miracle of Miracles” in Fiddler on the Roof (so, a lot of joy).
Three great musical films, and none of them traditional. They each move the genre forward in some way, and while I mourn the passing of the Rodgers and Hammerstein/Gershwin/Bernstein era, there’s something to be said for applying contemporary humor, darkness, and music to a genre so beloved. It is this, perhaps, that will prevent the musical from actually dying out (all signs point to God Help the Girl greatly helping in this area, too).
In addition to the films moving the musical genre forward, there are those that, in my humble opinion, injure not only the musical genre, but film in general. Many will cry loudly, “Nay! These are great films!” And perhaps they’re right (but I really, really don’t think so).
On my short list of musicals from the past 15 years that I just can’t tolerate are two of the same genre I called out previously: the jukebox musical.
1. Across the Universe
Don’t get so upset. I know you love this movie, and that’s okay. You’re allowed to like crappy things. Most of the western world agrees with you, if that’s any consolation. I, however, find this musical to be indefensible, and that is mostly or entirely because I am a huge Beatles fan. I know most of the western world is, too, but… like… I really love the Beatles. I am not sure a year of my life has passed in which I did not listen to the Beatles often. I recall dancing to Twist and Shout when I was young enough to require a babysitter. Listening to Rubber Soul on my CASSETTE PLAYER. Yeah. I’m that old. Writing a letter to Paul McCartney in first grade about my favorite song, “P.S. I Love You” (I did not receive your reply, Sir Paul – it must have gotten lost in the mail). So, when I hear Beatles songs turned into syrupy, saccharine, square, over-produced sugar honey iced tea, it cuts me deeply, and for that I cannot forgive you, Across the Universe (incidentally, Fiona Apple’s cover of that song is the only Beatles cover I’ve been okay with, to date). Twisting a plot so that it fits a random collection of Beatles hits is pretty annoying, too.
2. Mamma Mia!
Not being a huge ABBA fan, I don’t find it offensive when their songs are turned into a musical. I do find it offensive when the plot to that musical is flippant, and not in a fun way. It’s like the Maury show, but on a Greek island with bright colors and everyone singing ABBA songs. Or something. The film does have one big thing going for it, however: it’s clear that the big names – as well as everyone else in the film – had a lot of fun making it. You can see Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, etc., etc., just having a damn good time, and for me, that almost redeemed it. Almost. It’s still a plot twisted around unrelated songs by one past-prime band in an attempt to capitalize on their fans’ love and nostalgia.
My opinion aside, these two musicals did well at the box office, and have mass appeal. Clearly, the musical is still very much alive, and, I’d say, going strong. I doubt we’ll see a revival of the classic musical (maybe if I click my heels three times and wish very hard?), but what we’ll see instead are many different imaginings of the musical – musicals more reflective of our time, and our sensibility. Musicals more varied in fundamentals than they were fifty years ago, with as yet untouched subject matter. The more I consider it, the less like a traditionalist I feel.