The Myth of the Movie Musical Renaissance

Why do people keep saying the genre is coming back?

Fantine (ANNE HATHAWAY) is thrown out of the factory in "Les Misérables".
Fantine, played by Anne Hathaway is thrown out of the factory in Les Misérables.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

By most accounts, the movie version of Les Miserablés has been a success. Reviews were mixed, but it has earned eight Academy Award nominations, plus $140 million in domestic box office—and almost twice that overseas. While the stage version was hugely popular, the film’s success was hardly guaranteed. The recent adaptation of Phantom of the Opera—also a huge Broadway hit—was a critical and commercial failure. (It made just more than $50 million domestically, which was less than its reported budget.) So the movie musical is totally coming back, right?

Of course not. But that won’t stop many, many people from saying so. “The musical as a motion picture genre has had a remarkable renaissance in the last decade,” declared Craig Zadan and Neil Meron in a press release issued by the Academy last month. Zadan and Meron have helped put together “a special celebration of musicals of the last 10 years” for this Sunday’s Oscar ceremony. The renaissance of the genre is so remarkable, apparently, that this celebration will showcase a grand total of three examples: Chicago, Dreamgirls, and Les Miserablés. That’s it. And for an obvious reason: There simply haven’t been that many good movie musicals made in the last 10 years.

And yet, whenever one comes out, the cry returns: The musical is back! And that cry is not just a decade old. When Evita was released in 1996, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked, “Movie musicals: on the brink of a renaissance?” Besides the Madonna vehicle, The Preacher’s Wife with Whitney Houston and Woody Allen’s Everybody Says I Love You made this seem like a question worth asking. No notable movie musicals were released for the next five years.

But then Chicago arrived in 2002, with its sardonic humor and slick camerawork, and Billboard wondered, “Can Chicago Spell a Comeback for the Movie Musical?” The film’s strong box office, Billboard said, boded “well for the movie musical,” which had recovered from a long “dry spell” thanks to the previous year’s beloved and bizarre Moulin Rouge. The Telegraph agreed, constructing a narrative that went back to that previous harbinger of the musical’s triumphant return, Evita.

It’s taken a three-step tango for us to welcome back the movie musical as a form. Alan Parker’s grandiose but failed Evita nudged the door ajar; Baz Luhrmann’s wildly uneven Moulin Rouge flung it wide open; and now the satisfyingly straightforward, professionally polished Chicago steps triumphantly through. Make no mistake, Rob Marshall’s film is much the best of the three, and arguably the most enjoyable picture of its kind since Bob Fosse’s Cabaret in 1972.

As this Sunday’s “special celebration” demonstrates, Chicago remains the main reference point for the decade that followed. Whenever a new musical—Rent, Mamma Mia!, The Producers, Hairspray—hits theaters, critics and movie lovers cite the Rob Marshall movie and ponder the impending return of the glorious movie musical—as they did, for instance, in the online debate, “Can Rock of Ages Save Movie Musicals?” (The right answer again, in case you were wondering, is no.)

So what’s going on here? Why does every new movie musical prompt people to wonder if we are returning to some earlier, golden age? The simple answer is that movie musicals inspire nostalgia. But that raises a more complicated question. Why?

It’s worth noting that only a specific kind of movie musical inspires this response. No one asked if Pitch Perfect or Once, for example, would save the movie musical. Some might argue that these are not “true” musicals, because characters don’t simply break into song; instead, the songs are presented as performances within the movie. But that’s the case with some of the genre’s classics as well, such as 42nd Street and Stormy Weather. Feature-length cartoons don’t prompt movie-musical-renaissance thinkpieces, either—though, for what it’s worth, those have been on the decline lately, too. When people talk about a comeback for movie musicals, they’re most often thinking of big, live-action movies in which characters break spontaneously into song and which lots of people go to see. Think Singin’ in the Rain. Think about that one for a minute, actually. Widely regarded as the best movie musical of all time, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is set 25 years prior to its release and depicts the dawn of the “talkie.” The movie itself looks back fondly on the beginning of the genre’s golden age.

Of the recent musicals that take “classic” form, a huge number are set in the past. Les Misérables takes place in 19th-century France. Chicago is set in the 1920s. Hairspray and Nine revel in the early ’60s. Dreamgirls is divided between that era and the early ’70s. Even Rock of Ages indulges shamelessly in 1980s nostalgia. Since the great era of movie musicals ended, the genre has not only frequently depicted the past, it has been, on some level, about the past.

The movie-musical golden age lasted, roughly speaking, from the 1930s to the early 1960s, when the studio system collapsed. Back then, musicals were frequently among the top grossing films of the year. “Everybody” saw them. Our entertainment options were far more limited, of course, and tickets to the movies were cheaper. Movie musicals—which generally feature big choruses and group singing and dance numbers in which everyone on-screen joins in—celebrate the coming together of large numbers of people. In other words, they re-enact what movies themselves once did, and what, whenever we see them, we hope they might do again.

But times have changed, irrevocably. Despite a slight uptick in their production lately, musicals today are incredibly difficult to get off the ground. (You may be waiting forever for that Wicked adaptation.) It’s going to stay that way.

There is something inherently fanciful about the musical genre. No matter how “raw” or “gritty” a movie like Les Miserablés may attempt to be, the act of singing—and in other cases, dancing—to express one’s self in the middle of an otherwise ordinary world will never feel entirely “realistic.” Like the movies generally, but only more so, musicals conjure a fantasy world, full of melody and—even more crucially—harmony. Musicals are, in that way, grander than life. And they are worth celebrating. But the golden age is never coming back.