Movie Musical Genre- Can It Be Revived?
Audiences once anticipated a Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire dance movie or Judy Garland musical as eagerly as Casablanca or Citizen Kane. Today's filmgoers have shown more interest in Disney's animated musical productions than any live action musical in recent release.
During the height of the studio days in Hollywood, producers could barely fill the orders for musicals put in by an eager audience of filmgoers.
Stars like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney complained openly of the rushed pace and tremendous demands placed on them to crank out more and more product. Besides these admittedly formulaic and mostly forgettable works, the studios also placed great confidence in the box office success of such classic musicals as The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain. Musical stars were often mentioned in the same critical breath as the dramatic actors of the times. In fact, many of the traditional 'movie stars' such as Jimmy Stewart and Rita Hayworth found dancing and singing lessons very necessary for their continued success. Studios continued to produce high-caliber movie musicals all the way through the late 1960s. Since the fall of the studio system, live action musicals have been sporadically released, with decidedly mixed results.
But is the live movie musical genre really a dying artform, or can it still be revived with today's demanding audiences? Alan Parker's filmed version of Evita barely recovered its production costs and was generally panned by critics. Woody Allen's musical effort Everybody Says 'I Love You' hardly made a ripple in a sea of movie releases that year. Creating a full-length movie musical seems to be a tremendous financial risk for a film company, which may explain the lack of such films released in recent memory.
All is not lost, however, for those who enjoy the musical film. Disney has enjoyed tremendous success with animated cartoons featuring memorable scores and original songs. Well-respected musical talents such as Elton John and Phil Collins have loaned their songwriting and vocals to commercially successful animated movies. Although the target audience of these movies appears to be pre-teen, adults have also begun to appreciate the craftmanship of the songs and production numbers. Indeed, many of the nominees for Oscar's "Best Original Song" award have come straight from the Disney-style animated musicals. So in one sense, the movie musical audience still exists, albeit preferring to see the songs performed by animated crabs, lion cubs and gorillas.
Part of the reason that live movie musicals have not succeeded in today's marketplace is the very nature of such productions. Real people in real situations don't spontaneous burst forth with a song and dance number. If Gene Kelly had performed his infamous singing and dancing in the rain today, the police officer would have had him locked up for creating a public nuisance. Musicals by design are not realistic, and audiences in the 1940s understood this. They were willing to suspend their disbelief in order to enjoy a performance by their favorite singers and dancers. Movies, especially musicals, were an escape from the grim realities of everyday life. Today's audiences expect a little bit of this 'outside reality' to be present in their entertainment. A character who is supposed to be a singer, like Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys, can sing all they want to. If the Mafia hitmen start breaking out in song, the whole movie seems false. Movie musicals like Alan Parker's Fame succeeded, because the audience expected a collection of young singers and dancers to sing and dance. Everybody Says 'I Love You' failed with audiences partially because no one expected Alan Alda or Drew Barrymore to just start singing at the oddest moments.
There is certainly enough talent in the acting pool today to cast a successful movie musical. Performers like Nathan Lane and Robin Williams have already shown the natural ability to sing and dance in the style of the old studio players. Professional singers have shown an ability and interest in crossing over to the acting field, so even more creative possibilities exist. The real question as to whether or not the movie musical genre of film can survive is whether or not a modern audience wants it to survive. With the success of animated musical encouraging the studios to take more risks creatively, the live action musical may find new life yet.