What’s Been Going on with Movie Musicals Lately?

Image Courtesy of IndieWire

By Garrett Farrell

This past week the trailer for Cyrano, a new movie musical starring Peter Dinklage, was released, and I can honestly say that it got me more excited for a new movie musical than I have been since I first saw the trailer for High School Musical 3: Senior Year. This fact surprised me quite a bit, not only because I was entirely unfamiliar with the material but also because… well, there have been some really good movie musical trailers since 2008. That being said, trailers are one thing, but actually great movie musicals are another.

That is not to say that there have not been excellent movie musicals since 2008; I count La La Land (2016) among my favorite movies of the 2010s, and Les Miserables (2012) was arguably the only retelling of Victor Hugo’s original novel that gave the subject matter a suitably epic scope. However, it seems like there has been a general decline in the quality of movie musicals, and this trend reached its nadir in 2019 with Cats, which got such rave reviews as “You can’t believe what you’re looking at because it’s so hideous to behold.” 

This trend is deeply upsetting to me for a number of reasons: first, because movie musicals are genuinely good ways of conveying the magic of Broadway to those who live too far away to attend a show or who may not be able to afford to see a Broadway show, and second, because… I just love them, okay? 

The first proper movie musical I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz (I know, real unique, right?) in my first-grade music class, and I was one of the only kids in the class who seemed to actually enjoy watching it. From that point on I loved watching movie musicals, especially golden age musicals.

Back from that brief tangent, this extremely upsetting trend begs the question: is there something wrong with movie musicals as an art form? In my opinion, the short answer is no, the long answer is… sort of? I will explain what I mean by that in a second, but first, let me ask you a question. In the last few years, how many trailers for movie musicals have you seen on TV? (a brief caveat on what I mean by movie musicals here: I mean live-action musicals that are not  based on an animated Disney movie or jukebox musicals.) I know for me, the answer is not many. The only ones that come to mind are In The Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, and West Side Story.

So, what did I mean by that cryptic “sort of” before? Well, I think that the way studios choose to produce movie musicals is fundamentally flawed. In The Heights and Dear Evan Hansen were both box office smashes on Broadway in the last decade or so, while West Side Story is one of the most universally adored movies of Hollywood’s golden age. 

Do you see the trend yet? Studios pick commercially successful musicals to adapt because those movies are likely to draw a comparatively large audience in theatres. I think that is where the flaw in modern movie musicals lies. Instead of choosing musicals that could genuinely be enhanced by a movie adaptation, studios choose musicals that are likely to make them a profit. I think that this is why I got so excited when I saw the trailer for Cyrano and why La La Land and Les Mis are such great movie musicals. Cyrano is an adaptation of an obscure musical with (seemingly) extraordinary music and Les Mis and La La Land, more so than any movie musical since the fifties, understood that film is a fundamentally different medium from the stage. 
So, in conclusion, the disappointing trend in movie musicals is nothing to do with the musicals themselves but is more to do with choosing the right musicals to make into movies. I certainly see a light at the end of the tunnel with Cyrano set to release in 2022 and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick, Tick … BOOM!, about Jonothan Larson and the creation of Rent, set to release next month, but only time will tell if movie musicals will ever reach their former peaks.

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