The rise of film musicals

Amy Donohoe

Credit: Boing Boing

Movie musicals weren’t born in the last few years, but they have certainly returned to glory in this decade and seized the national spotlight in recent years.

Movie musicals are now a staple of Hollywood’s Christmas release season, with Into the Woods debuting Christmas Day of 2014, Les Misérables garnering attention on Christmas 2012 and recently The Greatest Showman making its debut December 2017.

These interpretations net a larger audience and offer opportunities to expand artistically. Into the Woods offered details in production design not possible for the stage. La La Land revived the song and dance form for a new age and hired Broadway talent to do so.

Only the biggest, global Broadway brands get to enjoy their moment in the cinema spotlight. The Phantom of the Opera ($154m), Hairspray ($202m), Dreamgirls ($154m) and Mamma Mia ($615m) being some examples.

Disney’s The Lion King (the company set up the first studio stage division in 1993) remains the highest standard for successful film-to-stage transmissions. Director Julie Taymor’s decision to use puppetry and African masks allowed the stage version to mark out its own creative territory. It earned more than a billion dollars worldwide – even more than the film.

Les Mis isn’t studio-originated, but it’s playing the same global-franchise game. Tom Hooper, the movie director has taken extreme care to strengthen the iconography of the West End’s longest-running musical ever – down to finding, in 10-year-old Isabelle Allen, the young girl used on the iconic posters. The musical rounds off the symbiotic loop that has been developing between screen and stage, one of the newer branches of the entertainment-industrial complex.

And then, there’s successful musical movies for kids such as Coco, Moana, Beauty and the Beast and upcoming live-action Aladdin. We’re in a revival in popularity of Disney’s animated musical division and its songs. When Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez began writing Frozen’s hit “Let It Go,” they had no idea it would become one of the most globally recorded Disney songs of all time.

“For us, ‘Let It Go’ was just solving a problem for a story,” Anderson-Lopez explained. “And then it became something far different than that. It almost doesn’t feel like it belongs to us anymore. It feels like it belongs to the singing little girls and all of the people who have taken it and made it part of their lives.”

Disney’s remake of Aladdin is set to be a full musical like its animated counterpart. However, we won’t only get to hear the songs we know. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriters of the recent musical hit The Greatest Showman revealed that they helped write two new songs that will be included in the film next year.

The Greatest Showman’s success shouldn’t be surprising. The film is proof that old-fashioned values work well, right down to Jackman’s star power in getting the project off the ground. It offers a genuine rush of spectacle and wonder, particularly when we get to watch Zendaya swing around a circus on a trapeze. To quote the film, “it’s fire, it’s freedom, it’s flooding open”.

There’s eye candy for people of all persuasions, there’s Instagram royalty (Zendaya), and there’s a duet between Jackman and Efron. The film is an old-time musical built on traditional lines, but it also pays tribute in its music to current trends. Its smooth power-pop soundtrack has found its way to the top of the charts in many countries worldwide.

The film continues to bring in audiences, and since its release on Dec. 20, The Greatest Showman has grossed more than $160 million domestically, making it the fourth most successful movie musical of all time — just below Chicago, and above La La Land, Les Misérables, Mamma Mia, and Enchanted.

The Greatest Showman’s music — catchy numbers by Evan Hansen and La La Land team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — has been a marvellous influence. The soundtrack hit Number 1 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart in January and stayed for two weeks. Now, three months after the film’s release, it’s currently the top album on iTunes.

The songs’ lyrics are simple and effective. “This Is Me” (notable lyrics: ”Look out cause here I come / And I’m marching on to the beat I drum”) already claimed the Golden Globe earlier this year for Best Original Song.

The Greatest Showman also offers the promise of Old Hollywood-style escapism. It asks for no moral negotiation. The movie is a story about a determined man who dreams big and wants everyone to feel special. In many ways, the film itself a perfect representation of Barnum’s work: to delight and distract. Fans appreciate a film like The Greatest Showman in some way critics don’t. The movie seems to say, can’t you enjoy a good old song and dance?