Everyone knows the story of the Von Trapp family and their governess Maria. Maria is sent from the convent in which she lived to take care of Captain Von Trapp’s children. Through music, she is able to calm the seven rambunctious children and convince their father he doesn’t have to run the household like the captain of a naval ship. Maria and Captain Von Trapp fall in love and are able to escape with the children out of Nazi-controlled Austria through the mountains into Switzerland. The plot is heartwarming and the music aims to keep audiences misty-eyed with joy: a formula Hollywood is revamping for today’s youth.
Musicals seem to be moving from the stage to the big screen, and films are simultaneously being transformed into live shows. From Chicago and The Producers to Spamalot and Legally Blonde: The Musical, no plot is safe from Hollywood or Broadway.[scream]
Musicals have held steady success with early films like Singing the Rain, Grease, My Fair Lady and Footloose. The 1980s brought a rut to American musicals, when new styles and changes in European shows were booming. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and Les Miserables adapted and composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil became two of the longest running performances. Other than the consistent melodies of Disney cartoons, America had a hard time competing, until 2001, when Moulin Rouge hit the box offices.
This film changed the way the American public looked at theater. Musicals no longer had to be old-fashioned and predictable. “It made it OK for a movie to be upfront with what it’s doing,” said American studies graduate student Kathryn Edney, who is writing her dissertation on memory and nostalgia in American musical theater. With extravagance and complexity in every scene and character, Moulin Rouge appealed to a wider audience than the typical theater lovers. Its music was louder and closer to rock and roll than the classic orchestral melodies. The plot provided a much darker and scandalous alternative to what America was used to. It was closer to a drama or even action film than the predictable – and sometimes tacky – musical movies had been. These differences caught the eyes of many unexpected viewers. [musicals1]
After Moulin Rouge came a number of box office hits like Chicago, Hairspray and most recently, Sweeney Todd. Although there have been a lot of musical movies, Edney wouldn’t necessarily call the trend a surge, as with the horror movies in the past; it’s happening in “fits and starts.” However, this could be explained by the fact that musicals are harder and more complicated to produce. The actors must be able to sing and dance, not just scream. “If you don’t hit the right notes, it’ll flop,” Edney said.
Film studies professor Jeff Wray agrees musicals are very difficult to produce, but can see this trend continuing for quite a while. “Success breeds success,” he said. “Once they stop making money, musicals will stop.” But not completely. He went on to explain that people still enjoy musicals and their production will continue to occur, albiet not frequently.
“They’re running out of (musicals) that’ll hit the box office,” said Zoe Zuidveld, a freshman at the Residential College for Arts and Humanities. She could not think of many more musicals that would be as good on film as they are on stage, but would like to see more anyway. “They’re a good break from what you normally see in the theaters,” she said. This break could be the main reason for the increase in popularity. After Sept. 11, Edney explained, America needed the nostalgia and comfort musicals offer. “People have a desire for the ideals musicals represent,” she said. The Producers, for example, seemed to have the “throwback” style, even though there was a lot of new technology throughout the film. For example, the scene with the dancing Nazis on the rooftop required a lot of digital editing. [break]
Better technology is also benefiting musicals’ reputations. In the past, people could watch a performance, and all they had to take away from it was a memory. Eventually, recordings of the music were available to the public. But now, anyone can get a copy of a certain performance, or watch a movie several times over and “hold on to it,” Edney said. Movies make seeing popular musicals more affordable as well. Producers only have to pay for the production once for a movie, but for live performances, they have to continually pay the cast and crew and maintain the stage and facility. Tickets for Broadway shows are on the expensive side, but one can go to the movie theater or rent a DVD for a fraction of the price.
Apart from parents being able to afford to sit their kids down for a musical more often and in the privacy of their own homes, musicals are increasingly adapting to the tastes of today’s youth. Rock and pop music are making their way onto center stage. Popular music has changed, and musical and filmmakers have finally shifted their focus. The melodies featured in High School Musical are a prime example. The songs sound just like what kids can hear on the radio, with drums and guitar. “Kids were looking for it,” Edney said. “It’s a very straight-forward musical romance.” The characters and situations aren’t new; it’s the way they are presented to the audience. Wray described it as an “exciting breakthrough,” but the sequels were simply “cash cows” made to make money. Idlewild with Outkast is another example. Still using many of the same stock characters and circumstances, it managed great success, largely due to its use of hip-hop music.
Like the film industry, theater producers have also found ways to attract a more diverse range of audiences. Like musicals into movies, film is being converted onto the stage. And producers and directors have been turning the most unlikely movies into Broadway hits. Few would have expected Legally Blonde or The Lord of the Rings to succeed in song, which is one of reasons why their musical versions have become so popular. “There’s a curiosity factor,” Edney said. “How can you possibly make a musical out of that?” Spamalot is another unique example. Even though it was inevitably going to happen at some point, Monty Python’s British mockeries came at a right time. Someone was finally poking fun at European theater, not the American version, as in the past.
[cheese]Audiences are also watching more musicals based on music from popular artists, like Movin’ Out from Billy Joel’s classics or ABBA’s Mama Mia. These are often referred to as “jukebox musicals.” Plots are written to include existing popular songs. However, these don’t always go over well with the masses. Because the original artists are not the people singing, some feel the musicals seem to be lacking something. But others, who happen to be huge fans of the particular artists, may love the performances because they already love the songs. “You know the songs you’re going to get,” Edney said. And younger viewers, who may not be familiar with the original voices and melodies, might also love the overall show due to its novelty.
Much speculation over the quality of remakes exists simultaneously with rave reviews. People question whether the stage version is better than the movie, or vice versa. The Theory of Adaptation, a book by Linda Hutcheon, examines these suspicions. “It does seem to be more or less acceptable to adapt Romeo and Juliet into a respected high art form, like an opera or a ballet, but not to make it into a movie,” she wrote. Wray said movie musicals have to have “energy, angst, romance” to be successful, but comedies fall under different criteria. “They have to be a bit cheesy or have at least a self-awareness of the cheese factor,” he said, using Spamalot as an example.
Musicals, adapted or not, may have yet another mark against them. Critics argue that, realistically, no one actually breaks out into song and dance – at least not as frequently as most musicals. But Edney argues while this may be true, the world also doesn’t encounter aliens and talking animals. Fantasies are even more unrealistic than musicals. English freshman Emily Sieting explained that, to her, musicals are not that far-fetched. “They keep you more entertained,” she said. “And people do sing a lot in high schools, like in the hallways and before class.”
How long this trend will continue is uncertain. But as long as unique and modern musicals are produced, on a stage or on a screen, people will buy tickets. No matter if it is out of curiosity, speculation or to escape, tickets and other merchandise will sell. And as long as those things are being purchased, musical movies will hit a chord with both audiences and producers.