Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Musicals: Will the Beat Go On?

The American Film Institute (AFI) released what they call “The 25 Greatest Movie Musicals of All Time.” Singin' In The Rain is Number 1. Despite a few noticeable exclusions (no South Park movie?), the list is solid, if not unsurprising. I have seen 4 out of the top 5 and 6 out of the top 10. Most of the tunes are classics and standards. In fact, most of those tunes are now stuck in my head.

However, it is interesting to note that there are only 3 movies on the list from the past 25 years. Obviously, the fact that the production of musicals have slowed down over the years is one contribution. Lack of a good quality musical is another. But why have musicals, so predominate in the early years of movies, almost fallen to the way side? We, as a culture, have embraced all forms of music so much since the 1940s and 1950s. So why is the epoch of movie musicals in that era and not more recent?

Demographics: What came first, the need for demographics or the demographics themselves? I am sure studio heads have some statistic that says the 18 to 34 year old males do not flock to musicals. But is that because we have been conditioned that certain demographics like certain movies? Didn’t seem to be the case back in the “Hollywood Golden Age”. Surely there were men that age back then. Why have men been seemingly removed from a musical’s target audience?

Lack of a Strong Male Protagonist: So males might not be attracted to musicals, eh? Maybe because of this. Looking over AFI’s list and there seems to be a lack of a strong male presence in much of the musicals. Heck, even Danny in Grease wasn’t as tough as the name Thunderbirds might imply. In today’s marketplace, with a saturation of action movies and dumb comedies, the attention of the young man is easily diverted. So why not make a musical that breaks the mold and have a tattoo-sporting, cigarette-smoking, badass singing about the Mob (Guys and Dolls) or wrongful incarceration (Chicago) or baseball (Damn Yankees).

Musical Diversity: Today’s music scene is splintered. You got pop, rap, alternative, classic rock, just to name a few. “Showtune” has almost become a derisive term. The rock opera has only seen limited use. Moulin Rouge came very close to establishing that modern forms of music can be used in a musical, as shocking as that may be. Where’s a rap musical? Hollywood shouldn’t runaway from the showtune genre, just start to incorporate some modern moves.

Too Over the Top: In the nineties, musicals became associated with Disney Cartoons. Beauty and the Beast is on the list, rightfully so, but Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and freakin’ Mulan were also musicals. Musicals were slightly silly, childish things. Chicago and Moulin Rogue were these grandiose event movies, with lots of pretty colors and scene chewery. But once again, look to the classics. Singin’ in the Rain was about movies and every day people. West Side Story was Romeo and Juliet set against a background of gang warfare. Both did not have elaborate, tacky scenes (although Singin’ did have a dream sequence that was, uh, bright). Musicals need to grow up a little and establish that although people are singing this is not a silly, inconsequential movie.

Currently, work has started on the next big musical: Hairspray. This remake has all the trappings of the modern day musical: outlandish behavior (though any work based on John Waters will have that in spades) and big stars that threaten to overshadow the movie (John Travolta, Christopher Walken, etc.). The film is to be released in 2007. The musical has also found a home on TV, with Disney’s High School Musical becoming a surprise hit of summer. Bollywood, in India, has embraced the musical and turned it into something completely different. The musical is not dead it is merely taking a two measure rest.


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