Musicals have quite the bad rap. Skeptics complain their most essential component — characters sporadically bursting into song — demands an impossible suspension of disbelief. Others dismiss them as “light” entertainment that can’t convincingly convey drama. The genre’s lack of realism and inherent camp can certainly be alienating for modern audiences, and they may appear out of place in the cinematic landscape of today, as a result. But it hasn’t always been this way.
The musical helped catapult movies out of the Silent Era. For decades they were also incredibly lucrative, drawing large audiences with creative productions and megastars. Then they fell out of fashion. Hollywood’s most recent attempts at returning the movie musical to its former glory have been markedly feeble, supplanting theatricality with realism and sacrificing talent for celebrity draw.
In the midst of this musical drought, Steven Spielberg’s recently confirmed remake of the iconic West Side Story could serve as a beacon of hope. In order for the movie to plot a new course for the genre, Spielberg will need to consider what made movie musicals great in the first place, where they went wrong, and how they can be saved.
The inception of the musical film is generally traced back to the 1927 release of The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length “talking picture” to feature spoken dialogue and sound-synchronized musical numbers performed by the film’s titular musician. This catalyzed the mass production of movie musicals by every major studio, all of them eager to show off the vast capabilities of sound.
In the 1930s, choreographer Busby Berkeley revolutionized the movie musical, incorporating the camera into the musical numbers like never before. In films such as Footlight Parade (1933) and Dames (1934), he drew on movies’ uniquely cinematic capabilities to enhance the theatricality of the numbers, emphasizing their grandeur and visual beauty.
The original movie musicals of the 1940s were grand in scope, hopeful in tone, and uniquely American in perspective. They marked the pinnacle of the musical film form, transporting audiences away from the realities of the Depression and World War II, showcasing incredible talent, and inventing new forms of storytelling. The decade saw smash hits like Judy Garland’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), as well as Anchors Aweigh (1945), and On the Town (1949), which launched the career of the brilliant Gene Kelly.
The 1950s birthed classic movies like the innovative American in Paris (1951), the flawless Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and the iconic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), which helped shoot Marilyn Monroe into the stratosphere of stardom. With both the celebrity to draw audiences in and the musical chops to dazzle them, these the leads of this era were essential to the meteoric rise and sustained success of the musical film.
The 1960s were amply stuffed with movie adaptations of Broadway shows, so much so that during the decade four of the 10 Oscars for Best Picture went to movie musicals: West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), and Oliver! (1968) — and five more were nominees. These films continued to showcase the stars of the day (although many of their vocals were secretly dubbed) and offered escapist fantasies in the midst of a tumultuous decade.
But movie musicals had been in quiet peril for years. The proliferation of television (and its musical variety shows) made audiences less likely to schlep to the movie theater to see the same kinds of movies that had been dominating screens for nearly 30 years; audiences began itching for something new.
By the end of the ’60s, the prudish and antiquated Hays code was officially discarded and replaced with a new MPAA rating system that gave filmmakers more freedom than ever before, allowing them to touch on more adult themes and depict more adult content. The end of this Golden Age standard marked a major expansion of artistic freedom and the start of the “New Hollywood” era.
When the big-budget Streisand musical Hello Dolly! flopped in 1969, the fate of the genre was all but sealed. Despite being another major Oscar contender, the film’s gaudy, classical musical style appeared antiquated and unappealing to general audiences, especially within a landscape full of Westerns and war films, and its major financial failure spooked studios for good. With the old censorship codes abandoned, a cynical political climate, and the sexual revolution well underway, audiences were ready and hungry for grittier, more realistic filmmaking.
The decades that make up the genre’s nadir — the ’70s and ’80s — are spotted with occasional gems, though they are few and far between. One notable exception was Caberet (1972), much darker and grittier in tone than the classical musical film, subverting audience preconceptions. Because it takes place in a club, all of the musical numbers are diegetic—meaning they actually occur in the film—which eased audiences who were wary of musicals’ trademark unrealistic bursting into song.
Fellow standouts Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Grease (1978), and Little Shop of Horrors (1986) were campy but fully self-aware, leaning into the sillier constructs of the genre and consciously mining them for energy — plus, they boasted great casts with genuine talent.
But, as film was moving steadily in the direction of realism, the movie musical — which structurally subverts reality — was inevitably left behind. Throughout the 1990s, the Disney Renaissance nearly single-handedly sustained the genre, keeping musicals alive through animated classics like Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and Mulan (1998).
With the turn of the century, movie musicals have seen an unsteady resurgence. Some efforts have been successful: Moulin Rouge (2001), Chicago (2002), and Hairspray (2007) capture the emotionality and theatricality that are central to the musical form. But most modern directors use uniquely cinematic capabilities to diminish the theatrical exaggeration of the musical, not showcase it, leading to disastrous results.
By filtering theatrical source material through cinematic realism, the essence of the work gets lost in translation: no wonder The Phantom of the Opera (2004), Rent (2005), Les Miserables (2012), and Into the Woods (2014) were such sad, feeble stabs at their respective Broadway hits. Plus, most recent musical adaptations have prioritized star power, getting big names to draw audiences even though they can’t carry the film capably — this is how we end up with Gerard Butler as the Phantom and Russell Crowe as Javert.
With the right moves, the genre could be restored to its former glory. This means learning from all the successes and pitfalls that color the long history of the movie musical. Damien Chazelle’s sweet but hollow attempt at genre restoration, La La Land (2016), does an admirable job honoring and learning from the past, paying overt (if sometimes lazy) homages to multiple classic movie musicals. But its untrained leads and unpolished numbers keeps it from truly elevating the genre.
Now it’s time for Spielberg’s West Side Story remake to step up to the plate. To succeed, the movie must not only amalgamate the elements of successful musical films but also improve upon them. Trained and talented stars are crucial: sacrificing skill for star power has time and time again precipitated failure. Spielberg may not have the likes of Judy Garland or Gene Kelly to choose from, but he certainly can launch rising stars on the basis of their talent.
We already know this is where he’s headed, as his recent casting call asked for actors who “must be able to sing” — a welcome requirement considering that, in the original film, the singing for every main character was dubbed.
— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) January 26, 2018
In addition, the casting call is looking solely for Latinx actors to play the musical’s Latinx roles. This also improves upon the original, which cast white actors in brownface to play most of the Latinx leads. Whitewashing has been frequently featured in movie musicals, perhaps most notably in The King and I (1956), which cast Russian-born Yul Brynner as the King of Siam.
Racism isn’t just a pesky byproduct of the genre, but integral to its origins: The Jazz Singer is a heinously racist film about a white singer who wears blackface and performs in a minstrel show. Reviving the movie musical requires reckoning with this past and doing better; creating space for nuanced characters of color played by actors of color is a promising first step.
Beyond being an obviously skilled director, Spielberg also has a surprising musical sensibility, demonstrating a knack for capturing musical sequences in 1941, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and The Color Purple. By blending theatrical competence with his dramatic skill and cinematic inventiveness, he could single-handedly breathe new life into the genre.
And a modernized story — perhaps one incorporating the current political and humanitarian frustrations bubbling within Puerto Rico — could be the point of attraction for today’s audiences.
Just as the success of The Jazz Singer prompted a mass movement towards musical films, the potential success of Spielberg’s West Side Story could prompt a monumental resuscitation of the dying genre. The fate of the movie musical is in your hands, Steven. No pressure.