Musicals making a comeback in Hollywood

NEW YORK • Dead. Embalmed. Buried. A year ago, that is what most movie studios would have said about live-action musicals, pointing to a long line of box-office calamities: Rock Of Ages, Burlesque, Jersey Boys, Across The Universe, Nine.

The few out-and-out successes in recent decades have been adaptations of Broadway classics (Les Miserables, 2012) or marketed in misleading ways. When 20th Century Fox was selling Baz Luhrmann's hit Moulin Rouge! in 2001, the studio was so afraid that people would stay home if they knew it was a musical that the trailer rather awkwardly tried to avoid singing at all costs.

But Hollywood, excited in part by the critical and commercial success of La La Land, which cost Lionsgate US$30 million (S$42.8 million) to make and has taken in US$132 million worldwide as it streaks towards the Academy Awards, is taking out its jazz hands again.

There are roughly 20 musicals in the works at studios, according to the film database IMDbPro. Some are live-action adaptations of classic animated musicals, such as Beauty And The Beast, directed by Bill Condon and set for release by Disney in March. Others are films (among them, Wicked) based on contemporary Broadway hits.

Moreover, several studios - for the first time since the 1990s - are devoting meaningful resources to break-into-song films with original music.

This year, Fox will release The Greatest Showman, which stars Hugh Jackman as circus impresario P.T. Barnum and has a dozen original songs. Disney has Bob The Musical, about a man whose life becomes filled with song after a head injury. Universal Pictures won a bidding war for an untitled musical comedy starring Josh Gad, with original songs by composer-lyricists Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.

There are several reasons for renewed studio interest, said Mr Marc Platt, a La La Land producer whose other projects include an original song-and-dance film that will star Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig and a sequel to Mary Poppins with a new score.

"Thankfully, as much as Hollywood is interested in brands, I think people are still looking for originality and freshness," he said. "Musicals can also be their own brand: They have an event status. I also think the ceiling on the audience is lifting. You've got a new generation of fans who have grown up with television shows like Glee."

He adds: "Music has a way of getting inside all of us and lifting us up. Put another way, there is an inherent entertainment proposition in musicals, a heightened emotional experience that people go to the movies to find."

Still, not everyone in Hollywood is convinced of a musical comeback.

Mr Kevin Goetz, chief executive of the film research company Screen Engine/ASI, said he had no research indicating increased demand. "I think it's a long shot to think that animated movies with music, which have been around for years now, have a material effect in increasing the desire to see live-action musicals," he said.

If La La Land is an exception to the box-office rules, it is becoming quite an exception. On social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook, young people have been uploading videos of themselves singing Audition, one of the film's showcase numbers. During the past week, the soundtrack has shot up the sales charts.

La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as aspiring performers, won a record seven Golden Globe Awards on Jan 8, including one for Damien Chazelle's directing and one for Justin Hurwitz's score. Powered by that publicity pop, the film took in about US$14.5 million over the weekend (its sixth in release) in North America. The producers of La La Land also include Jordan Horowitz and Fred Berger.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2017, with the headline 'Musicals making a comeback in Hollywood'. Print Edition | Subscribe