Do musicals work as films?

LES MIS

The movie musical holds a special place in the history of cinema. It has created some of popular culture’s most iconic images. Whether it’s Julie Andrews’ triumphant spin at the opening of The Sound Of Music, a young Mark Lester asking for some more food as Oliver!, or Liza Minnelli straddling her stool as Sally Bowles in Cabaret. In my humble opinion, Anne Hathaway’s performance of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ will soon join that list. But as Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables marches towards Oscar glory next month, it’s important to remember that although musicals have always been hits at the box office, their success at the Academy Awards has become less certain.

Consider the musicals which have won the coveted top prize of Best Picture, and in which years: The Broadway Melody (1930), Going My Way (1945), An American In Paris (1952), Gigi (1959), West Side Story (1962), My Fair Lady (1965), The Sound of Music, (1966) Oliver! (1969), and Chicago (2003). Spot the gap? From the inception of the Academy Awards in 1929, multiple musicals would regularly garner several nominations each year, with at least one musical nominated for Best Picture at every ceremony. This reflected the vogue for big productions with music, following the first inclusion of sound in film in 1927.

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As time went on, popular stage shows would be adapted into movies, with their rich and exotic settings capable of being portrayed in all their glory on the big screen. In the 50s and 60s particularly, so rich did the quality of musicals become, we can now look back and see that many of the musicals in competition with one another would all go on to become classics. 1954 saw Seven Brides for Seven Brothers triumph over five other musicals, including A Star Is Born and There’s No Business Like Show Business. In 1955,Oklahoma! went head to head with Guys and DollsGigi took Best Picture in 1958, leaving South Pacific out in the cold. And in 1964, the 12 time nominated My Fair Lady took 8 awards, including Best Picture, leaving 5 for Mary Poppins. Yes, once upon a time, the musical regularly reigned supreme, and reflected public popularity. Then, something happened. A turning point can be highlighted with Cabaret in 1972. Nominated for 10 awards and winning 8, the musical was rich with historical commentary as well as a great score and dance numbers. But it was to be the last big win for a musical for a remarkable 30 years. So what happened?

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The 70s and 80s produced many popular dance musicals. Among those overlooked by the Academy in these years were Grease, All That Jazz, Fame, Annie, Footloose, A Chorus Line and Dirty Dancing. These are all movies that either came from stage shows, or have since been transformed into them, and have enjoyed commercial success in both forms. To us, they are classics, firmly embedded in the musical canon. We hold these musical movies to be as culturally significant as previous generations did for the MGM musicals and the golden age of Rogers & Hammerstein. Perhaps it was a lack of stand out individual performances, or music that verged too close to being standard pop, but certainly a degree of snobbery in the Academy deemed them unworthy winners.

evitaIn the 1990s the only musicals that registered on the radar were those of the Disney revival: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, etc. The Oscars only rewarded them for their music – which was good if you were Alan Menken, who picked up 8 Oscars for writing songs like ‘A Whole New World’. Although this was a decade with a lack of conventional movie musicals – 1996 produced the long-awaited movie adaptation of Evita. Written by Oliver Stone and directed by Alan Parker, it was the stuff that Oscar wins were made of. Although the casting of Madonna in the lead role raised a few eyebrows (it was a role sought after by Meryl Streep, Cher, Barbara Streisand and Glenn Close), her performance was widely praised, and classed as the highlight of a dubious acting career. It’s a landmark movie musical, glorious to watch, with outstanding music. She won the Golden Globe, but in one of the Academy’s famous snubs, wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar. A dislike for the adaptations of Lloyd Webber musicals, and an obvious distaste for the acting of Madonna, are factors accredited to this loss. There was something of a false start with Baz Luhrman’s edgy, yet hugely popular Moulin Rouge! in 2001, which was nominated for 8 awards including Best Picture, but only won 2 minor awards. Then, along came Chicago.

Nominated for 13 awards and winning 6, including the coveted Best Picture, Chicago put zetamusicals back on the map in 2003. It shouldn’t be ignored that Cabaret and Chicago – whose successes bookend these 30 years of musicals in the wilderness – were both written by Kander & Ebb, and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Perhaps a touch of nostalgia was all it took to reunite the praise of the public and the critics. However, similar musical adaptations in the 00s like The Phantom Of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Hairspray and Nine, had modest commercial success and nothing from the Academy. Meanwhile, the record breaking success of Mamma Mia! – now the best selling DVD in UK history – didn’t even register at the Oscars, despite its huge popular appeal and cast of leading actors. But another trend did emerge. The musical biopic experienced a revival in the 2000s. Although never treading into Best Picture territory, they did win some of the big acting prizes. In 2005, Jamie Foxx won Best Actor for his portrayal of Ray Charles; in 2006, Reese Witherspoon won Best Actress for playing June Carter Cash in Walk The Line; and in 2008, Marion Cotillard won Best Actress for her depiction of Edith Piaf in La Vie en rose. Here, the combination of an interesting artist, a great back catalogue, and a stellar impersonation made for a whole new type of musical movie.

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So we have always loved movie musicals. They’re usually shows we’ve seen on stage, with songs we’ve experienced elsewhere in popular culture, with big name stars placed on top of a great production to polish it off. Before 1972, this was all more than enough to manage Oscar success too, but as we’ve seen, that’s been harder to predict in recent years. Les Miserables looks set to be another turning point in the story. Like Chicago, it’s a popular favourite that ticks all the award winning boxes too. It will certainly win a few of its 8 nominations, but whether it can once again secure the top acting prizes and the coveted Best Picture, will be interesting to see.

And what next for the movie musical? There’s plenty more room for it to flourish. Cameron Mackintosh has promised a movie of Miss Saigon, based on the success of Les Misérables, and Sondheim’s Into The Woods is being developed by Disney with some big names lined up for it including Meryl Streep and James Corden. The rights toWicked have been purchased, and the Jersey Boys jukebox musical is hotly tipped to make it to the big screen too. Andrew Lloyd Webber has long claimed to want Madonna for a new movie version of Sunset Boulevard, but if history has taught us anything, you can rest assure that’s one movie musical that won’t be destined for Oscar glory…

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This article originally appeared in SoSoGay Magazine.

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