Skip to main content

An Encore for Hollywood’s Movie Musical

Lizzy Marriott explores the prominence and rise of movie musicals in the contemporary; questioning the factors of such a comeback.

BY Lizzy Marriott

Movie musicals are coming back to Hollywood with huge success. No longer are they relying on repeats or letting Disney have all the fun with animated children’s films (no I’m not going the mention the ‘F’ word), but they are making original movie musicals themselves. Once upon a time an original musical from Hollywood was the norm but that changed due to worldwide controversial developments. Musicals are typically joyous but ironically were popular in times when there was little joy to be inspired from. So, why are they back and what does it say about our society now?

Movie musicals were once one of the most popular forms on screen with audiences finding the joyous and optimistic content a welcome distraction from the bleak realities occurring. One of the first movie musicals is The Jazz Singer (1927) which expressed the novelty of sound on screen at the time. It was a big success for Warner Bros and set the forth coming trend for Hollywood musicals.

During the 1930s America was living through the great depression and musicals such as Top Hat (1935), Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), and The Wizard of the Oz (1939) offered a way of escapism from the harsh economic crash which caused many families to face poverty. Many of the movie-musical films of this decade focus on the higher classes, or show a rags to riches tale like in 42nd Street (1933), which allow the audiences to briefly indulge in the glamourous aspects of upper crust society.

Photo by @huguesdb

“When Garland performed it at the Hollywood Canteen not long after the movie’s release for an audience of soldiers and sailors who were soon to ship out, she brought the house to tears, or so legend has it”

Handy, Bruce from the New York Times

The popularity of musicals continued through the 1940s with Meet me in St. Louis (1944) and Easter Parade (1948) which both starred musical star Judy Garland. These two decades were considered the ‘Golden Age’ with around 400 musical films being made. During the 1940s the second world war was still a horrible reality and the devastating losses it caused meant the musicals were again used as a distraction. Some films like Meet me in St. Louis (1944), despite being set in 1903, gave subtle links to the war and became a way for individuals to express their sadness. For example, in one scene Garland’s character is trying to comfort her little sister after she realises this is the last Christmas she’ll have at home before they move, she sings “Have yourself a Merry little Christmas” to remind her to enjoy the happy times while they can. The scene is emotional for the links it portrays, “When Garland performed it at the Hollywood Canteen not long after the movie’s release for an audience of soldiers and sailors who were soon to ship out, she brought the house to tears, or so legend has it”.

In the 1950s studios continued to produce popular musicals such as Singing in the Rain (1952) which tended to be big spectacles that starred all singing, acting and dancing stars. The dance numbers were long and showed the talents of Gene Kelly and other performers that are still admired today. Yet, the 1950s also saw a change in Hollywood films with the term ‘teenager’ being coined and gritter films like Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Jailhouse Rock (1957) becoming a big hit to the younger generation. With televisions becoming increasingly part of households, large screen musicals were on the decline as people were opting to stay in the comfort of their own homes, whereas teenagers were more willing to spend their money on films aimed specifically for them.

As the decades went on the time for happy and joyous musicals seemed to disappear with people wanting darker and more realistic films that related to them. The Vietnam war was the first war pushed into the public eye and the controversial nature of it meant even the optimism of Hollywood’s musicals didn’t do much to comfort people. With exceptions like The Sound of Music (1963) and My Fair Lady (1964) aimed at a female audience, a lot of the musicals were aimed towards children making Disney the leading musical force. They produced classics such as, Mary Poppins (1964) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964) during this time.

This model continued through the 1970s and 1980s as Hollywood focused on pleasing the hyper masculinity craze with films often having strong male protagonists, following the stereotypical monomyth pattern. For example, Jaws (1975), Rocky (1976), Star Wars (1977), The Terminator (1984), and Top Gun (1986).

Hollywood musicals were few and far between, and the ones made were often taken from the stage so they would at lease already have a popular fan base. So, it seemed that Hollywood lost its confidence with the original movie musical and this continued through the 1990s and 2000s where there were many musical flops such as Rent (2005) and the success of the movie-musical tended to be within Disney children’s films.

However, it can be said for every decade musicals were consistent even is not as successful as ‘the golden age’. By re-producing already stage hit musicals like Chicago (2002), or ones with chart hit music like Moulin Rouge (2001), Hollywood already had an encouraging fan base to cater to.

Films like Mamma Mia (2008) used already well-known songs from ABBA, and the major success of this film proved to the movie industry that adults were loving fun musicals again. The fan base for musicals seems to have reverted back to being enjoyed by all genders and ages, instead of being seen as ‘just for women’ or ‘just for children’.

The film production of Les Mis (2012) and Into The Woods (2014) again showed the popularity of the genre coming back and showed that Hollywood Stars were willing and wanting to be part of this Hollywood revolution. Hugh Jackman and Meryl Streep in particular have starred in two musicals each so far, and Zac Efron being the most seen movie-musical star by appearing in five of them. But why the sudden peak in popularity?

Perhaps the sudden interest in watching a film where the protagonists burst into song and dance about their dreams and their nightmares is a way for people to connect during these troubling times. Terror attacks are becoming ‘the norm’, both Britain and America feel a loss of identity with controversial decisions such as Brexit and Donald Trumps presidency. Musicals such as Beauty and the Beast (2017) take us back to these less troublesome times and connect us back to our worry-free childhood where the scariest thing that would happen is being put on the naughty step for not eating all your vegetables.

“It’s never too sassy, smart, or even particularly camp, making its pleasures relatable and comforting…The film is an old-time musical built on classical lines, but it also pays lip service in its music to current trends”

Salmon, Caspar from The Guardian

Recently the Hollywood musical-movie reignition has reached new heights with original musicals coming back to Hollywood with major success. Instead of solely relying on re-makes like Marry Poppins (2018), Hollywood is beginning to produce original musicals with original storylines and songs. The Greatest Showman (2018) is the first original live action movie musical made by a studio since Disney’s Newsies (1992). Caspar Salmon writes a potential reason for its popularity may be, ‘It’s never too sassy, smart, or even particularly camp, making its pleasures relatable and comforting…The film is an old-time musical built on classical lines, but it also pays lip service in its music to current trends’. La La Land (2017) was released before, and its success with awards by winning the Golden Globe and the BAFTA for best motion picture proves how musicals are not only popular with the public, but with film critics too.

As well as them dominating the cinematic world the admiration of the musicals has also recently been seen in the TV world with a musical episode in Once Upon A Time. Not only has this happened in the Disney inspired show but in comic-book based TV shows like The Flash and Supergirl which also had singing episodes.

With the combination of popular actors and actresses showing their full range with well-crafted songs, musicals offer an abundance of entertainment. The Greatest Showman was even re-released in cinemas with a sing-a-long version due to the popularity of the music.

Photo by @bartos

Movie-musicals are a way to spark and remind the public of happier times even if they feel they are drowning in the negativity of current society. Of course, I’m not suggesting these new original musicals are going to help improve the state of legal and terrorist activity, but they do encourage the ideology of the American dream. That optimistic outlook is needed nowadays and with empowering songs, such as This is me which won best song at the Oscars for The Greatest Showman, these films offer an accessible way for people to be unified and influenced by this ideology.

Children, women and men can all find something to enjoy in musicals. Whether it be the beautiful songs, the intense dance numbers, the extravagant sets, or watching an iconic actor like Meryl Streep sing emotionally on cliff to Pierce Brosnan. Yes, they may be cheesy at times. Yes, they’re arguably not as ‘thrilling’ as a marvel film. But they connect us to a hopeful nostalgia of the happy naivety of childhood.

Salmon, Caspar (2018). The Greatest Showman: how the Hugh Jackman musical became an unlikely hit [Internet]. Accessed https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jan/31/the-greatest-showman-success-film-story-of-the-year-hugh-jackman [28th May, 2018].

Handy, Bruce (2016). Have Yourself a Merry Little 2017 [Internet]. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/24/opinion/sunday/have-yourself-a-merry-little-2017.html [accessed 1st April, 2018].