Tuning out: The strange case of the apparent death of the film musical

Dear Evan Hansen screen adaptation comes during a fraught period for the always imperilled genre

Ben Platt’s age has come under scrutiny in reviews of Dear Evan Hansen.

Ben Platt’s age has come under scrutiny in reviews of Dear Evan Hansen.

 

Cinema and musical theatre have, for the last 50 years or so, been in and out of relationship counselling. The newer medium can’t quite decide how it feels about its senior partner. Remember all those trailers for film musicals – most notoriously the 2007 version of Sweeney Todd – that cynically failed to include any singing. There is still a suspicion that too much of the audience has an allergy to these things. Yet, every now and then, the public will pluck an unheralded musical release from the schedules and turn it into a smash. That happened with Mamma Mia! It happened with The Greatest Showman. The market never goes away.

Yet signs of dysfunction remain. A glance at Broadway and the West End would suggest that, at the top of the market, musical theatre is cowed by moving pictures. Moulin Rouge!, adapted from the Baz Luhrmann film, just won the Tony award for best musical. In London, indifferently received song-and-dance translations of Back to the Future, Pretty Woman and The Prince of Egypt have opened alongside Mary Poppins and The Lion King.

The film was, even after factoring in Covid adjustments, a financial bomb of sizable proportions

Meanwhile, translations of theatre musicals to film are having a difficult time. This week we get Stephen Chbosky’s take on the Tony-winning teen musical Dear Evan Hansen. The kindest word to use about the reviews would be “mixed”. Ben Platt revives his role as a troubled youngster who, for reasons too contrived to detail, gets mistakenly identified as the supportive friend of a schoolmate who has taken his own life. The script’s queasy conciliation with the protagonist’s deceit has raised eyebrows. The ingenuousness of the confessional songs has strained patience. Most of the attention has, however, focused on the absurdity of casting Platt, a 28-year-old who here looks 35, as the compromised Evan.  

Corey Atad in Little White Lies magazine was one among several who sensed a disconnect between theatrical and cinematic sensibilities. Atad described Platt as being “costumed like a geeky middle-schooler from the ’80s in a manner only a Broadway audience could find convincing”. Catch some shade under that “only a Broadway audience” shelf. There was, among the film press, a sense of “What the hell is this thing? How the hell did it become a hit on stage? Why the hell is it being inflicted on blameless cinemagoers?” Stupid theatre.

Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman
Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman

The relative failure of In the Heights during the summer sent up different shapes of red flag. Released to largely positive reviews, the adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about life in Dominican uptown Manhattan was expected to restart the US box office and stake an early claim for Oscars. The film was, even after factoring in Covid adjustments, a financial bomb of sizable proportions. At time of writing, Variety magazine has it ranked at number 41 in the race for best picture.

Boom and bust

So the love affair is over? A little less than a century after talkies began with a musical – Al Jolson telling us “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” in The Jazz Singer – the relationship has come to an unevenly balanced end? Broadway and the West End convert Hollywood’s hits. The cinema fails to flog the Great White Way’s prize winners. The divorce papers are in the mail.

This is almost certainly not the case. Obituaries are constantly written for the film musical. It always comes back. The studios behind the upcoming West Side Story and tick, tick . . . Boom! need not yet lower the lifeboats. Since the late 1960s the weather has, however, been extremely changeable. No other film genre has – to mix maritime metaphors with financial ones – been so subject to boom and bust.

For about 40 years, from the release of The Jazz Singer to the release of Sgt Pepper, the musical was a reliable staple of mainstream Hollywood entertainment. During the Great Depression, Busby Berkeley’s staging pushed song and dance towards the edge of surrealism. In the post-war era, Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM produced classics such as Singin’ in the Rain, On the Town and Bandwagon. Translations of Broadway hits such as Oklahoma! and South Pacific drew in huge numbers.

Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain
Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain

Then the industry entered the whirling conundrum that was the 1960s. Astonishingly, four of the 10 musicals to win best picture at the Oscars – West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Oliver! – landed in that decade alone. The Sound of Music passed out Gone with the Wind to become the highest grossing film of all time. Yet, by the end of the 1960s, thanks to the brasher school of pseudorealism ushered in by the New Hollywood, the form was shuffling out of fashion. Hugely expensive musicals such as Paint Your Wagon and Doctor Dolittle were financial catastrophes. Barbra Streisand followed up her Oscar-winning turn in Funny Girl with the relative flop that was Hello Dolly!

Ever since, the industry has had a neurosis about the musical. The people who control the purse strings twitch like Inspector Dreyfus in the Pink Panther films when the subject comes up. Mention the genre and someone within earshot is bound to tell you how they can’t stand the things. In 1972, as the sickness was setting in, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret seemed to show the path forward. The director found a way of opening up a highly eccentric theatrical staging – the original stage show itself was mounted as a cabaret – into a form that took on board changes happening in contemporary cinema. Cabaret was a hit and, trousering eight statuettes, holds the record for most Oscars without a win in best picture (that latter prize went to The Godfather for 1972).

Loss of nerve

Then Hollywood lost its nerve again. Ever since, any triumph for the musical has been treated as a class of inexplicable freak. Newspaper articles noted the dynamics of rogue hits such as Grease. Films like Saturday Night Fever (note: not a musical) got awkwardly shoe-horned into the genre to make nonsensical arguments about the death of the more traditional form.

Olivia Newton-John as Sandy and John Travolta as Danny Zuko in Grease. Photograph: CBS via Getty Images
Olivia Newton-John as Sandy and John Travolta as Danny Zuko in Grease. Photograph: CBS via Getty Images

Weirdly, the stuttering decline continued as the stage musical – thanks largely to the contribution of Andrew Lloyd Webber – was entering a period of unprecedented financial health. That boom in the late 1970s and 1980s did little for cinema. It took 20 years for Evita to become a movie and, when Alan Parker’s film finally arrived in 1996, it was only a modest hit. By one measure, Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera is the highest grossing cultural entity of its era, but Joel Schumacher’s crushingly boring film adaptation failed on its emergence in 2004. The least said about the recent Cats the sooner we can stop waking up screaming in the night.

Occasional successful film adaptations such as Chicago do little to dispel the notion that the once reliable link between stage success and movie sensation has been broken. For every Les Misérables screen success there is a Nine or a Rent. That last failure offered warnings that, as we shall see, the good people at Netflix have chosen to ignore. The stage version of Jonathan Larson’s Rent, a sentimentalised portrait of New York’s East Village during the Aids crisis years, had already experienced mixed responses outside the US. “The late Jonathan Larson’s reworking of La Bohème, while never a great musical, has been turned into a grisly, synthetic, pseudo pop concert,” the Guardian said of one London revival. “Overall Jonathan Larson’s music is non-descript,” Joe Jackson wrote in this newspaper of a 2000 production in the Olympia Theatre. The 2005 film always seemed like a hard sell.

So good luck to Netflix with their upcoming take on Larson’s tick, tick . . . Boom! Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (not his last mention here), the film details the composer’s journey towards the first production of Rent. The trailer promises a meta-entertainment in the style of Fosse’s All That Jazz. You never know. Before the end of the year, we will also see Steven Spielberg’s revival of West Side Story.

Joel Schumacher’s 2004 adaptation of Phantom Of The Opera. Photograph: Alex Bailey©Scion Films Phantom Productions Partnership
Joel Schumacher’s 2004 adaptation of Phantom Of The Opera. Photograph: Alex Bailey©Scion Films Phantom Productions Partnership

Given the ups and downs of the film musical over the last half century, one is tempted to throw one’s hands in the air and point towards William Goldman’s most famous maxim. “Nobody knows anything,” he wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade. Phantom of the Opera, the busiest phenomenon in stage history, could not deliver a hit on the big screen. With this in mind, when Lin-Manuel Miranda finally gets around to his “proper” film of Hamilton – as opposed to last year’s recording of the stage production – he should not bank on any sort of monumental smash. Jon M Chu’s evolving take on Wicked, the smash Wizard of Oz spinoff, sounds like an even less safe bet. As The Greatest Showman demonstrated, the hits can come from almost anywhere.

Draw conclusions

We can, however, draw a few conclusions. First, Hollywood should stop being ashamed of the form. If audiences are prepared to embrace the bold cheesiness of Mamma Mia! there is no need to pretend your characters have any reservation about bursting into song at moments of high emotion. The studios need to shake off the neurosis that has been dogging them since nobody went to see Paint Your Wagon. Second, dare to tackle highly theatrical stage shows, but make sure you find some cinematic counterpart for the original stagecraft. Cabaret made that point half a century ago. Miranda, in particular, needs to keep this in mind when he puts a camera back in front of Hamilton. Leos Carax’s recent Annette was certainly challenging, but nobody could claim it was anything other than a big fat slab of cinema.

The movie industry and musical theatre are not yet organising custody of the children. It will be some time before they carve up the family home. The relationship is fractious, but they have grown used to one another and wouldn’t know what to do if left on their own. “The more you cling to things, the more you love them,” a character sings in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion. “The more the pain you suffer, when they’re taken from you.” They need to make a film of that show. 

 Dear Evan Hansen opens on October 22nd

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