Saturday, January 2, 2010

When the Musical met the 21st Century: A look back at the evolution of a troubled genre

For as far as we can trace (to be, well, vague), song has played a key role as a form of artistic expression and entertainment, and has evolved to meet the times. Most holy texts, such as the Bible, include passages meant to be sung or chanted, and the ancient mythologies of Greece, Rome, and beyond have a story or two involving a musical instrument. Moving forward, music played an increasingly integral part in the developing arts, and by the 20th century, it had fused with the art of storytelling, to create a genre unlike any before. It was nothing new for songs to tell stories, some of them spanning years, but for songs to be condensed to in-the-moment, explanatory, limited devices was a unique creation if ever there was one. Through the 1900s the form developed on the Broadway stage where it flourished, and even made an impact on film (Broadway Melody, from 1929, won Best Picture). Through the following decades more successful silver screen musicals followed, often adapted from hit Broadway Shows (Gigi, The Sound of Music, and My Fair Lady, all Best Picture winners, and Cabaret, which picked up Best Director). And then a curious thing happened on the way to the forum: after the Best Picture win of Oliver! in 1968, the genre, after several years of ups and downs, flat-lined. That's not to say that there weren't musicals (1978's smash Grease), but they gradually began to lose prestige and commercial appeal as a genre. By the time the 90s arrived, the remotely successful films featuring characters bursting into song, outside of 1996's Golden Globe and Oscar-winning Evita (underrated), were the animated films of the Disney Renaissance. And while Disney (and Alan Menken) racked up a number of score and original song trophies, the idea of people singing their feelings suddenly became a tactic only fit for "kids movies" (almost exclusively cartoons). Meanwhile, musicals were booming on Broadway, with smashes like Les Miserables, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Rent all beginning their monumental runs in the mid-80s and -90s. And then the 90s ended, and the guillotine blade finally dropped. Or did they?

As it anyone who pays attention to film would know, the musical is, well, back, and it happened way before Hugh Jackman proclaimed it at last year's Oscar ceremony. It may not be bursting with life and firing on all cylinders, but it's in better shape than it once was 10 or 20 years ago, and that's saying something. The purpose, then, of this post is to look back on the first 10 decade of the 2000s, and examine how far the musical has come, setbacks and all. Going chronologically, this means our first stop is:

1. Moulin Rouge! (2001) dir. Baz Luhrmann: This is, mostly, the BIG one. Why? Lots...and LOTS of reasons. Though it proved to be a love/hate experience, Luhrmann's frenetic editing, gorgeously over-the-top visuals, and old fashioned theatrics won over the majority of critics with its mix of Top 40 hits remixed for a bizarro take on Paris in 1899/1900. Luhrmann's film was a classic example of a film that didn't have an original plot, but told its plot in an extraordinary way, and the Academy took notice. The film led the Oscars with 8 nominations, including its groundbreaking nomination for Best Picture, and a Lead Actress nomination for star Nicole Kidman. Featuring a brilliant ensemble to match its lead duo (the other half of which was played by Ewan McGregor, sadly snubbed by AMPAS), the film was broad in its comedy, outlandish in its visuals, yet ultimately packed an emotional punch underneath all of the glitter and fancy costumes. Filled with now iconically staged numbers ("Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend", "Your Song", "El Tango de Roxanne"), Luhrmann's film also wore its heart on its sleeve loudly and proudly, and the result was pure magic. The musical was back.
  • Oscars: 2 out of 8 nominations (Art Direction and Costume Design)
  • Golden Globes: 3: Best Picture (Musical/Comedy) and Best Actress (Musical/Comedy) and Best Score
  • Box Office (Domestic): $57 million
  • Box Office (Foreign): $121 million
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 77%
  • Best Performance: Nicole Kidman
  • Best Scene: "El Tango de Roxanne"
  • Impact on the musical genre: HUGE, and all of it positive
2. Chicago (2002) dir. Rob Marshall: As luck would have it, the Moulin Rouge! found a perfect companion film the following year. A more minimalist take on the genre (sort of), Rob Marshall's stellar adaptation of the so-called "unfilmable" stage show cemented the idea that the musical was a legitimate genre. Like Luhrmann's film, the numbers are brilliantly staged ("Cell Block Tango", "Roxie") are fantastically performed by Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly. Marshall's film, aside from taking more than a few cues from Bob Fosse, did something different: it wasn't afraid to cut songs from its source material (a problem Moulin Rouge! didn't have to deal with). Marshall also wasn't afraid to try something different with the songs themselves; instead of characters bursting into song along with the world around them, Marshall gave the songs (save for one, but it was justified) a unitive theme: they are all taking place in the "show in Roxie's mind". Such a device gave Marshall's film a greater sense of purpose, and he would employ the same device (though not quite as successfully) in Nine. Chicago also provided one last bit of importance. It showed audiences that songs weren't just there to be sung; they could be acted. Case-in-point, John C. Reilly. The role isn't given too much to do, and only has one major song. So why did Reilly get nominated for Best Supporting Actor? Because when he sang "Mr. Cellophane", the one song not tinged in cynicism, it struck a chord, and it struck a big one. And while Reilly went home empty-handed from the Oscars, the fact that co-star Zeta-Jones took home Supporting Actress, is proof enough.
  • Oscars: 6 including Best Picture
  • Golden Globes: Best Picture (Musical/Comedy), Best Actor (Musical/Comedy), Best Actress (Musical/Comedy)
  • Director's Guild of America: Best Director
  • Box Office (Domestic): $170 million
  • Box Office (Foreign): $136 million
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%
  • Best Performance: Catherine Zeta-Jones
  • Best Scene: "Cell Block Tango"
  • Impact: Moulin Rouge! x 2
3. The Phantom of the Opera (2004) dir. Joel Schumacher: Like the third Godfather film, the third big musical of the decade wasn't quite what everyone hoped it would be. Based on the massively popular soon-to-be longest running show on Broadway, Schumacher's film, though absolutely gorgeous in sight and sound, didn't quite capture critics the way its predecessors did. Personally, I like the film; there are flaws (good lord, there are flaws), but overall it's a decent enough film, that's always a treat for the eyes and ears. The problem is, it's almost too pretty. The aspects of the film that should be dark and nasty are either too tame or too, well, pretty. The Phantom's lair, complete with plush swan-shaped bed (wha...?) is in spots beyond campy (the two hulking men carved into the wall to look like they're holding up the ceiling...anyone?), despite the lushness of it all. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Phantom's scarring, when revealed, is too light; it looks more like a really bad sunburn in the process of peeling, rather than a horrific deformity. The other big problem is that, in not really changing anything, the film is too much a literal adaptation, giving one the feeling of watching a filmed version of the stage show. There are good things...besides the costumes, I mean. The songs are wonderful to hear, and anytime Emmy Rossum opens her mouth to sing, the film soars. Even the ridiculously huge statues in the cemetery can't diminish her mind-blowing rendition of "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" (a song which I had completely forgotten about after seeing a 'blah' performance on Broadway). Minnie Driver is also fun as the diva Carlotta, a role that actually requires a fat dollop of camp. Awards wise, the negative press didn't help the film, even in the artistic categories. But the biggest insult was the film's snub for Costume Design in favor of the likes of Troy. That, or having Beyonce butcher the already "just alright" original song, "Learn to be Lonely".
  • Oscars: nominated for 3
  • Golden Globes: Nominated for 3
  • Box Office (Domestic): $51 million
  • Box Office (Foreign): $103 million
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 33%
  • Best Performance: Emmy Rossum
  • Best Scene: "Masquerade"
  • Impact: Slightly hurtful, though not devastating. It managed decent box office in spite of the reviews.
4. Rent (2005) dir. Chris Colombus: To me, this was the first real sour note in the musical revival, and critical consensus was overall 'meh' (however, the fact that this film has a higher RT score than both Phantom and Nine is disturbing). My gripes are mostly the same as the naysayers with paychecks: Colombus' film does nothing to innovate the source material. The film's signature song is, like on Broadway, just there; a thematic prologue of sorts. Unfortunately, it doesn't add up to much. The performers are all trying, but the story is limply told, and the numbers staged and shot unengagingly save for "The Tango Maureen". Most of them, while fun on the stage, feel cramped on film. Prime example is Jesse Martin's song set in a subway car; Martin's hulking frame, bouncing around and trying to groove, simply looks too big to be dancing in a real subway car. The song "La Vie Boheme" doesn't fare any better, with the cast dancing on table tops in a cramped restaurant. In the end, the film didn't go very far, especially outside of the states, and on this matter, I'm not complaining.
  • Major Awards/Nominations: none
  • Box Office (Domestic): $29 million
  • Box Office (Foreign): $2.5 million
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 48%
  • Best Performance: Rosario Dawson (?); frankly, I don't really remember any of them...
  • Best Scene: "The Tango Maureen," which isn't saying much.
  • Impact: Negative to those who weren't avid fans of the stage show.
5. The Producers (2005) dir. Susan Stroman: Instead of waiting another year or two, audiences got a second musical only weeks later, with the results better than the previous entry, but still nothing that could rival the Luhrmann/Marshall one-two punch. Like Chicago and Moulin Rouge!, The Producers benefits from having a number or two staged within the head of a character, or on a stage within the film, which is where some of the best parts occur (it's pretty hard to ruin "Springtime for Hitler"). So where does it misfire? The look. The sets, and more importantly, the lighting on said sets, feels flat; it lacks richness and subtlety. The inside of Max's (Nathan Lane) apartment is so evenly lit that it looks more like the set of a sitcom. And while the cast are all trying hard (with varying degrees of success), the overall effort feels stifled, in part due to Stroman's willingness to become enslaved by the source material. That said, while I'm not rushing to re-watch this anytime soon, it certainly didn't leave a bad taste in my mouth. It's flaws aren't heinous, but they're simply too balanced out by the positives, none of which are outstanding.
  • Oscars: zero
  • Golden Globes: 4 nominations: Best Picture (M/C), Actor - Lane (M/C), Supporting Actor - Ferrell, Original Song
  • Box Office (Domestic): $19 million
  • Box Office (Foreign): $18 million
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55%
  • Best Performance: Nathan Lane
  • Best Scene: "Springtime for Hitler"
  • Impact: reinforced the idea that musicals belong on a stage
6. Dreamgirls (2006) dir. Bill Condon: Hype can be a dangerous thing, and it certainly was the case in Dreamgirls. Touted as a Best Picture frontrunner before an official trailer had even premiered, the film, despite winning the Best Picture Golden Globe (M/C), missed out on nominations for Picture and director. While it wasn't as good as the first two musicals of the decade, it was a very well made movie, and probably what Phantom should have been if left unaltered: a generally well paced, energetic musical that does not remove a single song, and by its end has outstayed its welcome by a mere 10 minutes or so. Condon, who helped write Marshall's film, wasn't as strong of a director, but his literal translation was a success because he understood the material. Certain songs didn't gel as well as others, but they were never distracting. And for the most part, the performances were solid-to-very-good, save for Jamie Foxx. The stars here were Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson, who was OK in her acting parts but so perfectly sold her songs (especially the big one), that it almost didn't matter. She may not have given the best supporting performance of the year, but it's hard to deny the impact she had. Apply a similar sentence for the film as a whole, and you basically have it in a nutshell.
  • Oscars: 2 out of 8 nominations (Supporting Actress and Sound Mixing)
  • Golden Globes: Won 3 out of 5, including Best Picture (M/C)
  • Box Office (Domestic): $103 million
  • Box Office (Foreign): $51 million
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 78%
  • Best Performance: Eddie Murphy
  • Best Scene: "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going"
  • Impact: A big step forward after two steps backwards
7. Hairspray (2007) dir. Adam Shankman: Unlike The Producers, this film actually benefited from a deluge of brightly lit sets. The stage musical has always been big, loud, and bright, and the film version was too. Featuring a cast of old pros and newcomers, the numbers were well performed, even from Travolta, who generated too much controversy to play his role as an actual woman, instead of an in-joke of "omg it's a man in drag haha" (which I don't think works off of the stage). And while the barrier created by the silver screen does slightly hinder the tremendous energy of the show (the finale on stage almost brings the roof down), it's still a boisterous blast. Some aspects are weaker either due to writing or casting. Amanda Bynes doesn't do nearly enough as geeky best friend Penny, a role often made much nerdier, but also much more endearing and easy to root for as she emerges from her shell. Then there's Queen Latifah, whose performance lacks the necessary sass, and feels too gentle. However, newcomer Nikki Blonsky, Travolta, and Michelle Pfeiffer, along with Elijah Kelley, light up the screen with presence and enough vocal strength to match.
  • Oscars: zero
  • Golden Globes: nominated for 3: Best Picture (M/C), Actress (M/C), and Supporting Actor
  • Box Office (Domestic): $118 million
  • Box Office (Foreign): $83 million
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
  • Best Performance: John Travolta
  • Best Scene: "You Can't Stop the Beat"
  • Impact: musicals could work as light, summer fare, and still draw in acclaim
8. Sweeney Todd (2007) dir. Tim Burton: Over the course of Tim Burton's career, the man has tried man different genres, but until his 2007 masterpiece of sorts, never touched on the musical genre. Finding a stage musical with material perfectly suited to his liking, Burton's adaptation, though not high on vocal prowess, succeeded thanks to its tightly told story, and songs that were well staged and performed with a brilliant combination of singing and acting. By cutting the Greek chorus like set of narrators, reducing or removing subplots, and focusing on his two leads, Burton created a fantastic musical that was, *gasp*, R-rated. Dark, funny, and surprisingly intense, the film may have finally earned Johnny Depp a Golden Globe award, but the real star here was Helena Bonham Carter, who knocked her role out of the park. Backed up by a wonderful supporting cast including Sacha Baron Cohen and Alan Rickman, Burton's film was also a technical marvel, which, combined with a sharp screenplay, and Burton's most assured directing in years, left a stunning impression as it faded to black.
  • Oscars: Won 1 out of 3 nominations (Best Art Direction)
  • Golden Globes: Won 2 out of 4 nominations: Best Picture (M/C) and Best Actor (M/C)
  • Box Office (Domestic): $52 million
  • Box Office (Foreign): $99 million
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
  • Best Performance: Helena Bonham Carter (where was her Oscar nomination!?)
  • Best Scene: "A Little Priest"
  • Impact: musicals can be dark (very dark) and nuanced, and still make money.
9. Mamma Mia! (2008) dir. Phyllidia Lloyd: The second musical to feature an exclamation point in its title, suffered from literal-translation-syndrome, though this didn't hinder the film's box-office, which is by a wide margin the highest for any musical this decade thanks to foreign audiences (Chicago is still king on stateside profits alone). Based on the ABBA jukebox stage show, the film cast certainly seemed to have a blast, and they generally sang well (although I'm still concerned about what Meryl Streep was doing with her hands during "The Winner Takes it All"). The problem was that the moments between the songs were, for the most part, not too engaging, and the musical sequences were often shot too close up, or waaaaaaaaaaay too far back, meaning the energy of numbers like "Dancing Queen" was muted, even as dozens of women danced on a boardwalk. That said, Streep is fun to watch as always, and the young cast are fun too. In the hands of a better director and writer, this could have been as good or better than Hairspray; sadly, it's not quite there (although audiences obviously disagreed).
  • Oscars: none
  • Golden Globes: nominated for 2
  • Box Office (Domestic): $144 million
  • Box Office (Foreign): $465 million (not making that up)
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 53%
  • Best Performance: Meryl Streep
  • Best Scene: "Take a Chance on Me"
  • Impact: Meryl Streep can officially do anything, and musicals can make money. Lots and lots of money. Especially in the summer. money.
10. Nine (2009) dir. Rob Marshall: Rob Marshall's second musical effort sadly isn't as strong as his first, despite a bucketload of stars. That said, even though I've downgraded my review of the film to a "B", the amount of hate thrown at this movie strikes me as preposterous. Perhaps it was the Fellini comparisons, or the fact that the story wasn't as deep as it could have been. I'm not going to say that the film is without problems, but only 38% on Rotten Tomatoes? Really? I understand that the film doesn't really score top marks as far as being a totally compelling drama is, but to be fair, 8 1/2 isn't really a hard hitting drama either. Sadly, turning a Fellini film into a musical and then transferring it to the screen wasn't the best idea commercially; the $80 million film has only grossed $11 million as of Saturday, and its theater count is being reduced, which is a shame. Nine may not be the stunner that everyone hoped it would be, but to call it junk, a travesty, or one of the worst films of the year (no joke, I've seen it on one Bottom 10 list...) is going too far. Rob Marshall may not be Fellini, but that doesn't mean he deserves to take such a beating for making some mistakes.
  • Oscars: nominations not yet revealed
  • Golden Globes: 5 nominations, ceremony on January 17th
  • Box Office (Domestic): $14 million
  • Box Office (Foreign): not yet released in many overseas markets
  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 38% (lower than Rent, Mamma Mia!, and The Producers? Really?)
  • Best Performance: Marion Cotillard
  • Best Scene: "Take it All"
  • Impact: pretty meh, unless it does decently during awards season. The genre should recover, however.
So there we have it, 10 years, and 10 musicals (I left off Once because it's more of a film about music), with good and bad moments throughout. As we plunge into the next 10 years, it's going to be exciting to see where this genre goes. Hopefully, 10 years from now, I won't be writing about the death of the movie musical; that would be a shame.


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Anonymous said...

It will be great to watch Mamma Mia, i have bought tickets from looking forward to it.