Movie musicals are whistling a happy tune

Movie musicals are whistling a happy tune
Disney’s teen pop culture phenomenon is spawning sequels and stage shows. (Disney Channel)
"You Can't Stop the Beat." That's the title of the song that brings down the curtain on the musical "Hairspray." Five years into its Broadway run, Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman's lyrics have taken on a greater meaning. This summer, New Line Cinema's successful film adaptation of "Hairspray" offers the latest proof that reports of the movie musical's death were premature.

Or as Gary Marsh, president of entertainment for the Disney Channel (and the man who greenlighted the pop culture phenomenon "High School Musical") suggests, the musical didn't die, "but it was in hibernation, waiting for the perfect 'Rite of Spring' to bring it back."

Once a staple of the Hollywood studio system (think Gene Kelly, MGM and Busby Berkeley), the movie musical started falling out of fashion in the late 1960s. Two spectacular failures, "Hello, Dolly!" and "Paint Your Wagon," were woefully out of touch with times that were changing. Film musicals continued to come out during the '70s, but even the critical success of "Cabaret" in 1972 or the box-office smash "Grease" in 1978 couldn't fully revitalize the form.

The 1980s proved even worse -- think "Xanadu" and "Annie," the musical of "Tomorrow," which quickly became yesterday's news for Columbia in 1982. Before this year's July "Hairspray" launch, "Annie" marked the last time a studio rolled out a musical as a major summer release.

Around that time a young composer, Alan Menken, was working on a quirky musical based on a Roger Corman film. "When Howard [Ashman] and I first came around with 'Little Shop of Horrors,' I think the classic Broadway musical was in a bit of a crisis; it was searching for a voice." Craig Zadan, a producer of the filmed "Hairspray," noted in a recent interview: "It was an era when people were afraid of musicals where people burst out singing. There had been a lot of bombs and studios felt musicals were an old-fashioned art form."

Despite the huge Broadway successes of blockbusters like "Cats," "Les Misérables" and "The Phantom of the Opera," no studio had the nerve to adapt these shows to the screen. Even "A Chorus Line," a perennial winner with both audiences and critics, bombed when it was made into a film in 1985. Conventional wisdom suggested that musicals were appealing to a niche audience, that mass audiences no longer could stomach people breaking into song.

There was no greater confirmation of this than ABC's attempt to bring show tunes to prime-time television. Steven Bochco was riding high on the success of "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law," both in familiar TV genres (police and legal dramas). For his next show he wanted to try something different -- a musical. "The idea came from a woman who pitched me the idea of taking 'Hill Street Blues' to Broadway as a musical," Bochco recalled recently. "It was impractical, but the idea stuck in my head. If you couldn't take a TV show to Broadway, maybe you could bring Broadway to a TV series."

The result was "Cop Rock," a show that featured LAPD officers breaking into songs written by Randy Newman. It premiered in the fall of 1990 -- but was canceled before the year was out, becoming one of TV's more infamous failures.

Neil Meron, another "Hairspray" producer, believes that "traditional musicals disappeared during this time because they were expensive and they didn't take into account what the audience wanted."

In 1990, people were watching singing and dancing on TV. It just that it wasn't in the form of musical theater, it was in the form of music videos. "Back then, people would try to tell me that kids weren't into watching singing and dancing," Zadan noted. "They would say, 'It's a new generation.' And I'm thinking, 'What are you talking about? This generation watches it 24 hours a day.' "

Zadan, a producer of the 1984 film "Footloose," says that in the 1980s MTV helped usher in the era of the "pop-sical" -- big soundtrack movies like "Flashdance" or "Dirty Dancing" where everyone danced but no one sang. Eventually, Hollywood would realize that audiences weren't afraid of singing or dancing -- just that the singing and dancing had to be more like what was on MTV.

This wasn't easy. In 1994 James L. Brooks made "I'll Do Anything," a break-into-song movie with music by Prince and other contemporary artists. But test audiences squirmed when these numbers were sung, not by pop stars but by actors such as Nick Nolte and Albert Brooks. The result: Sony recut the film without any musical scenes and the movie tanked.

Others did find ways of making breaking into song palatable to the MTV generation. One of those was Menken, who along with Howard Ashman and Disney realized that even if audiences weren't keen on LAPD officers breaking into song, they could handle animated mermaids or genies singing show tunes.

His scores to "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin" sounded more like Broadway than MTV, but all three were blockbuster hits. Menken credits the success of these films to the fact that he and Ashman weren't afraid of the musical form. "You have to be unapologetic about it . . . a good musical has to face forward, bend on one knee and say 'love me,' " he said.

Around this time, Meron and Zadan were figuring out how to bring musicals to the small screen. Their recipe was high production values, star power and proven material. This worked in 1993 with their TV production of "Gypsy," starring Bette Midler. "CBS was afraid of it as a musical and tried to sell it as a mother-daughter story," Meron recalls, "but it got huge ratings and that changed the landscape."

This led to a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella," starring Whitney Houston. Again, the network was ambivalent. "The only reason ABC bought it was because of Whitney Houston, who was the biggest recording star in the world at the time," Zadan said. "It got 60 million viewers -- almost Super Bowl ratings -- the best of any movie on ABC in 14 years."

Naturally, ABC wanted more, so Zadan and Meron asked their "Cinderella" choreographer, Rob Marshall, to direct a TV remake of "Annie." He reluctantly agreed and "Annie" became only the second musical to be nominated for an Emmy for best TV movie ("Gypsy" was the first). In a strange twist, while the film version of "Annie" helped signify the decline of the movie musical, this TV "Annie" would be the main reason for its return.

The reason? According to Zadan and Meron, it was simple: Harvey Weinstein's kids loved "Annie." Meron laughs: "Harvey says he's seen our 'Annie' more times than he's seen 'Citizen Kane.' " This led to Marshall meeting with Miramax. Soon he was directing the film version of "Chicago." The rest, as they say, is history.

"Chicago" became the first musical since "Oliver!" in 1968 to win the Academy Award for best picture. "Nothing succeeds in Hollywood like success," Menken quips. "When something succeeds, doors you thought were closed suddenly fly open."

Today, studios are no longer afraid of big musical films. Since "Chicago," Hollywood has been pumping out movies that break into song ("Phantom," "Dreamgirls"), and even major flops ("Rent" and "The Producers") haven't soured the industry -- "Mamma Mia!," "Sweeney Todd" and "Nine" will be coming soon to a theater near you.

All of this suggests the beat is not going to stop any time soon. Indeed we may even be witnessing a musical bubble -- "High School Musical" is spawning sequels and stage shows, "Xanadu" has been repackaged for Broadway (becoming a surprise hit), and the success of Fox Searchlight's "Once" is proving that even that even hipper indie audiences are in tune with low-fi movie musicals.

Menken, who has both a Broadway show ("The Little Mermaid") and a major movie musical ("Enchanted") opening this fall, says these are indeed boom times: "I've lived long enough to experience the roller coaster. Breaking into song is cool again."