Hollywood's Musical Resurgence Is Upon Us
Film & TV|Nov 8, 2021

Hollywood's Musical Resurgence Is Upon Us

A Musical Resurgence Has Hollywood Changing It's Tune.
Paul Dalgarno

You know how it is: your day’s going badly until you hear strings from an invisible orchestra and burst into song. Rather than laugh, your significant others respond in kind, expressing their love and support in rhyming couplets, culminating in a coda that threatens to smash your fancy crystal with its ovation-worthy high C. 

No? Well, why not? The resurgence in Hollywood musicals would have us believe that showtunes and life’s slings and arrows are synonymous.

Already this year we’ve had In the Heights, based on the stage musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the batshit-looking Cannes opener Annette with Adam Driver and Marion Cottillard. Among those still to come we have Miranda’s directorial debut Tick, Tick… Boom, Diana: The Musical, and Steven Spielberg’s $100 million reworking of West Side Story.

We’ve come a long way since the 1960s Post-Golden Age of musicals, an era that saw the speak-properly-woman histrionics of My Fair Lady (1964), an Oscar-winning nun on the run in The Sound of Music (1965) and the sinus-crushing squeaks and squawks of Doctor Doolittle (1967) – a heady brew of cockneys, Nazis and nincompoops cranking out showstoppers that were comic, serious or tear-jerky… nobody really cared. The aim, as with all musical theatre, was to knock you out with a two-to-three-minute contextually dependent, narratively driven, sucker punch. 

The 70s, 80s and early 90s were dominated by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schönberg – an epoch of hopelessly sincere opera-light on stage, replete with pop-inspired showtunes for which we’re still paying the cinematic price. There were laughs aplenty to be had in the film adaptation of Cats (2019) but they were unintentional. Bread-thief Jean Valjean choosing song as the best defence against heavily armed French soldiers in Les Misérables (2012) was meant to be sombre not silly.  

The resurgence in Hollywood musicals would have us believe that showtunes and life’s slings and arrows are synonymous

Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (1996), while no masterpiece, was a notable outlier in this po-faced period, the actors giving WTF glances at their co-stars whenever the singing started. Moulin Rouge (2001) and to a lesser degree The Greatest Showman (2017) also stake claims for the self-aware, have-your-cake-and-eat-it postmodern musical. 

But in the latest cinematic rush, the orchestral baton has passed firmly into the double-grip of diversity and authenticity (if you ignore the singing and jazz hands). Miranda’s monster stage hit Hamilton (2015), with its colour-blind casting and rapping rather than arias, made a convincing financial case for more socially conscious musicals, the sort we’ll see, or avoid, on screens before the end of the year with Dear Evan Hansen, about a high school student with anxiety disorders, and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, in which a teenager overcomes prejudice to become a drag queen. By the time West Side Story appears in December, we’ll likely be talking less about why New York gangs are scrapping with sawn-off melodies and more about the fact the Hispanic characters are played by Latinx actors, in sharp contrast to 1961 original.

The wave is coming hard so make your decision: tune in and tune up or tune out.