The rise and fall of the musical
Love them or hate them, there’s no escaping musicals. Every year a film version of one, usually a rehashed version of a stage play, comes out (and somehow gets put in the category as the comedies during awards season). But what is it about musicals that divides people so much? Their inherently fantastical and unrealistic nature makes some people sing and others wave the white flag. So what is it, in the age of The Expendables 2 and Movie 43 that makes people still laud musicals?
Seasoned Broadway actor and New York Film Academy musical theater history professor Thom Christopher Warren says it all comes down to storytelling. Sure, you can be entertained for two hours while Liam Neeson tries to get his family back for the eight time, or you can agonize with Tom Hanks as he decides if he really can execute the innocent Michael Clarke Duncan. Warren believes the resurgent popularity of musical films is due to a recent rise cultural demand.
“The success of the films has relied more on the creative genius behind the camera… America wants to see good musicals.”
A new age of pop culture has emerged too, one where both the music we hear on the radio and on stage serves as America’s musical voice. But Warren says that the popularity of musical theater probably will never reach the pinnacle it did during the 1940s and 1950s. People were eager to be distracted in the 1940s, especially during wartime, with musicals like Carousel, Oklahoma! and South Pacific. South Pacific was released in 1949 to record popularity, gained the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950, won ten Tony Awards and grossed over $2.5 million. Many musicals from this period comforted viewers with themes of the American Dream and heroes to root for.
“Our tastes are far too varied and polarized now to make musicals as famous as they were during the Golden Age.”
But if some believe the Golden Age of musicals has come and gone, who is to blame for the decline of the musical? The Devil’s music, rock and roll! Once the American musical landscape expanded to include Elvis, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, people found they could get their satisfaction from somewhere other than Broadway. In 1956, when rock and roll was beginning to take over, the most popular song was Elvis’s “Hound Dog” which spent 11 weeks at #1. But musicals fought for popularity too. The original recording of West Side Story’s soundtrack, released in 1961, spend 54 weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts
Music, in all its forms, has always been a way for people to express their feelings, be it Anne Hathaway’s Fantine singing about the dreams she dreamed, or Michael Jackson starting with the man in the mirror. That is another driving force, along with story, behind the popularity of musicals. Les Miserables is still doing well at awards shows and has earned $146 million in America alone. But big box office hits like Les Mis (that really only come around every few years; think RENT, Chicago, Mama Mia) often falsely lead people to think musicals are on the rise.
Regardless of what the musical is about, it has the power to move people. And music, both Broadway and pop, has always been a way for a nation to reflect. Movie-going of all sorts has served as a kind of escapism too, so anything that combines the two like a musical can double that effect.
“Hollywood has historically been described as a ‘Dream Factory’ because it mass produces fantasies and dreams and fuels our desire for escapism, a desire which is even more pronounced in the toughest times,” Andrew Utterson, assistant professor of cinema and photography at Ithaca College, said.
In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, one of the most popular movies was King Kong, about traveling to exotic Skull Island and fighting fantastic beasts. In 1942, the year the Axis powers had made their farthest advance into Russia, the sixth-highest grossing film was a musical comedy called Springtime in the Rockies. In 1969, when the Vietnam War was in full swing and the Altamont Festival brought the hippie era to a bloody end, the American public was infatuated with the Wild West, James Bond, and road movies. The musical Hello, Dolly! was also released this year, which did not earn much in the box office (only $13 million from a $24 million budget) but it was also the fourth biggest grossing film that year.
Thom Warren says that musicals are about escapism too.
“The successful musicals…that were born out of the aftermath of 9/11…focused on optimism, humor, and the American dream.”
Musicals also allow society to see itself, to take a step back and laugh, or even reflect.
This is really no surprise, though, that movies of any sort serve as escapist vehicles. If we want to visit another time or world, it’s only a ticket or push of a button away. The release of Avatar in 2009 made a whopping $750 million dollars at the box office and surprised everyone by surpassing even Titanic, which had held the record for highest grossing film of all time. Though the movie industry is evolving and expanding to DVDs, Blu-Rays, and On-Demand, it will continue to grow alongside with musicals.
“At the end of a tough day, immersing oneself in a movie, removing ourselves from one world and inhabiting the world of the movie for an hour and a half or so, is very pleasurable as a form of escape,” Utterson said.
For some of us, that sanctuary world is one where people burst into song, for others it’s Middle-Earth, Hogwarts, or a galaxy far, far away. As long as people are looking for an escape in music and movies, they will look to musicals to sing from the rooftops what they can’t quite say.
Miranda Materazzo is a freshman journalism major who is changing her ID number to 24601. Email her at mmatera1[at]ithaca.edu.