The decline of the movie musical was not a process of gradual atrophy; it was abrupt. Between 1929 and 1968, nine movie musicals took the Oscar for Best Picture. Since 1968, only one has captured that same prize. There was clearly a point at which au
diences decided — silently, but in perfect unison — that they weren’t interested in movie musicals anymore.
That’s not to say that good movie musicals were not made between 1968 and 2002. “Cabaret,” arguably the best movie musical ever made, was released in 1972, losing Best Picture to “The Godfather” but winning virtually every other trophy out from under it. Master director and choreographer Bob Fosse was the talent behind this success, but as time wore on it became clear that he was more or less the only artist capable of crafting a serious musical for the silver screen. Efforts like “Pennies From Heaven” matched the darkness of a Fosse production but lacked even a fraction of the intelligence.
While the stage musical was experiencing a renaissance spurred by the steady stream of mega-musicals from Europe, the movie musical was relegated to the realm of children’s entertainment, and although movies like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” featured some of the best-made musical sequences ever committed to film, such productions never effectively made the shift into musicals for adults. Disney’s only major attempt at a serious movie musical, the animated “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” contained mood swings so jarring that it was more like being on an anti-malaria tablet than reading the Victor Hugo novel.
Even the financial and — at the time — critical success of “Chicago” failed to revive what seemed to be an increasingly like a dying form. Looking back at “Chicago,” this is not terribly surprising. Even though it is not quite as bad as the present backlash might suggest, it is hurt by its apparent embarrassment at being a musical. Trying to pass off the musical numbers as dream sequences, a technique director Rob Marshall would use again with far less effect in 2009 with “Nine,” “Chicago” stays at such an ironic distance from its story that only occasional moments seem emotionally genuine. Tim Burton’s adaptation of “Sweeney Todd” had the opposite problem, being too cerebral and psychologically introverted for a mass audience — or even fans of the stage show — to appreciate.
The upcoming adaptation of “Les Misérables” will attempt to present its own solution to this problem. The film’s much-ballyhooed method of having the cast sing every take live suggests that it is aiming at a greater degree of emotional engagement than any of its recent predecessors. While it seems set to become an enormous box-office draw no matter what its artistic merits, it will still be some years before we are able to determine whether the film is destined to father a new and vital generation of movie musicals or simply end up another historical curiosity; posterity is watching.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Dec.11 print edition. Stefan Melnyk is arts editor. Email him at email@example.com.