History of Musical Film

The 1980s

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996; revised 2014)

"Crazy World"

Several big-budget screen musicals lost millions in the early 1980s, leaving behind a litany of titles that still cause heads to shake in Hollywood. Some were hopelessly bad ideas, but two were stage hits demolished by acclaimed directors who simply had no idea how to film a musical:

In an eerie re-enactment of the early 1930s, as soon as the film musical was proclaimed dead by most industry executives, the genre started kicking its way out of the grave.

The Muppets: "The Rainbow Connection"

Jim Henson's Muppets had been entertaining Americans on television since the 1950s, winning their greatest acclaim on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show (1976-81). By 1980, the Muppets could claim an audience of 235 million viewers in over 100 countries. Henson took things a step further and brought the Muppets to the big screen, with the most successful new screen couple since Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. That the couple in question was a frog and a pig only added to their appeal.

The Muppet Movie (1979) featured the loveable frog Kermit and the irrepressible Miss Piggy as the romantic leads. It was an international success and the song "Rainbow Connection" became a standard. Two more Muppet musicals followed. The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) did well, appealing to both kids and adults with a stylish blend of comedy, melody and sentiment. Henson focused his energies on non-musical fantasy films until his untimely death in 1990. His son Brian directed a new series of successful musicals including The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and The Muppet Treasure Island (1996).

Victor/Victoria: "Try To Hang On To Hope"

Victor/Victoria (1982) was the best original screen musical since Gigi. It told the story of "a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman" in the nightclubs of Paris in the 1930s. That the film dealt with the touchy issue of sexual identity made its success all the more remarkable. Director Blake Edwards (best remembered for his Pink Panther films) provided a witty screenplay and memorable visual gags.

Even without songs, Victor/Victoria would have been a first-rate comedy, but a wonderful score by composer Henry Mancini and lyricist Leslie Bricusse made the film all the grander. Julie Andrews (Edwards' wife) provided the star power, giving one of the funniest performances of her career. From the uproarious "Le Jazz Hot" to the introspective "Crazy World," she was in top form. When Robert Preston joined Andrews for "You and Me" or took center screen for an uproarious drag finale, the result was pure magic. This marked the final musical screen roles for both stars, It was also the last great live-action musical film of the 20th Century. Although this film was independently produced, many moviegoers were pleased to see it was distributed by the once legendary home of screen musicals, MGM.

Ashman & Menken: "The Meek Shall Inherit"

The new golden age of animated musicals began when the stage musical Little Shop of Horrors opened at a small Off-Broadway theatre in 1982. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist/librettist Howard Ashman turned Roger Corman's campy 1960 horror film into a wickedly funny, family-friendly musical hit. When they adapted it for the screen in 1986 (directed by veteran Muppeteer Frank Oz), the results were even more entertaining, capturing the humorous sense of fantasy that most stage and screen musicals seem to lose. Ashman and Menken moved on to separate unsuccessful stage projects, but Little Shop did not go unnoticed.

At the Disney studio, the new regime of Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Vice Chairman Roy Disney and Studio Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to rebuild their animation team. The Great Mouse Detective (1986) looked great but had an unimpressive score. Remembering the success of Little Shop, Disney and Katzenberg brought in Ashman to add sparkle to Oliver & Company (1988). The real change came when they re-teamed Ashman with composer Menken to create a top-quality score for the studio's next animated feature.

The Little Mermaid (1989) was the finest animated musical in decades. The classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale was given a Disney twist with singing sea creatures, a spunky title heroine and a humanoid octopus as the evil witch. Ashman and Menken's score had a lush, traditional Broadway sound, and seasoned stage performers were brought in to make the most of every number. The ballad "Part of Your World" was worthy of any stage hit, and "Under the Sea" was the bounciest old-school "showstopper" in a generation.

Disney's Little Mermaid became the surprise hit of the year, grossing over 100 million dollars -- and several times that figure when it hit home video. It received Oscars for Best Song ("Under the Sea") and Best Original Score, won Grammys for its best-selling soundtrack CD, and inspired a successful animated TV series. Ashman and Menken were given the go ahead for more projects. Their efforts would make animated musicals one of the most profitable genres in the decade ahead.

Once again, musical film was back from the dead.

Next: Film 1990s