History of Musical Film

2000-2009: A New Century

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2000; revised 2014)

Film's Second Century

While the 21st Century opened with a rebirth of musical comedy on Broadway, musical film remained in a state of near-limbo. The animated musical boom of the 1990's had petered out, and musical films once again became almost as rare as literate sitcoms. Those projects that did make it into production were unlike any film musicals that had come before.

No one could quite figure out why Oscar-winner Kenneth Branagh chose to reset Shakespeare's Loves Labour's Lost (2000) in 1930's Europe, speckling it with songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins. Intended as a tribute to the musicals of Fred Astaire, the result was an unsatisfying mish-mosh that left audiences giggling with embarrassment. British director Mike Leigh had far greater success with Topsy Turvy (2000), a delicious look back at the birth of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1882 stage hit, The Mikado. Leigh's cast sang for themselves and helped to develop the final screenplay, sticking very close to the historic facts. The result was a cinematic love letter to the theater – a truly great film about the history of musical theatre.

With almost no stage musicals making it to the big screen, it was a pleasant surprise to see the unconventional Off-Broadway hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) succeed with original star (and co-creator) John Cameron Mitchell repeating his uncompromising performance in the title role. Effective despite a limited budget, Hedwig proved that offbeat musicals could find an appreciative commercial audience.

That same year, Moulin Rouge (2001) captured the imagination of millions of filmgoers by presenting a pedestrian love story via a wild mixture of musical sequences and eye-catching images. Director Baz Luhrmann threw together a dizzy hodgepodge of old and new pop songs, and kept the screen whirling with hyperkinetic, quick-cut editing. Nicole Kidman and Ewan MacGregor looked and sounded sexy in musical sequences that flew by at such speed that their dubious musical talents hardly mattered. Most critics and film goers overlooked the often confusing pace and turned Moulin Rouge into the first real musical screen hit of the new century. It garnered numerous awards and  justified its $53 million budget by grossing $179 million worldwide -- a figure that does not include home video sales.

Musical film took another turn into new territory with 8 Mile (2002), the first film to feature a hip-hop score that grew out of and played a part in the film's story line. Dark and angry, the film delighted teen audiences that might have steered clear of a traditional musical, and the soundtrack CD topped the pop charts. Controversial rap artist Eminem starred in this supposedly semi-autobiographical story of an ambitious white trash rapper struggling to make his name in Detroit's all-black rap music culture. No one seemed to mind that the rapster, born Marshall Bruce Mathers III and raised in suburban comfort, had never known such a struggle with poverty.

Chicago: Reclaiming the Oscar

And then, when everyone in show business assumed that traditional screen musicals were a lost cause, along came the knockout screen version of John Kander and Fred Ebb's long-running Broadway hit Chicago (2002). This project had been bouncing around for more than 25 years before making it to final production. Broadway director-choreographer Rob Marshall's first feature film blended theatrical know-how with a socko cinematic approach, placing most of the musical numbers in a leading character's imagination.

The result was that rarest of accomplishments, a film adaptation that improved on the original stage version. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere sang and danced the lead roles with genuine flair, and rap star Queen Latifa delivered a sizzling performance as the conniving prison matron. Critics raved, and musical lovers reveled in the kind of gleeful, shameless musical film few thought they would ever see again. Chicago garnered six Academy Awards, including the first "Best Picture" award to go to a musical in 35 years. Produced for an incredibly cost conscious $45 million, it's initial release grossed more than $300 million worldwide, making it clear that quality musical films still had tremendous commercial and artistic potential. The question was, would the decision makers in Hollywood get the message?

A series of small independent productions tried to prove that original screen musicals were still viable. At the head of the short list was Camp (2003), a touching yet hilarious look at teen egos and hormones clashing at a performing arts summer camp exploded with wit and talent, wining rave reviews across the country. The lion's share of the credit went to director/screenwriter Todd Graff, who based the film on his own experiences at such a camp. Some of the score was taken from old stage hits, but there were fine new numbers too, and the screenplay was 100% original. The live-action musical film, dismissed as a dead genre when the new century began, was alive and singing again

Dropping the Ball

But Hollywood, as if resentful that the public would embrace musical films again, seemingly did their best to sabotage the newly reborn genre. De-Lovely (2004), a purported screen biography pf songwriter Cole Porter, turned his glamorous life into a bad musical. A potentially brilliant performance by Kevin Kline as Porter was burdened down by a clumsy story, inexplicable casting, and stylistically unforgivable pop performances of classic songs. Everything Chicago had done well, this film doggedly got wrong. You could almost hear Hollywood wags howling, "See? We told you musicals were dead!"

The lavish screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera (2005) only deepened the damage. What had been impressive on stage seemed pretentious on screen. With non-stars in the leads and an unimaginative production, the film suffered dismal domestic box office results. Filmed at a surprisingly reasonable cost of $70 million, it grossed $158 million worldwide -- but admirers of the record-breaking stage version generally dismissed the film as a disappointment.

Rent (2005) and The Producers (2005) made their way to the big screen with most of their original Broadway cast members on hand, but the results were missing most of the magic of the original stage versions. Rent cost a modest $40 million and grossed $31 million -- the more lavish Producers cost $45 million and grossed a pathetic $19 million.

In a surprising misfire, the same producers and director responsible for the sensational film adaptation of Chicago re-teamed to turn the Tony-winning stage hit Nine (2009) into an incomprehensible, star-studded big screen mess. Costing $80 million to produce, it grossed a meager $54 million.

Cynics began to wonder if Hollywood was determined to see its "movie musicals are dead" prophesy fulfilled at any price. Of course, no one sets out to intentionally make flops, especially with millions of dollars at stake -- but the business seemed inexplicably clueless when it came to making successful screen musicals. This pattern continued as the decade progressed.

(As the story unfolds, more will be added.)

Next: And the Future?