Monday, December 24, 2007

The Secret to Making a Successful Film Musical

There has been a New Wave of film musicals this year - "Hairspray," "Once," "Across the Universe," "Romance & Cigarettes," "I'm Not There," "Enchanted," "Honeydripper" and, of course, "Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," Tim Burton's daringly direct film version of the Stephen Sondheim musical. "Sweeney Todd" is that rare modern film musical that makes no excuses for its characters bursting into song.

As fans of the form await the box-office fate of "Sweeney Todd" - and the future of the film musical in general - it occured to me that there's one way, and only one way, for a screen musical to hook a potential audience.

Yes, modern-day movie audiences have a difficult time suspending disbelief when a character suddenly breaks into song on screen. Somehow, it's embarrassing. It makes them, well, uncomfortable. However, audiences have proven that they have no problem with on-screen singing when the plot in question is about music itself.

Think about it. With the possible exception of "My Fair Lady" and "West Side Story," the more popular and enduring film musicals of the past 40 or so years have been tied to music, embracing plots that give their characters a legitimate reason to sing both on stage and off. Here, in no particular order, is a scratch-pad list off the top of my head:

-"The Sound of Music" (of course)

-"The Music Man"


-"Moulin Rouge"




-"Bye Bye Birdie"



Does "Grease" count? Its characters seem driven by music. Of course, three recent film musicals - "The Phantom of the Opera," "Rent" and "The Producers" - were all music-oriented, but none of them was exactly a huge hit. Of course, none was a huge flop either.

It's just a theory, but I think it makes sense. I also think it's no accident that "Singin' in the Rain," arguably the most beloved screen musical of all time, is about the filming of a musical - or that most musicals in the library of MGM, the self-proclaimed king of the film musical, are about putting on shows.

"Sweeney Todd" is definitely not about putting on a show, at least not the usual kind of show, if you know what I mean. It'll be interesting to see if audiences sit still for it and maybe even embrace it. Time will tell.

Anyway, next up: Universal's "Momma Mia!," starring Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pearce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski, Stellan Skarsgård and Julie Waters.
- and inspired by a catalogue of hummable songs by ABBA.

(Artwork: Rosalind Russell, as Madam Rose, tries to nose her way into daughter Ann Jilliann's act in Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy"; Meryl Streep as Donna in the upcoming "Momma Mia!")

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com


cjKennedy said...

You know, I hadn't considered how traditional a musical Sweeney really is and how rare that is for movies.

I admit most of my favorites are largely performance based, and yeah even in my absolute favorite Singin' in the Rain, the songs feel natural.

I liked Sweeney alot though.

Count me among the 5 people who enjoyed Romance and Cigarettes as well.

jbryant said...

I don't fully get your point. Of all the films you listed, I believe only "Cabaret" confines all its musical numbers to realistic performance situations (the stage of the club). All the others have plenty of numbers in which characters suddenly burst into song and/or dance, breaking "reality."

But yeah, I think I agreed with you in another thread about the ridiculous "musicalphobia" that seems to have stricken the last couple of generations. I'm straight, but if I rave about a musical, my male friends look at me like I've morphed into Truman Capote.

joe baltake said...


I understand the misunderstanding. Of course, "Cabaret" is the only one in the bunch in which the songs are restricted to a stage setting. My point is that when a musical's plot is about making music or performing - whether in "The Music Man" or "Dreamgirls" or "Chicago" - it makes it easier for the audience to grasp and accept the notion of its characters also singing off-stage. That's just a theory based on casual observation but it seems to hold true.

jbryant said...

Yeah, I guess I buy that, joe. Anything that predisposes the audience to expect musical performances probably helps the medicine go down.

j. kaiser said...

Streep finally doing a musical. I can't wait. Just wish it had been Sweeney.

jbryant said...

It's disheartening to see that Sweeney isn't exactly setting the box office afire. I'm thinking they should have gone with a wide release right off the bat.

I loved the movie, but I guess the arterial spray is scaring off the older crowd. And as we've discussed, the word "musical" seems to spur a knee-jerk testosterone surge in much of the male population. A shame.