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Are We Seeing the Movie Musical’s Final Curtain?

With the varied reception towards recent big-budget movie musicals, are the musicals or their marketing to blame?

Gene Kelly featured in Singing in the Rain
Credit: Lionsgate

In 1927, The Jazz Singer‘s release would usher in the first talkie or sound-based film. In an additional seminal achievement, it would also serve as the first-ever movie musical. While notably outdated, the film would forever cement Hollywood’s relationship to the musical genre. 

Hollywood’s Golden Age would continue this trend with such classics as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Singing in the Rain (1952), and The Sound of Music (1965). Even the first full-length animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1939), followed suit in this trend.

When Hollywood needed to bank on a surefire hit, dance montages and bursting into song were sure to follow. When the movie musical began to decline as the top genre, more avant-garde and evolved films still garnered great critical and commercial success, such as Sweet Charity (1969) and Cabaret (1972).

Audiences continued to be enamored with Bob Fosse’s choreography into the 21st century with Academy Award winner Chicago (2002). Less distinguished but still enjoyed films like Hairspray (2007) and Mamma Mia (2008) were additional successes of the genre.

Yet despite this deep history of the movie musical, we’ve recently seen suggestions of its decline. But are audiences truly no longer interested?

Recent Reactions to the Movie Musical

Cast of "Mean Girls"
Promotional still from Mean Girls Credit: Paramount Pictures

Between Wonka and the recent adaptation of Broadway’s Mean Girlsthe past few months have introduced several big-budget movie musicals. While critical reception has varied, most audiences have found themselves confused. 

The internet of December and January found itself obsessed with these movies. Videos of moviegoers crowded “For You Pages” with great bewilderment from many regarding the musical nature of these films. Users took to these sites as quickly as they could to address their confusion.

It seemed as if musical lovers and haters could find common ground through their collective disappointment. Fans of the Mean Girls stage musical felt the performances were lackluster and commitment to the original show insincere. Those unaware of the Broadway production, however, felt accosted by the sudden singing and dancing. Nothing better encapsulates these sentiments than a now-removed viral clip, which featured collective groans from a theater audience as the song, “Stupid With Love” began to play.

Wonka received similar yet less intense audience responses due to its original premise. Yet these overwhelming reactions from viewers combined into great dissatisfaction towards the two films and, specifically, their musical qualities.

A Case of False Advertising?

Timothée Chalamet in 'Wonka'. Credit: Warner Bros.
Timothée Chalamet in ‘Wonka’. Credit: Warner Bros.

It’s no surprise that these films have garnered such responses, however. In fact, many had speculated long before these films’ releases that such reactions would be inevitable.

When the trailer for Mean Girls dropped in November, many were quick to catch something missing. With few scenes of musical numbers and an Oliva Rodrigo song scored over the trailer, fans were understandably confused. Where was the musical?

The responses from non-fans, however, were incredibly different. Marketed as “not your mother’s Mean Girls,” in reference to the 2004 original movie, many assumed the 2024 version was a direct reboot for Gen Z. While Millenials were unsettled by the need for a “modern” reinterpretation, younger fans were excited for the story to reflect their generation’s experiences.

Wonka received similar reactions to its marketing. Though the trailers for Wonka feature grandiose sets and lighting reminiscent of stage musicals, it is arguably understandable that many overlooked that aspect. While “Pure Imagination” and the Oompa Loompa’s songs are greatly familiar in the cultural zeitgeist, the original 1971 film and 2005 remake lacked a true musical quality.

In contrast, however, Wonka’s soundtrack features eight new original songs, fashioning it into a much more developed full musical. As opposed to its predecessors, Wonka’s musical nature is much more indispensable and conceivably jarring to its viewing.

To state that the marketing for these films is deceitful, as many have claimed, may be an exaggeration. What may be more accurate, however, is to refer to this as a case of calculated misleading. These films’ promotions are not hiding that they’re musicals, but they’re not focusing on it.

Is Hollywood Scared to Make Musicals?

Still from the 2017's The Greatest Showman
Still from Box Office Success The Greatest Showman (2017) Credit: 20th Century Studios

Reacting to the backlash towards the marketing choices of Mean Girls, Marc Weinstock, Paramount’s President of Global Marketing and Distribution, stated, “We didn’t want to run out and say it’s a musical because people tend to treat musicals differently.” In his interview with Variety, Weinstock went on to reference this similar marketing for Wonka and The Color Purple, another recently released movie musical based on the 2005 stage adaptation.

Classifying the film as a “broad comedy with music”, Weinstock defended these decisions with the final acknowledgment that these promotions never explicitly stated it wasn’t a musical, “We have a musical note on the title, so there are hints to it without being overbearing”.

But why, for such a flashy genre, should there be anything to hint at? While Weinstock’s claims optimistically hope that more people will learn to like musicals without these preconceptions, the past few months have proved the exact opposite. Wanting “everyone to be equally excited” for a deliberately falsely advertised movie is just a surefire way to ensure disappointment. Instead, you’re just left with high box office numbers and increased resentment for the musical genre.

We Shouldn’t Let Movie Musicals Hide in the Wings

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance alongside eachother in 2016's La La Land
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in 2016’s Oscar Nominated La La Land Credit: Lionsgate

Hollywood’s past few years have had a complicated history with movie musicals. Many adaptations of popular stage musicals have been tonally off, leading to critical and financial failures such as Dear Evan Hansen (2021), The Prom (2020), and… Cats (2019).

While these films are deserving of these criticisms, these musical misfirings have seemed to unfairly taint the recent efforts of the genre. It may not seem like it but the modern musical is thriving in its own way. While not as consistently triumphant financially as other genres, the past ten years have given us innovative artistic efforts alongside big hits.

Recently, we’ve seen the acknowledgment of smaller Broadway shows on the big screen with Tick, Tick… Boom (2021) and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (2021) as well as Disney’s continued success with their live-action musical adaptations.

Jukebox musicals have consistently held their own as well, with Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) grossing over $910.8 million and the Pitch Perfect franchise’s one-liners dominating conversations to this day.

Of course, it would also be remiss not to acknowledge the much-awarded (sans one Oscars error) La La Land (2016), which paid homage to the classic Hollywood musical in a way that was still refreshing and innovative.

With such recent successes, there’s no need for production companies to be scared of the movie musical. It’s proven to continuously be lucrative and critically successful for the past few years. But with the negative reactions towards Mean Girls and Wonka, this seems to only be true when these films identify themselves as musicals. While appealing to a wide audience is not a bad thing, studios’ continued choice to water down the musical may cause us to lose the genre as a whole.

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