The era of the movie musical

Ever since I saw Matilda in the west end at 8 years old, I have been obsessed with the world of musical theatre. In fact, my most disappointing revelation to date is still the moment I realised I was too old to audition for the role. Since then, I have performed in and watched countless musicals both on-screen and in the theatre. However, I can’t help but notice that in the last decade, movie musicals seem to have begun to take centre stage. Is this a shift in the wrong direction for the art form? Is there a risk that the atmosphere of a live show will begin to be forgotten and replaced by the comfort of household viewing? The movie musical – yay or nay?

There is no doubt that musical theatre is still a very vibrant, active and developing art form. Just from scrolling online through the huge variety of musicals showing in London currently, I can see that live shows are just as, if not more popular than they were in the golden age of musical theatre in the mid-20th century. The Olivier Awards held in April 2022 are testament to the prominence of musical theatre on the London stage with 12 awards being given to musical productions. After two years of silence on the West End because of Covid-19, the world of musical theatre has bounced back in full force. But it seems the live shows are now competing more and more with the on-screen musicals for the public’s attention. Does this mark the beginning of a shift away from in-person audiences to sitting-room spectating?

According to The Film Magazine, movie musicals were most popular in the 1940s. In 1943 alone, Hollywood studios released a total of 65 musicals. The production of musicals declined significantly by the 1960s as exactly 20 years later in 1963, Hollywood only released 4 musicals. However, in the last decade the world of cinematic musicals has surged substantially, so much so that the form hasn’t been this popular since its golden age in the mid-20th century. The new era arguably began in the last decade with the arrival of on-screen Les Misérables in 2012, followed by La La Land (2016), The Greatest Showman (2017) and Mamma Mia! Here we Go Again (2018). Musicals biopics have also increased in popularity with the production of Jersey Boys in 2014, Rocket Man (2016) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). Most recently, reimagined classics have dominated our screens such as the new Lion King in 2019 featuring Beyonce and Donald Glover, along with West Side Story in march of this year.

So, what is the reason for this mass on-screen musical production and viewing? Of course, there are multiple causes, but practically speaking, one can’t help but draw a link between Covid-19 resulting in the closure of theatres and the growing popularity of film watching and on-screen versions of theatre productions. According to Ofcom, viewing figures for video streaming services during lockdown were up by 71% on 2019 and 12 million customers signed up to services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+. Although the pandemic also restricted the creation of films, this did not limit people’s ability to watch movie musicals that were already available for viewing. It seems it wasn’t just the musical nerds that were forced to get their fill through on-screen musicals but their surrounding families too, as they quite literally couldn’t escape!

More theoretically, author of the original In The Heights, Quiara Hudes believes, pandemic or not, that their resurgence has come because they offer audiences a real human touch. Pamela Hutchinson offers the view that ‘many of the most popular musicals reflect the difficult times that their audiences were living in, while also offering enough whizz-bang entertainment to coax people out of their houses’, or in lockdown terms, enough entertainment to distract people from the monotony and dreariness of life in isolation. There is certainly something fantastical and other-worldly about a musical, perhaps more than just a straight play and when this is accessible at the click of the button, the viewing experience becomes automatically more attractive. Director Jon Chu suggests that it is also the content of the new movie musicals that are attracting viewers. He says, polarising political and social factors have no doubt had a knock-on effect on our collective psyche and Chu thinks In the heights and Hamilton can be a healing force to bridge communities.

He goes on:

“At this moment, I think people are plugging into something, because just words aren’t sufficient to get us through these times,” he says. “Music and movement are universal languages so I hope we’re in a Golden Age and the presence of all these new creators guarantees that, whether the world is ready or not.”

It seems to me that Hamilton is a marmite kind of musical – you either love it or you hate it; or perhaps you’re one of those who have refused to watch it in an attempt to avoid becoming one of those ‘basic Hamilton super-fans’. I, however, have no problem declaring my Hamilton super-fan status. Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical is innovative, inclusive and insightful, and uses mainstream music genres such as rap and hip-hop to unearth neglected American history. As I said, the world of musical theatre is certainly not dead and its availability on Disney+ has meant its reached a much wider audience. So, what exactly is the problem?

Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge fan of on-screen musicals – my personal favourites being Les Mis, Sound of Music and Billy Eliot. But my fear is that their recent prominence has begun to cause a decline in theatregoing. This even seems to be true for myself, a self-confessed musical theatre lover, as I haven’t been to see a live musical since 2018. This is of course as a result of multiple factors, but my lack of urgency to see one has certainly been at least partially caused by the huge expanse of musical content I am able to watch at just a click of a button in the comfort of my sitting-room.

Whilst there are of course many production benefits of movie musicals such as the opportunity for multiple camera angles, re-takes and real-life settings, they lack what I feel are core aspects of musical theatre – atmosphere and authenticity. The tension is palpable when the lights dim and the audience waits in silent anticipation for the curtain to go up and the performance to begin. This buzzing atmosphere is something a movie musical can’t offer a viewer. And dashing to the freezer for an ice-cream after pausing the TV is just not the same as getting one of those ice-cream tubs during the interval at the theatre (despite their ridiculously extortionate prices!).  For me there is also something more authentic and exciting about a live show as the performers only get one chance to get it right on the night. The feeling of awe after watching a phenomenal live acting performance is unique to the live audience experience. 

So, the movie musical – yay or nay?  I can’t say nay, because who doesn’t love a good cosy night-in watching Tangled? But, as a theatre-lover I know there is so much to gain from live productions, that just isn’t possible with on-screen musicals. I hope that musical theatre remains in the spotlight and isn’t overshadowed by the likes of Disney+ and Netflix. Live productions are simply unparalleled, so let this article encourage you to remind yourself what it’s like to experience true musical theatre. 


Featured Image: Wikimedia commons with license.

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