I LOVE movie musicals. I grew up on “The Wizard of Oz” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” I know every song in “The Sound of Music,” even the ones that were in the stage version but got left out of the movie.
Musicals deal with subjects we might otherwise find uncomfortable to discuss. Rodgers and Hammerstein talked about prejudice in “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific.” Musicals cover relevant topics. “White Christmas” was a love letter to American GIs serving in foreign lands. Musicals tell great stories. “Bride and Prejudice” combined a Jane Austen classic with contemporary Bollywood production numbers.
But musicals don’t seem to have the same draw for today’s younger moviegoers they have for me. With few exceptions, audiences fail to embrace movies that erupt in song at the drop of a hat. Oscar winner Nicole Kidman sang and danced her way through “Moulin Rouge,” and the movie yielded only $57 million. The stage version of “Rent” (like “Moulin Rouge,” based on “La Boheme”) won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an Obie Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, four Tony Awards and three Drama Desk Awards. The movie grossed a paltry $29 million.
I recently watched “Across the Universe,” a 2007 musical set in Vietnam-era America. In a time with no cell phones, no computers, no facebook accounts cluttering up the days, folks had time to sing and dance, practice free love and worry about being drafted. The creation of Julie Taymor (the genius behind the Broadway sensation “The Lion King”), “Universe” combined Beatles songs with pretty, young stars and a “Big Lebowski” dance number in a bowling alley. But even the Fab Four couldn’t save this one. The movie fell flat on its financial face ($24 million). To put it in perspective, “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” took in $38 million.
The weekend “Universe” opened, its competition included “Transformers: The Movie.” A train wreck of a film, it grossed $319 million. To add insult to injury, “Universe” got a single Academy Award nomination (costume), and “Transformers” got three (sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects). Apparently, Hollywood’s movers and shakers and Oscar voters don’t care much for musicals either.
The heyday of movie musicals was the ‘30s and ‘40s, when depression, war and fears about the future preyed on Americans’ minds. You might not have any gas for your car (if you had a car), but you could feel good for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoons at the moving pictures. A little romance, some adventure, a few memorable tunes to hum on the way home – musicals gave weary citizens something to smile about, to rally around when things were looking hopeless, a promise that the sun would indeed come out tomorrow.
With things looking equally grim today – the country at war AGAIN, Depression 2.0 in the making – we need the distraction, the magic, the hope that musicals provide. So I say, Andrew Lloyd Webber, call your old pal Tim Rice. Dust off your keyboard and create us some happiness. I can see it now: “Harry Potter – The Musical,” dancing Dumbledore and all. Bring it on.