Musicals in films, you either love them or despise them. Your cringe-o-meter goes into the red, or your heart swells with joy, and I’m not sure there’s a happy medium. There was a time, however, when a simple tune could weave itself into the cultural fabric of anyone and everyone. What has altered?
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton and In the Heights, the chart music bombast of The Greatest Showman, and even stabs at nostalgia via Disney reboots and the Golden Era homage La La Land, the inevitable Broadway adaptation of which was announced last week, have all been served in recent years. They tell good stories, have big budgets, and make a lot of money at the box office. But, at the heart of it all, I’m not convinced I hear any truly timeless melodies to be remembered or rebooted in the coming years.
After the first listen, La La Land’s “City of Stars” sounds like an imitation of something classic without really being it; The Greatest Showman’s “A Million Dreams” may have been a huge hit, but it already sounds like an unfortunate chart song we were guilty of liking six years ago. From 17-year-old Judy Garland’s iconic rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz to Gene Kelly swinging around that lamppost in “Singing in the Rain,” musical showstopper used to triumph. Consider every song in Bugsy Malone, Grease, and anything Randy Newman has ever written for Pixar, not to mention decades of Disney classics. Tunes for everyone, always. Which leads to the unavoidable: Who is currently in the forever business? Has a certain type of songwriter been discouraged from approaching the musical format? I believe they may have.
Movie musicals have their own subgenre, as they are written specifically for film rather than being adapted from stage shows or based on already popular songs (“the jukebox musical”). But, understandably, they continue to be influenced by iconic musical theatre writers. According to Greg Wells, the music producer behind The Greatest Showman and In The Heights, a certain trend may have begun with Jonathan Larson’s Nineties musical Rent, which was set in New York during the AIDS crisis.