After years of snubbing Broadway musicals, Hollywood is now embracing the movie musical once again.
With the tremendous success of the 2002 film version of the musical Chicago came something unexpected: The possibility of a new golden age for the movie musical. Chicago - a jazzy Broadway musical of all things - was a hit with both audiences and critics. It won the Academy Award for Best Film - the first time a musical had won since Oliver! in 1968. Broadway fans started wondering if it might soon be like the old days of Hollywood, when musicals were regularly seen on the cinema screen. And Hollywood producers wondered the same thing, immediately green lighting several big Broadway musicals for the big screen. Everybody's hopes were dashed, though, when the movie versions of Rent and The Producers - Broadway mega-hits, both - flopped at the box office. Even The Phantom of the Opera, which is STILL the longest running Broadway musical of all time, didn't sell nearly as many tickets at the cineplex as everyone expected.
Spirits were buoyed again by a strong box office showing from the Dreamgirls movie, which won its star, former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson, an Oscar, and then the Hairspray musical movie surprised both the Broadway and Hollywood industries by becoming the hit of the summer of '07. More modest in scope, Tim Burton's cinematic take on the 1979 Broadway musical Sweeney Todd did respectably later that year and earned itself a cult following. The most recent Broadway musical to turn movie was Mamma Mia, which did even better that Hairspray domestically and blew every other recent movie musical out of the water with worldwide box office ticket sales.
Many of these Hollywood musicals were released while their namesakes were still playing on Broadway, and not surprisingly their Broadway counterparts got a boost in ticket sales due to the exposure. Broadway show budgets are minuscule compared to film, so having TV commercials and billboards everywhere with the name of your show on it is phenomenal advertising. Chicago, Mamma Mia, and Hairspray all saw a rise in ticket sales after the release of their respective films, though the numbers didn't stay up for long, as evidenced by Hairspray's closure. The Producers' box office didn't seem to benefit at all, but that's no surprise considering one of the biggest criticisms of the movie was that it was too much like the Broadway show.
Broadway shows also provide a sort of advanced advertising and word-of-mouth for their film versions simply by existing. Wicked, one of those rare Broadway musicals to be known and loved even by people who know little to nothing about Broadway musicals, is practically a brand name already on the strength of its Broadway production and corresponding productions in cities around the world. When the movie version of Wicked, currently in the early planning stages, arrives, it will already have the interest of millions. At least in theory. For the same reason, The Phantom of the Opera was expected to be a bigger success, but timing may be key. Perhaps Phantom waited 20 years too long, after all the excitement had died down. The Wicked movie's producers should take note, and be sure to get the Hollywood musical version made and out in theaters before everybody is already sick of it.
The lesson learned from all of this is that, no, we're not in a new Golden Age for Hollywood musicals, but all things considered, the movie musical is in pretty good shape. Though the box office numbers have been mixed, the Hollywood studios keep churning out a couple musicals a year - Broadway musicals turned Hollywood films coming up include Nine, most recently seen on Broadway in a revival starring Antonio Banderas, and the aforementioned Wicked.
Here is an overview of the most notable movie musicals from Chicago to the present (and even a glimpse into the future).
First appearing on Broadway in 1975, the Chicago musical was a long time coming. After the original Broadway production's early closing, and the death of director/choreographer Bob Fosse, the possibility of the movie practically evaporated. But the wild success of the 1996 revival renewed hopes. Even then, it took years before Rob Marshall was handed the reigns and he assembled his all-star cast. Knowing that film audiences might not be ready for a full-blown movie musical, Marshall wisely staged the musical numbers in the film as "fantasies" of the heroine Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), while making the rest of the movie feel very realistic.
2. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Phantom nuts were clamoring for this one for years. There was even a society of Michael Crawford fans dedicated to seeing that their hero was chosen to reprise his role as Phantom on screen (they went into overdrive when rumors started that Antonio Banderas would play the part). Eventually the role was given to Scottish actor Gerard Butler, while newcomer Emmy Rossum played Christine.
After years of rumors (Spike Lee was attached at one point), it was finally announced that a Hollywood musical adaptation of Rent would be made. Fans were thrilled to hear that much of the original Broadway cast would reprise their roles, but less than thrilled that Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Harry Potter) would direct the Rent film. The movie turned out fine, but not great, and simply didn't excite audiences the way the Broadway show had - the Hollywood Rent pretty much bombed at the box office.
4. THE PRODUCERS
A film version of a Broadway musical that actually began as a film, the whole idea of doing a movie of the musical The Producers seemed odd. This was a case of being too faithful to the Broadway show - the Hollywood movie looked too much like a filmed version of the stage show, leaving both audiences and critics uninspired.
Since it began on Broadway in 1981, people have wanted to make the motown musical Dreamgirls into a Hollywood musical film. Music stars from Whitney Houston to Lauryn Hill were at one time rumored to play leads, but it was eventually Beyonce Knowles and Jennifer Hudson that landed the plum parts when the Dreamgirls movie musical was at last made and released in 2006.
The next most successful musical-to-movie transfer after Chicago, Hairspray didn't earn as many awards, but it sold lots of tickets. This was another strange situation like The Producers, where a non-musical version of the film already existed before the Hollywood musical was made.
7. SWEENEY TODD
Tim Burton's film of the horror musical Sweeney Todd is the closest thing to an 'art film' on this list. Although the musical was a modest hit on Broadway in 1979, this one simply doesn't have the name recognition of the others. Nonetheless, a deliciously creepy concept, Johnny Depp in the lead, and the lure of Burton's signature style helped sell a very respectable number of tickets. However, the movie's marketing department shied away from the "musical" aspect of the film, meaning that many audiences were actually surprised when they realized the actors would be singing through most of the film!
8. MAMMA MIA
The worldwide hit musical featuring a silly plot and the songs of ABBA may be fluff, but it's the kind of fluff that draws A-list actors. Meryl Streep heads a cast that includes respected actors like Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski, Stellan Skarsgard, and Pierce Brosnan, all cavorting around scenic Greece singing infectious pop tunes. Needless to say, it was a hit at the box office and overall the Hollywood musical was an improvement on the Broadway show (even if it still couldn't fix the show's gaping plot holes).
The recent Broadway revival starring Antonio Banderas got the rumor mill going that Nine would finally become a movie musical, but when the movie was officially announced, strangely it was Javier Bardem in the role. Later Bardem dropped out, and now the Hollywood musical film version is being made with Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead.
Considering what a massive hit Wicked had been on Broadway and beyond, they would be insane not to make this into a Hollywood musical. The producers have announced their intention to do so, but the Wicked movie musical is still in the planning stages.