When did musicals get so embarrassing?

From the “new twist” on Mean Girls to the “bold new take” on The Color Purple, it seems no one wants to admit their new movie is a musical.

Often, half the fun of putting your feet up at the cinema involves watching the trailers for upcoming films, making half-baked plans to watch them all and finishing most of your popcorn before the actual movie you came to watch has even started.

Over the last few months, some of these trailers will surely have felt familiar: The Color Purple, Mean Girls, Wonka. Are these reboots? Not quite. They tease new takes”, though, avoiding the elephant in the room. Rather, these are common retreads. They are musicals – and they hope you don’t figure it out. Neither trailer features so much as a sung word.

Case in point with Mean Girls. In a since-deleted video, the audience is shown to collectively groan at one of Cady’s musical numbers; some people allegedly walked out after realising the cinema ticket they’d spent their hard-earned cash on was none other than a musical. (Paramount has since claimed that 75 per cent of audiences knew what the deal was with the new Mean Girls before going to see it – still, that’s only three quarters of the audience.)

So how did we get here?

It would feel remiss not to mention that something shifted in 2019: it wasn’t just the pandemic on the horizon or ever-rising global temperatures. That summer, a thoroughly evil thing was introduced into the ecosystem, a poison and a toxin. It was Cats. The original Andrew Lloyd Webber musical had been one of the longest-running on both Broadway and the West End in the 80s, launching the megamusical phenomenon. The movie, however, changed the musical-movie landscape for the worse.

Suddenly, all the goodwill created by projects such as La La Land (2016) and The Greatest Showman (2017) flew out the window. Glee, a show which arguably galvanised an audience of young people to enjoy musical theatre stylings of pop tunes (before ending abruptly in 2015), helped shape a landscape where musicals were, for lack of a better word, a thing. And so La La Land and The Greatest Showman catered to that need, with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo behind many of the songs in those films, skyrocketing to name recognition beyond the theatre sphere.

Pasek and Paul also masterminded the music from Dear Evan Hansen, which sold out houses nightly on Broadway and garnered critical acclaim. At that point, it felt as though musicals were back in vogue – songs from The Greatest Showman were even charting. Despite their success, however, neither of these movie musicals had much lasting cultural impact. Although I do remember my bro-ish personal trainer telling me that This Is Me! from The Greatest Showman was his most-played song on Spotify the year it came out. Make of that what you will.

But then: Cats. Everything about Cats, in turn, was subject to intense mockery: the uncanny, unfinished CGI, the baffling plot (do they all die or not?) and the James Corden of it all (not to mention Taylor Swift). The film was a disaster, financial and otherwise. As Manohla Dargis wrote in her the New York Times review, brilliantly titled They Dance, They Sing, They Lick Their Digital Fur’: A doctoral thesis could be written on how this misfire sputtered into existence, though there’s nothing new about the movies’ energetic embrace of bad taste.”

Subsequently, other musicals came and went: In The Heights, West Side Story, Tick Tick… Boom!, all released in 2021, and the aforementioned Dear Evan Hansen. A couple – West Side Story, Tick Tick… Boom! – became major awards players, with Ariana DeBose (an actor whose theatre kid energy is stronger than most) even winning an Academy Award for her role in West Side Story. But despite the critical acclaim and cascade of nominations for the film, it was a box office bomb, failing to break even for its massive scale. The rest of these movie musicals came and went. Hardly hummable, but easily memeable.

In the first few seconds of the trailer for West Side Story, Rachel Zegler’s face blooms into frame and she sings an a capella version of Tonight. Make no mistake: this is West Side Story, true to form, music and all. Compare that, however, to the opening few seconds of this past winter’s movie musical trailers, such as the bold new take” on The Color Purple or the new twist” on Mean Girls. You’d never know, from watching these trailers, stuffed to the brim with dialogue, that these films are actually musicals. It’s impossible to tell – even amid party or dancing scenes – whether the songs involved are diegetic or not. The Mean Girls trailer only featured Olivia Rodrigo’s get him back! for crying out loud.

As Matt Singer at ScreenCrush pointed out: “[I]f you’re not familiar with the musical, you could be convinced this new remake simply includes a scene with some singing. Personally, if I had Fantasia Barrino – an American Idol winner and platinum-selling recording artist – in my movie, and in my movie she sings a lot of songs, I would let potential customers know that fact.”

These movies might be proud to have Grammy, Oscar and Tony winners filling their ranks, like in The Color Purple. They might be happy to have man of the hour Timothée Chalamet playing Wonka, a semi-musical that also hides this fact in its trailer, and they might be thrilled to see up-and-coming pop star Renée Rapp in the new Mean Girls. But one thing unites these films in what they’re not proud of: being musicals.

The musical, as an entity, is not the easiest sell, especially in a world of post-earnest, post-eager, post-theatre kid irony (post-Cats). Earnestness has to have the correct narrative behind it, an underdog sense of gratitude. A musical is bolstered by so many resources that it’s tough to muster an aw, shucks” humility about the whole affair. It’s work that’s hard to shrug off, and being proud of something can feel unnerving.

These movies might be proud to have the casts, Grammy, Oscar and Tony-winners filling in the ranks. But one thing unites these films in what they’re not proud of: being musicals”

A musical is perhaps the most openly itself” thing that exists, and though we all feign acceptance and love and understanding, there’s a part of our hearts that doesn’t want to extend that to theatre kids. Think about the frequent backlash against actors who try too hard”: Anne Hathaway, Lady Gaga, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bradley Cooper. When compared to actors who exude an effortless nonchalance (think: Cillian Murphy), these theatre-type performers will always seem like they are trying to work a room. You can’t be in a musical – or even love them – half-heartedly. You’ve got to go all-in, and that’s not only embarrassing, it’s completely horrifying.

And so The Color Purple becomes a bold new take”. Try saying aloud, I can’t wait to see the musical of The Color Purple.” It’s tough, right? Whereas try saying aloud, I can’t wait to see a bold new take on The Color Purple.” That, by contrast, is mysterious. It’s surprising. It’s not like anything anyone has seen before (unless, of course, you’re familiar with the Broadway landscape).

It’s almost like it’s a secret, an if you know, you know’ situation,” says Lucy Freccia. Freccia identifies as a recovering” or former theatre kid, a moniker she would not be inclined to use in a getting-to-know-you setting” but one that she wears proudly nonetheless as a lifelong student of musical theatre”. While she’s excited for The Color Purple – as a fan of the book, original movie and Broadway show – a movie-musical adaptation does not automatically earn her ticket. No self-inflicted obligation,” she specifies. I’m very aware of [these adaptations’] existence, but I don’t necessarily feel like watching them.”

Surely, though, not all musicals are embarrassing. What of Sondheim, what of Les Misérables? These musicals emphasised writing; they were lyrically dense and required close attention outside of the spectacle of song and dance. They created whole universes of their own, worlds you didn’t want to leave after the curtain went down. Perhaps what’s embarrassing is not that these movies are musicals to begin with, but that they are not treated, necessarily, with all the bells and whistles of an actual new work. What’s frustrating and less exciting to a viewer is not characters breaking into song, but seeing a half-hearted version of it, based on a story they already know.

Alex Knapp, an academic studying theatre, makes a keen observation about the cyclical nature of movies and the stage: Something really strange is happening in the cultural exchange between movies and theatre in that since the 1990s, [the] Disneyfication’ of Broadway and the 80s mega-musical, mainly Andrew Lloyd Webber, the main cultural cachet musicals have is appropriating movies into staged productions. Now, movies are filming the staged versions of existing movies, like Mean Girls, creating this weird feedback loop that is not doing live performance or cinema any favours.”

It’d be one thing if these movie musicals were knocking it out of the park, introducing great vocalists or energetic dancers with incredible set design and engaging cinematography. More and more, however, these adaptations seem like flagrant cash grabs or awards bait. Not unlike superhero movies, many of these films seem like they want to tap into a youthful nostalgia – remember how you first felt when you heard these songs, saw these films, read these books? Think back on how Dear Evan Hansen recycled its far-too-old lead performer to play a high school student. Now that was embarrassing.

To say we’ve lost the plot,’” says Freccia, would be a little too on the nose. As a musicals lover, I have to say most of us would prefer pro-shots of the Broadway shows themselves over propped-up, made-for-Netflix versions.” Indeed, the pro-shot version of Hamilton that went up on Disney+ during the pandemic led to a 74 per cent increase in app downloads.

Maybe that’s the root of the problem, as both Knapp and Freccia say: musical adaptations are weakened by a medium that doesn’t showcase live performance or cinema well. It’s hard to hate a musical once you’re in the theatre, but sitting in front of a TV allows for so much more second-hand embarrassment – especially if someone isn’t killing it. Like, they’ve had all the autotune and editing in the world, and that’s the best they can come up with?

It’d be one thing if these movie musicals were knocking it out of the park, introducing great vocalists or energetic dancers with incredible set design and engaging cinematography. More and more, however, these adaptations seem like flagrant cash grabs or awards bait”

Take Cats. Maybe it was less embarrassing to be in a musical-movie adaptation about humans playing cats and more embarrassing that the effects were so shoddy and half-hearted. The film was nearly released with visible buttholes (though there is a scene where Cat Judi Dench had her own real human hand).

If the Cats film had, however, taken an approach such as mounting a stage show, there could have been room for elegant, bombastic costuming. Maybe the execs of Wonka are less afraid of the fact that Chalamet fans are nervous to hear the actor sing and more afraid of the fact that they didn’t just hire a guy they knew could sing. Both Mean Girls and The Color Purples marketing feel aware of this cultural flattening and are eager to shy away from it by pretending to be about something else entirely.

But ultimately, these are beloved properties. Mean Girls made £25 million at the US box office in its opening weekend. Wonka has already grossed £400 million globally. And it’s not embarrassing, really, to own something you’re good at. That’s why there are always, say, tap dancers going viral on TikTok. That should be the most embarrassing thing in the world, but in their hands (or feet) it looks impressive and athletic.

It’ll always be a little corny to sing and dance, but for those who can do it well, or at the very least put their hearts into it, there’s an opportunity for it to be great, or at least great fun. Earnestness will never be more embarrassing than sheepishness or shame. Movies like The Color Purple should be proud of the casts they’ve pulled together – real-deal triple threats. And executives ought to know when they’ve got the goods, and shout about it. Or else they’ll be the ones who are left embarrassed.

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