Where Have all the Musicals Gone?

Some of my favorite movies feature classic song-and-dance numbers. Studios used to put together a dream cast of their performers in Broadway revivals and themed productions. People used to flock to the theater to watch these big-budget and glamorous musicals.

So why don’t they get made anymore unless it involves a cartoon princess singing with animals?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have come up with a pretty decent theory. The first involves actors themselves. Stars like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had to be able to act, sing, and dance. You don’t need the same skillset anymore. All we ask of our actors now is that they be good looking and semi-believable. We don’t require them to be all that talented. Case in point: just about anybody with a phone or a laptop can broadcast themselves all over the internet for a few minutes of notoriety.

In that same vein, more movies are made now—and by more companies, large and small—than back in the heyday of the musical. In the early days, only huge movie studios could make films. They signed contracts with their performing talent so that they could not work for competing studios (except on loan). This created both exclusivity and the desire to make films that would cater to your performer’s talents. In other words, if you have Gene Kelly working for your studio, you’re going to want him to sing and dance. So you are going to make a musical. Before the advent of the home television, if you wanted to see a film, you had to go to the theater. Back then, there was a much smaller pool of films to choose from (many theaters showed only one film, once or twice a day, for weeks at a time), which meant people had fewer options. It is possible that musicals were not really what people wanted so much as what Hollywood was making. When you don’t have a choice, you’ll see what is available, right? If you look at the box office receipts for a film like Into the Woods vs a Star Wars movie, you’ll see where I am going. When people finally had other choices, they went other ways. And musicals cost a lot of money, all things considered. There was a huge ensemble cast, choreographers, lengthy rehearsal times, costumes, large sets, and full orchestras. If a star got injured while performing, they were difficult to replace. One thing movie studios hate is putting money into a movie and not making a profit. Fewer musicals got made and people didn’t seem to miss them. That meant even less got made. Studios had to stop owning the rights to the performers themselves, and that also had an impact on what was being produced.

And here we are. We’ll occasionally get a movie like Grease or Hairspray, but for every one of those, we’re stuck with a Momma Mia!  Here’s hoping that we get another good one soon.