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Cover Story: The Unbelievable, Over-Exaggerated, Highly Speculated Death of the Movie Musical

Moulin Rouge boosts a Hollywood genre that won't go away

By Rodger Pille · May 24th, 2001 · Cover Story
  Moulin Rouge
Moulin Rouge

On March 2, 1965, The Sound of Music opened at the Albee Theater in downtown Cincinnati to much fanfare. The movie would go on to gross over $163 million nationwide. It won several awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture.

On June 1, 2001, Moulin Rouge, the latest big-budget Hollywood musical will play Cincinnati's small art house theaters to very little fanfare but a great deal of curiosity, despite international stars, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, leading the chorus. Even the commercials hide its very musicality. How did it come to this?

Opening Song
To take a proper look at the downfall of the movie musical -- and the seemingly biannual pronouncement that it's resurrecting -- you have to go back to the end of the "Golden Era" of the musical in the 1940s and '50s. The names Rodgers & Hammerstein were bigger than Shakespeare in live theater. It made perfect sense to transfer those stage hits to the screen, often with the same cast. Hence, Oklahoma, My Fair Lady and The Music Man.

All was well through the 1960s, until Oliver! hit the screen. Opened in 1968, Oliver! took home the Best Picture Oscar. It was a bizarre achievement when you consider that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn't even nominated. Cineastes and film critics went bonkers. That controversy would become the beginning of the end of the musical film.

But Hollywood wouldn't stop trying, with decidedly mixed results. The 1970s brought Cabaret, Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 'Nuff said. The 1980s had still fewer hits, artistically or financially. Annie, Little Shop of Horrors and Popeye topped the list that decade.

By 1986, the movie musical had officially been declared a dead genre. Cause of death? Grease 2.

Not that Hollywood wouldn't have lapses. Disney's Newsies tried hard to reinvigorate the big production musical in 1992, using the turn-of-the-century newspaper trade as its backdrop. It was summarily panned and virtually ignored at the box office.

THe tearful Ballad
Yet, throughout this "down" time, some movies actually gained steam. Either in the cult midnight movie circuit or strictly through the blossoming video rental business, films like Rocky Horror and the original Grease made a lot of money and a whole lot of fans. Breaking into song while walking down the street was hip again, but no one knew it.

And then, Disney tried again, with a better idea. The Mouse Company would try a lavish Hollywood musical in animated form. It worked. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King all would gross well over $200 million domestically. Sure, animated musicals had been Disney's trademark for decades, but not until the 1990s did those movies aim for and succeed at cross-over appeal.

The cartoon classics may have been the best possible primer for a live-action musical return aimed at adults. Sure, we knew it was Robin Williams singing his heart out as the loveable Genie in Aladdin, but we didn't need to see him do it. Slowly, the movie musical baby-stepped its way back into being.

But baby steps were replaced with long, determined strides in 1996. That year, the movie musical would charge back into multiplexes, ready or not, led by Madonna's star vehicle, Evita, and Woody Allen's original ensemble musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You. Suddenly, as a genre, the musical couldn't be ignored. Here were well-respected directors and A-list stars producing what had come to be known as the lowest rung on the cinematic ladder.

The year 1998 didn't initially pick up steam, as the only remotely musical film that year was Spice World. That film advanced the genre about as much as Spies Like Us advanced comedy.

But 1998 eventually showed promise. Grease was the word when it was re-released for a 20th anniversary promotion. A $12-million opening weekend for a reissue was pretty sizeable.

While it wasn't as high-profile as 1998, 1999 at least creatively kept the ball rolling. The South Park movie billed itself as a musical, going even so far as garnering an Oscar nomination for its anthem "Blame Canada." Even Paul Thomas Anderson snuck a musical moment into his 2000 drama Magnolia, when the cast sang Aimee Mann's "Save Me" without warning in the middle of the movie. Imagine it: megastar Tom Cruise was dramatically singing on-screen, for God's sake.

Second Act Chorus Number
This brings us to today and Moulin Rouge. But the commercials don't want you to know it's a musical. Just like commercials didn't want you to know that Brad Pitt had an accent in Seven Years in Tibet. What you don't know will get you to the theater, film marketers must think.

Whether or not the experiment works remains to be seen, but you can count on this: If Moulin Rouge hits big, you'll see a half-dozen musical projects get moved to the fast track within days. Scream showed us that when it spawned the second coming of the teen slasher flick.

Big Finish
What could be next? Where does the genre go from here? According to film fan sites and trade rumors, lots of directions. The sure bet is still to take a known commodity from the stage and put it on screen. Since Broadway has hit a small revival of its own in the past several years, there is much material from which to mine.

The popular Coming Attractions Web site lists no less than 10 movie musicals in the works, including smash hits Cats, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera and Rent. One of the ongoing film rumors is a big-screen version of Chicago. Madonna, Goldie Hawn, Charlize Theron and John Travolta all have been attached at one time or another. Yet, despite star attachment, the film is not exactly in pre-production. In fact, all of the latest films mentioned are listed under "development hell" or "just rumors."

Maybe Hollywood is waiting for that one hit to make it all happen. Maybe Moulin Rouge will be that hit. But 50 years after the movie musical was truly en vogue, it might take more than one film to do it. ©



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