Given Disney’s recent reimagining of Stephen Sondheim’s classic Into the Woods, it seems fitting to reflect on the genre of the musical film. Since the multi-award winning release of Chicago back in 2002, it appears the film musical has been steadily making a comeback. The fact that Mamma Mia! grossed £404 million worldwide and is currently the sixth highest grossing film in the UK validates the place of the film musical in society.
Following in the footsteps of Into the Woods is an adaptation of The Last Five Years by James Robert Brown that will be released later this month. It has also been confirmed that the West End and Broadway favourite Wicked, that took Edinburgh by storm and all the way to Oz over the holidays, will be adapted into a film.
It appears that we may be in the midst of a new ‘golden-age’ of film musicals that has not been seen since the 1960s. What does this mean for the world of musical theatre?
For die-hard musical theatre fans, performers, and aspiring professionals, the adaptation of a musical gives rise to the same mix of emotions as the adaptation of novels; in the words of Sondheim’s Little Red, it makes them feel “excited, well, excited and scared”.
There are worries about whether or not the casting will be ‘just right’. Often musical theatre fans feel disappointed that A-list actors are cast in some of their favourite roles; you need only remember the divided response to Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Javert in Les Mis. Rent (2005) is a rare example of a film adaptation that kept its original Broadway cast, including Idina Menzel. This is pleasing for thespians but Rent’s mediocre box office performance indicates that big names may just be required for success. While this may be disheartening for some, a key aim for stage to screen adaptations is surely to make musicals reach, and be embraced by, a wider audience. Stars like Hugh Jackman, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick and Johnny Depp act as magnetic forces that draw in a broader audience. It does seem that movie producers and directors have recently been able to find a balance by casting a mix of Hollywood stars alongside stellar talent from the musical theatre sphere. In Les Mis Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit teamed up with Jackman and co., and Into the Woods has a cohort of film stars and thespians – Rapunzel’s Prince is portrayed by Tony nominee, Billy Magnussen, whilst teen Broadway star, Lilla Crawford, plays Little Red Riding Hood.
Another question is whether the films make musicals more accessible and popular. For one, it is feasible to conclude that a lot of people may prefer to pay under £10 for a cinema ticket than anything from £20-£90 for a West End or touring stage production. It is understandable to worry that this cheaply accessible way of seeing musicals may stop people choosing to see the real deal. However, the musical theatre industry continues to thrive and many people who have been introduced to the medium through film may choose to attend a live performance as a special treat, for someone’s birthday or for Christmas. Some people still feel that musical theatre is inaccessible due to a number of misconceptions – such as it being reserved for posh people. Many may laugh at going to see The Phantom of the Opera but would be willing to watch the movie or go to see the live production once they have discovered it is also a film as this bridges the perceived gap by making it a relatable form of entertainment.
Due to the extensive resources at hand, films can bring a number of things to life that well surpasses the limits of a stage; the film industry does not just want to recreate what can be seen on stage. Hollywood’s increasing interest in musicals clearly means that they are being viewed as a reputable form of art and this can only benefit the industry. Undoubtedly the magic and wonder of live performance is lost through film: the emotional impact, intimacy and element of risk that comes with live theatre simply cannot be reproduced on screen. Ultimately, what needs to be remembered is that musical theatre and film are different art forms with different goals that produce different experiences. Whatever a person’s preference, both can be appreciated and enjoyed; the most important thing is that they are being consumed by a growing and varied number of people.