Friday, Feb. 7, 2014

After the Sound of Music

When Movie Musicals Went out of Style

By David Luhrssen
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Hollywood musicals ruled box offices—until suddenly they didn’t. A long history led to that drastic turnaround. Talking pictures began with a musical, The Jazz Singer, and as technology developed, musicals became the showboats for the big studios—elaborately choreographed spectacles full of song and dance, color and motion. By the 1950s, musicals were Hollywood’s response to the threat of television, conjuring Technicolor fantasies larger-than-life—and anything TV could offer.

As the ‘60s began, musicals such as The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins filled theater seats and cash drawers. They set the tone for an era when everyone would leave the cinema singing. Or so Hollywood thought. By the end of the decade the landscape was littered with such colossal musical failures as The Happiest Millionaire, Dr. Doolittle and Star! Was the world singing a different tune, had hype outrun reality or were some of these expensive spectacles poorly conceived and cast? All of the above?

In his lively, sympathetic yet cutting examination of the genre’s rapid descent from apex to oblivion, Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960’s (published by Oxford University Press), Matthew Kennedy revisits the major players, recounts the comments of participants and critics, checks the ledgers and counts the money. The Sound of Music broke box-office records. Star! nearly broke the bank.

While some embraced the ‘60s musicals as the counterrevolution to the Counterculture, many moviegoers followed the beat of other drummers. By then the moguls were old and fearful—not only of being stranded on the far side of the generation gap but of being displaced by the soulless conglomerates, run by money-counting automatons, that were buying up the old studios as if they were nothing but commercial real estate.

With the decline of the musical came the death of the roadshow, those by-now-largely-forgotten marketing campaigns that rolled out premium films in big city movie palaces with expensive reserved seats and colorful souvenir booklets in emulation of Broadway. The last movie marketed this way, The Man from La Mancha, bombed.

After Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret, the musical “shrank” rather than died, “moved into niche markets, and became less relevant on the pop culture landscape.” Biographical pictures about musicians (Lady Sings the Blues, Walk the Line) don't count, but animated musical spectacles (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) carried on the spirit of the musicals. However, if the occasional Moulin Rouge! or Chicago has struck gold, the anticipated revival of musicals never gathered steam. Perhaps the problem is that movies are no longer larger than life in the minds of moviegoers, but smaller.

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