The Death of the Movie Musical and the Myth of Its Revival

For years, the movie musical was a staple of American cinema. From the arrival of sound in films, audiences would flock to theatres to watch their favourite stars singing and dancing on screen. With films like On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), musicals were frequently among the top box office earners during the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, since the late-fifties, film studios have grown reluctant to fund big-budget singing and dancing productions. Excluding Disney’s animated films, movie musicals have been few and far between over the last 20 years. While successes like Moulin Rouge (2001), Chicago (2002), and Hairspray (2007) have each prompted a belief that the genre would make a comeback, the excitement has proved fleeting. The remake of Beauty and the Beast, along with The Greatest Showman, amounts to only two live action musical films that saw a worldwide release in 2017. Compared to the 28 that Hollywood churned out in 1951, it begs the question: How did such a popular and important genre of film fall by the wayside, and why haven’t we seen a return?

First of all, the 1950s was a time of great change in the musical tastes of American audiences. Big Bands began to decrease in popularity, and rock ‘n’ roll took hold of the country’s youth. Parents viewed the new sound with scepticism and fear, as it seemingly became the soundtrack for rebellion. As stated by television historian Dave Rogers, the music of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis helped invent the teenager, and subsequently broadened the generational music gap. As Hollywood studios sought to target this new audience, they steered towards projects that would appeal to the teenage market’s non-conformist attitude. Movies like Blackboard Jungle (1955), and High School Confidential (1958) centred on misfits and their cavalier attitude toward authority. These films gained additional popularity due to their rock ‘n’ roll soundtracks. While Elvis himself released a number of films were he sang and danced, they mainly existed to advertise his latest recordings, and therefore were not strictly ‘musicals’, in the classical sense of the word. An article from the Journal of Popular Film and Television discussed this idea, stating that musical theatre purists saw rock ‘n’ roll as a lowbrow cultural form: “When is a musical not a musical? When it has Elvis Presley in it”.

The advent of television also proved damaging to the traditional Hollywood musical. Weekly movie theatre attendance fell from a peak of 90 million in 1948, the first year of true national television, to roughly half that in 1953. The power struggle between television and film has been discussed at length by economic geographer Michael Storper, who highlighted the latter’s attempts to win back their audience.  Cinerama, Technicolor, and 3D were all aimed at constituting the film as an event rather than an everyday experience, and thus steered studios towards big-budget spectacles like The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben Hur (1959). Although expensive, large-scale musicals such as Oklahoma! (1955) and The King and I (1956) were still being made, they were less and less frequent. Studios now preferred to rely on existing shows adapted from the stage, rather than take chances on original musical screenplays, as they had done in the past. This contention was also put forward by film historian Richard Barrios:

“The triumphs might have continued longer without television. In the 1950s… Musicals either became more faithful/less imaginative copies of Broadway (South Pacific, Guys and Dolls), or else continued to decant the old tired wine of formula and convention.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for the downfall of musicals, however, was the collapse of the traditional Hollywood ‘studio system’. Christopher Anderson’s book Hollywood TV: The Studio System in the Fifties, addresses this subject in great detail. From the conversion to ‘talkies’ in the late 1920s, studios began the practice of ‘block booking’ theatres. Under this method, studios would sell their films in packages, requiring theatres to purchase several mediocre films for every one of quality. This allowed for members of the ‘Big Five’ – Warner Brothers, Paramount Pictures, Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), and 20th Century Fox – to mass-produce films, which consequently discouraged independent producers. After numerous complaints, a decision against Paramount in the US Supreme Court saw block booking outlawed. This led to fewer films being produced, as Hollywood took a quality-over-quantity approach, with each film expected to carry its own box office weight. As filmmakers began to take fewer risks, a number of film genres began to fade into irrelevance. The musical was one of those unfortunate genres.

Furthermore, under the ‘studio system’, actors and actresses were held to long-term contracts. Studios would create and promote their own stars, often changing their names and inventing background stories that would appeal to audiences. Young talent was heavily invested in, and performers would often receive training in singing and dancing, as well as acting. This created versatile stars, who could fit any role role a studio chose for them. However, actors began to want more control over the films they appeared in, and a number of legal disputes arose as stars sought to free themselves from their contractual obligations. Olivia De Havilland famously sued Warner Brothers in 1944 to escape her contract. As a result, other actors and actresses became more selective with their contracts, with some even opting to work as free agents. Suddenly, the business model of creating stars was no longer economically feasible. Studios could not afford to invest in young talent, only to have them working for a competitor in a matter of months. Consequently, the next generation of box-office stars lacked the theatrical flair necessary to star in a hit musical.

MGM’s ‘stable’ of stars under contract, 1943.

While the nostalgic side in some of us may long for a return to an age when Hollywood musicals were routinely produced and hungrily consumed by the public, it doesn’t appear to be a possibility. They are just too costly for movie studios, and audiences are just too focused on realism. Moviegoers can suspend belief when confronted with any one of the numerous superhero films of today, but watching actors regularly break into song and dance seems a bridge too far. Although the success of recent films, such as La La Land, and The Greatest Showman, may fool us into believing that the genre is returning, their success is more reliant on a ‘novelty’ factor. Sadly, the era of the movie musical is history.

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