Musicals, Teen & Otherwise
To the Editor:
Terry Teachout’s elegy for the film musical may be a bit premature [“The Hollywood Musical Done Right,” February]. His description of under-thirty moviegoers as a group that has “heretofore shown no interest in musicals” is belied by the recent success of High School Musical (2006). Not only has that film revived the studios’ interest in musicals, but it is itself a commendable example of the classic Hollywood musical in the Dick Powell/ June Allyson tradition.
I would also question Mr. Teachout’s notion that cinema, being “essentially a realistic storytelling medium,” is less congenial than the stage to productions in which characters “burst into song” in otherwise naturalistic contexts. Many movies out of the increasingly popular Hong Kong cinema feature gritty plots with characters who not only sing and dance but also occasionally take flight.
Ultimately, movie musicals succeed (or not) in the same way that any other movie does—when the stories they tell speak to the audience. Cabaret (1972) succeeded both artistically and commercially not only because of its technical brilliance but also because the candid story of a hedonistic society spinning out of control spoke to the sensibilities of the American public at the time. The same could be said more recently for the film Chicago (2002), which spoke more to our jaded, celebrity-obsessed generation than the 1975 stage version did to its own Broadway audiences.
For those of us who love the musical tradition, movies like Sweeney Todd and High School Musical, along with non-traditional film musicals like Once (2006), Moulin Rouge (2001), and Across The Universe (2007), bring hope that there may be a resurgence of the form on the silver (or plasma) screen in the years to come.
Woodland Hills, California
To the Editor:
Terry Teachout writes: “Only one movie of a Broadway musical, Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning 2002 version of Chicago, has performed well at the box office in recent years.” This overlooks Hairspray (2007), which was a Broadway musical before it was a successful movie. When Mr. Teach-out writes that few contemporary film directors will bother to make musicals, he ignores recent projects like Moulin Rouge (2001), High School Musical (2006), and Dreamgirls (2006).
Pop movies featuring song and dance may no longer look like the classic MGM productions, but they are certainly out there. There remains a solid tradition for young stars to shine in frothy teen movies that feature singing and dancing. In addition, worldwide interest in Indian films continues to grow, and in Bollywood every movie is a musical.
San Francisco, California
To the Editor:
I read Terry Teachout’s enthusiastic review of Tim Burton’s film version of Sweeney Todd with the hope that my favorite critic would explain to me the artistic grandeur of Stephen Sondheim’s “masterpiece.” Alas, my eyes remain blind to the appeal of a musical that sympathetically portrays a vengeful killer and plays cannibalism for laughs. What am I missing?
To the Editor:
Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is in a league of its own, and it was pure pleasure to read Terry Teachout’s incisive comments about the challenges of producing it on film. Thanks to Mr. Teachout for the best article I have read on the subject.
Terry Teachout writes:
I suspect that Rodney Vaccaro and J.T. Lastowski are mistaking the exception for the rule, especially in light of the fact that Dreamgirls and Hairspray are now generally felt in the film industry to have been box-office disappointments (if not nearly so disappointing as Rent and The Producers). It is true, however, that some younger directors, both here and abroad, are seeking to create wholly original film musicals, and it will be interesting to see whether such films become more common—and more popular—in the future.
Austin Davies is not the only viewer of Sweeney Todd, whether on stage or on screen, to come away believing that it “sympathetically portrays a vengeful killer and plays cannibalism for laughs.” Are such viewers similarly troubled by Rigoletto? In fact, Sweeney is about the destructive effect of vengefulness on the human soul, and all of its humor is bitterly ironic and fathomlessly black.
As for High School Musical—as well as the fascinating cultural phenomenon of the big-budget teen musical—I plan to comment on it at a later date, perhaps when the stage version of the TV film finally makes its way to a theater near me.
I thank Gene Caraturo for his generous words.