Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in In the Heights. Photo: Supplied

Musicals as movies are back with a bang. Gregory Camp wonders if the fantasies of the Marvel world have helped make the unreality of walking and singing less hard to take.

The genre of the film musical is often divisive: people love it or hate it and each side is often bewildered by the other. But the ‘pro’ group seem to be gaining ground of late, as a wide selection of film musicals is set for release over the next few months: fans are currently enjoying In the Heights and eagerly anticipate adaptations of the stage musicals Dear Evan Hansen, Tick, Tick… Boom! and West Side Story.

It remains to be seen whether this is the peak of a short pro-musical trend that started a few years ago with the huge success of Hamilton, or if a new golden age of the musical is being ushered in – but the sheer number of film musicals demonstrates that Hollywood producers trust the genre will bring in the required revenue.

We’ve been here before: a glut of film musicals were released in the early 2000s, but few of them came close to matching either the critical or financial success of the first two out of the gate, Moulin Rouge! and Chicago.

The truth, which we musical fans tend to ignore, is that there are rather more bad film musicals released than good ones. Some of that 2000s wave deserved to be seen more than they were (such as The Producers), but others not (neither of the people who saw Nine enjoyed it). Even in the so-called ‘golden age’ of the 1950s, Singin’ in the Rain or The Band Wagon were exceptions; there are dozens of loss-makers, such as I Love Melvin and Skirts Ahoy! to counter them.

Why are musicals so difficult to get right on film? At the root of the issue is verisimilitude: the appearance of being convincingly ‘real’. Film is, generally speaking, a realistic art form where real people seem to do real things in real settings.

Special effects can use what we already know about how the world works to trick us into thinking that dragons and Na’vi are real, but people simply do not go around singing and dancing in everyday life. In musicals, unreality is confronting. This is something the first makers of musical films tried to deal with: nearly all of the early film musicals from the early 1930s are ‘backstagers’ set in a deliberately theatrical context, like a stage show.

People who grew up with stage musicals have never had a problem with the lack of verisimilitude in film because they are used to the mode of storytelling that musicologist Raymond Knapp calls ‘musically-enhanced reality mode’. But to be financially viable, musicals need to attract more than their pre-existing fan base.

Filmmakers have attempted to mitigate this in various ways. One was to keep the dialogue highly realistic while setting the musical numbers apart through dreamlike stylisation, as in Chicago, where the songs are portrayed as imaginings of the characters as they react to events in the plot.

The approach paid off in that case: the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and made a lot of money. But in doing this, the filmmakers avoided the challenge of the musical genre by ignoring it, creating what is essentially two films. This can work well, though: in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, all of the musical numbers happen in the ‘real’ setting of Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub. Through skilful intercutting and visual rhymes and metaphors, Fosse manages to stitch together the film’s musical and non-musical sections convincingly. Chicago, based on a Fosse stage musical that engagingly used vaudeville numbers to comment on the action in a somewhat similar way to Cabaret, is inert on film.

But the more recent film musicals mentioned above are unapologetic in their shift between modes. These films exist in ‘musically-enhanced reality mode’ throughout, even in the dialogue scenes. They set up their dramaturgical rules early and clearly, so it is easy to accept that the characters move frequently between talking and walking and singing and dancing.

Ironically, it seems that Disney, having paved the way for a return of film musicals with their 1990s animated films, is most uneasy these days about their musicals. Disney’s remakes of The Lion King and Aladdin keep many of their songs and even add a few new ones, but they are shorter than the originals, buried in action sequences and digital effects. It’s as if Disney is apologising for these films being musicals by obscuring the fact. Their animated forerunners gave the musical numbers space to breathe, while the live-action remakes of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Dumbo, and Mulan cut most or all of their songs. (Beauty and the Beast is the exception here; director Bill Condon allowed the musical numbers to develop in new ways on screen.)

Yet the musical appears to be in the ascendancy. Even successful films that are not definable as musicals often allude to the genre either in style or content. The highly varied recent films Ladybird, The Joker, Knives Out, Marriage Story, and Paddington 2 have all found central places for songs from musicals by Stephen Sondheim in their storytelling. The extremely successful Marvel series WandaVision uses songs to help tell its story, composers Kristin Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez employing the style of motivic writing they learned from the best golden-age Broadway composers. The popularity of the series’ music shows that musical fans and Marvel fans are not mutually exclusive categories.

How to account for the rising interest in musicals and the relaxing of concerns about verisimilitude? Perhaps part of the answer actually lies with Marvel and its competitors: audiences know that what the Avengers are doing is not actually ‘real’ but willingly suspend their disbelief. It is not much of a stretch from believing in the reality of a character blowing up imaginary villains with imaginary weapons to believing that shifting into singing and dancing can be a part of everyday life.

Musicals are fantasy, and those who like them have long been willing to embrace that fact. Now that fantasy more extravagant than any musical has become a proven money-maker, producers seem to be allowing us musical theatre nerds to lean into our nerdiness, and it is resulting in box office returns and critical acclaim. Perhaps the reality check of the Covid-19 pandemic is making us long for more than plain verisimilitude.

Dr Gregory Camp is from the University of Auckland School of Music and teaches in musicology, music theory and musicianship

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