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Updated Friday, December 21, 2012 at 01:46 PM

Will ‘Les Misérables’ help movie musicals stage a comeback?

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

Ten years ago, almost to the day, “Chicago” opened in movie theaters. It came with a wave of advance promotion — a big Broadway musical! On the screen! With movie stars! — and it conquered: big box office, good reviews, 13 Oscar nominations (it won six, including Best Picture). With the attention came speculation: Would “Chicago” kick off a new wave of made-for-the-screen musicals — and find a new generation of audiences for them? As we await the arrival of the star-studded, all-sung “Les Misérables” (in theaters Christmas Day), it seems a good time to revisit that question, and the answer is: well, not really.

Musicals were once Hollywood’s bread and butter, during the genre’s happy heyday in the ’30s (led by a string of hits starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) through the ’50s. MGM, in particular, churned out dozens of musicals during this period, many of which became classics: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “On the Town,” “An American in Paris,” to name a few.

Though the genre continued strong throughout the ’60s, with four of the decade’s 10 Academy Awards for Best Picture going to musicals (“West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music” and “Oliver!”), the climate changed in the ’70s. Full-out musicals — as opposed to movies with a few songs in them — became rarer. A few popular musicals shone through, such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Grease,” “Victor/Victoria,” and, in a sort of last gasp from MGM, “Yentl,” but there were just as many flops: “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Pennies from Heaven” (a lovely film that never found an audience), “A Chorus Line.” Through the ’80s and ’90s, musicals opening at the multiplexes were most likely to be animated children’s films; grown-ups, it seemed, didn’t want to make or see movie musicals any more.

Then came “Chicago,” and with its success, lots of promises. There was talk of Jim Carrey starring in a screen remake of “Damn Yankees”; Emma Thompson writing a new script to “My Fair Lady”; more recently, Clint Eastwood remaking “A Star Is Born” and Barbra Streisand spearheading a new “Gypsy.” All of these projects, though, have yet to see the light of day; of those that did get made in the past decade, the track record is mixed.

Four musicals released since “Chicago” have been box-office hits (grossing over $100 million): “Mamma Mia” in 2008, “Hairspray” and “Enchanted” (which just barely has enough songs to qualify as a musical) in 2007, and “Dreamgirls” in 2006. Many audience members loved “Mamma Mia” and its bouncy ABBA songs, but it was also memorable for demonstrating that Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth should not add singing to their impressive lists of talents. “Hairspray,” a movie-turned-stage-musical-turned movie again, was an unexpected delight; “Enchanted” likewise, less unexpectedly. (A surprise, though, that Amy Adams could sing so well.) “Dreamgirls,” despite winning an Oscar for newcomer Jennifer Hudson, just crossed the $100 million mark but was actually a box-office disappointment; heavily hyped, it was thought to be the next “Chicago,” yet fell far short.

Several Broadway shows-turned-movies fell flat during the decade: “Phantom of the Opera,” “Rent,” “The Producers” and “Nine” (despite the latter’s mesmerizing turn by Marion Cotillard). All suffered from misguided directing — “The Producers,” in particular, felt like a film of a stage show rather than something thought out for cameras — and failed badly with audiences and critics. Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd,” neither flop nor hit, stood out as a remarkably good match of director, star and subject — and a reminder that all movies should have Helena Bonham Carter in them. (A good omen for “Les Misérables,” in which she plays Madame Thénardier.)

As “Les Mis” approaches, a few other high-profile movie musicals wait in the wings: “Jersey Boys,” “Wicked,” “Into the Woods” and “In the Heights” are all in preproduction, and there’s still talk of “Gypsy,” with the latest rumor involving Lady Gaga in the starring role. (Will any of these actually get filmed? Stay tuned.) But here’s something that has changed in the past decade — in tandem with the recent proliferation of singing and dancing shows on TV. Early trailers for “Chicago,” heavily rotated on television and in theaters, carefully hid the fact that the characters were singing; presumably not to scare away potential audience members who thought they didn’t like musicals. By contrast, everyone knows “Les Mis” is sung, and a featurette explaining how the cast performed their songs live has been getting heavy online play. Maybe it’s OK, finally, for Hollywood to sing again.

Moira Macdonald: or 206-464-2725.

Hugh Jackman, left, as Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway as Fantine in “Les Misérables,” which opens Christmas Day.

Warner Home Video
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 1936’s “Follow The Fleet.”

Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in 1952’s “Singin' in the Rain.”

Anika Noni Rose, left, Beyoncé Knowles and Jennifer Hudson in 2006’s “Dreamgirls.”

Catherine Zeta-Jones in 2002’s “Chicago.”


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