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A 'Rouge' awakening for movie musicals A 'Rouge' awakening for movie musicals
Fri Mar 8, 6:29 AM ET

Susan Wloszczyna USA TODAY

Somewhere on a soundstage in Toronto, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger are acting. But that's not all.

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They're belting snazzy songs such as All That Jazz and making sexy moves à la Bob Fosse as murderous chorines Velma and Roxie in the long-awaited movie version of the hit Broadway musical Chicago.

Zeta-Jones got her start in theater, playing leads in Annie and 42nd Street. But Zellweger is an unknown quantity when it comes to carrying a tune. Says the actress, ''I have my fingers crossed that no one will be too terribly upset by it.''

She might not be the only actress warming up her vocal cords. Not after Nicole Kidman's dying courtesan and Ewan McGregor's penniless poet sang and danced their way into audience's hearts in Moulin Rouge.

It's true that Chicago with its well-tested Broadway legs may be -- as columnist Martin Grove of Hollywood Reporter online puts it -- ''the next great hope'' for traditional musicals to make a big-screen comeback.

But it took a singular experiment like Moulin Rouge, a musical pastiche set in the notorious 19th-century Parisian nightclub that recycled hits from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna (news - web sites), to raise the curtain on the possibility.

Call it a bedazzling spectacle or a bombastic headache. But Aussie filmmaker Baz Luhrmann's gaudy short-attention-span jukebox has shown that large-scale musicals can once more score both at the box office ($172.9 million worldwide) and in the Oscar race (eight nominations including best picture).

Though released last May, Moulin Rouge's song isn't close to ending yet. The Oscar nominations helped to push sales and rentals of DVDs and videos to more than $70 million -- topping the film's domestic gross in theaters of $57 million.

Craig Zadan, executive producer of Chicago along with partner Neil Moran, knew something was afoot when the end credits rolled after a showing of Moulin Rouge.

The theater was alive with the sound of heated debate.

''There was a couple in back of me, and the wife said, 'I'm coming back next week with so and so. I have to see it again,' '' Zadan recalls. ''And the husband said, 'This is the worst movie I've ever seen.' They had a screaming match over it.''

He believes that is just the sort of controversy needed to kick a moribund genre, one that last had a full-blast, big-budget go at the box office with the lackluster Evita in 1996, back into high-stepping mainstream shape.

It takes guts to revive the genre

George Sidney, 85, director of such classic MGM musicals as Show Boat and Kiss Me Kate, isn't bashful about saying he voted for Moulin Rouge for the best-picture Oscar. ''Baz pleased the eye and excited the ear,'' he says. ''He had the guts to do it.''

Besides the holiday release of Chicago, co-starring Richard Gere as a slick lawyer and directed by Rob Marshall (TV's Annie, the revival of Cabaret), others are proving they have the guts to join what may grow into a genre revival.

USA Films is developing the 2000 Tony winner Contact, which will mark the feature debut of original choreographer and director Susan Stroman, who also oversaw Broadway's The Producers.

Zadan and Meron, who also oversaw the smash TV versions of Gypsy, Cinderella and Annie, are working with British dance sensation Matthew Bourne, who gave flight to the acclaimed all-male Swan Lake, to create an original feature for Disney.

There also have been murmurs of a Carmen tailored to Jennifer Lopez's slinky curves. And The Producers could return to the big screen in its musical form.

Some, considering the extra costs and longer preproduction period usually involved in putting on a musical, are being more cautious. (After production delays, Moulin Rouge's budget reportedly bloomed from about $40 million to $52 million.)

Warner Bros. has been sitting on film versions of Dreamgirls and Phantom of the Opera for ages. Paramount continues to stall on Sunset Boulevard, while Universal ponders a redo of Jesus Christ Superstar as well as an animated version of Cats. Even Miramax recently pulled the plug on a Spike Lee-directed mounting of the rock opera Rent.

Such wariness is understandable. The genre's final heyday ran from 1958 to 1968, when five musicals -- Gigi, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Oliver! -- won the best-picture prize over 11 years. But when the gritty X-rated drama Midnight Cowboy beat Hello, Dolly! in the 1969 race, it was clear the era that embraced swoony fantasy over downbeat naturalism was over.

Pendulum swings back

That didn't stop such A-list directors as Peter Bogdanovich (At Long Last Love, 1975) Martin Scorsese (New York, New York, 1977), Milos Forman (Hair, 1979) and Richard Attenborough (A Chorus Line, 1985) from dabbling in the form with little success.

But Luhrmann realized the mood pendulum was ready to swing back, especially after wooing audiences with 1992's ugly-duckling tale Strictly Ballroom and 1996's Shakespeare-based tragedy Romeo + Juliet.

His formula: ''Moulin Rouge is a very simple story. The audience knows what is going to happen. But it isn't the revelation that moves them, but how it is told.''

In other words, everything -- the songs, the stock characters, the settings, the borrowings from such musicals as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Cabaret -- is old. What's new is the approach and the deep response it stirs in moviegoers who buy into Luhrmann's dizzying artifice.

Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman says that taking a chance on Moulin Rouge was indeed scary, especially since the studio that was once rescued by the box office triumph of 1965's The Sound of Music had basically abandoned its once-rich musical heritage.

However, Rothman says, ''Our investment was in Baz's creativity. We believed he had a vision. The project was an underdog from the first moment to the last. But it was always driven by great passion.''

Besides, ''there has been an entire generation of moviegoers raised on MTV and music and visuals together. And Baz had a theory for how to approach it, by combining emotionality with a very contemporary cinematic grammar.''

Fox also found the patience to allow word of mouth to grow, unusual at a time when first-weekend grosses mean everything. Says Rothman, ''We had to get over a lot of negative preconceptions. It was a tough sell. But the whole project took four years, and we had to be in it for the long haul.'' The lesson to be learned, he says: ''Don't just adapt a play. Make a movie.''

'Chicago' finds right approach

Miramax and the makers of Chicago, whose budget has been said to be about $35 million or so, faced similar creative struggles in transforming the 1977 Broadway hit, whose 1997 revival is still playing in New York, into a film.

''Chicago has been in development close to 10 years,'' says Miramax executive Julie Goldstein. ''Only in the last year and a half did we find the right approach and the right filmmakers.''

That right approach to the musical numbers that take place in a Roaring '20s club setting? To have them be fantasies taking place in the recently arrested Roxie's head. ''Onstage, the action would just stop for the numbers and not move the story along,'' Moran says. ''You can't do that on film.''

Unlike Moulin Rouge, Chicago has topicality going for it. Namely, celebrity criminals. Its message, according to Moran, ''If you are famous and have a lot of money, you can get away with murder.''

The real revelation may be hearing if breathy-voiced Zellweger, a Texan who was surprisingly authentic in her Oscar-nominated role as British sweetheart Bridget Jones, can get away with singing. ''It is this beautiful, sweet, emotional voice,'' Moran assures. ''Part of the fun of the film is seeing another side to people you only normally associate with great acting.''

There may not be another Fred and Ginger out there, but Luhrmann assures that plenty of actors are taking voice lessons as he speaks. After all, ''there are only a few singers who can really act.'' Glitter was proof enough of that.

And although he is moving onto a Broadway revival of his production of La Bohème this spring, he believes he has opened the door for others to make a musical. They only have to pick up his cue.

''Everybody is saying, 'I want my musical.' John Woo told me that.'' John Woo of Mission: Impossible II fame, the action-flick specialist in operatic mayhem? ''Why not?'' says Luhrmann. ''His violence is usually choreographed to music.''

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