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Back to Sound of Music?

Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago

DANCING TO A TUNE: Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago

Shoved into the shadows by a hip-hop mind-set that valued raucous visuals over melodic compositions, the old-fashioned movie musical is suddenly one of the hottest genres in show business. And all thanks to Chicago’s Oscar recognition (it captured a leading 13 Academy Award nominations).

In fact, musicals are now so hot that even Steven Spielberg is telling friends he wants to direct one. Studio executives, directors and producers are hurriedly developing film versions of favourites like Bye Bye Birdie, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd. MGM is at work on no less than three musicals, and upcoming television movies include The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof.

The frantic race to latch onto the successes of Chicago and last year’s Oscar-winning Moulin Rouge promises to create a glut of musicals. Among the three MGM projects, there’s a serious biography of Cole Porter starring Kevin Kline (who can also play the piano) and Lil’ Romeo and Lil’ Juliet, starring a 13-year-old rapper. Another surprising twist is the talk of movies based on the musicals Footloose and The Producers, both of which started out as movies.

As has happened before in Hollywood history, the triumph of the genre will inevitably breed pale imitators — this was the case with the flood of ostensibly arty noir dramas that came, and quickly vanished, in the wake of Pulp Fiction. ‘‘Any time people start to follow a mob mentality, a lot of blood ends up getting spilled,’’ says producer Doug Wick, who nonetheless is trying to jump-start a movie based on Bye Bye Birdie. It isn’t simply Chicago’s Oscar momentum that is encouraging the makers of other musicals. The $45 million musical has already grossed $64 million and seems certain to take in more than $100 million by the end of the season, nearly double the take of Moulin Rouge.

Yet musicals necessitate special handling, requiring an aptitude not only for moviemaking but also for songs, lyrics and choreography. In 1985, director Richard Attenborough followed his Oscar-winning Gandhi by trying to make a movie based on A Chorus Line. It was hardly a sensation, grossing a wobbly $4.8 million.

‘‘With the success of Moulin Rouge and Chicago, everybody is asking the same question: ‘Will there be a resurgence of the movie musical?’’’ says producer Craig Zadan, who has credits on Chicago and the upcoming Music Man. ‘‘And the answer is: ‘No.’ Because there are a very limited number of people who can make them. The only other person besides Rob Marshall who has shown he can make a musical is (Moulin Rouge’s) Baz Luhrmann,’’ Zadan says.

Tom Rothman, whose Fox Studios made Moulin Rouge, is equally pessimistic about how many of the planned musicals will succeed. The mistake Hollywood executives make, Rothman says, is assuming audiences are simply responding to a genre, rather than an execution. Moviegoers didn’t buy tickets for Moulin Rouge and Chicago because they just had to watch people break into song, he says. They showed up because the films were both original and well made.

What’s remarkable about the musical’s current resurgence is not so much that the genre is back, but that it disappeared so quickly in the first place. A cornerstone of Hollywood’s golden era, musicals won four best-picture Academy Awards in the 1960s: West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Oliver. Several hits were released in the 1970s, from Fiddler on the Roof to All That Jazz, but success proved elusive later on. For every Grease, Flashdance, Fame, and Saturday Night Fever came an equal measure of fiascos such as Pennies From Heaven and Xanadu. Scared by these expensive failures, the studios pulled back, and live-action musicals mostly vanished.

Filmmakers at Walt Disney built a half-dozen blockbusters around memorable songs, but the tunes were performed not by tenors and altos but by animated tea kettles (Beauty and the Beast) and crabs (The Little Mermaid). ‘‘With the push toward realism, the artifice of musicals was just something the audience could not accept anymore,’’ says Condon, the nominated screenwriter of Chicago. ‘‘Only with animation was there artifice that you could accept.’’ Then Luhrmann and Fox made Moulin Rouge.

Not exactly a huge moneymaker, the movie did prove that a movie musical could become a popular cultural event. The film won two Academy Awards last year, for costume design and art direction. In an instant, a movie such as Chicago was not such a crazy idea after all. ‘‘When I hung up my (dancing) shoes at 19, I thought those days were gone,’’ says Catherine Zeta-Jones, the Chicago co-star who has been nominated for best-supporting actress. ‘‘I never thought I would be in a musical on film.’’

Well, post Chicago and Moulin Rouge, the musical bandwagon has people piling on. ‘‘The success of these films definitely opens the door for other musicals,’’ says producer Laurence Mark, who is trying to make a movie version of Susan Stroman’s stage musical, Contact.‘‘Studios now are much more welcoming of stories that are music-driven and dance-driven.’’


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