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Sunday, December 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Once thought dead, movie musicals live again

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

Gerard Butler plays the Phantom and Emmy Rossum is Christine in the musical drama "The Phantom of the Opera," due out this month.
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For those of us who love movie musicals, life is not always a cabaret. We sit through grimly tuneless dramas, dreaming of the much better time we'd be having if the monstrosity on screen were a musical. (Come on: Wouldn't "Alexander" have been so much better if Colin Farrell could have warbled, say, "I Don't Know How To Love Him"?)

At home, we wear out our DVD copies of song-filled favorites, vainly trying to convince skeptics that "Everyone Says I Love You" is one of the great movies of the '90s. And in newspapers and film magazines, we're constantly told that the movie musical — which has quite possibly received even more obituaries than the Western — is dead.

Well, put on your tap shoes and clear your throats, people. The movie musical is back, quite possibly with a vengeance. And for that, we can thank director Rob Marshall, who nearly two years ago turned the modestly budgeted "Chicago" into a bona fide box-office hit — and the first musical to win the Oscar for best picture in 34 years. Also responsible, to a lesser extent, are Baz Luhrmann and "Moulin Rouge," which received a handful of Oscar nominations and whetted our appetites (despite middling business) in 2001.

Bold dance numbers make a comeback in the unconventional musical "Beyond the Sea," a biopic featuring Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee and Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin. It opens Dec. 29.

This month brings one of the biggest stage hits of recent years to the screen. "Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera," directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum and some wildly over-the-top sets, arrives in theaters Dec. 22. According to the showbiz trade paper Variety, "Phantom" had been in development — that strange movie purgatory between the original spark of inspiration and the filming — for 16 years before finally finding its footing.

Though not a conventional musical (in which characters sing original songs that advance the story), Kevin Spacey's Bobby Darin biopic "Beyond the Sea" borrows many conventions from the genre, including some no-holds-barred dance numbers that might have felt at home in a '50s MGM musical. It opens Dec. 29. And Gurinder Chadha's "Bride and Prejudice" (originally scheduled for December, but recently bumped to Valentine's Day weekend — too many musicals?) is a Bollywood-style remake of the Jane Austen novel, complete with song and dance.

There's much more humming on the horizon. In the mysterious genre of movies-turned-stage-musicals-turned-movies-again (say that three times fast — or, better, sing it), "The Producers: The Movie Musical" will begin filming early next year, for a Christmas 2005 release. Originally a mostly non-singing 1968 film comedy, the rewritten musical version became a Broadway hit, paving the way for the movie, which will star Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and Nicole Kidman.

"Hairspray," the 1988 John Waters film turned recent Broadway hit, is scheduled for a film remake for 2006 release; Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell, who directed the stage version, are signed to co-direct the film. And a film remake of "Footloose" has long been in the works at Paramount, presumably minus Kevin Bacon.

The Oscar-winning "Chicago," with Catherine Zeta-Jones among its stars, helped pave the way for the return of movie musicals.

Not every movie musical coming up is a remake of a previous movie; consider "Rent," the big-screen version of the 1996 Broadway hit. Chris Columbus will direct a cast that includes many of the stage production's original performers, in a film scheduled for release late next year. Sam Mendes, Oscar winner for "American Beauty," has announced that he plans to direct a film version of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," adapted for the screen by John Logan ("Gladiator," "The Aviator"). Rumors abound about movie versions of "Bombay Dreams," Cameron Mackintosh's "Les Miserables," "Contact" and "Pippin."

And some upcoming musicals have no stage pedigree at all. "Romance and Cigarettes," starring James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet and song-and-dance man Christopher Walken, is written and directed by John Turturro, and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen. It uses classic songs, lip-synched by the performers, in traditional musical fashion — the characters, according to press materials, burst into song when they can no longer convey their emotions through spoken words. The film, which sounds like it might bear some resemblance to the unjustly forgotten 1981 musical "Pennies from Heaven" (which also featured Walken), does not yet have a release date but will likely arrive in theaters next year.

All this makes for the busiest musicals slate in decades — and a far cry from just two years ago, when musicals were the genre that dared not speak its name. Miramax, skittery about its box-

office prospects, took great pains in the trailers for "Chicago" to hide the fact that people were singing. Now all is different ... or is it? All eyes are on "Phantom" — if it does well, and is embraced by the worldwide audience who bought tickets for Lloyd Webber's stage musical, this may indeed be the beginning of a more tuneful era.

Or, if "Phantom" tanks, the toehold that movie musicals have carved out could quickly crumble. Remember that of the handful of movie musicals released in recent years, many failed to attract an audience: "Love's Labour's Lost" (2000), "The Singing Detective" (2003), "Anything But Love" (2003) and most recently the Cole Porter biopic "De-Lovely." Song-and-dance movies, particularly those that aren't affiliated with a hit stage production, continue to be a hard sell in Hollywood, and original musicals written for the screen remain rarer than four-leaf clovers.

But, as so many musicals remind us, let's be optimistic. The genre that brought us Gene Kelly splashing in the rain, and Fred whirling Ginger around a silvery ballroom, and the Jets and the Sharks coolly conveying menace through a mambo, and Catherine Deneuve's whispery crooning at that little umbrella shop in Cherbourg, and hundreds of other examples of the kind of magic that sweeps you away from everyday life into a better place — no, it can never die.

Perhaps it's just been taking a well-deserved rest, and is finally polishing its shoes to dance again.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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