Love them or hate them, the live action movie musical is one of the most historically important genres in American cinema.
At the birth of cinema, audiences were simply treated to moving pictures. The Lumière brothers are famous not only for inventing the cinematograph, allowing audiences to watch movies together, but for their film L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de la Ciotat, also known as Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. Only 50 seconds long, this film has entered cinematic legend, supposedly frightening audiences into running out of the room due to the realism of this train pulling toward them. It was an exciting time... But that was 1896. After 30 years of moving silent pictures, creating greats like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Hollywood was running out of ideas to really grab the attention of audiences. So, when the technology to record picture AND sound was finally crafted, Hollywood found its new draw. And we entered the world of the talkies. And the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences was none other than Al Jolson's movie musical The Jazz Singer.
That's how important music and the musical is to cinema. The first chance we got with sound, we jumped straight into a musical film. And for the next several decades, musicals bringing their songs to the radio and theatre being one of the biggest sources of entertainment for Americans, the live action movie musical thrived. The Wizard of Oz. The Sound of Music. Singin' in the Rain. The classics are too numerous to give justice in a short list, but you all know them. Many grew up with them.
...so what happened?
In the 1950s, '60s and '70s, music changed (thanks, Elvis and The Beatles). It started shifting in the late '50s and, by the '70s, America no longer played the biggest Broadway hits on the radio every week. Rock and roll and other genres, corporations and record labels, had really started to take hold, and the public consciousness shifted away from theatre. The movie musical still existed, but so many of them were failing critically and commercially. They started diminishing, turning away from the classic Broadway styling (as Broadway itself had, somewhat, turned away from the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hammersteins and more toward the rock musical). In the '80s and '90s, there was some rebounding, with hits like Annie, Purple Rain, and Little Shop of Horrors, but even some of these hits saw less-than-stellar box office performances, largely being saved by the VHS/Beta tape industry. Then, in 1989, Disney began its renaissance with a film called The Little Mermaid. Dominating the 1990s with musical films like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, Disney seemed to almost completely change the movie musical from the purview of live action firmly to animation.
This is not to say movie musicals have not had their fair share of money and critical acclaim lately. According to Box Office Mojo, 8 of the top 10 lifetime domestic grossing live action musical movies were made in the 21st century, including Chicago, Les Miserables, and Mamma Mia!. And yet, none have beaten the record of Grease, which came out in 1978 (though it did have the benefit of nearly $30 million from a theatrical rerelease). They have been commercially successful, but they haven't really resonated in popular cinematic culture the way they did in their heyday. Beyond that, the top 10 highest grossing musicals of the 21st century all come from 7 different years. So we're getting one, maybe two, successful live action movie musicals a year. And once you go down the list, successful becomes a bit more subjective... Coming in at #10 is the Quvenzhane Wallis musical Annie, which only earned about $20 million domestically over its budget. That's about the same, adjusted for inflation, as the #10 movie musical NOT in the 21st century, Little Shop of Horrors, which comes in at #26 overall. We're getting decent returns, but not ones that convince studios to take a chance and do these types of films. Important films. So, the movie musical has slowed down to a bit of a crawl, as of late.
Enter stage left, a young Puerto Rican Tony Award-winning songwriter, a fresh new musical in hand: Lin-Manuel Miranda's new show Hamilton. If you don't know what Hamilton is... I'm not sure you've been awake, because this musical has been the most successful musical for pervading the cultural zeitgeist in possibly decades. The sounds-strange-on-paper mishmash of the birth of America from the eyes of Alexander Hamilton, that random guy on your $10 bill best known for being the first person shot by a sitting vice president (and only one killed, since I guess Dick Cheney was just playing a prank or something), told in the lyrical stylings of artists like The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z. A (mostly) rap/hip hop/R&B retelling of America about a guy no one knows anything about. And it has become one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful musicals of all-time... despite having been on Broadway for less than a year. If you haven't listened to it, do yourself a favor and pull it up on Spotify.
So, how is Hamilton supposed to help save the American live action musical movie industry? Well, in honesty... it probably can't save it single-handed. But it can revitalize the process. Hamilton is unique for so many reasons, but most often it is cited as having brought an incredible new lineup of people to Broadway. People that didn't pay any attention to theatre before are looking at what possibilities theatre can give. Not to mention, according to President Barack Obama, it's the only thing he and the aforementioned Mr. Cheney agree on. The musical is almost universally beloved, and it is ripe for a film.
The stage performance is incredibly minimalist, consisting of simple, incomplete background scenery that never changes, as far as I'm aware. Yet the story involves several locations, such as the Caribbean, New York, England, New Jersey, even the White House can make a brief appearance. The first act is almost entirely during the Revolutionary War, with the Battle of New York, the Battle of Monmouth, and the Battle of Yorktown all making appearances... that's something exciting to watch. Sex, betrayal, war, spies, incendiary politics... all wrapped in, well, rap, one of the generation's most popular musical genres. But the music is more complex and layered than that, bringing stylings that basically everyone can find enjoyable at some point, even if they have a distaste for that one genre. The story is compelling, exciting, fun, and heartbreaking. There's a reason it's so incredibly popular... and with that popularity comes a pre-built audience base. If done correctly, making money would be, perhaps, the easiest thing for this film to do.
But it has to be done right. For that to happen, risks have to occur. And one of those risks, which most that pay attention to film know has gotten a lot more discussion in recent years, is the cast. Hollywood, no doubt, would want to put your big names in the film, some of whom could perform the singing necessary (Meryl Streep, Hugh Jackman), some of whom... maybe can't (Gerard Butler, Russell Crowe). But, as you probably know, these are all white people. Hollywood loves casting white people, whether the roles are white or not. It's not very often that the roles go in the other direction, with non-whites receiving roles originally intended for white people. This is important because Hamilton has also received a lot of well-deserved attention for having exactly one white principal performer in King George. Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Aaron Burr, James Madison... all the other historically white principal characters are played by black, Latino, and Asian actors and actresses. And that's important to the musical, not just in how it was created, but also what it says. And Hollywood wouldn't like that risk much... but as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Straight Outta Compton have shown, women or non-white casts can drive movies to big profits. The idea that these films won't earn money needs to be tossed aside across the whole movie industry, and Hamilton may be able to help the film industry in that regard as well.
With the correct cast (which, honestly, I'd say the original cast, but that occurring might be beyond a stretch), the correct director, and a reasonable budget, Hamilton could set record profits and finally smash the gross earnings of Grease. From there, Hollywood has to learn the right lesson: Crafting movie musicals needs to focus on basics. 1) Get the cast right. Don't cast A-listers that can't perform well just to draw in crowds. If they can't sing, you won't get the repeat customers you need. 2) Get the music right. This mostly pertains to potential new musical films not dragged from Broadway to the screens of Hollywood. But make sure the music is, well... good. And can reach everyone in the audience. Hamilton's success doesn't mean make a billion rap musicals. They have to be crafted well to work. 3) Make it cinematic. Into the Woods made money in 2014 because Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, and Emily Blunt. Also, Disney. It was released at the right time, it's a fairly popular musical, it was well-advertised... But, critically, it failed to get much traction. 72% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes (not bad, but not amazing), and only 49% of audiences liked it. It's also one of the few commercially successful movie musicals of the 21st century to not win the Golden Globe for Best Musical/Comedy, losing to Grand Budapest Hotel. And the biggest issue the film had was being limited in scope and execution. It felt almost like a theatrical performance, as scenery failed to stand out and differentiate itself, and the second act rushed too quickly into darkness. It didn't take enough advantage of its cinematic nature, staying too close to theatre and not taking risks. There's cinematic opportunity with Hamilton. It's practically a blank slate of imagery.
As long as Hollywood doesn't see Hamilton as "what gimmick can we glean to slap on other projects for money" (like many fear is the "lesson" learned from the rated R Deadpool) and treats the source material with respect and deference, but takes risks for the audience to enjoy, then we could start to see movie musicals marching back toward their live action origins. Book of Mormon, Next to Normal, and many other musicals not even created yet could be the revitalization of the genre... but Hamilton is the linchpin.
Hollywood... do not throw away your shot.
This post originally appeared on CineNation Podcast on Medium.
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