A funny thing happened during a screening of the 1979 classic “The Muppet Movie” Sunday at the historic Tampa Theatre.
Amidst all the laughter and singing along to memorable tunes penned by the likes of acclaimed songwriter-actor Paul Williams, such as the venerable “Rainbow Connection,” it became apparent that there hasn’t been a particularly remarkable movie musical in years.
Indeed, 2003 was the year that the Rob Marshall-directed adaptation of Broadway’s “Chicago” swept the Academy Awards by earning six Oscars, including Best Picture. Yet since then, Marshall stumbled with 2009’s “Nine,” another Broadway adaptation looking to duplicate the success of “Chicago,” and the Oscars have been void of any Best Picture wins or even nominations for musicals since.
Awards aren’t all that matters, though. Even 1952’s “Singing in the Rain,” which the American Film Institute ranked as No. 1 on their 2006 Great Movie Musicals list, only earned two nominations for Jean Hagen’s wonderful performance and Best Music. The rest of the list reads like a journey through film history, with “West Side Story,” “Wizard of Oz” and “The Sound of Music” filling out the rest of the top four spots and once again emphasizing that the past couple decades have been barren for movie musicals.
“What are the most recent additions to the list?” you may ask. Well, the previously mentioned 2002 film “Chicago” comes in at No. 12, while the beloved 2000 film “Moulin Rouge” makes its way onto the bottom of the list at No. 25. The next most recent addition is 1991’s Disney musical “Beauty and the Beast,” with the rest of the titles predominantly from a Hollywood golden period of the 1930s all the way to the late 1960s.
Though it’s not evident on the list, the ’70s were a particularly prolific time for Broadway adaptations, with “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Grease” and dance legend Bob Fosse-directed “Cabaret,” along with original movie musicals like “The Muppet Movie,” “All That Jazz” and even Brian De Palma’s rock opera “Phantom of the Paradise.” “Paradise” features music again penned by Academy Award-winning songwriter Paul Williams, who also walked away with a statue for 1977’s Barbra Streisand-starring “A Star Is Born,” and was the key to the success of ’70s musicals ranging from “The Muppet Movie” to “Bugsy Malone.”
Perhaps Williams, Fosse and several other musical minds behind ’70s movie musicals help point to a key factor in what’s keeping Hollywood from producing great movie musicals today; there are simply no creative types investing the sort of time required to make a classic like “All That Jazz” today. The most memorable musicals of the ’00s have mostly been adaptations of Broadway plays like “Dreamgirls,” “Hairspray” and “The Producers,” with only a few musicals receiving the sort of time and dedication necessary to create a memorable movie musical.
For instance, the recent “The Muppets” featured original songs supervised by Grammy Award-nominated “Flight of the Conchords” star Brett McKenzie, which featured such lovingly crafted gems as “Life’s a Happy Song,” “Pictures in My Head” and others. On the other hand, “Glee” stalwart Ryan Murphy is looking to follow in the footsteps of his hit show by recycling musicals like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as Twentieth Century Fox plans to have him produce and possibly direct a big-screen remake of the cult musical from the ’70s.
Disney is slowly starting to climb into the realm of movie musicals, as “Beauty and the Beast” songwriter Allen Menken has returned to write Academy Award-nominated songs for 2007’s “Enchanted” and especially 2010’s whimsical “Tangled,” which saw the songwriter returning to his heyday of films like “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.” Menken even added a memorable music element to Disney’s first venture into superhero films with the Marvel Studios-produced “Captain America: The First Avenger,” which featured the Menken-penned “Star Spangled Man.”
While Disney still has three wildly successful but abhorrent “High School Musical” films to atone for, perhaps their hiring of musical minds like McKenzie and Menken is a move in the right direction. Yet, if recent announcements of adaptations of popular Broadway musicals like “Les Miserables,” “Spring Awakening” and “Jersey Boys” are any indication, the tide has yet to change.
While there have been a few entertaining movie musicals over the past decade, like the 2002 French film “8 Women,” the preciously animated “Happy Feet,” or even “The Corpse Bride” – the spiritual successor to the Tim Burton-created “The Nightmare Before Christmas” – watching a truly great musical moment like Gene Kelly sing down the raining streets in “Singing in the Rain” may remind you of the joyousness we’re missing from our cinematic diet.