The future of the movie musical

In the 1960s, four musicals won Oscar’s best picture. The next time a musical would receive that honor would come five decades later. Last month, Chicago also became the highest-grossing movie musical of all time and, in doing so, almost single-handedly revitalized the genre.

Chicago producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who previously teamed up for small-screen musical adaptations of Cinderella (1997), Annie (1999) and The Music Man (2003), appear to be the godfathers of this reinvention.

The future of the movie musical can be identified in the duo’s upcoming projects — updated versions of Guys and Dolls and Footloose — two musicals that come from different molds.

“In Footloose, the songs will be used to advance the plot,” Meron said in a Miramax Studios-sponsored conference call Tuesday. “The basic structure should remain about the same.”

The musicals that will emerge in the next few years will be those inspired from familiar source material with contemporary spins added for today’s audiences.

Just as new musical arrangements were added to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s words in the Whitney Houston-Brandy TV rendition of Cinderella, “the music will be reinvented to reflect the times we are living in,” Meron says.

So, expect more of Moulin Rouge than Chicago, even though it was the latter that allowed audiences to consider musicals as more than fluff.

“Before, when you pitched a musical, a studio would shut the door and say, ‘No thanks,'” Zadan said. “Because of Chicago you can now put a movie into production. Whether it gets made is another story. … They may say, ‘Nobody wants to see a musical — Chicago was a fluke.’ So who knows?”

Zadan says there was a lot of skepticism about Chicago until people saw it. Once they saw it, “they flipped out,” he said.

“You can only analyze stuff after the fact,” Zadan said. “People who love movie musicals loved Chicago, but other people love it, too. You never stop for the musical numbers. They just flowed with the story. That helped for people who didn’t like movie musicals.”

But while Chicago’s songs flowed, Meron says that each musical has its own trials.

“The particular challenge of Chicago was making the songs move the plot forward, because they didn’t,” he said.

The problem is just the opposite with Guys and Dolls, where the songs do move the plot, but they also create the stop-and-go dilemma for which musicals are often criticized.

But Meron says nothing in particular occurred between 1970 and 1990 that turned audiences off to musicals other than poor filmmaking.

“When people said A Chorus Line (1985) put the nail in the coffin of the movie musical, it was because (it was a bad movie),” he said. “Because there were no good films that were musicals in the 1970s and 1980s, the genre was blamed.”

Zadan said the success of Chicago just “shows you what can happen when you have the goods and a movie that people want to see.”

Whatever lies in store for the future of the movie musical, expect to see more this decade than you have in the past 30 years. Just anticipate seeing unfair comparisons to Chicago and try to judge the films on their own merits.

“Musicals should be timeless,” Meron said. “Good musicals should be done at any time and let them speak to their audiences. … Anything with a good story will make a good movie.”

Contact Will Albrittonat