Shoved into the shadows by the omnivorous quest to sate the youth market, the old-fashioned movie musical took another giant step back into the spotlight Tuesday as the Broadway song-and-dance story "Chicago" captured a leading 13 Academy Award nominations.
The film's Oscar recognition is the latest chapter in the resurrection of the Hollywood musical, suddenly one of show business' hottest genres. Studio executives, directors and producers are hurriedly developing film versions of such stage staples as "Bye Bye Birdie," "Into the Woods" and "Sweeney Todd." MGM is at work on no fewer than three musicals, and upcoming television movies include "The Music Man" and "Fiddler on the Roof."
Recently considered little more than a pleasant nighttime diversion during New York business trips, musicals now are so hot that even Steven Spielberg is telling friends that he wants to direct one
"Chicago" was nominated by academy voters in every top category except, in a surprise, best actor for Richard Gere. The film earned nominations for best picture, best actress for Renee Zellweger, best supporting actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones, best supporting actor for John C. Reilly, best director for Rob Marshall and best screenplay adaptation for Bill Condon. It is now considered the favorite to win the top trophy when the Oscars are presented March 23.
The other best picture nominees are "Gangs of New York," "The Hours," "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "The Pianist." "Gangs of New York" drew the second-largest number of nominations, with 10; "The Hours" was third with nine.
The frantic race to latch on to the success of "Chicago" and last year's Oscar-winning "Moulin Rouge" could create a glut of musicals. The three MGM projects include a serious biography of Cole Porter starring Kevin Kline (who also can play the piano) and "Lil' Romeo and Lil' Juliet," starring a 13-year-old rapper whose songs include "Little Souljas Need Love Too."
In an only-in-Hollywood twist, there's talk of movies based on the Broadway musicals "Footloose" and "The Producers" -- both of which started out as movies.
The new interest in musicals isn't limited to books and lyrics. Theater performers are being tapped for nonmusical film roles. Patrick Wilson, the Broadway star of "Oklahoma!" and "The Full Monty," has been cast in a leading role in the historical epic "The Alamo." Will Kemp, a principal from the ballet "The Car Man," is co-starring in the monster movie "Van Helsing."
Yet, as has happened throughout Hollywood history, the triumph of a genre inevitably breeds pale imitators, as was the case with the flood of ostensibly arty noir dramas that came -- and quickly vanished -- in the wake of "Pulp Fiction."
"Anytime people start to follow a mob mentality, a lot of blood ends up getting spilled," said 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 musicals. The $45-million production has grossed $64 million and seems certain to take in more than $100 million in North American theaters, or nearly double the take of "Moulin Rouge."
"If we were able with 'Moulin Rouge' to kick the door in for the movie musical, then Rob Marshall and 'Chicago' have now knocked the door off its hinges," "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann said. "No one has to explain today why it's not a stupid idea to make a musical."
Yet musicals need 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" with a movie based on "A Chorus Line." It was no singular sensation, grossing only $4.8 million.
Craig Zadan, who with producing partner Neil Meron has credits on "Chicago" and TV versions of "Annie," "Gypsy" and "The Music Man," is not so sure there will be resurgence of the musical.
"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 Baz Luhrmann," Zadan said. Tom Rothman, whose 20th Century Fox studios made "Moulin Rouge," is equally pessimistic. The mistake Hollywood executives make, Rothman said, is assuming that audiences are responding to a genre rather than to execution. Moviegoers didn't buy tickets for "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago" because they just had to watch people break into song, he said. They showed up because the films were original and well made.
"It will be interesting to see what happens when a lot of people start falling all over themselves just to make something because one or two movies worked," Rothman said.
Of course, not every musical can be anchored by originality. One of 20th Century Fox's upcoming releases is "From Justin to Kelly," a musical loosely adapted from the company's hit "American Idol" television series, starring the show's winner, Kelly Clarkson, and finalist Justin Guarini.
What's remarkable about the resurgence of the genre is not so much that it is back but that it disappeared so quickly in the first place.
Four musicals won 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, including "Fiddler on the Roof" and "All That Jazz," but success proved elusive later. For every "Grease," "Flashdance," "Fame" and "Saturday Night Fever" came an equal measure of fiascoes such as "Pennies From Heaven," "Newsies," "A Little Night Music" and "Xanadu."
Scared by such expensive failures, the studios pulled back and live-action musicals almost vanished. Filmmakers at Walt Disney built half a 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"). If real actors started dancing, it was only because someone had started playing music on a record player. Spontaneous singing was proscribed.
"With the push toward realism, the artifice of musicals was just something the audience could not accept anymore," said Condon, the nominated screenwriter of "Chicago." "Only with animation was there artifice that you could accept."
It was left to smaller independent companies to dare to make vaguely traditional musical, such as "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "Dancer in the Dark."
Rather than turn musicals into big-budget movies, producers inverted the equation, taking their hit movies to Broadway. Recent reverses of field include "The Lion King," "The Full Monty," "The Producers," "Hairspray," "Big," "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Sweet Smell of Success."
Then, against all odds, Luhrmann and 20th Century Fox made "Moulin Rouge." The movie was not a huge moneymaker, and it definitely split audiences. But it did prove that a musical could become a popular cultural event and, in an even more difficult feat, make bigger stars of its two leads, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.
The film won two Academy Awards last year, for costume design and art direction. The Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino is working with Luhrmann on a new building to house an extensive nightclub experience (without, of course, the courtesans) based on the filmmaker's "Moulin Rouge" designs.
In this environment, a movie such as "Chicago" was not such a fantastic idea after all.
"When I hung up my [dancing] shoes when I was 19, I thought those days were gone," "Chicago's" Catherine Zeta-Jones said. "I never thought I would be in a musical on film."
When "Chicago" wowed audiences and critics in December, the musical bandwagon started to burst at the seams. Projects that had been stalled in development hell, such as "Bye Bye Birdie," suddenly found new life.
"The success of 'Chicago' and 'Moulin Rouge' without question definitely opens the door for other musicals," said producer Laurence Mark, who is trying to make a movie version of Susan Stroman's "Contact." "Studios now are much more welcoming of stories that are music-driven and dance-driven."
The journey of one film dramatizes Hollywood's change of heart. When writer-director Todd Graff first began working on his summer arts camp musical "Camp," almost every door was slammed in his face. "There were plenty of people who were afraid," Graff said. He spent seven years polishing his script, raising funds and begging composers such as Stephen Sondheim to cut the fees to use show tunes. Graff cobbled together a nearly $2-million budget and hurriedly shot the movie late last summer.
But as soon as the film played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, top executives from big Hollywood studios such as Paramount traveled to Park City, Utah, to consider releasing the film.
"We had been flying very low under the radar," Graff said. "And then, after our first Sundance screening, when people started applauding the movie, everyone took notice." IFC plans to distribute "Camp" this year.
Not every movie has benefited immediately from the musical madness. Tony Award-winning "Rent," which will pass its 3,000th performance this summer, is months, if not years, away from being filmed, and it may end up as a television movie. Spike Lee at one point considered directing it and even held some informal casting sessions.
When director Marshall first visited Miramax and discussed "Chicago," he actually was there to describe his ideas for "Rent."
"It's always about inspired leadership," said Jeffrey Seller, the producer of "Rent" on Broadway. "You need people like Baz Luhrmann or Bob Fosse ["Cabaret"] or Robert Wise ["The Sound of Music"]. With those kinds of visionaries, you can get anything made."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun