Whither the musical? It’s an old, baffling question for cinephiles. Everyone loves the old musicals, so why don’t they make movies like The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain or West Side Story anymore?
The stock answer usually goes, “Today’s audiences just won’t accept characters suddenly breaking into song.” But this isn’t a satisfactory answer, not when one considers that today’s audiences are perfectly willing to accept, say, Keanu Reeves’ superhuman contortions in The Matrix, or an arachnid Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man. All movies contain artifice and musicals are no more fanciful than other genres.
A better answer can probably be found in the demise of popular live theater and the entertainers that they nurtured. For the stalwarts of the musical’s heyday such as Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly and Judy Holliday were highly versatile singers and dancers who cut their teeth on the boards.
Furthermore, the men and women who composed those musicals were products of an age before broadcast entertainment. The hacks of Tin Pan Alley cranked out sheet-music by the cart-load, to be played in parlors all across America. The music was deceptively simple, yet unforgettable–an entire American songbook was created in a few short decades. However, the giants that this culture produced–Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Kern and Rodgers and Hammerstein, have passed on, and left few heirs (the dark and arty Stephen Sondheim, who began his career collaborating on West Side Story with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, is the exception that proves the rule). Today, the occasional release of a musical carries the whiff of an auteurist stunt, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge or Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark.
Chicago, which opens Friday, is also promoting its own daring: Can Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere sing and dance? Happily, the answer is yes, but with considerable help from the quick cuts that disguise lapses in their performances.
That said, Chicago is a fantastically entertaining film, with great songs and inventive staging. But will it revive the musical? Don’t bet on it.