On With the Show

By Salima Appiah-Kubi

Moulin Rogue hinted at it. Hedwig and the Angry Inch made it cool. Everyone Says I Love You nearly killed it. This month’s release Mel Brooks’ movie-turned –musical-turned movie musical, The Producers, has made it official. Ladies and gentlemen, we are now entering the second age of the movie musical.

Like the swing resurgence of the late 90s, this revival will be smaller, shorter and more sporadic than the genre’s original popularity but it’s still cause to break out the tap shoes. In truth, the signs have been popping up for the last five years.

First, Chicago took several academy awards a signal flare went up, letting the major studios know these films bring in prestige. Then, last winter, the film version of The Phantom of the Opera, with little star power, showed that conventional movie musicals can bring in the dough.

The long awaited Rent showed that while audiences were ready to see blockbuster musicals again, some critics were not. As one of those salivating for the opening of Rent I was consistently disappointed by the reviews, and not for their negative tone. Disregarding common sense, critics vented their anger at Rent the musical on the film. They complained about the storyline, the characters and some even discussed how unnatural it was for the cast to burst into song. Dear reviews, I beseech you, if you don’t like: musicals in general, the show in question or the source material, level with your readers so they may take your thoughts cum grano salis. Hairspray and Dreamgirls are in pre-production and I don’t want to have this conversation again.

On to the burning question, why now? Well, it seems that we’ve been building up to this for a while. The kids who were raised on Disney when Ariel wanted to be “part of that world” and Simba couldn’t “wait to be king” now have disposable income. This demographic grew up with characters bursting in to song; in fact we quite like it. (Bring up the film Newsies to a woman currently in her 20s and wait for the squeal). It helped that The Simpsons started peppering episodes with musical numbers now a stable for adult marketed cartoons. With varying levels of success scripted dramas like Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal and Buffy had their own musical episodes.

More often than not, today’s musicals are usually winking at their audience. Cartoons for adults like Family Guy and South Park employ musical numbers to get away with doing hilarious but inappropriate things. The South Park movie featured a gay Satan, a break dancing Sadaam Hussein and lots of children swearing and was only tolerable (and, for two hours,palatable) because of its musical numbers. The humor is not just in what they’re singing—it’s that they’re singing. This meta approach is even more prevalent onstage with the aforementioned Producers, Urinetown and last year’s Tony winner, Spamalot.

Let’s not discount the effect of external circumstances in the rise of musicals. It’s been a really, ridiculously, ludicrously bad year. Tsunami, earthquake, two, African genocide (again) in the Sudan, African famine (again) in Niger, bombings (again) in Bali , the London bombings, high gas prices, sharper political divides, the culture wars, French race riots, Australian race riots, Jessica Simpson acting, Kevin Federline on the cover of GQ…it’s all just too much for a person to take. The musical’s heyday was in the 30s and 40s—a time most notable for its economic depression and war. Then and now we need a distraction.

Is it this slightly sarcastic approach harmful for the musical? Time will tell, but I don’t think so. Weaving music with stories can only strengthen the genre, if just conditionin audiences against shock when dialogue becomes lyrics. As for me, my character shoes are sticking to the floor, my jazz hands are spilling popcorn and I’m ready for the show to begin.

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