Singin’ in the Renaissance: The rebirth of the American movie musical

Laura Vilines

For those of us who grew up watching “The Sound of Music” and “Annie” on constant repeat, the movie musical, for a time, has seemed like a forgotten art, buried along with movie musical greats such as Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Few people today remember the glory days of the movie musical, when songs such as “White Christmas” became instant hits and entire corporations named themselves after a favorite musical film (think of the hotel giant Holiday Inn, named after the 1942 film of the same name).

The 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s witnessed a huge drought in the movie musical, as Hollywood’s fickle favor shifted to bratty teeny-bopper films and the increasingly popular genre of the romantic comedy. Yet due to a number of factors, the American movie musical is currently experiencing a somewhat dramatic and shaky rebirth.

In 1996 Madonna and Hollywood heartthrob Antonio Banderas relaunched the genre with their musical biography “Evita,” which told the story of Eva Peron, a former first lady of Argentina who died tragically at the age of 33. It wasn’t until 2001, however, that the movie musical really gained popularity with Baz Luhrmann’s creative spectacle and box-office sensation “Moulin Rouge.” With stars such as Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor belting out Elton John hits, the movie was an instant success. After the stunning popularity of Luhrmann’s over-the-top musical masterpiece, studios throughout Hollywood grew eager to produce the next great musical hit.

The following year, the big-screen adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago,” starring Renee Zelwegger, Catherine Zeta Jones and Richard Gere, cemented the movie musical back into the American mainstream, as it captured the first Best Picture Academy Award for a musical in 35 years. Since the release of “Chicago,” however, the studios’ attempts at recreating musical box-office successes have been somewhat uninspiring. Flops such as 2004’s “De-Lovely” and the dismal success of this year’s “Phantom of the Opera” seemed to prepare the movie musical for another nosedive off of Hollywood’s radar.

But two releases this Christmas once again attempt to revive the somewhat-struggling art form. Jonathan Larson’s ’90s hit “Rent” makes its transition onto the big screen, accompanied by “The Producers,” starring original cast members Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. These two movie musical hopefuls are featured below. For those of us who belted out “Tomorrow” throughout our childhoods, we can only hope for big box-office profits and a fury of media attention. For those who loathe the genre as much as they loathe musical theatre in general, they can only hope for a quick departure from the theatres.

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