Broadway in Hollywood: ‘In the Heights’ and the renaissance of the blockbuster musical

Lydia McKelvie | Staff Writer

The “In the Heights” trailer gave me everything my little theatre kid heart needed when it was released in December. It is bright, energetic, emotional and highly relevant to the modern day. It also coincided with my recently revived “Hamilton” phase, thus making the current soundtrack of my life almost entirely written by Lin Manuel-Miranda. This trailer has had me thinking, however, about this recent trend in the production of high-budget, star-studded movie musicals for mainstream audiences.

“In The Heights” is not the first movie of its kind in recent years, and it does not look like it will be the last. Over the past decade, audiences have seen theatrical classics like “Les Miserables,” “Into the Woods,” “Mamma Mia” and its sequel—to name a few— grace the silver screen to moderate critical acclaim. There have also been live televised musicals such as “Grease: Live” which have featured stars like Ariana Grande and Kelly Clarkson. Upcoming productions like Spielberg’s “West Side Story” show that this trend is nowhere close to being finished. This is to say nothing of the original musicals that have become increasingly popular such as “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman.”

However, this is not to say that we live in the height of the movie musical’s popularity and prestige. That title goes to the 1950s and early 1960s, in which musicals reigned supreme on the silver screen. This was the era of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Anything Goes,” “Damn Yankees,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and the original “West Side Story.” These musicals had major cultural relevance in their times, and they continue to be beloved family films to this day. Many won Academy Awards, such as “Mary Poppins” and “My Fair Lady,” and were considered to be some of the most highly artistic and innovative films in their time.

However, the end of the era was neigh. These productions became bigger, more elaborate and more expensive, until the bubble finally burst as audience tastes changed. Many attribute the film “Hello, Dolly!” to the ultimate fall of the movie musical in the 1960s, as its massive budget could not be recouped by an audience which simply didn’t connect with these lofty romantic tales and shiny song and dance numbers anymore. From this point forward, movie musicals were primarily low budget, countercultural productions. Many did find some success as cult classics, namely “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Cabaret,” but the era of the flashy and expensive movie musical was over. That is, until now.

Will “In the Heights” help usher in a new age of cultural relevance for the movie musical? This is hard to say, but there certainly does appear to be a trend of these big-budget musical films with star power making their way to the big screen. These films are not terribly dissimilar from their earlier, late 1950s counterparts. “La La Land” was at its heart a flashy romantic musical with little social substance, but it was and continues to be critically acclaimed and well loved. And “Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again,” with its non-existent plot, was beloved by wine moms everywhere.

Perhaps audiences really do want some of this fluffy, shiny fun again. Musicals don’t speak to our brains—in fact they require quite a bit of suspension of disbelief to even work—but they do speak to our hearts. They teach us how to dream and inspire us to be better. In a world that feels increasingly chaotic, maybe a movie about a community of people who support and uplift each other in the face of tragedy and prejudice is exactly what we need. A little song and dance never hurt, either.

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