Reflections from the Year of the Movie Musical

After Hamilton-mania and the rise of Six on TikTok, it should be no surprise that movie musical production has grown exponentially. Broadway is on the up and up, and its audience is a predominantly younger mass willing and able to engage with media. That audience is, above all, deeply profitable. In response to this boom in engagement, the past year in film saw an explosion of movie musicals released. This included direct adaptations from Broadway, remakes of classics, and even some entirely new projects. Some have been broad-scale hits, and others public flops. So what makes a good movie musical? If 2021 taught us anything, it’s that the musical form isn’t enough — it’s about the artistry involved.

Maybe the peak of that ‘artist component’ is Tick, Tick… BOOM!, a film rife with creative exploration. Tick, Tick… BOOM! had almost no name-brand appeal, barring the small crowd who likely approached the film on the credit of Jonathan Larson, the focus of the film and creator of the famed musical Rent. Still, the original Tick, Tick… BOOM! was a little-seen Off-Broadway production. The stage production is semi-biographical, following Jonathan Larson’s desire to write a hit musical and struggle to balance his professional and personal duties. Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the film largely came from a desire to tell this story of artistry and burden, one that is unique in its specificity but universal in its implications. The film has a clear directorial vision, completing some heavy-handed adaptive work in bringing this small-scale musical to the grand filmic medium. That vision paid off— Tick, Tick… BOOM! scored itself a Best Picture nomination, and featured a star turn by Andrew Garfield. This little-known musical became a hit as a film, mostly because of its flourishing directorial vision. 

Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson in 'Tick, Tick... BOOM!'. He sits at a piano while singing with a pensive expression on his face, wearing a green t-shirt. Words and a music score can be seen in the background behind him.
Image courtesy of Netflix

On the other side of the coin is Dear Evan Hansen, a film that failed for all to see. This film was ill-fated from the start, with virulent criticism of the musical’s plot growing far before the film’s production. Dear Evan Hansen centers on a boy who inserts himself into the life of another high school student who committed suicide, in an attempt to ‘be something’ and connect to the deceased student’s family. Though the musical doesn’t let Evan off scot-free, it clearly justifies and glorifies his more heinous actions. Still, the musical found critical and financial success on Broadway, and the star power of Ben Platt (who played Evan in the original production) led his father, famed film-producer Marc Platt, to greenlight a film adaptation. By the time of filming, Platt was 27 years old. Though his performance may have been strong, it seems that 27-year-olds just cannot play high school students. The result was a film confused in its outlook, problematic in its messaging, and unsuccessful in its realism. Naturally, the film publicly broke down.

Evan (Ben Platt) and Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) walking together outside. Evan wears a blue striped shirt and jeans, with his hands in his pockets and his head turned towards Zoe. Zoe wears a long-sleeved red floral dress and is talking to Evan. Blue sky can be seen in the background.
Image courtesy of Universal Media

There must be a middle ground between these films, adapting a musical that has name value but still maintains a strong creative spirit. That, of course, comes with Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story. A classic retelling of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story has become a fabled musical in the American mind. The original film has become a staple of cinema, winning a myriad of Oscars including Best Picture. Still, this film has its problems, especially considering that almost all Latinx characters were played by white actors. A remake was not only bound to be profitable, but it also had a reason to exist. Bringing a predominantly Latinx (and especially Afro-Latinx) cast to this classic story was already an act of reclamation and directorial strength. Then, in Spielberg fashion, the story was also given beauty and grace. The remake is stacked with colorful tableaus of beauty, with viewers being left only to marvel. West Side Story proves that a commercially successful musical can be adapted for film, so long as there is firm reasoning. Musicals should not be adapted for adaptation’s sake (like Dear Evan Hansen); they must have vision. 

The gym rumble scene from 'West Side Story' (2021), which shows the "Sharks" and "Jets" facing off against each other in a school gymnasium. The "Jets" wear cooler colours while the "Sharks" wear more vibrant hues.
Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Finally, we reach the peak of ultra capitalism-pumped flaming dumpster fires: girlboss Cinderella. It should be noted that none of the individual elements of the film necessarily fated it for failure. Some blame the choice for a pop star lead in Camila Cabello, but the Madonna-led Evita was fairly successful (though Patti LuPone would disagree). Others blame the integration of pop songs into the story, but films like Moulin Rouge have gained significant followings. No, Cinderella failed because there was no intention behind it. An Amazon production, the film reeks of profiteering. The cast is flashy but poorly put together, the songs are catchy but fall into a deep sense of cringe, and even the story seems a bit overdrawn. On top of this all, it seems like the story of Cinderella may have been told just one too many times. It was just six years earlier that the Lily James-led Cinderella was released. Or who could forget the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1997), with Brandy and Whitney Houston riffing on one another for a mesmerizing “Impossible”? In comparison, this Cinderella cannot hold up. There was no intention, no new vision to be brought. This Cinderella was made for money, and it shows. 

Cinderella (Camila Cabello) stands outside with her arms flung to the side wearing an extravagant ballgown. Her Fairy Godperson (Billy Porter) stands nearby in a flamboyant
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Musical theatre, like film, is successful in its artistry. The medium itself does not suffice, for you know a bad musical when you see it. Thus, movie musicals will not succeed purely because they’re musicals. They must have vision and voice, and have a firm grounding in why the musical must take film form. When that creative direction is there, these films can feel far more emotional, joyous, or even frightening than their non-musical counterparts. Look at Tick, Tick… BOOM! or West Side Story — those films find their truth in music. When the vision isn’t there, however, the films subject themselves to a mockery in the public sphere. Just look at the memes that Dear Evan Hansen and Cinderella spawned; a bad movie musical is so vile, so overwhelmingly embarrassing, that we have no choice but to laugh. And oh, we laugh.