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Will Musicals See a ‘La La Land’ Boost?

Variety logo Variety 2/9/2017 Jon Burlingame
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The rap on musicals used to be “audiences don’t want to see people breaking into song.” Now that “La La Land” has charmed audiences by doing just that, what does it mean for the future of live-action screen musicals?

“Whatever musicals come next will have to be good. That’s the test,” says Justin Paul, one of the Oscar-nominated lyricists for “La La Land.” “I have to believe that other studios, other producers, would only be encouraged by the impact of ‘La La Land,’ both critically and at the box office.”

Adds fellow “La La Land” lyricist Benj Pasek: “We feel like our generation has been so primed for musical content. We grew up with the resurgence of Disney animation and all that followed from that. In hindsight, it makes sense that people would be receptive; so many of us grew up with our first stories being told through song.”

After the 1981 debut of MTV, some predicted the music-plus-imagery shorts would lead to a resurgence in screen musicals. But such widely derided releases as “Pennies From Heaven” and “Labyrinth” helped to destroy what little hope existed for rekindling interest in a genre that faded after the ‘60s popularity of “West Side Story,” “Mary Poppins,” and “The Sound of Music.”

The ’80s and ’90s saw the occasional original musical, including “Yentl” and “Purple Rain,” both of which won Oscars for their song scores, as well as the Disney renaissance of animated Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musicals including “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” — the latter of which has been remade into a live-action film, due March 17.

The few successful musicals of the 2000s, apart from Disney entries such as “Frozen,” have mostly been adaptations of Broadway hits like “Chicago,” “Hairspray,” “Mamma Mia,” “Les Miserables,” and “Into the Woods.”

“With Broadway adaptations and animation, you have a built-in audience,” says music supervisor Matthew Sullivan, whose resume includes “Chicago,” “Hairspray,” and “Dreamgirls.” “I’ve been in the room a few times, pitching new original musicals. It is a scary prospect for studios.

“Great musicals do one thing: You tell people right at the beginning of the movie, here it is: People are going to sing and you’re going to enjoy it.”

The bravura opening freeway-gridlock scene of “La La Land” does exactly that, he points out, just as the feel-good “Good Morning Baltimore” did in the opening of “Hairspray.”

The Tony-winning composer of “Hairspray,” Marc Shaiman, at work in London another musical, “Mary Poppins Returns,” says he thinks “La La Land” struck a chord with audiences “because the characters sing and dance like real people, and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are awfully charming real people at that, so folks are more welcoming of them breaking into song.”

The “Poppins” sequel, he says, “is the dream of a lifetime,” although he can’t reveal any details. But he and lyricist partner Scott Wittman are also set to do another film musical, with “La La Land” producer Marc Platt, about the days of the industrial musical, shows put together by corporations to hawk their new products at tradeshows. Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig are set to star.

“Projects that have been simmering for years are now getting taken more seriously,” says Richard Kraft, the composers’ agent who represents both Shaiman and Menken and whose passion for musicals is well-known in the business. “Great producers are seeing the potential in both reimagined stories and brand new ideas.”

Kraft also cites “The Greatest Showman,” on which songwriters Pasek and Paul have been toiling for four years, predating even their involvement with “La La Land.” It’s the story of P.T. Barnum and stars Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron.

“The film was workshopped like a stage musical, with reading with actors and singers,” Kraft says. “It is a perfect example of an ‘old-fashioned’ musical set over a century ago, viewed through a contemporary prism.”

Whether the growing number of TV musicals, from “Glee” to “Smash” to “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” has contributed to the comfort level of viewers watching actors sing about their feelings, is still up for debate.

“Films like ‘Pitch Perfect’ would not have been created without these shows paving the way,” says Sullivan. “Because of this trend, feature films will become more innovative to draw larger audiences.”

L.A. theater producer-director and veteran soundtrack producer Bruce Kimmel disagrees. “I don’t think ‘Glee’ or ‘Smash’ are relevant at all,” he says. He also doesn’t consider “La La Land” a musical in the classic sense because “it does not function as a real musical does, in which songs move the plot forward.” Yet, he concedes, “we’ll have lots of clones soon enough.”

These increasingly unsettled times may also serve as encouragement for films where people sing and dance on screen. In the ‘30s, the Warner Bros. musicals (“42nd Street,” “Footlight Parade”) and RKO’s Astaire-Rogers dancefests (“Flying Down to Rio,” “Top Hat”) distracted audiences from the Depression, and the MGM musicals of the ‘40s (“Strike Up the Band,” “Meet Me in St. Louis”) were popular during wartime.

Kraft sees this as promising. “I think people are growing tired of snark and skepticism and pessimism,” he says, believing that “La La Land” “hit the zeitgeist for smart and unapologetic optimism. Even in times of strife and conflict, people still fall in love and follow dreams.”

In addition to “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Greatest Showman” (due at Christmas) and the industrial musical (tentatively titled “Everything Is Coming Up Profits”), the upcoming slate includes Bradley Cooper’s remake of “A Star Is Born” with Lady Gaga, in 2018; “Les Miserables” director Tom Hooper tackling Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats”; reported Disney projects “Mulan” (live-action remake) and “Disenchanted” (sequel to “Enchanted”); and, in 2019, director Stephen Daldry’s take on the long-running Broadway hit “Wicked.”

As for the success or failure of the ones to come, Kraft notes: “The success of each will live and die, like all films, on the alchemy of each individual project. But at least for a while, the perceived curse of original movie musicals has been lifted.”

Shaiman, too, thinks it all bodes well — that is, he says, “until one flops.”

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