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Musicals are whistling a happy tune

Once written off as obsolete, the genre has found its voice and its footing again. Sing out, Louise!

August 10, 2007|James C. Taylor | Special to The Times

"You Can't Stop the Beat." That's the title of the song that brings down the curtain on the musical "Hairspray." Five years into its Broadway run, Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman's lyrics have taken on a greater meaning. This summer, New Line Cinema's successful film adaptation of "Hairspray" offers the latest proof that reports of the movie musical's death were premature.

Or as Gary Marsh, president of entertainment for the Disney Channel (and the man who greenlighted the pop culture phenomenon "High School Musical") suggests, the musical didn't die, "but it was in hibernation, waiting for the perfect 'Rite of Spring' to bring it back."

Once a staple of the Hollywood studio system (think Gene Kelly, MGM and Busby Berkeley), the movie musical started falling out of fashion in the late 1960s. Two spectacular failures, "Hello, Dolly!" and "Paint Your Wagon," were woefully out of touch with times that were changing. Film musicals continued to come out during the '70s, but even the critical success of "Cabaret" in 1972 or the box-office smash "Grease" in 1978 couldn't fully revitalize the form.

The 1980s proved even worse -- think "Xanadu" and "Annie," the musical of "Tomorrow," which quickly became yesterday's news for Columbia in 1982. Before this year's July "Hairspray" launch, "Annie" marked the last time a studio rolled out a musical as a major summer release.

Around that time a young composer, Alan Menken, was working on a quirky musical based on a Roger Corman film. "When Howard [Ashman] and I first came around with 'Little Shop of Horrors,' I think the classic Broadway musical was in a bit of a crisis; it was searching for a voice." Craig Zadan, a producer of the filmed "Hairspray," noted in a recent interview: "It was an era when people were afraid of musicals where people burst out singing. There had been a lot of bombs and studios felt musicals were an old-fashioned art form."

Despite the huge Broadway successes of blockbusters like "Cats," "Les Misérables" and "The Phantom of the Opera," no studio had the nerve to adapt these shows to the screen. Even "A Chorus Line," a perennial winner with both audiences and critics, bombed when it was made into a film in 1985. Conventional wisdom suggested that musicals were appealing to a niche audience, that mass audiences no longer could stomach people breaking into song.

There was no greater confirmation of this than ABC's attempt to bring show tunes to prime-time television. Steven Bochco was riding high on the success of "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law," both in familiar TV genres (police and legal dramas). For his next show he wanted to try something different -- a musical. "The idea came from a woman who pitched me the idea of taking 'Hill Street Blues' to Broadway as a musical," Bochco recalled recently. "It was impractical, but the idea stuck in my head. If you couldn't take a TV show to Broadway, maybe you could bring Broadway to a TV series."

The result was "Cop Rock," a show that featured LAPD officers breaking into songs written by Randy Newman. It premiered in the fall of 1990 -- but was canceled before the year was out, becoming one of TV's more infamous failures.

Neil Meron, another "Hairspray" producer, believes that "traditional musicals disappeared during this time because they were expensive and they didn't take into account what the audience wanted."

In 1990, people were watching singing and dancing on TV. It just that it wasn't in the form of musical theater, it was in the form of music videos. "Back then, people would try to tell me that kids weren't into watching singing and dancing," Zadan noted. "They would say, 'It's a new generation.' And I'm thinking, 'What are you talking about? This generation watches it 24 hours a day.' "

Zadan, a producer of the 1984 film "Footloose," says that in the 1980s MTV helped usher in the era of the "pop-sical" -- big soundtrack movies like "Flashdance" or "Dirty Dancing" where everyone danced but no one sang. Eventually, Hollywood would realize that audiences weren't afraid of singing or dancing -- just that the singing and dancing had to be more like what was on MTV.

This wasn't easy. In 1994 James L. Brooks made "I'll Do Anything," a break-into-song movie with music by Prince and other contemporary artists. But test audiences squirmed when these numbers were sung, not by pop stars but by actors such as Nick Nolte and Albert Brooks. The result: Sony recut the film without any musical scenes and the movie tanked.

Others did find ways of making breaking into song palatable to the MTV generation. One of those was Menken, who along with Howard Ashman and Disney realized that even if audiences weren't keen on LAPD officers breaking into song, they could handle animated mermaids or genies singing show tunes.

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