So, I finally got to see West Side Story. It’s streaming now on Disney+. Coming out as it did in December, just as the pandemic invaded our brains for the umpteenth time, it was bound to miss its revenue goal. But more than that… despite overwhelmingly positive reviews from the pro media, the film wasn’t well received by the public. It may end up being the last large-screen live-action musical. And most folks will probably be fine with that.
When movie musicals ruled the world
From the 1930s well into the early 1970s, the movie musical was a staple. Remember that the earliest films didn’t have sound. When they did, audiences roared as they watched performers on the screen sing and dance. The art form remained strong for the same reason that comic book movies are strong today. Live theater (which still embraces the musical) provided a steady stream of recognizable, proven content that audiences were anxious to see. Throughout the 20th century, it was common to see at least one musical in movie theaters every week. Compare that with today, when you’ll see at most three or four a year, and that’s only if you count animated ones.
People’s tastes changed and matured in the 1970s. Certainly there were still very successful movie musicals… 1978’s Grease and 1980’s The Blues Brothers were some of the most successful movies of those days. In the decades that followed, however, musicals largely disappeared, with the exception of animated films like Aladdin and The Lion King.
The modern era of musicals
It was 2001’s Moulin Rouge which proved that audiences had a taste for musicals once more. Studios waded back in slowly, with no more than one live musical per year and a spate of animated films.
And then, late 2019 happened. There was a big problem, it started with C and most people thought it was the worst thing they had ever experienced in their lives. I’m actually talking about the movie adaptation of Cats. Two years ago I lambasted the film. Personally, I wondered if it had killed the movie musical once and for all.
Of course in the two years following that film, a lot of stuff moved to streaming-only. Prom and Tick… Tick… Boom were both released to Netflix rather than going to theaters. While they were reasonably well received, obviously the economics of these films couldn’t really be measured the same way that they would have been as theatrical releases.In the meantime, Dear Evan Hansen bombed, because it wasn’t a terribly good film.
And then, West Side Story
West Side Story was, of course, a remake of the 1961 film of the same name. That film was an adaptation of an award-winning Broadway musical. Rather than release it straight to streaming, its studio (the recently renamed 20th Century Studios, once 20th Century Fox) pushed the release data to guarantee a theatrical berth.
The problem was that people didn’t see it in the theaters. You could blame the pandemic, but I tend to think there’s something else at play here. It seems to me that there wasn’t a really clear market for West Side Story. If you were old enough to have seen the original in its day, the remake probably wasn’t for you. It has a far more progressive agenda underlying its themes, and I doubt that played well with aging boomers. At the same time, millennials had no connection to the 1961 film and the new film really doesn’t stand alone well enough. It almost demands that you know a lot of the back story in order to understand what was going on. You’d need to be versed in the politics of urban renewal, street gangs, and the overall seediness of Manhattan in the 20th century. Without this important context, the film just doesn’t make sense.
So is this really the end of the movie musical?
It well may be, at least for musicals that don’t come from Disney. Disney continues to make live-action (or at least live-action-looking) remakes of its classic properties, and The Little Mermaid is next on the list. Beyond that, there are few other musicals in development. The only one I’m aware of is Wicked, which may be in peril considering the poor box office from musicals lately.
And what this has to do with streaming is…
Musicals may disappear from the big screen, but I think they’ll find a new home on streaming. Hamilton was the treat we all needed when it came out on Disney+, and I think that sets the model for a whole new generation of musicals produced specifically with home audiences in mind. Without movie theater dollars, they’ll be more modestly produced, but that won’t necessarily mean a drop in quality. After all Cats had a big screen budget and it was a nightmarish hellscape of a movie.
Bottom line is, I think musicals still have a lot of life in them, but if more and more of them moved straight to streaming it would probably be for the best.