The Musical is Dead. Long Live the Musical. 

Can a Recently Reborn Genre Survive Its Latest Incarnations?

Dancer in the Dark
Directed by Lars von Trier (2000)

Moulin Rouge
Directed by Baz Luhrmann (2001)

Rent
Directed by Chris Columbus (Nov 24, 2005)

By the early 1990s, two genres raced to the death, the western and the musical — which would disappear first? Musicals were essentially limited to animation, while the Western received a stark eulogy with Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning Unforgiven. But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral: the musical wouldn’t die. The western was broken down and parceled out for scrap, but there was something irresistible, for at least a few directors, about flirting with song and dance. Moulin Rouge grabbed a sizable cult following in 2001, and a bunch of Oscar nominations the following year; Chicago went on to win Best Picture two years later. Now, two of the holiday season’s highest-profile films happen to be full-fledged musicals, adapted from two of the most popular Broadway shows in recent years: The Producers and Rent, both with chunks of their original casts in tow.

It’s only been five years since the release of Lars Von Trier’s bold musical revival Dancer in the Dark, starring Björk. A film utilizing the most masochistic elements of broad melodrama, Dancer would be emotionally unbearable if not for its gorgeous musical sequences. The lavish fantasy production numbers, illustrating the inner life of Björk’s impoverished and generally unfortunate Selma, enhance the effectiveness of the film’s over-the-top melodrama.

2001’s famously love-or-hate proposition Moulin Rouge is no less original, even as it borrows from Shakespeare in Love: young, forbidden lovers cavort during the production of a similarly themed play. Two popular criticisms of the film: It doesn’t feature original compositions, but rather large chunks of very familiar pop songs; and the actors are not professional singers. These entwined, misguided carps actually hint at why most musicals aren’t very good.

Even the most generous reviewers noted at the time that Kidman’s and McGregor’s voices were “not bad” or “passable.” They missed the point, mired in outdated preconceptions about what makes for a good musical, or even good singing. When Ewan McGregor breaks into the familiar strains of Elton John’s ‘Your Song’, there’s no operatic bombast; McGregor becomes the audience, singing to themselves, singing in the shower or car, singing to a loved one — but simultaneously doing so better than most of us can ever hope, even without professional training. Because the songs in Moulin Rouge mostly began life as pop-rock tunes, they are informed by a different sensibility than film musicals of the past. McGregor and Kidman place more emphasis on sound and feeling than on technique — you know, kind of like a rock singer. Pop music, in the broadest sense, has advanced beyond the technical trappings of “good singing” (American Idol notwithstanding) and Moulin Rouge realizes this; an actor trying to sing typically feels much more genuine than a singer attempting to act. The idea that film musicals should be reserved for the best singers and dancers, performing in static shots, is as ridiculous as casting exclusively bodybuilders in action pictures. The differences between Moulin Rouge and the classic musicals of yore are not the result of poor craft or ADD, but of Baz Luhrmann understanding the advancing language of film to a greater degree than musical directors of the past.

But this promise of musicals coming back, or at least beginning a second life as a playground for adventurous artists, became a mixed blessing with the critical and commercial success of Chicago. The film divides itself, with excess caution, into “reality” and musical sections semi-imagined by the Renée Zellwegger character, where members of the cast perform on a nightclub set. This is a clever idea (as it was in Dancer in the Dark) but it also isolates the musical interludes onto that drab stage, as if audiences still need a rational explanation for a musical’s existence (no one ever feels the need to justify how James Bond films have set pieces every 15 or 20 minutes). Director Rob Marshall cuts the musical numbers like a real film, but what he’s cutting together is relentlessly stagy.

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