I rarely pay much attention to those around me in a movie theater. We all have experienced a myriad of awful behavior from both adults and children, and it’s driven some people to stay home and simply watch movies on Netflix (or pirate them), but I’ve mostly learned to tune them out. There are exceptions, when I want to see how people react to a particular moment in a film I’ve seen before, but mostly I ignore people rudely talking or checking their cell phones and such. However, I started to notice an interesting trend during Into the Woods that brought a lot of questions to my mind, particularly as it pertains to the state of musical films in today’s pop culture landscape. And it all made me wonder whether movie musicals will ever be popular enough again to have a regular place at the table of major film genres, and why, exactly, people stopped loving musicals.
Musicals have been a part of cinema since the advent of sound (the very first talkie, The Jazz Singer, was a musical), and had a sizeable share of the market through the 1950s. In the 60s, as tastes changed, the production of musicals started to drop off, despite some huge successes during the decade, including West Side Story, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and The Music Man. There have been successful musicals in every decade since, but they’ve mostly been exceptions, individual films that became popular on their own rather than as a part of a trend/genre (Grease), or became popular years later (Willy Wonka). But for people like me who grew up in the doldrums of musical film history there were always VHS tapes or airings on TV to watch growing up, even if big-screen musical experiences were few and far between.
Things looked like they were changing early last decade, when Moulin Rouge! became a cult hit and Chicago (from Into the Woods director Rob Marshall) was a genuine smash, winning Best Picture at the Oscars. Many of us thought this was the start of a musical film renaissance, and so did Hollywood, which started pumping out more musicals than we’d seen in ages, but the results both on screen and at the box office have been mixed. There seems to be no real pattern either, as films that should succeed are ignored while others are massive hits. The first big follow up to Chicago was The Phantom of the Opera, based on the biggest Broadway show of them all, yet it was mostly a disappointment. Lovingly crafted, it was mostly brought down by the questionable casting of Gerard Butler as the phantom and by the man behind Batman & Robin sitting behind the camera. It was followed by The Producers and Rent, two faithful adaptations of Broadway hits, one of which was almost completely ignored while the other has been embraced by a handful of fans but was otherwise equally ignored. Each of these films hit one of the big three types of successful movie musicals from the 60’s, and each was an adaptation of a widely known and popular stage show, with a built in fan base. Phantom was the epic, mega-popular show, the Sound of Music of the three. The Producers was the smash comedy, in the vein of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, while Rent was the edgy, boundary-pushing game-changer in the vein of West Side Story. These three films covered all of the major bases of musicals, and in theory at least one of them should have succeeded if people were interested in musicals at all, despite whatever faults they might have possessed. So it seemed like the Renaissance wasn’t going to happen.
And then Dreamgirls came along and was a huge hit. So what was the deal? Looking back at the past 10-15 years of musicals, I think I’ve figured it out. The musicals these days that make money, win awards, and are remembered fondly are the ones that do so based on one aspect of the production rather than on the movie’s existence as a musical or on its overall merits. Dreamgirls is remembered almost entirely because of Jennifer Hudson, while the big draw of Les Miserables was its revolutionary live singing, making it truly the musical for even people who don’t like musicals. Other high quality musicals during the time period might have made a decent amount of money, but have been largely ignored since: Enchanted, Sweeney Todd, Hairspray, for example. (On the other hand, Mamma Mia! might be the most successful of them all, capitalizing on a popular base and a top-notch cast, but it’s success, as the highest grossing movie musical of all time, is so beyond other musicals that it’s basically an outlier. It succeeded by appealing to a small but rabid base that saw it repeatedly. It happens to be one of my favorites, but it’s not the sort of movie I heard people talking about in the way they did with Les Mis.) Having an all-star cast isn’t enough anymore, you need something more to get the conversation started long before the film ever comes out. In the age of the internet, pre-release word of mouth is worth much more than any award nominations, positive reviews, or advertisements. You’ve got to have something else to get people talking, because being a high-profile musical isn’t enough to get people to turn out in the way they automatically do for the latest Marvel or DC film.
And I realize that there’s a contingent of people out there who just don’t like musicals, and that’s totally fine. I’m sure there have always been those sorts of people, and I’ve heard a variety of reasons why musicals turn people off. They find the singing unrealistic, they’re put off by dancing, and they find the whole experience distracting. Yet those classic musicals from the 50’s and 60’s are still insanely popular, as are musicals on stage (just try to get tickets to Wicked when it comes to your town, they sell out instantaneously). People adore Mary Poppins, West Side Story is seemingly always on TV, and Willy Wonka seems to have a special place in many people’s hearts. So what gives, and what’s the solution? (I’ll tell you what the solution is not: trying to make a musical “cool” a la the remake of Annie. Clearly having Jay-Z involved and throwing in some Facebook references to make it feel “modern” did it no favors. What a waste of a great cast. Give me this cast in a version using the original music and book from the stage version and I’d be thrilled.)
I don’t claim to have any answers, but here’s what I noticed while watching Into the Woods. People always talk during movies, especially anything that can fall under the “comedy” banner, as the first half of the film does. But what was really interesting to me was that all of the talking and phone checking happened during the musical numbers rather than scenes of dialogue. It’d be easy to chalk this up to people just disliking musicals, but that seems like an overgeneralization. Perhaps people have a different relationship with music now that it’s constantly available through earbuds from any device, so they’re used to turning it out. Maybe they feel like they’re not missing anything during the songs so they can talk, while they might worry about missing a line of dialogue otherwise. The live singing might have helped Les Mis out in this regard, as it makes the music feel more immediate and important (I would love for it to be used as often as possible, but Into the Woods was 95% sung in a studio), but it also benefitted from being a “sung-through” musical, meaning there was almost no spoken dialogue.
But when you combine the pattern of people talking with what I read in many reviews and heard from my fellow moviegoers on the way out, it signals a slightly more disturbing trend. Many have talked about how the movie is considerably darker in its final third (act two of the stage version) than in the previous two thirds. Here’s a mild SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t seen the show/movie, because I’m going to talk about plot of the film. In the movie, the collected fairytale characters are all striving to fulfil their wishes, whether to get with the prince, to steal the golden harp from the giant, to have a child, to escape from the tower, or to get to Granny’s house. And they all do, about 2/3 of the way into the movie, at the end of the first act of the show. But that’s all just setup for the second act, which examines what comes after you get your wish. The second act is all about self-doubt and moral compromise, where they question whether what they got is truly what they wanted, and how to live with the consequences of their actions to get their wish. Characters die, in some cases randomly and cruelly and in others only after an epiphany where they finally sort out the tangled mess of their desires. Still others are unable to cope with the price they paid for their wish, and become bitter and resentful. Some characters give up and run away in the face of danger while others band together and to form a new family for love and protection. In the end, no one is alone, and everyone’s actions affect the lives of others, and things are far more complex than merely chasing after a wish. Sure it’s dark but it’s also uplifting in its way and gives you a lot to think about.
My point in all this is that I think people have either forgotten how musicals work or were never taught in the first place. In musicals, the songs are not just there to sound or look pretty, they serve a purpose to the story, and tuning them out or viewing them like they’re music videos stuck randomly inside a story means you’ll miss the most important parts of a musical. Songs in a musical generally serve one or more of three purposes: they either advance the plot, express an emotion, or give us an inside look at what’s going on in a character’s head. The entire prologue/opening of Into the Woods serves the first part, setting up the plot of all the various fairytales, and it’s also the song that people seemed to pay the most attention to during my showing. On the other end of the spectrum is a song called “On the Steps of the Palace,” that is sung by Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) as she flees from the prince on the third night of the ball and is stuck in the pitch that he spread on the stairs as a trap. It’s a beautiful and clever song, taking place in a moment frozen in time, as Cinderella examines the choices lying ahead of her, whether to continue to flee and return to her old life or whether to stay stuck and be caught by her prince. She questions if she’d be happier in a life that’s safe and familiar, even if it’s awful, or facing the unknown of life with the prince: “So then which do you pick: Where you’re safe, out of sight, And yourself, but where everything’s wrong? Or where everything’s right But you know that you’ll never belong?” At one point she decides to run home “where there’s nothing to choose so there’s nothing to lose,” before deciding not to decide in order to avoid responsibility for the consequences of her choice, so she leaves her shoe and forces the prince to decide how things progress from there. It’s an interesting insight into the character, and into the very idea of wishes, what we’ll do to achieve them, and the fear that goes along with pursuing something different. It may not be the most important song in the show/film, but it is a key one that helps define the themes of the story, and many people in my theater missed it because they chose that time to chat with their friends or check their phones. The same thing happened later in the film during “Moments in the Woods,” another key song.
It’s frustrating to me because it signals that people are only interested in the who, what, when, where, and how of a story and not in the “why.” The why, of course, is the most important part of any story, but instead of paying attention people just tuned it out. Part of why I love musicals is that they give us a unique look into the why of a story, where in a non-musical setting we’d never get that glimpse into a character’s head. Imagine Wicked without “Defying Gravity” or “No Good Deed,” or Les Mis without “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” or “Who am I?” These introspective moments don’t exist in other forms of storytelling except when a character is narrating his own story, and even then you only get one perspective. Dialogue alone can only convey so much. That’s why I get frustrated by people who dismiss musicals as having unnecessary singing and dancing, when it shows that they’re focusing on surface over substance. (There are plenty of “entertainment songs” in older musicals, which were interludes for dance numbers and little else, but even those contributed to the emotion and the atmosphere of a story. “America” in West Side Story is mostly a fun dance number, but it’s also an exploration of the plight and attitudes of immigrants in the US, so it’s not just fluff or filler. Dancing and meaningful commentary are not mutually exclusive.)
My other disappointment stems from the reactions I heard from moviegoers and reviewers that the final third of the film, the second act of the show, is too dark. I understand the desire people have for happy endings, and it’s nice to see the characters in the film all get theirs, but stories without stereotypical happy endings are often much more interesting. In fact, the whole point of Into the Woods is to examine what happens afterwards, and how life is much more complex than a happy ending. People give Disney a lot of crap for spoon feeding children happy endings and giving them an unrealistic view of life, but then Disney makes a movie that’s all about critiquing what they’re (often unfairly) criticized for, and people object because it’s too dark. And it makes no sense to me, because people clamor for things like superhero movies to be dark and gritty, but when a musical does it it’s somehow wrong. I don’t know if people just expect different things from a musical or a Disney movie, but I could list countless examples of musicals with tragic or dark endings and Disney movies that aren’t nearly a perfectly happy as people seem to think. This is an ongoing frustration of mine, not simply limited to Into the Woods, but it seems especially pointed this time around.
Of course, there is an exception to the general views of musicals released these days, and that is obviously Frozen. For every person who checked their phones or talked during the songs of Into the Woods there were countless entranced viewers of “Let It Go” or “Love is an Open Door.” In fact, Disney animated musicals have kept the musical film torch alive through the 90s and 2000s when they were otherwise struggling. They’re still immensely popular, and with Moana coming next year there’s no indication that that’s about to change. Are people just more accepting of animated films containing music? Regardless, my fear that the movie musical will die out is somewhat allayed by the top-notch animated musicals that are still released.
I really want the musical to take its place among the most popular genres again, perhaps not outgrossing superhero films but at least generating as much excitement. I think live singing is probably a must going forward, but I don’t want musical films to have to resort to finding a “hook” just to get people’s attention. There are so many great shows from the last few decades that have yet to make it to the screen, but I don’t want them to be wasted on an audience who doesn’t know enough or isn’t interested enough to appreciate them. Wicked, Spring Awakening, The Book of Mormon, and Sunset Boulevard could all make great additions to the screen, but I’d almost rather they hold off on those until the public mood and attitude has changed. Until then, I’ll continue to be excited about any musicals that come along, but perhaps I’ll try to see them at a time when there are less people in the theater. I can only take so much talking or texting while there’s important singing going on.
What do you think? Do you like musicals or would you rather skip them (vote in the poll below)? If you’ve seen Into the Woods did you notice people talking more during the songs? What’s your opinion on dark endings to musicals or movies in general? Does it seem like there’s a conflict in what people claim to want from movies and what they actually want? Could that conflict tie in any better to the themes of Into the Woods? Let me know in the comments!