The plight of the modern movie musical


Stratton Rebish

As Hollywood adapts beloved shows from stage to screen, I am only left to wonder why so many of these movie musicals are so terrible.

With recent booms in the musical theatre industry of shows like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen, Hollywood has taken strides to make musical theatre more accessible to the broad public. Their solution? Adapt these fan favorite stage productions into musical films. However, it turns out making a decent musical film is easier said than done, because quite a few of these recent musical adaptations have flopped… and really hard.

Surprisingly, 2021 proved to be a fairly good year for movie musicals, with a few of them actually earning praise from critics and their audience. A few that come directly to mind are In the Heights directed by Jon M. Chu, tick, tick… Boom! directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and West Side Story directed by Steven Spielberg. Even with the few diamonds in the rough from this past year, there was also a fair share of failed adaptations.

The move from stage to screen is make-or-break for a show’s reputation. Take Dear Evan Hansen for example. On the stage, the show was highly revered, earning a Tony award for Best Musical in 2017; it was a beautiful coming-of-age story, but, when adapted to the screen, it turned into a joke.

Earning a 30% Rotten Tomatoes score, Dear Evan Hansen was a failure for many reasons. The most common issue amongst viewers was Ben Platt’s casting as Evan Hansen, a reprisal of his Broadway role. Most of the criticism surrounded the actor’s age: Platt was a thirty-year-old playing a highschooler. In addition, there were many changes made to the plot of the original story in the adaptation. Finally, a large part of Dear Evan Hansen’s flopping is attributed to its artificiality.  

One thing I have noticed that distinguishes hits from misses within the movie musical industry is how naturally music is integrated into the film. On a stage, any character can get away with randomly breaking out into song, but, on a screen, it does not translate well. I asked Stefanie Plumley, Fine Arts Department Chair, for her opinion on the matter. 

“I think that [Hollywood is] a little freaked out by the fact that nobody likes musicals—nobody will come and see a musical—so we’re going to stuff it with movie stars, or we’re going to change the script so that it might be more palatable,” Ms. Plumley said. “Rather than trusting [a stage musical] as a great piece of work and honoring that great piece of work, I think that people just want to get in there and change it any way that will sell.” 

The most recent, star-studded screen adaptation of Cats is a prime example of a modern movie musical disaster. Cats, in it of itself, is weird, but was made even weirder with the production’s failed attempt at CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery). Cats does not, in fact, slap, but it rather makes you cringe deep into your seat. 

Taking a deeper look at why Cats flopped so hard, I have noticed a few factors. From the very first trailer, the public’s immediate reaction was negative, citing the film’s attempt at CGI as their main concern. Following those comments came criticism about casting. Superstars like Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, Jason Derulo, and many more were a part of this monstrosity to bring in a new audience, but only ended up dishonoring the source material with their performances. 

“The people who go and see things like Dear Evan Hansen are the people who love Dear Evan Hansen, and I think what they are looking to do is draw in a new audience by doing a film,” Ms. Plumley said. “But if something is so bad, people are like, ‘why would I pay for a ticket to see that?’” 

Any musical theatre connoisseur—especially during the pandemic—would occasionally crave musical theatre content and usually end up being disappointed by easily accessible movie musicals. Through my many run-ins with this same feeling of disappointment, I have learned to look elsewhere to fill my craving.  

The concept of a movie musical is great, and can be great if executed correctly, but it seems that that is rare. If only Hollywood’s efforts to make musical theatre more accessible were not rooted in making a quick buck, maybe sitting down and watching a movie musical would be a viable option, but, as of now, many of these fan-favorite shows can stay on the stage.