In a very strange year for cinema, the failure of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is perhaps the most mind-boggling development of all. The remake of the beloved 1961 musical only grossed $ 10 million on its opening weekend, and while the film can certainly improve on its lackluster holiday debut, it does crown a year of disappointments for fans of the musical. In the Heights kicked off the summer with poor ticket sales and accusations of colorism for not having enough Afro-Latino actors in its cast. Dear Evan Hansen created the rare consensus of the year, hated by critics and the public, and suffered prolonged social media mockery for his cast of crow’s-footed Ben Platt as the teenage protagonist. The less said about Diana: The Musical, a filmed version of the Broadway bombshell that made its way to Netflix, the better.
At least people seemed to like Tick, Tick… Boom !, the Lin-Manuel Miranda-directed adaptation of a work by the late Jonathan Larson, although we don’t really know how much – Netflix continues to be cautious about it. viewership figures, and the film has only had a nominal theatrical release. All in all, it has been a catastrophic year for a genre that has been a mainstay of cinema since the advent of talking cinema. Historically, movie musicals have been an opportunity to showcase the best of the theatrical experience: they’re big budget movies, melodramatic storylines that look great on the big screen, and expansive dance numbers, and they just don’t play as well at home, regardless of the size of your flat screen or the price of your audio system.
Studio executives and box office pundits expected audiences to show up for In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, and West Side Story, and not just fans of the musical, but the general public as well. After a year without films, the public would be thirsty for a spectacle. It didn’t happen. Viewers showed up for other films. They’ve shown up for superhero movies such as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Venom: Let There Be Carnage. They’ve shown up for horror movies like A Quiet Place Part II. And they’ve shown up at corporate festivals, Free Guy and Jungle Cruise, which are already on their way to lucrative franchises for Disney. The diagram is incredibly clear: Each of the top 10 grossing films of the year is either part of a long-standing franchise or the start of one.
It’s too early to tell if the musical needs a doctor or coroner, but what is clear is that studio executives are grossly overestimating the popularity of this genre. People who love musicals really, really love musicals, and every time one of them hits the box office a series of enthusiastic impersonators tend to follow. When Chicago won the Best Picture Award at the 2001 Oscars, it opened the floodgates for the genre’s revival (after being virtually absent from theaters for two decades). The results have been mixed at best. For every The Greatest Showman or Les Misérables, both of which were huge hits, there were several like Nine, Rock of Ages, The Prom or, in the worst case, Cats. The success rate of the musical is just not that good, and given that they usually require significant budgets to support the show, this is a risky proposition.
The disappointing returns from this year’s musical crop may also point to a Covid-led acceleration of a long-simmering dynamic. For a large number of moviegoers, there are now two kinds of films: those you go to the cinema for and those you just watch at home a few weeks later. It looks like this theater is the place for big budget serialized storytelling with big movie stars. Superhero movies, yes, but also the Fast and Furious franchise and James Bond. Vin Diesel, The Rock and Daniel Craig still have faces that mean more to us on the big screen. For all they had to offer, neither In the Heights nor Dear Evan Hansen and West Side Story featured a major movie star, and there is pride in the assumption that audiences would turn to these actors. filled with actors they had never heard of before. West Side Story had Ansel Elgort on board as Tony, but after he was charged with sexual assault, distributors were forced to downplay his presence in the film’s marketing (Elgort has maintained that he was consensual).
However, there is still time for the genre to return. Tic, Tic… Boom! could be nominated for a few Oscars, which would dramatically raise its profile, while West Side Story is still considered the frontrunner for Best Picture. It will likely stay in theaters at least until the Oscars in March, giving it plenty of time to increase its box office sales. Cyrano has yet to come out this year, with Peter Dinklage in the role of the poet in love and with songs from the National. It is unlikely to be a success, but like the others mentioned, it could wow voters of the awards.
Maybe that’s where the musical landed: as Oscar bait. With the hegemony of franchise filmmaking, any genre of film dealing with serious subjects or made for adults has already been relegated to the final months of the year. King Richard, Being the Ricardos and Belfast were all created with the Oscars in mind, and if they run out of nominations they will likely be seen as failures. Movie musicals were once apart of that. They won Oscars, but they were also very popular with the general public. Unless something drastically changes over the next couple of months, those days may be over and 2021 may be remembered as the year the musical made its last bow.