In a very strange year for movies, the failure of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is perhaps the most puzzling development of them all. The remake of the beloved 1961 musical made just $10 million in its opening weekend, and while the movie could certainly improve on its lackluster holiday debut, it caps off a year of disappointments for fans of the musical. In the Heights kicked off the summer with poor ticket sales and colorism accusations for not having enough Afro-Latino actors in its cast. Dear Evan Hansen created the rare consensus of the year, hated by critics and audiences alike, and endured prolonged mockery on social media for his casting of Crow’s Foot Ben Platt as the teenage protagonist. The less said about Diana: The Musical, a film 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 suspicious about to the number of views, and the film only had a nominal theatrical release. All in all, it was a disastrous year for a genre that has been a pillar of cinema since the advent of talkies. Historically, musicals have been an opportunity to showcase the best of the theatrical experience: they’re big-budget movies, melodramatic storylines that play well on the big screen, and expansive dance numbers, and they don’t pass just not as good at home. , regardless of the size of your flat screen or the price of your sound system.
Studio executives and box office pundits expected audiences to turn 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 spectacle. This does not happen. Viewers showed up for other films. They showed up for superhero movies such as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Venom: Let There Be Carnage. They showed up for horror movies like A Quiet Place Part II. And they showed up for bland corporate festivals Free Guy and Jungle Cruise, which are already on their way to becoming lucrative franchises for Disney. The pattern is overwhelmingly clear: each of the 10 highest-grossing films of the year is either part of a long-running franchise or the start of one.
It’s too early to tell if the musical needs a doctor or a coroner, but what’s clear is that studio executives are vastly overstating the genre’s popularity. People who love musicals really, really love musicals, and whenever one hits the box office, a string of eager imitators tends to follow. When Chicago won Best Picture at the 2001 Oscars, it opened the floodgates for the revival of the genre (after being essentially absent from theaters for two decades). The results have been patchy at best. For every The Greatest Showman or Les Miserables, both of which were huge hits, there were several like Nine, Rock of Ages, The Prom or, in the worst case, Cats. The musical’s success rate just isn’t great, and given that they usually require big budgets to sustain the show, it’s a risky proposition.
Disappointing returns from this year’s film musical crop may also point to a Covid-led acceleration of a long-simmering momentum. For a large number of moviegoers, there are now two kinds of films: those for which we go to the cinema and those which we are content to see again at home a few weeks later. This theater seems to be 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’s a certain presumption in the assumption that audiences would gravitate toward these filled actors. actors they had never heard of before. West Side Story had Ansel Elgort on board as Tony, but after he was accused of sexual assault, distributors were forced to downplay his presence in the film’s marketing (Elgort has maintained that it was consensual).
There is still time, however, for the genre to make a comeback. Tick, tick… Boom! could be nominated for a few Oscars, which would boost its notoriety considerably, while West Side Story is still considered the best picture favorite. It will likely stay in theaters at least until the Oscars in March, giving it plenty of time to boost its box office. Still to be released this year is Cyrano, starring Peter Dinklage as the love poet, and featuring songs from The National. It’s unlikely to be a success, but like the others mentioned, it might impress voters.
Maybe that’s where the musical landed: as Oscar bait. With the hegemony of franchise cinema, any kind of film dealing with serious subjects or designed for adults has already been relegated to the last months of the year. King Richard, Being the Ricardos, and Belfast were all created with the Oscars in mind, and if they miss any nominations, they’ll likely be considered failures. Movie musicals were once apart of that. They won Oscars, but they were popular with the general public as well. Unless something drastically changes in the next couple of months, those days may be over and 2021 may be remembered as the year the musical drew its final bow.