I’ll use this clip from Jesus Christ Superstar as a starting point to bemoan the death of the great American movie musical. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a bit since seeing the godawful fiasco that was Nine. From the invention of the talkies up until the mid-sixties musicals were one of Hollywood’s most popular forms of entertainment, then abruptly, the art form died and has been unable to be properly resurrected. There’s a debate as to why, and one of the theories is that as movies in general became more realistic, audiences were no longer willing to suspend their disbelief for something as inherently ridiculous as movie stars bursting into song and dance numbers. Jesus Christ Superstar became a surprise hit in 1973, a time by which musicals were completely out of vogue. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it was exactly the perfect material for a musical. The story of Christ by definition requires a suspension of disbelief – that’s what faith is all about – and if Christ could walk on water and raise the dead, why wouldn’t He sing too? On top of that, the movie makes no effort to be historically accurate or realistic in any way, eliminating completely those awkward segues from normal talking to emotive singing. It’s an all-encompassing vision, in its way and that’s why it’s one of the few post-1960′s movie musicals to pull it off with grace. The same is true for more recent hit musicals like Moulin Rouge and Chigaco – they make no pretense towards realism. Others, like Cabaret and Dreamgirls, work because they happen to be about show business, giving the characters a real-life excuse for their singing and dancing.
I think the other big reason that movie musicals died out had to do with the stars themselves. In Hollywood’s heyday, there were dozens of professional song-and-dance-men and -women. Stars like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day, and many, many others were trained dancers, excellent singers, and charming personalities who did nothing but make musicals. A Fred and Ginger picture might look silly to modern eyes in many respects, but there’s no denying that those two were masters of what they did. There’s a reason why there aren’t any musicals starring Humphrey Bogart. He wasn’t a song and dance man, and the studios that owned him effectively prevented him from making the mistake of imagining that he was. Likewise, although a few like Sinatra and Day were known to take dramatic roles, the dancers mostly stuck to dancing. Nobody wanted to see Astaire go all Method, just as nobody wanted to hear Marlon Brando sing. And the studios kept it that way. When the studio star system collapsed, the stars were free to manage their own careers, and while that allowed them to make more money, control their own images, and not be indentured servants to the likes of Adolph Zuckor, it also meant that there was no one to nudge a talent in a promising direction. So everybody who wanted high-prestige dramatic roles went for it, and the song and dance men became few and far apart. My Fair Lady is one of the last great musicals, but it’s well known that Audrey Hepburn could neither sing nor dance, and her vocals were dubbed. Also, after the sixties happened, everyone who could sing and dance wanted to be rock stars. Liza Minnelli was the last of her kind, the last song-and-dance type performer to become a cultural figure on a large scale. Today there are no song-and-dance stars. There may be performers who can sing, dance, and deliver sharp dialogue as well as anybody in the old days, but they’re all on Broadway, which is a kind of entertainment ghetto that as far as I can tell only gay men of a certain age still care about and consider cool. There’s hardly anyone working in movies today who can sing or dance, and even fewer who can do both at the same time. The actor Hugh Jackman moves comfortably between the worlds of Hollywood and Broadway, and I believe that Beyonce has what it takes to be that complete package of moves, vocals and charm required to carry a musical.
I think that the failure of the movie musical to reignite its old popularity has little to do with the disbelief thing. What with CGI monsters and superheroes being all the rage, it’s clear that audiences have no trouble suspending their disbelief for a well-constructed fantasy. The problem is lack of talent. Recent musicals have flopped because they rested on the shoulders of unqualified stars. You can’t suspend disbelief when you’re laughing at how idiotic Kate Hudson looks trying to dance and move her mouth at the same time.