Wednesday 16 January 2019

We do like a song and dance - that's the beauty of musicals

'La La Land' didn't win the Best Picture Oscar but it did revive an old genre, writes Sophie Donaldson

Emma Watson and Dan Stevens in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ — this year’s top-grossing movie so far
Emma Watson and Dan Stevens in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ — this year’s top-grossing movie so far
Sophie Donaldson

Sophie Donaldson

If the entertainment industry was a ladder, with box office epics at the top and radio dramas at the bottom, musicals would probably share a rung with stand-up comedy or Eurovision, hovering somewhere above pantomimes but below Cirque du Soleil.

But in the past 12 months or so, the oft-maligned genre has managed to move from the fringes to the mainstream, gathering artistic credibility, star power and political activism in its wake.

Song and dance productions have become so popular that last year's Oscar for Best Picture was, for a few seconds, given to a musical.

The moment La La Land was mistakenly awarded Best Picture, before it was swiftly bestowed on Moonlight, was the gaffe of the decade. It may have missed out on the big win, but La La Land's success lies not in its accolades but its influence. It single-handedly reignited a lost love for the box office musical, and perhaps even paved the way for this year's hit Beauty and the Beast, the highest-grossing film of 2017 (so far), that also happens to be a musical.

While everyone is preparing for Halloween on Tuesday, fans of the cult 2004 film Mean Girls, written by and starring Tina Fey, are anticipating a far more significant event; the pre-Broadway debut of Mean Girls: The Musical in Washington.

It's always risky adapting an adored film, and the feverish anticipation surrounding its debut already has the likes of The Washington Post asking the question: Will it work? With Fey pouring the same razor-sharp wit into the script that made the film such a success, it's hoped that the musical will be as acerbic as the original.

Mean Girls is not the only cult film destined for Broadway. Last month it was announced that the 1990 rom-com Pretty Woman will be adapted for the stage in autumn 2018, with Bryan Adams tapped to write the music.

Cult figures, too, are getting their own song-and-dance numbers. Amy Winehouse's father Mitch announced at the recent Amy Winehouse Foundation Gala that a musical about her life and work "is being talked about for the near future" while in June, enduring megastar Cher took to Twitter to announce that her namesake show, Cher: The Musical, will make its Broadway debut in 2018.

If Cher is the most likely performer to inspire a musical, then surely Pharrell Williams is the least - but not even edgy producers are immune to the infectious enthusiasm that is musical fever. A film musical about William's early years in Virginia Beach, titled Atlanta, is being described as a "Romeo and Juliet style story (with a music element)" according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Fox, one of the 'Big Four' networks in the States, has recently embraced the live televised musical. After successful live renditions of Grease and Rent in 2016, the network will air A Christmas Story in December and Rent in January 2018. The televised spectaculars blend elements from the screen and stage versions and incorporate live audiences into the production, a method that earned Grease: Live ten Emmy nominations of which it won five.

Not bad for a genre that usually attracts eye-rolls instead of awards.

With the likes of Pharrell Williams and Tarell Alvin McCraney jumping on board the bandwagon, does this mean musicals are finally considered cool?

Okay, that remains up for debate. But while musicals may not be the coolest, or the most highbrow, they are arguably the most immersive of all forms of entertainment. When you consider the volatile surrounds of the real world; global terrorism, a fractured EU, Donald Trump and a looming nuclear disaster, the escapism of musicals makes them appealing right now.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that during one of the most divisive, tumultuous periods of American politics, Broadway is buzzing with one of its most successful productions of all time.

Hamilton, the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton, set to hip-hop music, is earning $2.9m per week and won a Pulitzer Prize, Grammy and 11 Tony Awards.

The fact that its storyline is particularly pertinent in this dramatic chapter of American politics was not lost on the cast. In November they took the opportunity to address audience member US Vice President Mike Pence about their grievances surrounding the newly-elected president. Pence was heckled by the crowd and, unsurprisingly, Trump tweeted to demand that the cast "Apologize!"

Incidentally, in the same vein as Oliver! Mamma Mia! Hello, Dolly! and Oklahoma!, that could be a very apt title for his very own musical.

Sunday Independent

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