In 1927, Warner Brothers Studios released The Jazz Singer, the first ever feature length film with synchronized sound, heralding the end of the silent film era and opening the door to a new age, the age of the “talkies.” However, The Jazz Singer was more than just the first audible movie to be released, it was also the first musical movie.
Indeed as long as there has been movies as we know it, musicals have been right there with their tap shoe in the door, and wherever there are musicals, Broadway can’t be far behind. The intricate dance between Broadway and cinema has been a true Hollywood style love-hate relationship if ever there was one.
To be sure, making a movie out of a Broadway smash sounds like the perfect symbiotic relationship. The filmmakers gets a story that they know audiences will love, most of the writing and creative work is already done for them, and they have a built in audience before the movie even hits the theaters. On the other side, Broadway artists get to make their show ten times larger and yet still more detailed and intricate than the stage could ever allow. What’s more, the musical movie also solves the biggest tragedy of live theater: its terrible fleetingness. Through the magic of the silver screen, Broadway’s best stories are immortalized for all eternity and the happy viewers can watch these masterpieces whenever they want, as often as they want.
The stage-to-screen transition seemed to be the perfect fit, and for the longest time, audiences were devouring every glorious note. Broadway adaptations such as “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music,” and “West Side Story” achieved enormous success both with the critics and the box-office. Then all of a sudden, they seemed to stop. I don’t know who decided it, but it seems the film community decided that musicals were too campy/unrealistic and the theater begin to balk at screen adaptations for fear of the destruction of the story they built. And I’m afraid these fears were somewhat justified. As the film industry has progressed, they’ve worked on becoming more true to real life, and let’s face it, real life isn’t a strength of a Broadway Musical. In a world of High Definition pictures and realistic special effects, big production numbers and musical dialogue just didn’t seem to fit, and so movie movie-musicals fizzled and screens went tuneless for a season.
Thankfully, that all changed when “Chicago” won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Picture. “Chicago” reminded the world how much of a role fantasy plays in real life and, what’s more, reminded them how beautiful a stage-to-screen collaboration could be. It wasn’t long before major production companies caught the idea, and within 5 years we were given screen adaptations of some of the best musicals ever made including “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Producers,” and “Hairspray.” And with the great success of “Les Miserables” in 2012, it seems that movie musicals are here to stay. In fact, 3 Tony Award winning musicals, including the star-studded “Into the Woods” and reimagined “Annie”, sang their way to the silver screen in 2014, and more have been promised.
While I wholeheartedly believe that a camera can never fully capture the magic of live theater, I still love the idea of the movie musical. For while it’s a mere taste of the real thing, sometimes it’s the only taste a poor college student in the south east can get without plane tickets and a time machine.