This year, four movie musicals were released by major studios. Netflix’s “Tick, Tick…Boom!” shows the creative journey of Rent composer Jonathan Larson developing a musical that never premiered. Universal Pictures produced an adaptation of the Tony winning stage musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” Warner Bros. released a film of Lin Manuel Miranda’s 2008 musical “In the Heights,” which won him Best Musical at the Tony’s. And finally, Steven Spielberg’s long awaited adaptation of “West Side Story.”
What do all of these musicals have in common? All are adaptations of stage productions. “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is somewhat of an exception here, but is inspired by Larson’s 1990 semi-autobiographical musical. Following Larson’s death, the show was revived off-Broadway multiple times. Additionally, the film’s producer was inspired to make the film after watching Lin Manuel Miranda in a 2014 revival, according to Harper’s Bazaar.
Why are so many studios producing movie adaptations of musicals?
“Hollywood is about making money,” said Jerry Prell, theatre arts lecturer at LMU. “With greater interest in musicals, perhaps due to the success and popularity of shows like ‘Hamilton,’ there is money to be made.”
Since its debut in 2015, Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical sensation “Hamilton” has taken the world by storm. As of May 2020, the show had earned $650 million and been seen by 2.6 million people since it’s opening, according to the New York Times. The musical was a breakthrough for Broadway, as it became known by the masses, not just theatre fans.
Tickets for the show, however, were somewhat hard to come by due to high demand and unprecedented resale prices. In Feb. 2020, it was announced that a filmed version of the show would be in theatres Oct. 2021. After Broadway closed in March due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the film was available on Disney’s streaming platform last July (and they reportedly paid $75 million for the rights).
The closure of Broadway has brought another filmed musical to streaming services. A filmed version of “Diana: The Musical” hit Netflix this October, but after horrific reviews is closing this month after only 33 performances on Broadway.
While some musicals have been more well received than others, the pandemic closing Broadway was unprecedented. The decision to bring some musicals to streaming during this period may have created more interest in the form.
“As far as the influence of the pandemic goes, regarding audience reception to musicals, sure, we were at home isolated, movie theatres were closed, and we could stream ‘Hamilton’ or see Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman in ‘The Prom’,” said Prell. “Maybe these shows were seen by people who would not otherwise see a musical. This exposure builds awareness.”
The success of “Hamilton” has clearly made movie producers more eager than ever to invest in musicals. Lin Manuel Miranda had been trying for years to get another of his musicals, “In the Heights” adapted. It was picked up after an eight-year standstill in 2016 at the height of Hamilton’s success. After years of changing studios and auctions for the rights, the movie was finally filmed in 2019.
Although studios seem eager to produce big budget musical adaptations, “there is still financial risk–movie versions of “In the Heights” and “Dear Evan Hansen” have yet to make back their investment….and the film adaptation of “Cats” will set back Universal Studios over $100 million,” said Prell.
The release of “In the Heights” and “West Side Story” were delayed by a year due to the pandemic. When “In the Heights” finally did open in June, it did so with only $11.4 million in ticket sales, according to the LA Times.
#InTheHeightsMovie didn’t take 10 years to get made only to be left in half empty theaters w/out the crowd it deserves!! So thank you 4 ur patience & faith…and when we get through this time & the movie comes out we are throwing a HUGE EFFING PARTY LIKE YOUVE NEVER SEEN BEFORE.— Jon M. Chu (@jonmchu) April 21, 2020
“West Side Story,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “In the Heights” have all fallen short of projected earnings. “West Side Story” only earned $10.5 million opening weekend, though its budget was $100 million according to Variety. However, the film has been anticipated to receive multiple nominations at prestigious awards ceremonies like the Oscars, which could give the film another chance to earn back its investment.
“Dear Evan Hansen” generated a lot of buzz, but not for a good reason. Universal’s adaptation was all over the internet following the release of its first trailer in May. When the movie was released in September, critics and audiences gave brutal reviews of the film.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN: If there were any chance of making this character look like something other than a monster, it rested on emphasizing his raw youth, which makes the casting of an OBVIOUSLY GROWN MAN JUST HUNCHING HIS SHOULDERS an act of sabotage that’s near avant-garde #TIFF21 pic.twitter.com/x1zjc1aAQZ— Alison Willmore (@alisonwillmore) September 10, 2021
The central objection was Ben Platt playing a 17-year-old at the age of 28, especially while surrounded by supporting actors who actually looked like high schoolers (and did I mention that Platt’s father produced the film?). The movie also made large cuts to supporting roles, removing four songs from the original production that give depth to secondary characters, which made the final cut particularly Evan-heavy. Consequently, when audiences didn’t love the central character, it made the movie hard to digest for some.
Given the lackluster performance of these blockbuster movie musicals, it begs the question – do audiences actually want to see them? Prell suggests that this shift in Hollywood is indicative of a larger cultural change in support of musical theatre.
“There’s been increased interest in Broadway musicals over the past 25 years – millennials and Gen Z grew up with the Disney animated movie musicals and their subsequent live Broadway adaptations,” said Prell. “High school musical theatre programs and productions have grown, as have musical theatre degree programs at colleges and universities across the country… The internet has made musical theatre clips and music easier to access. Productions use social media and the web to brand shows and build awareness.”
Even when social media teams for movie musicals aren’t deliberately promoting them, songs from musicals will appear on apps like TikTok. This summer, an audio clip from the film version of “In the Heights” was trending on TikTok. And of course, we cannot forget the lockdown-induced “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical.”
Because of heightened use of social media, especially by Gen-Z, musical theatre is being incorporated into peoples’ daily lives, even if they are unaware of it. The anonymity of the source of audio clips on TikTok has exposed people who would otherwise turn their noses up at musicals familiar with musical theatre. This increased social awareness makes the masses more receptive to musical adaptations, especially when their songs can successfully infiltrate social media trends.
While the number of movie musicals coming out this year is unique, it is not entirely unprecedented. 2014 is a comparable year for musical adaptations, with four movie musicals released including Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” and Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of “Jersey Boys.”
Hollywood and Broadway have been intertwined for decades, with one always taking inspiration from the other and vice versa.
“This relationship started in the 1930’s when there was an exodus of Broadway talent to Hollywood due to the stock market crash,” said Prell. “Eventually, almost all the talent returned to the “Big Apple,” as the economic trauma of the crash stabilized and audiences returned to live theatre. The relationship was made, and Broadway talent became bi-coastal with Hollywood adapting Broadway musicals and bringing new movie musicals to the big screen.”
Broadway’s struggles during the Great Depression may be mirroring the difficulties of the pandemic. With nowhere else to go, many Broadway stars made appearances in musical adaptations. Most notably was in Miranda’s “Tick, Tick… Boom!” which includes a scene featuring an ensemble of Broadway legends.
As we begin to move on from the pandemic (Or are we? Hello Omicron variant), audiences may be in need of uplifting content following such a profound period of loss.
After World War II, movie musicals became “escapist faire” according to Prell. In 1946 alone, Hollywood produced 43 movie musicals, and the number remained above the 20’s until the late 1950’s, according to Wikipedia’s list of movie musicals. Many adaptations of stage musicals were made in the 1960’s after creative teams were dissolved in major studios, according to the website of musical theatre scholar John Kenrick.
“Hollywood now had to rely on Broadway to provide it with musical projects,” Kendrick explains. “Not only were the major studios willing to pay unprecedented amounts to buy screen rights to hit stage musicals (Warner Brothers reportedly paid $5 million for the rights to My Fair Lady), they would even invest in new shows to get first refusal on their film rights.”
Could we perhaps be entering a new period of movie musical adaptations? This year will not be the end for the genre. Recent news of a long-awaited movie adaptation of “Wicked,” and the casting of pop singer Ariana Grande in one of the lead roles, has been dominating headlines. Actor Jake Gyllenhaal was reported to secure rights last year for the 2015 Broadway musical “Fun Home.” Additionally, Netflix is adapting the musical which gave Grande her start in showbusiness, Jason Robert Brown’s “13: The Musical.”
More movie musicals are to come, though the production and release dates of many of these films are unknown.
Although the movie musical adaptations of 2021 were not box office hits, Prell argues that the success of past adaptations makes the investment a “risk worth taking” for producers.