Why are we still fascinated by musicals?

Appearing more than 100 years ago in the United States, musicals were first intended for the theater. From the talkies, they benefited from a democratization of the big screen. From the boards to the seventh art through literature and series, the musical has been exported to several continents and affects all cultural fields.

A real artistic boom that, despite sometimes (very) relative success, lasted for several decades and currently seems to be experiencing a new expansion. Of West Side Story (1957) to starmania (2022), from its cradle across the Atlantic to French productions, the musical is now beginning to reconquer cinemas and theaters, while diversifying through series. A timeless reboot that questions the reasons why the genre never ceases to fascinate.

A unique narrative and artistic expression

Why are musicals popular? It’s a question that might make you smile, but the reasons for the fascination with musicals sometimes run deeper, especially in terms of storytelling. Of course, today’s public loves musicals for their lightness and fantasy. The audience is immersed in another world where the characters sing at the top of their voices and dance wildly. A way to escape from everyday life, to travel in a universe between dream and reality, but also a new way of expressing feelings for artists.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land by Damien Chazelle. © Summit Entertainment

Dance and song are vectors of artistic expression. They are used metaphorically, like a parallel universe where no character can resist the irresistible urge to push the song to express the onslaught of his feelings. The abundance of colors, the precision of the choreographies, the craziness of the sets… Everything is there to best represent the overflow of emotions experienced by the character.

A cathartic aspect emerges, proof that the musical never forgets its theatrical origins. This mechanism is important to the genre, because it allows the story to be told and to move it forward. The wonder lies not so much in a complex scenario as in a total realization during the big music and dance scenes, which do not mark pauses in the story, but bring it to life in a different way. We see this for example in the movie La La Land (2016) by Damien Chazelle where the tap number of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) marks their romantic rapprochement.

When classic meets contemporary

Musicals often deal with themes of love or hate, subjects originally belonging to classical theater and tragedy. However, the genre blew the wind of modernity on the boards. If the romance lyric is still present, the genre has also stepped aside and moved away from classic codes to evoke its contemporary era. In the 1930s, favorite themes became self-fulfillment, often through success, particularly in the arts and entertainment professions.

Cabaret is currently presented at Lido 2 Paris. © Lido 2 Paris

In the 1950s, while the genre was still confined to the United States or England, Hollywood became a favorite subject, while from the 1960s there was a real shift towards social consideration. West Side Story dealing with New York gang rivalry, The melody of happiness (1965) totalitarianism and Cabaret (1966) was played against the background of the rise of IIIe Reich. There are many examples that show the promise of the musical.

This process tends to arise from the artificiality with which critics of musicals arbitrarily classify genres. Ever since the 1970s, when it gradually lost its popularity, film productions such as Rocky Horror Picture Show (1973) and the Blues Brothers (1980) appropriated popular music to make anti-conservative and progressive themes (gender, identity, drugs, religious contradictions, etc.) more accessible.

The French exception facing Broadway

Through this prism, moreover, France produced its first musical in 1973, adapting the events of the French Revolution in the form of a rock opera. Far from the rhinestones and spangles of Broadway’s mythical avenue – which he has never been able to fully replicate unless he exports them in a way lion king at the Mogador Theater or Producers by Alexis Michalik – France established productions with the brand of French cultural exception.

Thomas Jolly took over the direction of the musical starmania in 2022. © La Seine Musicale

This is how dystopian-like musicals are born starmania (1978) directed by Michel Berger and Luc Plamondon, Pitiful (1985) adapted from the work of Victor Hugo, Paul and Virginia (1992), but also Notre Dame of Paris (1998). The latter had the effect of a bomb because the success of the work composed by Luc Plamondon with Richard Cocciante was resounding.

However, if France was able to impose itself against Broadway thanks to its particularism inspired by its history and the literary classics, the 2000s will bring them their share of obsolescence and disappointment. Of the Ali Baba’s Arabian Nights (2000) to Cindy (2002) – futuristic version of a Cinderella of the suburbs – success is no longer there. Just maybe Romeo and Juliet, from love to hate (2001), The King of the sun (2005) or Mozart, rock opera (2009) managed from time to time to develop enough popularity and mark the current pop culture, until returning to the stage under the direction of Thomas Jolly of starmania (2022).

The importance of pop culture

The longevity of musicals goes hand in hand with the importance they have in pop culture and it starts with cult songs. If Broadway and Hollywood know a lot about staying the course, it’s thanks to the aura possessed by the emblematic pieces composed by today’s greatest lyricists.

Musical comedy hamilton landed on the Disney+ platform after years of performing on stage. ©Disney+

The glorious era of musical comedies was also really the heyday of Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods), Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story), or Irving Berlin (The melody of happiness, white christmas), whose heirs such as Andrew Lloyd Webber (The Phantom of the Opera), Lin-Manuel Miranda (hamilton), Stephen Schwartz (bad) or the late Jonathan Larson (rent) continue the tradition today. Luc Plamondon is perhaps, on the Francophonie side, our standard-bearer. Either way, if it isAmericaof Hours of cathedralsof kings of the earthor even Rain on My Paradeseveral compositions have marked the history of the genre and wider pop culture.

Moreover, pop culture itself has been a source of inspiration for musicals. The proof that there is Mama Mia! (1999) capturing ABBA’s hits, Billy Elliot (2000) written by Elton John, but also included We will hit you (2002) based on songs by Queen. Danny Boyle also plans to adapt the franchise Matrix (1999) on stage in an immersive show, while in France, Hate (1995) could get its own hip-hop musical.

The musical today

Trailer of the musical Mama Mia! performed in London. © Official London Theatre

Pop culture has had a huge impact on the new craze that musicals are enjoying today. Although the genre never left the boards or the big screen, the offer is becoming more consistent. Through sounds, costumes or sets, the shows deliberately cultivate a certain nostalgia, often drawn from the 1950s and 1960s. We see this in original creations such as La La Land, but also in the return of emblematic plays to the theater or the cinema. So we are thinking of remaking the West Side Story (2021) by Steven Spielberg, as well funny girl. Performed in 1964 with Barbra Streisand, this production is now enjoying new life thanks to Lea Michele. Where we come from (2005) written by Lin-Manuel Miranda received its first film adaptation in 2021, while Cabaret is experiencing new life on the boards of Lido 2 Paris.

Musicals are no longer a genre in their own right belonging to theater and cinema, they also invest in series thanks to musical episodes. We will see this in the episode “Suits” of the series How I Met Your Mother (2010) or more recently in Umbrella Academy. Moreover, the idealization of musical comedies of fictional characters has become a springboard of screenplay in television shows. This is the case with So happy (2009-2015), by Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), but also in the series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-2019) with Titus.

Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) plays Don’t Rain on my Parade in the series So happy. © 20th Century Fox Television

So we are witnessing the true return of the genre. Although it does not guarantee immediate success, as proven by the failure of Cats in 2019 – a shipwreck that will surely remain in the annals of pop culture – the novelty of theater, cinema and even the series approaching the musical today contributes to make it a captivating object of entertainment. His fantasy, his narrative intent, but his sometimes political intent helped to cultivate over the decades the public’s inexhaustible love for the genre. The mysticism of Broadway, the ambivalence between theatrical tradition and scenic modernity or even nostalgia… All these aspects ultimately contribute to the formation of an almost eternal fascination.

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