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Are musicals Hollywood's comeback kids?

Sunday, April 21, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The American movie musical may be reinventing itself once again, in forms that Fred Astaire, Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minnelli would scarcely recognize.

Consider these films, all released within the past six years:

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" centers on an East German drag queen who survived a botched sex-change operation along with a vestige of her original manhood. She tells her story through flashbacks and rock cabaret performance.

"Dancer in the Dark," really more of an anti-musical, features a heroine who works in a factory and makes music in her head from the industrial rhythms around her. When she is arrested for murder, the songs that break out in the middle of a scene become her escape from a bitterly cruel life -- just like in the movies.

"South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut" features the foul-mouthed kids from the animated TV series in a clever spoof of censorship that includes hilarious musical parodies, one of which ("Blame Canada") actually got nominated for an Academy Award.

"Everyone Says I Love You" is a Woody Allen movie featuring standards from the golden age of Hollywood musicals that are performed mostly by actors who can't carry a tune.

"Moulin Rouge" boasts the sumptuous production values and literal cast of thousands that distinguished many of the great movie musicals. But it energetically crosses time periods and musical genres so that turn-of-the-century French characters can sing tunes by Elton John, Paul McCartney and Nirvana, to name just a few.

While it didn't win, "Moulin Rouge" was the first full-blooded specimen of the musical genre to be nominated for Best Picture since "Cabaret" in 1972. No musical has taken that award since "Oliver!" in 1968.

The genre did not just disappear in the intervening decades. Inevitably, it changed and evolved with the times -- and with the music. Rock, disco, punk, salsa, rap and even Tejano music all got their own versions of "Hey, kids, let's put on a show" or melodramas about musicians trying to get to the top.

Hollywood still turned out movies based on Broadway musicals, but with middling success. After "Cabaret," the list of disappointments includes "Godspell," "Mame," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "The Wiz," "Hair," "Annie," "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," "Pirates of Penzance," "A Chorus Line" and "Evita."

It has reached the point where most successful adaptations are now going the other way -- films being turned into stage musicals. Among recent examples: "The Producers," "The Lion King" and "The Full Monty."

Musicals also have found some success on television in recent years. Bette Midler starred in "Gypsy" on CBS, spawning more musical productions on other networks, including "Mrs. Santa Claus," starring Angela Lansbury, and an adaptation of "Cinderella" starring pop singers Whitney Houston and Brandy, both choreographed by Pittsburgh's Rob Marshall; a new production of "Annie," directed by Marshall; and "Geppetto," based on the Pinocchio story and featuring Drew Carey.

The most successful Broadway-to-Hollywood translation in the past 30 years is probably "Grease," no doubt due in large part to its pop-rock soundtrack and its white-hot star, John Travolta. He was fresh off his enormous hit "Saturday Night Fever," which wasn't a musical per se but derived its energy, its movement, virtually its entire essence from a dynamite disco soundtrack by the Bee Gees.

Subsequent movies like "Purple Rain" and "Flashdance" would string together dramatic scenes that were held together by the musical soundtrack. In a way, they were among the first musicals of the MTV era.

They were also a far cry from the first widely popular rock musicals -- Elvis Presley movies and Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach-party flicks, each of which existed mainly to create excuses for the stars to sing in front of pretty girls in swimsuits.

But Hollywood also kept turning out expensive and increasingly outdated musicals well into the late 1960s, when the country was in ferment and rock music fractured the audience into subgroups.

For every hit like "Funny Girl," there was a box-office disaster like "Star!" about the British actress Gertrude Lawrence, or "Darling Lili," a musical based on Mata Hari. These financial debacles killed what was left of the studio system and opened the door for the inmates to take over the asylum in the 1970s and start appealing to the burgeoning counterculture with films like "Easy Rider."

The 1980s may have been the age of the soundtrack, where the music commented on the action from off-screen.

In the 1990s, some of the most popular musicals starred mermaids and monsters. Disney's animated films always contained music, including a few songs that have evolved into standards. But musicals, and songs written specifically for use in films, had dwindled to the point that the new age of Disney cartoon features, which began in 1989 with "The Little Mermaid," contained so many original tunes that they have become annual contenders -- and winners -- in the Academy Award music categories.

And now "Moulin Rouge" has brought the more traditional movie musical back to the forefront, but in an untraditional way.

Despite its success, the quirkiness of the current string of movie musicals, several of which were limited-release art-house films, does not necessarily mean that a rebirth is in the works. Offbeat or quasi-musicals such as Dennis Potter's "Pennies from Heaven," Lindsay Anderson's "O Lucky Man!," the cult favorite "Rocky Horror Picture Show" or even Robert Altman's "Nashville" didn't exactly inspire waves of imitation.

But if Marshall's movie adaptation of "Chicago" turns into a hit with its high-octane cast of Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger, it might spur long-planned movie productions of such Broadway hits as "Rent" and "The Phantom of the Opera."

To quote a song that has nothing to do with the movies, this could be the start of something big.

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