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Why does Hollywood fear the musical?

”Carmen,” ”Moulin Rouge,” and ”The Producers” prove that audiences are hungry for a little song and dance, says Mark Harris

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Why does Hollywood fear the musical?

Is the American public afraid of musicals? Ask any Hollywood executive and the answer will be a resounding (if falsely sorrowful) Yes. We’d love to make musicals, the party line goes, but moviegoers just won’t accept somebody bursting into song in the middle of a scene — it’s corny, it’s outmoded, it doesn’t work.

Well, what else is new? In Hollywood, the bull market for stupidity never ends, and who is the American public to disagree when the purveyors of ”Freddy Got Fingered,” ”Town and Country,” and ”One Night at McCool’s” tell them what they will and will not accept? But a funny thing has happened on the way to the moratorium; while Hollywood is running scared, we seem to be accepting — in fact, embracing — musicals right and left.

In New York, a very lucky 13,500 people each week are paying steep ticket prices — up to $100 — and flocking to the St. James Theater to see Mel Brooks’ musical version of his 1968 film ”The Producers,” the hottest Broadway ticket since the musical ”The Lion King” roared into town four years ago. (By the way, you may have heard of the movie ”The Lion King” — a musical that enough moviegoers accepted to make it one of the 10 top grossers in history.)

And last weekend, just a few blocks away, ticket buyers mobbed the Ziegfeld for the opening weekend of Baz Luhrmann’s audacious and innovative ”Moulin Rouge,” interrupting the film several times for applause. Their enthusiasm was shared by their L.A. counterparts, giving the film a per screen average of over $83,000 for the weekend.

Meanwhile, on MTV a couple of weeks ago, a ”hip-hopera” update of the opera ”Carmen” starring Destiny’s Child lead singer BeyoncĂ© Knowles drew smash ratings for the cable network. And on network TV, viewers seem well able to enjoy unmotivated bursting into song on everything from Fox’s ”Ally McBeal” to ABC’s recent adaptations of ”Annie” and ”Cinderella.”

Who’s afraid of musicals, then, if not us? Hollywood itself, of course, which often disguises what it can’t do well by claiming there’s no audience for it. And indeed, the industry’s track record has been terrible — there hasn’t been a good non-animated movie musical since ”Little Shop of Horrors” back in the 80s. Now, it may be asking for trouble to hope that movie studios make more musicals; after all, these are the folks who thought it was a good idea to put ”A Chorus Line” in the hands of ”Gandhi” director Richard Attenborough, and to give ”Evita,” a dreary, overrated show to begin with, to joyless Alan Parker.

But given the current mini-boom, there’s reason to believe that Hollywood may finally approach the genre with less terror and more creativity. A movie version of the 1975 musical ”Chicago,” spurred by a smash revival that has run in New York for close to five years, is back on the fast track with a screenplay by ”Gods and Monsters” Oscar winner Bill Condon. Andrew Lloyd Webber has dusted off ”The Phantom of the Opera” for Warner Bros., with a new script and new songs. Miramax is continuing to develop ”Rent.”

And Mel Brooks — now working on a musical version of ”Young Frankenstein” for the stage — has even been approached about ”The Producers.” Apparently, someone thinks it would make a good movie.

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