How Hollywood's inclusive new musicals are making the genre sing again
Like anyone who's ever wanted to swing from a street lamp like Gene Kelly or frolic through a field like Julie Andrews, David E. Talbert loves movie musicals. The Black filmmaker grew up on classic song-and-dance spectacles, and he couldn't wait to introduce his son to one of his favorite genres. But when Talbert hit play on his own childhood favorite, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, his then-4-year-old son's eyes glazed over.
"It hit me: No one on that screen resembled him at all," Talbert says. "He was not interested in having a joyful, wondrous, whimsical experience through the eyes of people who did not look like him."
That failed watch party inspired Talbert to make Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (which debuted on Netflix earlier this month) focused on a Black family — and one of the many movie musicals on the way that are revitalizing (and reshaping) the classic form. Some are originals; some are remakes, like Steven Spielberg's West Side Story; and still others are adaptations of newer Broadway shows, like Ryan Murphy's The Prom (Netflix, Dec. 11) and Jon M. Chu's In the Heights. But all are the kind of big extravaganzas that evoke the musical's golden age — with modern stories that feel tailored for 2020 (and 2021: Releases of Heights and West Side were delayed from this year to, respectively, June 18 and Dec. 10, 2021, due to the pandemic).
Cinematic staples since 1927's The Jazz Singer, musicals have never disappeared, but their popularity faded over the decades. "It's this odd thing: Every five or six years, someone would attempt a musical and it'd die immediately," says playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote the script for the latest West Side Story, starring Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler. "There was an understanding that for some mysterious [reason], the movie musical was dead. Then people would go and watch the great [ones] and adore them."
Still, movie musicals have had a resurgence in recent years, from awards contenders like La La Land and A Star Is Born to crowd-pleasers such as The Greatest Showman. (Admittedly, not every attempt — cough, Cats — hits the right notes.) The Prom writers Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin say the key to success is embracing old-school earnestness without veering into cheesiness. For The Prom, about professional actors (played by the likes of Meryl Streep, James Corden, and Nicole Kidman) trying to help a lesbian high schooler who wants to bring her girlfriend to the dance, that meant finding the balance between spectacle and real human drama.
"Our show was always trying to [avoid being] too syrupy," says Martin. "And that was what we continued to try and do here — to balance the gut-wrenching moments with some comedy to make it all palatable." Adds Beguelin, "[Musicals are] heightened, [so] there are less rules, and there's more freedom."
These new musicals are diverse in both their casts and the ideas they explore. Talbert wrote Jingle Jangle — about a Black toy maker (Forest Whitaker) and his granddaughter — and recruited John Legend and producer Philip Lawrence to compose music. "Growing up, I watched Dick Van Dyke and Gene Wilder and Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews and all these big, broad, beautiful dance numbers," Talbert says. "I wanted to do the same and give it some soul, the kind of swag we have."
The original West Side Story film cast white actors to play Puerto Rican characters, something the new version sought to rectify, starting with the Colombian-American Zegler. Kushner also vowed to dive deeper into the tensions between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks; although the new film is still set in 1957, he hopes its themes of immigration and discrimination resonate today.
After Disney+'s filmed version of Hamilton brought a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical into millions of living rooms this past summer, Warner Bros. will release one in theaters next summer: In the Heights, Miranda's earlier Broadway hit, set over three days in New York's largely Latinx Washington Heights neighborhood. "I'm excited for people to fall in love with Lin all over again," says Heights director Chu. "Not to say they fell out of love, but [they'll] be reminded."
The Prom team hopes adapting their musical for Netflix with a starry cast and a holiday release date will attract new audiences. "We've seen how it affects people — especially young people struggling to come out," says Martin. "To know that this film can be in everyone's living room and that families can possibly sit down and watch it together is super exciting."
And couldn't we all use a little old-fashioned song and dance right now? "There is a place that music can get to that words can't reach," Kushner says, "and it is magical."