Can Big Screen Musicals Pump Up the Box Office ?

With films from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bill Murray, Todd Haynes, Leos Carax and others, the Cannes Film Festival, movie theaters and streamers are alive with the sound of music. “It might just be the shuffling of release dates as a result of the pandemic, but 2021 is shaping up to be an embarrassment of riches for fans of movie musicals,” Miranda says.

And he should know. Since last year’s successful Disney Plus release of his Pulitzer Prize-winning show “Hamilton,” Miranda has become a movie musical industry unto himself. With films from his 5000 Broadway Prods., he just had a five-borough Tribeca Festival premiere of “In the Heights” (adapted from his 2008 Tony-winning Broadway show) and is directing his first musical feature — Jonathan Larson’s pre-“Rent” show “tick, tick … Boom!” — in theaters and on Netflix this fall. Miranda also stars in and wrote original songs for Sony Pictures Animation’s musical “Vivo” (on Netflix this summer), co-wrote and stars in the Disney animated musical “Encanto” (in theaters Nov. 24) and is producing and writing new music for Disney’s live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid,” now in production.

After Cannes opens with Carax’s operatic musical “Annette,” there are plenty more musicals coming to cinemas (Stephen Chbosky’s “Dear Evan Hansen” on Sept. 24, Ste­­­ven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” on Dec. 10, Joe Wright’s “Cyrano” on Dec. 25) and streamers (“Cinderella” and “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” on Amazon Prime Video in September, “Come From Away” on Apple TV Plus this fall).

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Amidst Hollywood’s reliance on “bankable” IP, from reboots to sequels to comic book fare, musicals are one of the few remaining genres able to attract big budgets for creative and original projects, offering enough audio-visual appeal to draw audiences back to theaters. “The first time I watch a musical, I want to see it on the biggest screen possible to take in the spectacle, the depth and details,” Miranda says. “I love to hear the applause, laughter and gasps from a packed movie house. But I also love the home rewatch — going right to my favorite sequences.”

He found that directing “tick, tick … Boom!” was “not easy, especially during a pandemic! But it has taught me humility and respect for
all my film mentors. I’ve been in­credibly fortunate learning from the best — Rob Marshall on ‘Mary Poppins Returns,’ Tommy Kail on ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Fosse/Verdon’ and Jon M. Chu with ‘In the Heights.’ Seeing how they did it was incredibly inspiring and invaluable. I hope I make them proud.”
Whether it’s a Broadway adaptation, a biopic such as Liesl Tommy’s Aretha Franklin tale “Respect” (in theaters Aug. 13) or a doc like Haynes’ out-of-competition Cannes entry “The Velvet Underground” (in theaters and on Apple TV Plus this fall), musical films are often buoyed by a pre-established following and an added element that draws in audiences.

“Music captures our memory, our sense of time and place, and links up with our experiences in a way that’s hard to find any comparable example of,” Haynes says.

His films (from “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” to “I’m Not There” to “Velvet Goldmine,” which won a 1998 Cannes Special Jury Prize for artistic contribution) often feature it prominently, so making his first doc about the Lou Reed/John Cale-led band was a natural move.

“[Andy] Warhol basically said, ‘I’m giving up painting to make movies.’ Because underground cinema and the ’60s avant-garde had such a presence in and around this band, we have the most amazing and unique way to tell this story.” Haynes included never-before-seen performances and experimental art to “put you back in that time, using layeredand multi-screen [images].”

After hitting fall fests, it will be released with some similarly innovative promotions. And more mainstream ’60s rock fans can get their fix when a re-envisioned, expanded version of “Let It Be,” Peter Jackson’s doc “The Beatles: Get Back,” hits theaters Aug. 27.

Next year, Haynes will capture a different music legend, Peggy Lee, in his Michelle Williams-toplined biopic “Fever.” It’s anchored around Lee’s famed
1961 shows at New York City’s Basin Street East and her 1969 Las Vegas comeback. “She [had] a kind of gauzy, romantic, ironic way that she told her romantic narratives in concerts,” he says. “All of those devices are rich opportunities visually.”

The $903 million worldwide gross of 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the $195 million worldwide B.O. of 2019’s “Rocketman” proved audiences will turn out for music biopics. And their soundtracks’ appeal can take even a slow B.O. starter such as 2017’s “The Greatest Showman” to a $434 million worldwide gross. Studio marketers are also taking a cue from stage musicals that use cast albums, promotional YouTube videos and conventions such as BroadwayCon to create followings for shows that haven’t even opened.

Chbosky’s high school drama “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and his screenplay adaptations of “Rent” and “Beauty and the Beast” made him the ideal choice to bring the tale of isolated teen Evan Hansen to cinemas.

“I admired the book by [the film’s screenwriter] Steven Levenson and the songs so much, but I knew it was going to be very tricky, because it’s not a traditional musical with a bunch of dance numbers,” he says. “It takes place in dining rooms and bedrooms. The most important aesthetic that we build the entire shoot around was capturing [Tony-winner] Ben Platt’s live performance, and it’s almost entirely sung live on set.”

Some new musicals like “Hansen,” “Heights” and “Boom!” seem more personal than most earlier ones. “I hope [“Heights”] inspires future writers to tell their own stories, either on film or on stage,” Miranda says. And this approach could be one reason more of them are coming to the screen.

“Bigger talent and better roles can now be found on Broadway — that’s why these adaptations are happening,” Chbosky says. “It also feels like this generation is telling more personal stories, so the writing is following that. You could link it to TikTok, YouTube… Music is being tied to social media, and it’s becoming a diary of sorts for [our] entire society.”

Though it’s billed as a musical, “Annette” is more of an opera. The film’s music producer, Marius de Vries (“La La Land”), says it originated as a concept album from Sparks, whose Ron and Russell Mael approached Carax.

“Leos surprised them by saying, ‘I’d like to make this my next project,’” he says. “The authorship of all of the music in the film is Sparks, and the lyrics are by Leos.” Though there’s no screenplay credit for the fatalistic romance between a performance artist/comedian (Adam Driver) and an opera singer (Marion Cotillard), who have a prodigy daughter, de Vries says “the screenplay is effectively the libretto of the songs.” It hits a few U.S. theaters Aug. 6 and Amazon two weeks later.

But even commercial musicals can be a risky proposition: the last two to open before the pandemic were the animated “Frozen 2” (grossing $1.4 billion worldwide) and “Cats” (just $74 million worldwide). “Musicals have been one of the most popular genres over time,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. “And I think we’re seeing a bit of a renaissance of people wanting to have that experience in a theater [because] of the big screen and the sound quality.”

“Heights,” the first musical released in theaters as the U.S. pandemic subsided (and streaming on HBO Max with no surcharge), had a $11.5 million domestic opening weekend, about as much as the all-star, only-in-theaters sequel “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” earned the following weekend. And with no big stars, “Heights” more than doubled and tripled the opening weekends of two thrillers that were also simultaneously released on HBO Max (the Denzel Washington/Rami Malek-led “The Little Things” on Jan. 29 and the Angelina Jolie-toplined “Those Who Wish Me Dead” on May 14).
There are a flood of musicals now in production and development. Two Broadway adaptations, “Matilda” and “13,” are due from Netflix next year. And plenty of others — including “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “The Color Purple,” “The King and I,” “Mean Girls,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Wicked,” “Spamalot,” “Follies,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and more — are in various stages of development.

“This year [Cannes] is rich in musical films,” says fest artistic director Thierry Frémaux, “and we will soon see if this phenomenon, quite difficult to explain, confirms the current trend.”

There’s star-director Valérie Lemercier’s out-of-competition “Aline,” a bizarrely conceived biopic billed as “a fiction freely inspired by the life of Celine Dion” with soundalike Dion songs. Two other dramas, Nabil Ayouch’s competition entry “Casablanca Beats” and Audrey Estrougo’s midnight screening “Suprêmes,” feature several rap performances. In Directors’ Fortnight, Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman offer a sci-fi take on the genre with “Neptune Frost,” which Lin-Manuel Miranda helped fi­­nance as a fan via Kickstarter. Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu’s midnight screening, “Tralala,” is the most traditional musical comedy among the bunch.

And we may see more of the genre in France. “In 2019, there was an initiative of the CNC [the National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image] focused on musicals, and ‘Tralala’ was selected to benefit from it,” says Stephanie Lamome, artistic adviser of the fest’s film department. “In Cannes, we will create musical events and live performances linked directly to these films.” One that’s expected will feature Bill Murray. He’s promoting a special screening of Andrew Muscato’s “New Worlds: The Cradle of Civilization,” which captures his spoken word collaboration with three classical musicians at a Greek concert.

Back in the U.S., musicals will soon draw crowds to theaters at the inaugural Broadway Live Cinema Festival. Running July 15-Aug. 6 at the AMC Empire 25 in New York City, it will integrate live performances by Broadway stars with films including “Chicago” and “In the Heights.” The fest hits AMC Theatres in major U.S. cities this fall and winter with a touring cast, lighting, sound system and a stage that adapts to cinemas.

“What I’m most thrilled about is how different all these films are,” Miranda says of the many new additions to the genre. “[While it] hasn’t always been the case, the movie musical is now alive and well.”

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