On April 22's episode of American Idol, renowned composer and lyricist Andrew Lloyd Weber stood patiently trying to teach a blank-eyed Jason Castro the song, "Memory" from one of history's most popular musicals, "Cats." Smiled the clueless Castro, "I didn't even know a cat was singing it."

Quell'horror! Is this the extent of musical theater knowledge possessed by today's generation? In fairness, Castro is from Texas, not exactly around the corner from Broadway. Perhaps had there been a big-screen version of "Cats," more people under the age of 30 would be hip to the magic and majesty of musical impresario Weber, and others of his ilk. Well, thank the muses for the return of the movie musical, rising from its fabled golden Hollywood past to reclaim its rightful place in contemporary entertainment culture!

The Phantom of the Opera

There's no business like show business, and never is that business better than when combining two entertainment mediums like musical theatre and film. To understand the movie musical's place in current history is to look back at its not so-distant past. When celluloid was still in its infancy, just after the dawn of "talkies" (motion pictures with synchronized sound) The Broadway Melody was a smash hit and won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929. With dollar signs in their eyes, Hollywood producers and execs rushed to procure the next big musical smash for film.

Often adapted from the stage, the genre hit its peak in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, a period considered the golden age of musical film. Films like The Sound of Music, Westside Story and "Oliver!" captured both hearts and Academy Awards. 1978's Grease still remains one of the most successful movie musicals of all time, and it's soundtrack/cast recording broke records that still stand today. Yet, the cinematic musical slowly faded from the consciousness of an 60's-era America fragmented in war, enthralled by rock music and embracing an "Easy Rider" counterculture; the sweet, hopeful naiveté of the musical simply didn't hold the country in thrall like it once had.

The advent of animated films revived the musical film, albeit in a slightly different artistic medium. Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) paved the way for a new musical animated tradition that spawned hits like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and inspired non-Disney films like South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Sweeney Todd

Still, the movie musical in its former form - with live actors - was all but abandoned until independent cinema put a fresh, edgy spin on the relics of old, releasing films like 2000's Dancer in the Dark, the quirky starring vehicle for Bjork and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, about an East German drag queen who survived a botched sex-change operation.

Promising audience response to these pictures prompted the studios to once again greenlight movie musicals, roaring back into the public consciousness in the new millennium with Moulin Rouge (2001), the sumptuous Baz Luhrmann production boasting big names - Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor - expensive production value, contemporary, genre-crossing music and a marketing blitz that included the profitable cast recording. Most notably, "Moulin Rouge" was the first movie musical since 1972's Cabaret to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.


It took Rob Marshall's Chicago (Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere) bringing home Oscar gold (six in total) in 2003 (the first movie musical to win since "Oliver!" in 1968) to affirm the full-fledged return of the genre. Since then, film remakes of stage shows are white-hot: Cineplexes have seen film versions of The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Dreamgirls and Sweeney Todd to name a few. Not to be overlooked are recent movie musicals based on earlier non-musical films like The Producers and Hairspray or original properties Across the Universe and Enchanted (both Oscar nominees in 2007).

Don't be under the misapprehension that the movie musical is only for the over 30 set. The return of the movie musical has spawned one of the biggest "tween" hits to date. This includes 7.7 million cable viewers for the original version, 17.2 million for the sequel and a third sequel on the horizon; blockbuster DVD sales; multiple spin-off shows spawned (including a reality competition); chart-topping soundtracks/cast recordings; records broken for MP3 downloads; and household names made of young stars Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens and the rest of the cast: High School Musical, a made-for-TV Disney movie directed by Kenny Ortega about a jock, a whiz kid, their friends and the audition process has garnered two primetime Emmys and a fanatical following.

High School Musical 2

Evidently, the appeal of the movie musical is broader than most would suspect; one need only look at the soon-to-be-released musicals waiting in the wings:

-All based on Broadway hits, Rob Marshall returns to the genre for Nine, due in 2009, which will also deliver a version of "Jekyll and Hyde," and Mamma Mia! (2008), which uses tunes by popular 70's group ABBA to tell the tale of a bride-to-be.

-Original ideas unspooling include Ruby Tuesday, an animated movie using music by The Rolling Stones, family musical "Once Upon a Christmas Dream" (2009), and two Hip/Hop musicals: "Caught on Tape" directed by rapper Sticky Fingaz and "Silent Rhythm," both due in 2008.

-Expect a few musical remakes in the still-to-be-determined future, like a modernized version of 1984's Footloose (with Zac Efron in the Kevin Bacon role), "Fame" - based on the 1980 musical and "Sunset Boulevard," a film version of the musical by none other than Andrew Lloyd Weber, which was based in turn on Billy Wilder's 1950 non-musical classic.

Mamma Mia!

So, is the return of the once-beloved movie musical merely a temporary resuscitation? Or is it officially back and better than ever?

To quote Tony from "WestSide Story," "Could Be... Who knows…"

Story by Shannon Peace
Starpulse contributing writer