Let Me Entertain You | The Problem with Movie Musicals

My mother raised me to love pie, action movies, and musical theatre. It is because of her theater snob persona that I have seen upwards of thirty Broadway shows, and am a total elitist myself. So what really creams my corn is when studios put movie stars in movie musicals.

Film actors are awesome, don’t get me wrong, but some of them really shouldn’t be onscreen singing. Look at Audrey Hepburn! Amazing actress and human being, but she couldn’t carry a note worth a damn. In My Fair Lady, that’s not her voice singing about “wouldn’t it be loverly,” it’s Marni Nixon wasn’t even mentioned in the credits. But of course, they had to cast Audrey. Julie Andrews, who had played Eliza Doolittle on Broadway, wasn’t famous enough yet.

Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle on Broadway.  Courtesy of The Seattle Times.

Studios don’t cast Broadway stars for precisely that reason, really: mainstream America doesn’t know who they are. Of course, some Broadway musical actors do make the transition, Julie Andrews being one of them, but mostly the two spheres of theater and film remain separate.

And so, we have Meryl Streep in the film adaptation of Mamma Mia! and Russell Crowe as Javert in Les Miserables. These are awesome, award-winning actors, but they should not have been cast in those movies. It’s not that they can’t sing, it’s that they can’t sing at the level of a Broadway star. Russell Crowe wasn’t bad as Javert, he just didn’t have the vocal skills needed to portray the character. Listen to Norm Lewis singing “Stars” once, and you’ll understand what I’m trying to say.

Of course, there have been some pretty good movie musicals. High School Musical, for one. I’m just kidding! Mostly. No, I’m talking about the old favorites: Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Cabaret. But those movies were made back in the time when movie musicals were the norm, not an excuse to haphazardly throw together famous people singing. Movie stars were made because they could sing and dance; it was expected of them. It was a simpler time. Audiences would be happy with Gene Kelly dancing and wooing the girl. They didn’t need explosions and CGI and ridiculous plot twists.

Times have changed, and studios realize now that in order for movie musicals to be successful, there needs to be something to bring the audience in. What’s better than watching respected actors wear embarrassing outfits and sing awkwardly? As critics are so fond of saying, Hollywood’s “Golden Age” is over, and the age of the singing star with it.

The obvious caveat to everything I just said: animated musicals. Those are the bomb diggity.

So they’re making a movie adaptation of Into the Woods. This is worrisome on many counts, because Into the Woods features music written by Stephen Sondheim. As any theater buff can tell you, Sondheim is basically God and the Devil, because his music is beyond brilliant but also ridiculously difficult.

I’m excited in part, because the movie has Christine Baranski, James Corden (Craig from Doctor Who), and Billy Magnussen in it. I’ve seen all three on Broadway, and they were all awesome. However, I saw all of them in three respective plays, not musicals. Still, I have hope. The film will also have Anna Kendrick, whom we know can sing from her performance in that modern classic, Pitch Perfect. Chris Pine’s in it too, but he’s just so pretty, so I have no critical words yet.

Chris Pine and Anna Kendrick on the set of Into the Woods.  Courtesy of Fame Flynet/Huffington Post.

Now here’s where I’m worried: Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep are cast in two of the biggest roles, the Wolf and the Witch, respectively. Depp proved in Sweeney Todd that he has a good voice, but I don’t know if he has the power to pull off the Wolf. Hopefully his acting skills will help him pull it off. But Streep as the Witch? The Witch is an incredibly complex part, both vocally and dramatically.

The film comes out almost exactly one year from now, Christmas 2014. My expectations aren’t high, but I suppose the theater snob in me will just have to wait and see.