Hollywood's new song and dance over musicals

A once-maligned genre, retooled for a new generation, has yielded hits such as 'Once,' 'Sweeney Todd,' and 'Hairspray.'

It took a while for the studio behind "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" to face the music.

In the first trailer for the new film, stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter did nothing but talk, while they do little but sing in the actual movie. Executives clearly feared that they'd scare away young audiences by admitting that the musical is, in fact, a musical.

But after a while, they decided to let the Broadway-derived movie speak – or sing – for itself and stopped hiding the songs from the trailers. "Everyone was feeling that if it's going to work, it will work because of its uniqueness," says Walter Parkes, one of its producers.

It was a good gamble. In its first weekend of release in just 1,249 theaters, "Sweeney Todd" garnered an impressive $9.4 million at the North American box office and became the latest in a string of successful musicals.

After four decades of near-obsolescence, the genre may finally be ready to return to Hollywood's mainstream. Consider: 2006's "Dreamgirls" and this year's "Hairspray" were hits, as is the quasi-musical "Enchanted." On the art-film circuit, three smaller movies gained strong reviews in 2007: "Once" (a romance between musicians in Ireland), "Across the Universe" (The Beatles, reinterpreted), and "Colma: The Musical" (a story about growing up in the "city that always sleeps," a real-life California town full of cemeteries).

And now, Disney is working on a big-screen production of "High School Musical," a hit TV franchise that's become a nursery for teen heartthrobs.

"There is definitely a trend [for Hollywood] to look at movie musicals again," despite recent flops like "Rent" and "Phantom of the Opera," says Thomas Hischak, professor of theater at State University of New York at Cortland.

The reason, as always, is money, he says. The award-gobbling "Chicago" made more than $170 million at the box office back in 2002, inspiring Hollywood's usual rush to copy any profitable trend. The Broadway play turned film "opened more doors than any musical in the past 20 years," he says.

Musicals, of course, were once much more than a footnote in Hollywood, even if their quality didn't always measure up.

"Years ago, Pauline Kael wrote that we want to like musicals, but if you actually go back and look at them, the idea of musicals ends up being better than a lot of musicals themselves," says Richard Barrios, author of "A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film." "It's easy to be nostalgic about some of them, but there aren't that many that are really all that good."

Awed by the gritty filmmaking of the 1960s and 1970s, younger audiences began to share Ms. Kael's skepticism about old-school musicals. Beyond a few exceptions such as the hit "Grease" and the expensive disaster "Annie," song-and-soft-shoe productions stopped traveling from Great White Way to silver screen.

Nowadays, musicals are on the rebound, getting modern makeovers courtesy of music-video-influenced quick cuts ("Moulin Rouge"), advanced animation technology ("Enchanted" and "Sweeney Todd"), and affordable film cameras for amateurs ("Colma: The Musical" reportedly only cost $15,000).

Musicals such as "Once," meanwhile, tinker just a bit with the classic blueprint, managing to seem both modern and timeless. The critical favorite finds charm and beauty in the intimacy of two musicians falling in love – of a sort – through song.

"There's something about music and image that provides a kind of experience for the audience that can't be replicated elsewhere," says Mr. Parkes. "There's just something about the way film musicals make you feel."

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