The movie musical has been dying for decades. In a cultural shift, audiences began to regard characters who burst out singing and dancing as dorks. As a result, people spontaneously exploding into elaborately rehearsed songs and steps have been gradually replaced by music and dance coming from realistic sources within the movie: bands, discos, radios.
The pivotal year was 1977. Grease was released, an old-style movie musical that was a hit, but the last of its kind. Saturday Night Fever, which also came out that year, set the shape of things to come. Most subsequent musical hits followed Fever's realistic model: Fame, Urban Cowboy, Flashdance, Staying Alive, Dirty Dancing. Traditional movie musicals flopped: The Wiz, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pennies from Heaven, Grease 2, Rhinestone, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Absolute Beginners, School Daze, Newsies, Blues Brothers 2000.
Disney's animated musicals have remained an exception to this evolution, perhaps because bursting into song seems less ridiculous when performed by cartoon characters. Yet its most recent offering, Tarzan, eschews musical tradition as well. "No one was breaking into song," approved the anonymous critic at Crazy4Cinema.com, "It would have been somewhat out of place for a man who doesn't know English to burst into song while swinging around the jungle." Tanya Michna at MovieThing.com agreed: "I also like the continuity of Phil Collins' music throughout the film instead of random characters breaking into song at odd moments." Apparently, singing is becoming too unrealistic for cartoons, even.
A world where people can spontaneously burst into meticulously choreographed dances and overdubbed songs is a world for which moviegoers simply stopped suspending their disbelief. It became only acceptable as a joke or campy pastiche, as seen in South Park, The Simpsons, Little Shop of Horrors, or The Blues Brothers.
One hugely successful example of the new model for incorporating song and dance into a film is 1984's Footloose. The movie, about a bunch of stoopid white folks who ain't got no business dancing anyhow, is a classic "soundtrack musical." It contains an insufferable collection of crappy '80s pop music (and this is the opinion of someone who still listens to Heaven 17, Haysee Fantaysee, and Humpe Humpe), which none of the irritating actors (Kevin Bacon, John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Lori Singer) ever burst out singing. The music and dancing are firmly anchored in boomboxes, bands, clubs, and prom dances. No one opens their yap to croon -- which might have been preferable to the self-important pontificating of Bacon and Lithgow's characters.
In 1998 this hit movie was retrofitted as an old-fashioned Broadway musical. Being no fan of the film, I expected a monstrosity, but the show, in its current bus-and-truck tour stop in Seattle, was a surprise.
The Broadway musical Footloose wisely reinvents the film, and the two together serve as a great example of how today's audiences will or won't accept the irrationality of song and dance. This Footloose is a traditional musical. Completely. The pop songs are rearranged into showtunes, complete with overwrought sentimentality and emotional bombast. Bonnie Tyler's "Holding out for a Hero" begins as a plaintive four-part ballad. Sammy Hagar's "The Girl Gets Around" is performed as a perky toe-tapper at the local malt shop. The nine new songs written for the show are classic showtunes rather than verse/chorus/verse pop ditties. At times characters even belt out a line, then pause dramatically and whisper a meaningful word, like Richard Harris in Camelot. Straddling moving cars and playing tractor chicken have been replaced with dance routines featuring synchronized shopping carts, jump ropes, basketballs, roller skates, motorcycles, and aerial rope tricks. Comic gags, unapologetic schtick, and one-liners are delivered full-tilt by wacky buddy characters with kooky accents. Distracting subplots, such as book burnings and those guys who kept trying to beat up Ren (Kevin Bacon's character), are gone to make room for the new songs.
Amazingly, it works. Better than the movie. The replacement of subplots with songs allows much more time for character development, and both Ren and the town preacher (Lithgow in the film) emerge as fuller, more complex characters. The female characters in particular show a vast improvement, with the preacher's wife and Ren's mother holding an ongoing dialogue about how to support their men without being doormats. The musical also features a sight unseen in the movie -- black people! Although some songs are sadly missing (Shalamar's "Dancing in the Sheets"), most are vastly improved by the removal of '80s synth-funk bleeps, power ballad guitars, and Kenny Loggins' voice. And the musical's choreography thankfully does not resurrect the outstretched-fingers-in-front-of-eyes Bananarama dance moves of 1984.
Most importantly, the musical is fun. Gone is the earnestness of the movie's kids-versus-big-bad-adults narrative. Kevin Bacon's teen angst is nixed for a straightforward love story. The film's Serious Issues of censorship and American Puritanism are presented through catchy tunes instead of the movie's pretentious, dramatic shouting matches. The only thing I missed was Chris Penn, who the movie showcases in his pre-metabolic-slowdown humpaliciousness.
If you like frothy, catchy, lighthearted family fun, go to Footloose. It was a roaring, hand-clapping, standing-ovation crowd-pleaser the night I attended. More importantly, if you have a taste for '80s cult movies and/or the bizarre evolution of that quintessential American art form -- the musical -- it's definitely worth checking out.
The movie Footloose threw out the songs to be a hit; the Broadway musical Footloose throws out the movie's seriousness to succeed. As one teenaged boy sitting in front of us carped to a friend, disgusted by some stuffy theater patrons, "It's Footloose, people -- lighten up!"