Will Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story Reignite Love for Movie Musicals?

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The musical genre has made a remarkable recovery in the 21st century. Once relegated to one of the “relics” of pop cultures past, and often put in the same neglected box as Westerns and biblical epics, genuine toe-tappers that were both original and based on Broadway shows surged to new popularity in the 2000s and 2010s. This began with the one-two punch of Baz Luhrmann’s decadent Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Rob Marshall’s more traditional Oscar winner Chicago (2002). Yet fans of the revived art-form should be watching how Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is received this December very carefully.

Judging by the new trailer for the holiday epic, Spielberg and 20th Century Studios think they have a blockbuster on their hands. Relying on much of the same visual iconography as seen in Robert Wise’s original West Side Story adaptation from 60 years ago, Spielberg is leaning into the nostalgia older generations likely have for this classic tale of love, tragedy, and Romeo and Juliet melodrama in mid-20th century Manhattan. The West Side Story trailer is also leaning, perhaps more than the original Hollywood version, into the racial tensions and bigotries that felt so timely in 1961, and sadly feel as vital as ever today—particularly after anti-immigrant xenophobia surged back into the mainstream beginning with the 2015 Republican Party primaries.

As with many of Spielberg’s recent dramas, West Side Story is in conversation with his audiences’ collective conscience and America’s living past. Yet he’s also having to do something which few probably expected when the studio formerly known as 20th Century Fox greenlit this movie: reassure studios that musicals remain a popular genre.

Despite nearly every awards season for two decades featuring producers who claimed they were astonished that a musical could be nominated for an Oscar, the musical has been relatively healthy since the aforementioned Oscar races of 2001 and 2002. Both Moulin Rouge! and Chicago were critical and box office darlings, and both led to a renewed interest in the genre after Baby Boomers had largely abandoned it in the 1970s. With notable exceptions, the ‘70s through ‘90s were a desert for Hollywood musicals. One might even wonder if that’s why Spielberg, a director in the prime of his commercial filmmaking prowess during those years, never attempted a musical then.

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In any event, the genre has thrived with new audiences among Millennials who grew up on animated showtunes in the Disney Renaissance, as we ll as among the even younger Generation Z. Only five years ago, the completely original La La Land was a critical and box office hit, grossing nearly $450 million worldwide and winning Oscars for Best Director, Actress, and almost Best Picture. And while Hugh Jackman’s also wholly original The Greatest Showman failed to generate similar critical or awards appreciation, the movie found an even larger, more enthusiastic domestic audience among young Americans who returned week after week to the cinema for months, taking that movie to $174 million in North America (compared to La La Land’s $151 million) and $437 million overall.

Yet in recent years, Hollywood prognosticators have too enthusiastically started opining if the genre is in trouble. Universal Pictures thought they had a sure thing with Cats, an all-star slice of Oscar bait from the director of the Oscar winning Les Misérables, which also netted Universal $442 million at the global box office back in 2012-2013. Of course Cats turned out to be awful and a social media punchline. So that really shouldn’t be indicative of anything.

More recently, however, the critically adored and genuinely fantastic In the Heights sank at the box office last June, grossing a grim $43.9 million worldwide off of a purported $55 million budget. Granted, In the Heights also endured a hybrid release on HBO Max the same day it entered theaters, and the last six months have demonstrably shown such rollouts kneecap even Marvel movies’ box office earning powers. In the Heights also featured vocal criticism on social media, leading to the composer and lyricist of the musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda, to apologize to folks who felt offended that the first all-Latinx and Black cast of a Hollywood blockbuster favored lighter skin-toned actors.

Meanwhile, this month will see the anticipated release of Dear Evan Hansen, one of the biggest Broadway behemoths of the last five years. But while it remains to be seen how audiences receive the movie, the picture has already earned a highly divisive and derisive critical reaction out of the TIFF, including in our own review. But then again, composers and songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul also earned some negative notices from critics on The Greatest Showman, which still went on to become a genuine pop culture phenomenon.

However, if Dear Evan Hansen doesn’t repeat a similar groundswell of support among moviegoing audiences—even on a pandemic curve—then some industry watchers are already bemoaning if the musical genre is again losing its luster.

To be clear, there are specific extenuating circumstances in all three of these major Hollywood studio productions, with only one being warmly embraced by critics and the audiences who did show up (while also enduring a day and  date release during the pandemic), and another only having been snickered at by the relatively insulated world of film festival attendees. And recall that one of the biggest streaming phenomenons of 2020 was when Disney+ released a Hamilton film, which was actually the editing together of several live performances of that show’s original cast in 2016.

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Ultimately, it would be unfair to judge the current popularity of a whole genre based on a handful of movies, including West Side Story. Still, making a major movie musical is not cheap, and Hollywood studio executives considering whether to invest another $150 million in the making and marketing of, say, a Wicked movie or something with no built-in fanbase from Broadway, might be looking very closely to see if Spielberg can make audiences feel pretty and witty again.

West Side Story opens exclusively in theaters on Dec. 10, 2021.

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