Why do musicals still fascinate us?

Appearing more than 100 years ago in the United States, musicals were first reserved for theaters. From talkies, they have benefited from the democratization of the big screen. From the boards to the seventh arts through literature and series, music has been exported to several continents and influenced all areas of culture.

A real artistic boom which, although at times (very) relatively successful, has been going on for decades and is currently apparently undergoing a new expansion. From west side story (1957) to starmania (2022), from its cradle across the Atlantic to a French production, the musical now embarks on a reconquest of theater and cinema, while diversifying through series. A timeless restart that questions the reasons why this genre never ceases to fascinate.

Unique narrative and artistic expression

Why are musicals so popular? It’s a question that can make you smile, but the reasons for attraction to musicals sometimes go deeper, especially when it comes to narrative. Of course, today’s public loves musicals for their lightness and fantasy. The audience is dropped into another world where the characters sing at the top of their lungs and dance wildly. A way to escape everyday life, travel in the universe between dream and reality, but also a new way of expressing emotions for artists.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone enter La La Land by Damien Chazelle. © Peak Entertainment

Dance and song are vectors of artistic expression. They are used metaphorically, like parallel universes where neither character can resist the irresistible urge to push the song to reveal its invasion of feelings. The abundance of colors, the precision of the choreography, the craziness of the sets… Everything is there to represent the outpouring of emotions experienced by the characters.

A cathartic aspect emerges, proof that musicals have not forgotten their theatrical origins. These mechanics are critical to the genre, as they allow stories to be told and move them forward. What is spectacular lies not so much in the complex scenarios as in the total fulfillment during the big music and dance scenes, which don’t mark breaks in the story, but bring it to life in other ways. We see it for example in movies La La Land (2016) by Damien Chazelle in which Mia’s (Emma Stone) and Sebastian’s (Ryan Gosling) faucet number marks their romantic rapprochement.

When classic meets contemporary

Musicals often deal with themes of love or hate, a subject that originally belonged to both classical theater and tragedy. However, this genre blows the wind of modernity. If romantic lyrics are still around, this genre is also moving away from classical codes to evoke its contemporary era. In the 1930s, a favorite theme became self-fulfillment, often through success, especially in the arts and entertainment professions.

Cabaret currently served on Lido 2 Paris. © Lido 2 Paris

In the 1950s, while the genre was still confined to the United States or England, Hollywood became a favorite subject, while from the 1960s there has been a marked shift towards social considerations. west side story tackle New York gang rivalry, Happiness melody (1965) totalitarianism and Cabaret (1966) played against the backdrop of Revival IIIe Germany. So many examples show musical commitment.

This process tends to arise from the falsehood in which music critics classify genres arbitrarily. Even since the 1970s, when it was slowly losing popularity, film production was like that Rocky Horror Picture Show (1973) and Blue Brother (1980) used popular music to make anti-conservative and progressive themes (sex, identity, drugs, religious contradictions, etc.) more accessible.

The French exception faces Broadway

Moreover, it was through this prism that France produced its first musical in 1973, adapting the events of the French Revolution in rock opera form. A far cry from the rhinestones and spangles of the Broadway mythical street — which she could never fully reproduce unless she exported them somehow Lion King at the Mogador Theater or producer by Alexis Michalik – French stage production with the stamp of French cultural exclusion.

Thomas Jolly took over musical direction starmania in 2022. © La Seine Musicale

This is how a dystopian-like musical was born starmania (1978) directed by Michel Berger and Luc Plamondon, Poor (1985) adapted from Victor Hugo’s work, Paul and Virginia (1992), but also Notre Dame of Paris (1998). The latter had a bomb effect as the success of the piece composed by Luc Plamondon with Richard Cocciante resonated.

However, if France managed to force itself against Broadway thanks to its history-inspired particularism and literary classics, the 2000s would have brought with it its share of passé and failure. From Ali Baba’s Arabian Night (2000) to Cindy (2002) – a futuristic version of Cinderella from the suburbs – success just doesn’t exist anymore. Just maybe Romeo and Juliet, from love to hate (2001), Sun King (2005) or Mozart, rock opera (2009) occasionally managed to build enough fame and mark today’s pop culture, returning to the stage under the direction of Thomas Jolly of starmania (2022).

Pop culture weight

The longevity of musicals goes hand in hand with their importance in pop culture and begins with cult songs. If Broadway and Hollywood have known so much about staying on track, it is thanks to the aura that the symbolic works composed by today’s greatest theatrical lyricists have.

Musical comedy Hamilton landed on the Disney+ platform after years on the stage. ©Disney+

The glorious era of musical comedy was also the heyday of Stephen Sondheim (West Side Stories, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods), Leonard Bernstein (west side story), or Irving Berlin (Happiness melody, white christmas), whose heirs include Andrew Lloyd Webber (Opera Ghost), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), Stephen Schwartz (Wicked) or the late Jonathan Larson (rent) continues the tradition today. Luc Plamondon is perhaps, on the Francophonie side, our standard bearer. Whatever it is, whatever it isAmericafrom Cathedral timefrom the king of the worldor maybe Rain on My Paradea number of compositions have marked the history of the genre and wider pop culture.

Moreover, pop culture itself has become a source of musical inspiration. Proof with Mama Mia! (1999) which raised ABBA’s hits, Billy Elliot (2000) written by Elton John, but also with We’re gonna rock you (2002) based on Queen songs. Danny Boyle also plans to adapt the franchise Matrix (1999) on stage in an immersive performance, while in France, Hatred (1995) would soon get its own hip-hop sound.

Musical today

Musical trailers Mama Mia! staged in London. © London Official Theatre

The influence of pop culture has been significant in the new craze that musicals are enjoying today. While the genre has never left the board or the big screen, its offerings have become increasingly consistent. Through sound, costumes, or sets, the show intentionally fosters a certain nostalgia, often drawn from the 1950s and 1960s.

We see it in original creations like La La Land, but also with the return of symbolic drama to the theater or cinema. That’s why we thought of a remake of west side story (2021) by Steven Spielberg, as well cute girl. Staged in 1964 with Barbra Streisand, this production is now enjoying new life thanks to Lea Michele. Where do we come from (2005) written by Lin-Manuel Miranda received its first film adaptation in 2021, while Cabaret experience a new life on the board of Lido 2 Paris.

Musicals are no longer just a genre that belongs to theaters and cinema, they have also invested series thanks to musical episodes. We can see this in the episode “Suits” of the series How I met your mother (2010) or more recently in Umbrella Academy. Moreover, the idealization of musical comedy by fictional characters has become the spring of scenarios in television shows. This is the case in Song (2009-2015), through Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), but also in the series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-2019) with Titus.

Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) appears Don’t Rain on My Parade in series Song. © 20th Century Fox Television

Therefore, we are witnessing a real return to this genre. While this doesn’t guarantee immediate success, it does Cat in 2019 – a wreck that will surely remain in pop culture history – the freshness with which today’s theaters, cinemas, and even music series contribute to making them captivating objects of entertainment. Its fantasy, its narrative purpose, but also its occasional political purpose have helped foster over the decades the public’s inexhaustible love for the genre. The mysticism of Broadway, the ambivalence between theatrical tradition and the modernity of the scene or even nostalgia… All these aspects ultimately contribute to building up an almost enduring appeal.

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