Why Is Hollywood Pretending Musicals Don’t Exist

 

Clockwise from top: Reneé Rapp in Mean Girls, Timothée Chalamet in Wonka, Fantasia Barrino in The Color Purple, and Margot Robbie in Barbie. Jojo Whilden; Jaap Buittendijk; Warner Bros.; Warner Bros.

The first trailer for Paramount’s Mean Girls, based on the Broadway musical based on the 2004 film, used every trick in the book to hide the fact that it hinges on buoyant, theatrical song and dance numbers. The trailer was soundtracked by Olivia Rodrigo’s “Get Him Back,” a song that isn’t in the final film. It was almost as if Paramount didn’t want audience to know that Mean Girls is—gasp!—a musical. 

But why? Historically, musicals have been sizable hits at the Hollywood box office, dating back to 1927’s The Jazz Singer. Disney’s animated musicals are among the highest-grossing musical films of all time, a list that is topped by The Lion King and Frozen II. Movies like Mamma Mia!, Pitch Perfect, and La La Land have been massive, award-winning hits, not to mention fan favorites. These days, however, movie studios seem afraid to promote their potential blockbusters as musicals at all. From Wonka to The Color Purple, trailers and marketing materials have recently ignored the original songs and whimsical choreography, instead cutting together scenes that pretend it’s just a regular old movie. 

Avantika, Renee Rapp, Angourie Rice and Bebe Wood on the set of Mean Girls. Jojo Whilden

Marc Weinstock, president of global marketing and distribution at Paramount, told Variety this week that “to start off saying musical, musical, musical, you have the potential to turn off audiences.” “We didn’t want to run out and say it’s a musical because people tend to treat musicals differently,” he said. “This movie is a broad comedy with music. Yes, it could be considered a musical but it appeals to a larger audience. You can see in [trailers for] Wonka and The Color Purple, they don’t say musical either. We have a musical note on the title, so there are hints to it without being overbearing.”

As clever it is to put a musical note in the title, this assertion ignores the fact that moviegoers—and humans in general—like songs. Greta Gerwig’s runaway success Barbie features Broadway-ready song and dance numbers and is widely assumed to take home the Oscar for Best Original Song for one of three possible tracks. In fact, Marc Ronson, who wrote much of the film’s music, recently said he’s “waiting for the call” to make Barbie into a stage show. “Greta basically made a musical that’s without calling it a musical,” Ronson added, raising the question of whether that was Gerwig’s decision or that of Warner Bros.  

Taraji P. Henson in The Color Purple. Ser Baffo

It’s easy to see where the fear comes from. Many recent movie musicals, from Cats to Dear Evan Hanson to Cyrano, were misfires, both critically and at the box office. But despite some strong vocal performances, these examples were poorly made and ill-translated to the screen. There’s a big difference between Rob Marshall’s Chicago, which won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and grossed more than $306 million worldwide, and Cats, one of the worst movie ever made. One is good, musical or not, and one is so embarrassing its cast probably hopes it will never be mentioned again (sorry). 

In 2018, The Greatest Showman became one of the most successful box office hits of all time without ever shying away from its dynamic performance sequences (and in spite of poor reviews). The musical was a slow build in theaters, Twentieth Century Fox used the songs to its advantage to generate momentum. The studio, now part of Disney, famously paid influencers to cover songs from the movie, something Paramount could have done now with TikTok if it wasn’t trying to hide the fact that the Mean Girls characters sing for most of the movie. 

Surely it’s not happenstance that Wonka and Mean Girls have succeeded during their theatrical runs so far. Mean Girls took in $28 million in its first three days, bringing it to No. 1. It may be a mediocre movie that mostly serves as a vehicle to showcase the talents of Reneé Rapp and Auli?i Cravalho but it has people talking and audiences going to the theater. (Rapp, who put out her first album last year and led the Mean Girls soundtrack with a Megan Thee Stallion collaboration, is the musical guest on Saturday Night Live this weekend.) Have any of those audience members felt tricked once they sat down? Maybe, but it’s doubtful that Paramount’s cagey marketing strategy got people in seats who wouldn’t already be interested in a Mean Girls revival. 

According to Paramount’s own data, 75 percent of audiences knew it was a musical before buying a ticket, while only 16 percent left the theater “disappointed” by the revelation. On social media, some fans even expressed frustration that Paramount refused to bill Mean Girls for what it is. The trailer was purposefully misleading, they claimed, which is basically false advising. What is the point of doing a movie musical if it is too risky to market it as a movie musical,” one fan wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “The deception for people who do not follow musical theatre is not cool.”

But the post-Covid musical slump does seem to be coming to an end, whether or not studios want to admit that people actually enjoy fun songs. John Chu’s Wicked, which stars Ariana Grande, is on the way in two parts and there’s no way Universal will be able to disguise its origin as a hit Broadway show. Todd Phillips’ highly-anticipated sequel Joker: Folie à Deux, out in October, is being billed as a “musical thriller.” It features pop star Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn opposite Joaquin Phoenix’s titular villain. Even Paramount has another one upcoming: Bob Marley: One Love, about the life and career of the reggae musician. 

Paul Dergarabedian, the senior media analyst for Comscore, recently told Billboard that, in fact, “musicals are on a roll. “It seems like a lot of studios run away from putting musical on their films for fear of limiting their audience pool,” he noted. “But I think this is a genre Hollywood should embrace and highlight.”

 

Why Is Hollywood Pretending Musicals Don’t Exist—Until They Win the Box Office?


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