One Through the Heart

What happened to the Hollywood musical?
by Leah Churner  posted June 20, 2011
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

On any given night, you can see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1980s middlebrow masterpiece The Phantom of the Opera, adapted from a novel and Universal horror film, in its original iteration at its original New York home, the Majestic Theatre on 44th Street, where it has run for 23 years. Or you can glide on a gondola through a shopping mall lit in perpetual twilight on your way to Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular at the Venetian Hotel and Casino. You can finally catch Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (better go soon), or the rare original musical (before it is adapted into a movie, before someone from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gets elected president) The Book of Mormon, which just swept the Tony Awards. Or you can save your money, stay home, and subject yourself to The Glee Project, Oxygen’s reality-competition spinoff of Fox’s sitcom Glee, itself a grownup update of the Disney Channel’s long-running children’s show Kids Incorporated.

If the musical seems lost in a maze of derivatives right now, it may be reassuring to consider that in some ways this has always been the case; whereas today Broadway pillages Hollywood, in the '50s and '60s it was the other way around. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hollywood antitrust case of 1948, which busted up the Hollywood studios’ vertically integrated system of writing, producing, distributing, and exhibiting films, those companies were forced to scale back operations and personnel, leading to a decline in original musical properties and a surge of Rodgers and Hammerstein. These adaptations—produced in prestigious widescreen-stereo systems like Todd-AO and Cinemascope and exhibited in special venues with reserved seating—were among Hollywood’s primary weapons for battling audience attrition due to television.

Later, Hollywood began to draw musical material directly from the small screen. The Blues Brothers (1980) was the first Saturday Night Live skit parlayed into a feature film. In 1981, MGM adapted Dennis Potter’s BBC series Pennies From Heaven into a film, written by Potter, directed by Herbert Ross, and starring (frequent SNL guest host) Steve Martin. Then MTV would mold a whole new art form, the feature-length music video, typified by the Prince film Purple Rain (1984) and David Byrne’s True Stories (1986). At this point, it appears that the musical has permanently crossed the barrier from big screen to small. I imagine the creators of the '50s 70mm spectaculars Oklahoma!, The King and I, and South Pacific would be surprised that it’s taken so long.

The Hollywood musical has gradually declined in popularity since 1965, when The Sound of Music beat out Gone With the Wind as the most profitable movie of all time. So what caused the musical to vacate the big screen and land in its present exile on Broadway, sitcoms, and reality TV? Certainly the situation is much more complex than the oft-given answer that, in the '60s, audiences grew too “wise” to accept the utterly unrealistic circumstance of characters suddenly bursting out in song. (Many subsequently successful films were unrealistic, not least of all the film that beat the The Sound of Music’s box office record, Star Wars.) In fact, the musical declined in three stages: first, an evident audience backlash after The Sound of Music; second, a string of commercially unsuccessful New Hollywood “meta-musicals” in the '70s (the subject of an ongoing series at Anthology Film Archives, which I programmed); and third, the aforementioned music video rendering the movie musical redundant.

Late-'60s efforts to replicate the success of The Sound of Music were disastrous. By 1967, as Mark Harris writes in his 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution, “blind belief in the future of the movie musical reached an apex of irrational exuberance,” especially at 20th Century Fox, which released three consecutive bombs resulting in combined losses of $100 million for the company, Doctor Dolittle (1967), Star! (1968), and Hello, Dolly! (1969). Compared to The Sound of Music’s $8 million budget, Dolittle, plagued by bad weather and animal-related injuries, ultimately cost $18 million, plus another $11 million spent on its Oscar campaign. Fox boss Daryl Zanuck fired his son Richard from his post as head of production in 1970. “What did me in was those big musicals,” Zanuck said, “that more than counterbalanced the great success of all the other pictures that I did.” To Harris, Dolittle is the ultimate symbol of the old regime that would be summarily smashed by the “New Hollywood.”

Peter Bart, in his new memoir Infamous Players, presents a similar analysis of the 1969 musical Paint Your Wagon. Bart became a studio executive at Paramount the year Dolittle was released. In 1966, the conglomerate Gulf + Western had purchased Paramount at the behest of its chairman, the German-born stock-market mogul Charles Bluhdorn. According to Bart, Bluhdorn was “a sucker for Hollywood glitz” who thought musicals were “box office gold, even though the studio that invented them, MGM, had effectively gone out of business by the time he bought Paramount.” As owner of the studio’s parent company, he liked to see himself in a producer’s role, charging ahead with Paint Your Wagon against the warnings of Bart and production head Robert Evans. He assembled a creative teem including lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, director Joshua Logan (South Pacific), and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. Adapting Wagon from Broadway, Chayefsky gave the musical a new storyline in which Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood enter into a polygamous marriage with Jean Seberg. Seems brilliant now, but at the time the production code required that the film be restricted to “mature audiences” only, “a rare position among musicals,” as Bart points out. The rating was a severe box-office handicap, especially in light of just how unpopular musicals (and westerns) were among “mature audiences” in 1969. Paint Your Wagon remains one of the most notorious flops of all time; Paramount and Bluhdorn subsequently steered clear of musicals, except for The Little Prince (1974), a musical adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book co-written by Lerner and directed by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain). After that also failed commercially, both Lerner and Donen faded from Hollywood.

The following decade was even more inhospitable to the Hollywood musical—even those created by hot young directors in touch with the zeitgeist. In fact, when we examine the most repercussive financial flubs of the big New Hollywood directors in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, a pattern of musicals emerges: Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz (1978), Robert Altman’s Popeye, and Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart (1981). Each of these filmmakers had previously tasted major critical and commercial success, but musicals brought them down—to professional (and often personal) rock bottom. The much-publicized, ever-escalating budgets of these films magnified their flaws. Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love cost $6 million. Scorsese’s New York, New York was in the ballpark of $15 million. The Wiz, $24 million. Altman’s Popeye, $20 million. Coppola’s One From the Heart cost $27 million. All commercial fiascos. (Only Brian De Palma was spared the curse of the musical backlash. When he made his 1974 musical Phantom of the Paradise, he hadn’t yet directed a hit movie, so he only had about $1 million to spend. Phantom didn’t make money, but the stakes were so low, he came away relatively unscathed.) Scorsese recalls, “I was very angry after New York, New York, especially about being treated like I got a comeuppance—for what?”

While Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz was an explicitly autobiographical account of his own personal demons, several of the other aforementioned musicals have equally wrenching backstories, luridly catalogued in Peter Biskind’s 1998 tome Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Bogdanovich, shortly after ending his marriage and creative collaboration with production designer Polly Platt, curried disfavor by casting his girlfriend, Cybill Shepherd, in a singing-dancing role in At Long Last Love. After the film was released, the director says, “it was treated as if we’d committed one of the most heinous crimes ever, including child-murdering and rape.”

Scorsese’s life fell apart while New York, New York was in production. So closely did his personal circumstances mirror those of Robert De Niro in the film—from his dissolving marriage to Julia Cameron to his growing drug problem to his romance with Liza Minnelli—he started referring to it as his “$10 million home movie.” Alas, the production ultimately cost much more.

If a less debauched production, The Wiz was a tremendously consequential financial failure: the film was largely blamed for the demise of black-cast American movies in the ‘70s. However, as Spike Lee noted in a 1991 Playboy interview, it was the audiences who were held responsible:

People said, “Black people don’t support these films. Let’s stop making black films.’ The blame was never put on Sidney Lumet, or on the casting of Diana Ross. That is not to disrespect any of them, but the blame was put solely on “black people who failed to support this film.” Whereas, if a white film doesn’t work, it would be the director or whoever.

On the set of Popeye, a co-production of Paramount and Disney, Altman’s worsening alcoholism was overshadowed by the well-publicized exploits of Robert Evans, which the producer jocularly recounts today: “Popeye was the first time the Walt Disney Company opened their arms to an outside partner, and I was arrested for cocaine!” Evans flew to the shooting location, Malta, with “pounds” of cocaine in his checked luggage, to distribute to the film crew, and the airline “lost his bags.” Henry Kissinger allegedly pulled strings to get the charge reduced to a misdemeanor. To Disney’s horror, Evans pled guilty while the film was still in post-production. With Walt’s name on the picture, Popeye was the only film in this group to turn a profit, but Altman’s career never recovered, and he was forced to sell Lion’s Gate, his production company.

Popeye is to Altman as Skidoo is to Otto Preminger, and they have a composer in common, Harry Nilsson, whose songs for the Disney film included such specimens as “Everything Is Food.” It is easily the strangest musical in this group. In 1975 Altman had claimed, rightly, that Nashville was hard to market because it “didn’t have a shark” (released the same year as Jaws). But after Popeye’s release, he may have been less justified in complaining that “the picture got an odor because it wasn’t Superman.Popeye was not a passion project like Nashville (it actually had a giant squid), and because it was based on a comic-strip character. But in a way Altman’s statement rings true; though similarly based on a franchise, it does not seem to be an earnest commercial effort like Superman. Perhaps because I’m pro-Altman, I read Popeye as deliberately bad, sarcastically wrought, as if Altman and Evans were deliberately trying to sabotage the Disney brand in guerrilla fashion. (And one wonders, in light of the Evans-Coppola beef, whether or not the Bluto-Coppola resemblance is sheer coincidence.)

The first and last megaproduction of Coppola’s studio, Zoetrope, was One From the Heart. Coppola wanted to make a new movie in the style of the classic studio system, with his own sound stages, contract actors, crews, and high-tech equipment. Vast sets of the Las Vegas Strip and McCarran Airport were built including replicas of all the iconic neon and a real jet. Gene Kelly consulted on the choreography for hundreds of dancing extras. But the money ran out. After taking complete financial responsibility for the film, Coppola found himself $50 million in debt. He filed for bankruptcy shortly after Columbia released the film and had to shut down Zoetrope.

Infamous from gossip and commercially unsuccessful as they may be, nearly all of these musicals deserve further consideration as deconstructions of the musical genre. With a typical '70s downbeat attitude, they explore the dark side of show business (Phantom of the Paradise, All That Jazz, New York, New York, and Herbert Ross’s Pennies From Heaven) and experiment with what might be called “vocal realism.” In contrast to stars of the “golden age” musicals, most young actors in the ’70s had no background training in singing or dancing. This was true for the cast of At Long Last Love. Emphasizing this, Bogdanovich had his actors record the film’s bevy of Cole Porter songs live on set, a practice that had been discontinued in Hollywood in the 1930s, as soon as post-production dubbing became technologically feasible. Altman did the same on Nashville; his actors not only performed live, they wrote their own songs, to impressive results. In contrast to the karaoke style of those two films, no one sings in the haunting, Depression-set, neo-Brechtian stunner Pennies From Heaven. The actors (Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken) overtly mime to classic recordings of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Phyllis Robbins.

In New York, New York, much of the dialogue was improvised. Within the context of a “traditional” musical, De Niro’s naturalistic, unaffected speech takes on a surreal quality, especially in contrast to his singing voice, clearly dubbed by another actor. Coppola had yet another innovative idea for vocals on One From the Heart. The movie couple Teri Garr and Frederic Forrest do not sing; instead, their emotions are articulated with non-diegetic music on the soundtrack, in the form of running commentary by Crystal Gayle and Tom Waits. The concept evolves as the film progresses; Forrest’s fantasy lover, Nastassja Kinski, sings songs to Forrest, and he, in turn, finds his voice, in a touching serenade to Garr.

Finally, in Phantom of the Paradise, voices are tokens for bargaining with the devil: bought, stolen, and electronically manipulated in a nightmare version of Auto-Tune. Swan, an evil record producer, steals composer Winslow Leach’s cantata, twists it into crass surf pop and glam rock, frames Winslow for a crime, ensures that his teeth are extracted at Sing Sing, and further tortures the artist until he is locked in a studio, disfigured, dressed in a birdlike costume, and bionically hooked up to a Moog, his voice running through a modulator that replaces it with Swan’s voice. (In a spooky coincidence with Webber’s Phantom, most of the interiors in De Palma’s film were shot in a Dallas theater called The Majestic.)

De Palma’s rock musical, along with Allan Arkush’s Rockn’ Roll High School (1979) were given spotty releases and fell flat commercially. However, like The Wiz, the three films set a precedent. De Palma’s film featured pop-songsmith and recording artist Paul Williams, High School, of course, The Ramones, and The Wiz, Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Likewise, the most successful musical of the decade, Grease, also released in 1978, featured Eurovision Song Contest finalist Olivia Newton-John.

As the director-centric cinema of the ’70s gave way to the producer-centric ’80s, pop stars would become the new auteurs. Musicals would start to look more like Rockn’ Roll High School, from band movies like Purple Rain and True Stories, to the most popular musical of the decade, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, starring Dolly Parton, to the musician-packed Xanadu, Blues Brothers, Songwriter, Labyrinth, and Beat Street. Note that Grease 2, minus Newton-John and plus Michelle Pfeiffer, was a total washout.

While Scorsese, Bogdanovich, and Coppola looked back to the “golden age” musicals at MGM and RKO for inspiration, the next generation of musicals would rediscover a different type of nostalgia: Hollywood’s long tradition of recording-star vehicles, from the films of Bing Crosby and Dean Martin to A Hard Day’s Night and Jailhouse Rock. Of the New Hollywood directors, only those who managed to adapt to the MTV era pulled through: Scorsese directed Michael Jackson’s “Bad” in 1987. De Palma inserted a video for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax” in Body Double. If video killed the Hollywood musical, it certainly had help from the bloated budgets of the '60s and '70s. But that’s old news—it’s time to give the late musical an encore.  


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

MGM Home Entertainment
Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro in New York, New York, directed by Martin Scorsese
Photo Gallery: One Through the Heart


June 17–26, 2011 Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s and 1980s, Part 1: The 1970s


Hollywood  |  musicals  |  studio system  |  Theater  |  New Hollywood


Leah Churner is a film/video archivist and curator. She curated the series "Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s and 1980s" at Anthology Film Archives.

More articles by Leah Churner