As cinemas have reopened around the world throughout 2021, the big question on everyone’s minds has been how attendance habits will have changed since before the initial shutdowns in March 2020. Since then, a lot of big movies having shorter theatrical windows or even going straight to streaming entirely has become the norm for films in many genres. It seems like the only genre that is consistently bringing in the big bucks at the box office is that of comic book movies, but studios are still hoping other projects will be able to break out and become hits in their own right.
One genre, in particular, that seemed poised to have some potential box office hits on its hands this year was the movie musical. Three stage-to-screen adaptations of Broadway musicals all hit cinemas this year, including In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, and West Side Story. While Dear Evan Hansen became an instant meme thanks to the casting of its too-old original Broadway lead Ben Platt in the title role, prospects looked good for the other two. Both had been planned for 2020 releases and seemed poised to do pretty well, but somewhere along the line the hype died away and neither ended up having the success the studios hoped for. Even an animated Disney musical with songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda in Encanto couldn’t draw in a very big theatrical audience.
So, is the movie musical’s day on the big screen dead? It’s not exactly looking great. These films — especially ones based on well-known Broadway shows — are less likely to get people worried about “spoilers” as the major blockbusters, and therefore there’s less pressure for audiences to see them as soon as they come out. Even for a lot of the biggest musical fans, the soundtracks can “get them by” until they can see the movie at a time and place that’s convenient for them.
For movie musicals to do well theatrically as of late (we’re talking before the pandemic) they needed to have some major star power, like Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land or Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, and Zac Efron in The Greatest Showman. And, of course, some level of quality is always key as well, as evidenced by the spectacular failure of Cats. But star power doesn’t seem to mean as much in the pandemic era, as evidenced by the recent underperformances of star-studded movies across a variety of genres.
Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like the movie musical’s cultural impact is going away anytime soon, even if its big-screen prospects are. What’s interesting about Encanto is that now that it’s hit Disney+, there’s suddenly more buzz surrounding the film. The same goes for the straight-to-streaming movie musical Tick, Tick… Boom! (funnily enough, was directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda) which was released on Netflix in November and has generated way more audience and awards buzz than any of the live-action theatrical musical films of 2021. Given the shorter theatrical-to-streaming wait periods for movies nowadays, enough people are waiting out movies where many of them are given a significant second life and relevance once they debut on a streaming service, just like several of the professional stage musicals such as Hamilton.
So for now, it looks like the movie musical’s relevance lives on streaming services. However, a lot of the bigger budget ones need successful theatrical runs in order to be profitable (and the “spectacle” side of the genre to be sustainable). Theatre fans may turn up their noses at the casting of Ariana Grande in Wicked, but it might be a necessary compromise in order to keep big-budget musicals — and the glitz and spectacle that comes with it — alive in a post-pandemic world.