The 1960’s and Les Miserables – The Rise and Fall of the Hollywood Musical

On Christmas Day this year I went to see Les Miserables. Knowing full well that it’s one of those films that it’s futile to write a review for, all I could really say was that I enjoyed it and everyone who enjoyed the stage show seems to have enjoyed it as well. What interests me more than the film itself is the fact that every once in a while there is a big “event” musical coming out of Hollywood (Sweeney Todd (2007), Chicago (2002), Evita (1996) come to mind), but little else as to serious film productions of popular musicals.  While this may seem like the normal state of affairs, for most of the history of film, at least since the late 1920’s, musicals have made up a large proportion of the most popular Hollywood productions.

Take the 1960’s for an example.  Four of the ten movies that won best picture in the 1960’s were musicals.  While these are not the most important movies released from that period, they remain some of the most popular.  If you look at the list of highest grossing films between 1927 and 1970, musicals make up a large percentage.

The question becomes – so what happened?

It is a well known historical fact that a large number of talented performers from Broadway started moving out west to California after the first major “talkie” success, 1927’s “The Jazz Singer.”  Hollywood saw an opportunity in showcasing the best talents of the stage on the screen.  While people could listen to these performers on the radio, or if they were fortunate enough on Gramophones, they could not see them perform on a regular basis unless the show happened to come to town or they were to take a trip to New York.  Likewise, many musicals, such as “White Christmas” (1954) were developed solely for the screen (although that particular film has been turned into a successful musical).

Starting in the 1960’s, the influence of several important film “realism” movements started to impact Hollywood.  At the same time, Broadway was declining as the generator of popular music in the United States.  It is not a coincidence that the last Broadway style film musical to earn the most money for a year was 1965’s “The Sound of Music,” and that show-tunes started disappearing from the top of the music charts during the same period.

I would posit that if the story of popular entertainment in the first half of the twentieth century was the story of the integration of song and film the story since the 1960’s has been the decoupling of popular music from most other forms of entertainment.  While a popular song may appear on a film’s soundtrack or in a popular television show, the songs are no longer integrated into the plots of these other artforms.

This has a lot to do with the way we consume music, which may be the most widely available form of art in the world.  We no longer expect music to be necessarily associated with anything other than the music itself.  Likewise, we expect a certain level of realism in our films (with some notable exceptions of course, especially comedies), and musicals are the antethesis of realism.  This concept has even crept into the medium of animation, where popular movies from Pixar and Dreamworks are no longer musicals like Disney animation films were well into the late 1990’s.  While musicals still obviously maintain an important place in our popular culture, their form is no longer preferred as we now like our music to be able to stand on its own and our movies to have a certain level of believability that musicals by their very nature cannot provide.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe


By D.G. McCabe

I write fantasy/science fiction, plays, and commentary on popular culture.