Ryan Chartrand

When journalism junior Megan Jeffrey talks about musical theater, her normal life no longer exists. Her eyes grow large as she describes her first viewing of her all-time favorite, “The Phantom of the Opera.”

As a member of student choir PolyPhonics, Jeffrey understands why people love performing and watching musicals.

“Music and song is an expression of the spirit, and it’s human because it vibrates in the throat,” she said. “You use the body to express a larger-than-life emotion. I love to sing songs that take me away from myself, make me feel exhilarated and glad to be alive.”

That intuitive love of melody has drawn people to musicals for more than a hundred years, and movie musicals are becoming mainstream again in today’s popular culture. Decades after the “golden age” of live-action movie musicals, they are being produced at a consistent rate as many have proven to be critically and/or commercially successful endeavors.

The large gap in the production of movie musicals, as well as the resurgence of movie and stage musicals, reflects the state of music and Hollywood over the years, Cal Poly theatre professor Philip Valle said.

Valle has been involved in almost every facet of musical theater production. In addition to being a professor, he teaches actors how to audition for Hollywood and works in the film industry; he’s also a playwright, composer, lyricist, performer and director.

While musicals were often nominated for Academy Awards during the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, no live-action musical was nominated between 1979’s “All that Jazz” and 2001’s “Moulin Rouge.”

Four musicals were nominated for the 2008 Oscars: “Sweeney Todd,” “Enchanted,” “Across the Universe” and “Once.”

“The ’80s and ’90s were not a great time for music,” Valle said in explanation of the gap in movie musical production. “The late ’90s and this decade are a reawakening for the music industry. The iPod has changed landscape of our whole concept of music. Peoples’ lives are more musical now. Imagine what it was like pre-headphone . Now, everyone is so accustomed to having music with them all the time, streaming into their heads, literally. Our lives are just more musical in general.”

He also said Hollywood had a hiatus in terms of inspiration during that period, which contributed to the large gap in the production. The world of stage musicals grew strong, while Hollywood’s attention was turned away. There have also been many stage-to-screen adaptations in addition to the smattering of original movie musicals in recent years.

The turning point, many agree, for the revival of movie musicals was 2002’s “Chicago.” It grossed $170,685,000, making it the 127th top box office grossing U.S. film of all time, according to www.movieweb.com. It also garnered widespread critical acclaim, including 13 Academy Award nominations and six wins.

“I remember writing at the time that whatever musicals there had been prior to that had probably not done that well or were few and far between,” said Bruce Newman, movie critic for the San Jose Mercury News.

Everyone wondered if that was the turning point and if musicals were on their way back, he said. Valle agreed that the beginning of the new wave of movie musicals began with “Chicago.” However, he traces it directly to economics.

“In Hollywood, if something is popular and has a large gross, it becomes redundant,” he said. Everyone will copy it, he said; it’s not based on taste as much as Hollywood thinking that the formula is successful.

Factors in the success of “Chicago,” Valle said, were the wide target audience, proven success on Broadway and its believable transition from stage to screen.

“‘Chicago’ didn’t stage scenes in the real world but in someone’s imagination,” he said. “They used the convention of the screen to their advantage.”

In his mind, some movie musicals have failed because of their inability to make believable “musical moments,” the moment in which the character goes from speaking to singing. “(He or she) can’t speak anymore because they’re overwhelmed by emotion and the only way to feel it is to sing; that’s the only way to feel the magnitude of the moment,” he said. On stage, the audience expects someone to start singing when the music swells, but in films, it can come off as awkward or abrupt.

Successful movie musicals adapt completely to the screen, such as the indie musical “Once” and the star-studded “Sweeney Todd.”

“(‘Sweeney Todd’ is) really well done because they were smart enough to realize they had to change the story somehow to make it a film version,” Valle said.

“It was inspired by the stage play, but it was not the stage play.”

Jeffrey agreed they have to be evaluated separately for the stage and screen format, including production and casting. Movie musicals require subtle acting, whereas stage actors have to act to the balcony. “Sweeney Todd” utilized the idea of film as a new media for the story instead of being a complete replication, she said. “It bugs me when people say ‘It’s not the stage show,’ or ‘It’s not the movie.’ Well, duh; it’s completely different.”

Nowadays, most movie musicals are stage-to-screen adaptations because they are cheaper and easier to make than the originals. They also have a built-in audience, since the stories have usually done well on stage already.

“Musicals start off these days with a strike against them, because not everybody likes musicals, and that divides the audience right away,” Newman said.

“I don’t see anybody creating new musicals, you know, building them from the ground up. There will now be this occasional dribble of musicals that have probably come from Broadway,” he said.

From Valle’s insider perspective, musicals of all types will continue to be made as long as people are willing to see them. Not only is it a more musical age, but musicals have become appealing to producers because the marketing includes soundtrack sales in addition to box office and DVD sales, he said.

Movies like “High School Musical” or “Rent” can target specific generations but once they reach the big-budget range, they try to draw in as many people as they can, Newman said.

Valle agreed. “Movies like ‘Chicago’ that try to capture a broad range of generations through the beauty of music and the combination of the eye candy will always be successful. Hollywood will keep making them,” he said.

With the growing financial and critical success of independent films, he thinks low-budget, stripped-down original musicals like “Once” have a chance at success, since they center on sentiment and are engaging to the audience.

Other than the appeal of the music itself, the subject matter in musicals is contributing to their comeback.

“In a sense, musicals are coming back because of the ones being chosen,” Jeffrey said. “Most of those succeeding have some social element to which people can relate.”

There’s a strong social statement being addressed in terms of politics in most popular musicals, especially class conflict, Valle said. Even older musicals such as “West Side Story” had deep social messages woven into their musical numbers.

However, narrowing subject matter too much can alienate the audience. “The story elements need to be universal and fairly timeless to appeal to a large audience,” Newman said. Some musicals, like “Dreamgirls,” didn’t relate to all audiences and didn’t do as well because they came on too strong, whereas “Hairspray” on the other hand used integration as a subplot and, in his mind, was a better movie for it.

In times of war, there tend to be more comedic musicals, Jeffrey said. Just as musicals provided a few hours of song and dance to distract viewers from the post-WWII world in the ’40s and ’50s and from the Vietnam War in the ’60s, musicals are a form of escapism. They also do better at the box office than the Iraq war dramas being made today, such as “Rendition,” “Lions for Lambs” and “Redacted,” despite their star power.

Even at the local level, musical theater and all it stands for is a big part of everyday life. In San Luis Obispo and around the Central Coast, there are several stage theaters, university and community-based choir and musical groups, and ready audiences for any movie musicals that come into local theaters.

Wherever the place, people can relate to the basic human expression of music.

“Everyone’s like, ‘Well, I do sing in the shower.’ That’s because it’s wonderful, right?” Valle said, sitting straight up in his chair and gesturing enthusiastically. “Not only do you have hot water pouring over you and you’re naked and you’re alone, but you’re private. Isn’t that interesting that in that most private moment we sing? There’s something in the core of that moment that speaks the humanity of music.”

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