Let’s not tap-dance around the hard truth. Musicals, once belles of the Oscar ball, have lately been wallflowers. And that’s why Chicago will take such a big step if it tangos its way to Best Picture.
It would become the first singing-dancing extravaganza to take the Academy’s top prize since all those urchins banged their food bowls in 1968’s Oliver!
That Dickensian spectacle, as it turned out, marked the end of an 11-year hot streak: five musical Best Picture winners out of nine nominees between 1959 and 1969. The remarkable victory run was kicked off by 1958’s Gigi, sustained with a rousing finger-snap ballet by 1961’s West Side Story (still the winningest musical of all, with 10 awards), and carried along by 1964’s My Fair Lady and 1965’s The Sound of Music before Oliver! ended the spell.
Or maybe helped cast a new spell – a dry one. The next 10 years hosted a mere three production-numbered Picture nominees – Hello, Dolly! (1969), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), and Cabaret (1972), which missed winning the top honor yet did claim eight statuettes including Director for Bob Fosse (over The Godfather’s Francis Ford Coppola). But in the wake of 1979’s All That Jazz, another Fosse razzle-dazzler that won four minor prizes on nine nominations, not one live-action musical entered the Picture race again until last year’s Moulin Rouge. (That’s of course not counting dramatic films merely laden with music, like 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter or 1984’s Amadeus.)
So how did film musicals dwindle from headliners to novelty acts? Pretty simple, according to Chicago director Rob Marshall: ”Too many studios tapped directors who’d never done them” – and who didn’t rise to the occasion as Marshall did, himself a feature novice.
Just look at banner year 1980. Who could forget Bounty-towel-hawker Nancy Walker’s Village People campfest, Can’t Stop The Music? She may have been a performing veteran of ’40s MGM musicals, but helming her first and only feature, she foundered. Then there was cinema neophyte Robert Greenwald’s disco-flavored disaster Xanadu. In 1982, choreographer-turned-director Patricia Birch fared no better with Grease 2, featuring Michelle Pfeiffer hair-tossing her way through the ditty ”Cool Rider.” It was Birch’s last gig helming a movie.
Proof enough of hard times? Wait, there’s more, made by people with lots of directorial (and even some musical) experience. Witness how far out of his league Sidney Lumet was in 1978’s The Wiz (scripted by future Batman-franchise caretaker Joel Schumacher). Critic Pauline Kael described its elephantine big numbers as ”free-form traffic jams.” Francis Ford Coppola helped bankrupt his Zoetrope Studios with One From the Heart. John Huston let the sun go down on Annie. Robert Altman couldn’t pump up Robin Williams as Popeye. Most embarrassingly, Sir Richard Attenborough embalmed A Chorus Line, which starred Michael Douglas – and which must have given his wife, Chicago costar Catherine Zeta-Jones, a good laugh if she ever saw it. (Fortunately, it didn’t make her musical-phobic.)