Movie Musicals, Now and Then

People are really excited about La La Land, opens a new window, and it’s no wonder; when was the last time you saw a musical written for the screen?

Used to be, musicals were written for the stage, and others were written for the screen. Sometimes, one would follow the other; more often stage to screen, but screen to stage has happened plenty. Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi, starring French greats Leslie Caron, Louis Jordan, and Maurice Chevalier (and the ever-fabulous British actress Hermione Gingold), wasn’t adapted for stage until the 2010s. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, first made for television (and then made for it again, opens a new window, and again, opens a new window) only recently saw itself on the Broadway stage as well (though it has been produced for other stages in the past).


Music on screen was a big part of the earliest days of film with sound. The first feature length “talking picture, opens a new window”, The Jazz Singer, was all about music: the main character, Jack, has to decide between not just music and family, but religious music and jazz. By 1929, the musical film industry had exploded one-hundred-fold, and musical features were one of the highest grossing parts of the enormous Depression-era film opus, particularly for the Warner Brothers, opens a new window and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. Some of these were produced after having been on Broadway, but many were written directly for the screen, as that was the medium that saw much bigger returns. The Wizard of Oz would go on to be one of the most popular and lucrative films of MGM's century-plus history, and become the most iconic image in movie musicals. 

The Jazz Singer


The Wizard of Oz

Jazz Age, Depression-era, and Post-war musical movies were also some of the only ways people in some parts of the United States could ever connect to black performers. Even though their representations could be a little...misguided, with older minstrel show characteristics seeping through to the white producers' visions, their heavy contribution to musical film—showing the faces and voices of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge, and countless others to the world—not only changed the sound of music, but greatly influenced the face of it for decades. Movies like Hi De Ho, Paradise in Harlem, Stormy Weather, and Carmen Jones brought swing and theater into people's lives, and potentially into people's living rooms, if they had radios or turntables. Even then, the actors and actresses in these films still faced their share of prejudice and discrimination, of course, but were usually spared the worst of it.

Stormy Weather

Carmen Jones

Post-war Technicolor favorites like White Christmas, Easter Parade, and Brigadoon never saw a day in a theater. They were designed and produced for film and stage producers didn’t have the “stage magic” capabilities to build the worlds necessary to allow the music to flow until decades later. Singin’ in the Rain, for instance, which was released on film in 1952, saw its first stage production in the mid 1980s, and will see its day on Broadway again, after a successful run of An American In Paris (another made-for-film musical) in 2015 and 2016 by the same producers. In the 1940s and '50s, though, these larger than life hits were what the people needed in order to recover from a decade and a half of economic despair and war. Singing, dancing, romance, and spectacular scenery were all part of big movie studios' efforts to keep the people of America in love with the movies, and they did a pretty good job of reining people in and keeping them hooked.  

White Christmas

Easter Parade


Singin' in the Rain

An American in Paris 


In the past decade, we’ve seen movie musicals make a comeback. More often than not, they were film adaptations of stage musicals. These have been great for exposing more people to the experience of seeing shows that hardly left Broadway, and when they did, didn’t make it to many parts of the country and the world. Movies like Chicago and RENT made film producers realize they had a market for musical theater lovers everywhere, but how would those people react to...original material?


I know what you’re going to say: Disney has been doing it for decades. But they’d already set an expectation: a Disney animated feature film usually included singing. Your average live-action one did not, with the exception of an underlying score and/or soundtrack.

In the early 2000s, indies like Hedwig and the Angry Inch featured original music, but took years to develop a cult following—in part because of its production as a stage musical and subsequent cast recording. Camp and Bride and Prejudice saw some good numbers, but would only really be big with their target audiences. Idlewild and Once saw similar results. High School Musical would be a big hit on the Disney Channel, but theater-released true musicals—in which spontaneous song erupted in the middle of a scene, not movies featuring and about performers—wouldn’t become worldwide sensations. Not like those adapted from the stage.

Bride & Prejudice


High School Musical

The widespread release of Across the Universe in 2007 revealed a bit of an answer, but as it was a story set to Beatles music in a period of newfound Beatlemania, it couldn’t give a complete one. The songs were new, the story was new, but there was still something familiar.

Across the Universe

The number of music-related films hit a rise in the 2000s and has been going down, but this year, we’re seeing something that the other films couldn’t boast: multiple big names, including two Academy Award nominees and an Academy and Grammy Award winning performer. These familiar faces can get those not interested in musical theater into a movie theater.

And after everyone goes gaga for La La Land? We’ll see what happens.

What about you? 

La La Land

Links updated 2020.12.24