Over at IndieWire Max O'Connell writes an impassioned essay about the terrible direction that keeps sinking movie musicals. While I do not agree that Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys is the best-directed musical of the past 10 years (yikes!) the case is stronger than I was expecting that that is at least debatable.
Many of the essay's points are memorize / share worthy. I merely wish that Max didn't succumb to the tired notion that there simply aren't enough charismatic stars with musical theater chops for the genre to really be alive again. This notion is brought up nearly every time people talk about the state of the film musical (or when they're casting and have to defend strange choices) but it's just patently false.
Here's that bit of the otherwise stellar article:
Maybe there aren't enough modern equivalents to Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers or Judy Garland has made it difficult to churn out great musicals on a regular basis.
That last bit might have a lot to do with it: Few movie stars have the song-and-dance skills required to knock a musical out of the park, and not all musical theater performers have the charisma required for the camera. That leaves a lot of directors to choose between Russell Crowe and Pierce Brosnan warbling their way through well-known songs or John Lloyd Young, the original star of "Jersey Boys," who reprised his role in Eastwood's film, showing up and singing beautifully -- but lacking the fire to keep Frankie Valli interesting when he's not singing. There is a third option of pulling a Marni Nixon and dubbing Michael Cerveris singing over Johnny Depp or Patti LuPone over Helena Bonham Carter, but then you've got a star's ego to deal with.
Repeat after me: There is ALWAYS a better choice than Crowe vs. Brosnan vs. Someone People Have Never Heard Of Who Isn't Great on Camera. [More...]
Hollywood just has to try harder and be braver. There are PLENTY of stars that have vocal and/or dancing chops. They're just rarely asked to use them. My go to example is this: Rob Marshall originally wanted Toni Collette (a true triple threat) for Chicago but the studio wanted Renée Zellweger who can't sing or dance. A slighly happier example: Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway are both huge stars and musically gifted and they were both Oscar nominated for Les Miz. Weirdly it's the only movie musical Jackman has ever starred in though practically everyone in the world knows he's a song & dance man.
I'm about to list people who have sung and/or danced in other medium but their musical talents are (mostly) not being used for film musicals. And, most importantly, please know that this list is off the top of my head so it's surely only scratching the surface. I didn't even do research other than to double check my memory on some of the people who started as dancers. Surely casting directors and on up the food chain of Hollywood could do better than they've been doing in casting musicals.
Stars With The Full Song & Dance Package: Catherine Zeta Jones, Patrick Wilson, Neil Patrick Harris, Toni Collette, Hugh Jackman, Alan Cumming, John Travolta, Zac Efron, and Taye Diggs. (Please note how many of them have only made 1 movie musical, if that)
Anika Noni Rose doing "I Can Do Better Than That" which we'll hear
Anna Kendrick sing soon in the movie version of The Last Five Years
Stars Who Can Sing (Not Sure About Dancing): Anna Kendrick, Anne Hathaway, Oscar Isaac, Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, Scarlett Johansson, Kristen Bell, Amanda Seyfried, Glenn Close, Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kirsten Dunst, Rosario Dawson, Ewan McGregor, Eddie Redmayne, Ryan Gosling, Sarah Jessica Parker, Mare Winningham, Garrett Hedlund, Jeremy Renner, Diane Keaton, James Marsden, Robert Downey Jr, Emmy Rossum, Andrew Rannells, Christian Bale, Zachary Levi, Anika Noni Rose, and Evan Rachel Wood
Stars Who Can Dance (Not Sure About Singing): Mia Wasikowska, Channing Tatum, Charlize Theron, Claire Danes, Judy Greer, Zoe Saldana, Neve Campbell, Juliette Binoche, and Jamie Bell
like all sensible people Jonathan Groff is obsessed with Sutton Foster
Great in Musicals on Stage AND They Have Screen Presence (at least on TV): Jonathan Groff, Sutton Foster, Laura Benanti, Megan Hilty, Aaron Tveit, Audra McDonald, Katie Finneran, Cheyenne Jackson, Kristin Chenoweth, Jane Krakowski, Norm Lewis, Raul Esparza, Steven Pasquale, Annaleigh Ashford, and Donna Murphy... why is no one considering them for movie musicals?
Since these are off the top of my head, there are surely countless others who *might* have it all but they'd have to be screen tested or given a shot.
The IndieWire article is correct that the movie musical genre needs its contemporary Vincent Minnelli, Busby Berkeley or Bob Fosse something terrible. Amen. (The revival started off so well with strong directors like von Trier, Mitchell and Luhrmann but since then...) But there is more than enough on camera talent out there for the ballsy gifted director if he or she is willing to look for it and has the stomach for fights with the studios. The studios will always, no matter the genre, ask for the bigger name whether or not they have the chops or are right for the role. Not only does the musical need better directors, it needs directors with a backbone who want to nurture the right kind of talent, and make them names ... not work around the weaknesses of stars who think it might be fun to try carrying a tune. It probably needs a director willing to take a chance on a stage star and make an original musical like a Mary Poppins rather than a star driven stage-bound transfer like a My Fair Lady.