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Mark Shenton: After a brief resurgence, are movie musicals on a downer again?

Marcus Brigstocke in Barnum at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Following the successes of the Broadway-to-film transfers of Chicago and Dreamgirls, and then the original film musical La La Land, hope briefly flickered that the movie musical might be back in business at last.

It was, after all, once a genre that captivated audiences with classic titles like Top Hat (1935), The Wizard of Oz (1939), An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Gigi (1958) and Mary Poppins (1964), to name just a few – and all of which have, coincidentally, been remade for the stage, with various degrees of success.

But then there was the commercially successful but artistically dismal screen version of Mamma Mia! (and soon, a sequel), full of non-singers, and the artistically courageous but commercially unsuccessful Nine (I loved its visual flair and stunning cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis).

‘The very liveness of a musical in a theatre, though, means those risks feel tangible’

This week, I finally caught up with The Greatest Showman, an original movie musical based on the life of impresario huckster Phineas T Barnum, who is also the subject of a 1980 Broadway musical that is being revived at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory [1]. And while Hugh Jackman is more naturally charismatic in the title role of the film than comedian Marcus Brigstocke is proving to be at the Menier, I found myself pining for the Chocolate Factory.

But then Jackman doesn’t have to try to walk a tightrope, as Brigstocke has to nightly, in full view of the audience. It was Brigstocke’s misfortune to fall off three times on press night, before giving up and being helped across it. The very liveness of a musical in a theatre, though, means those risks feel tangible – and with the Menier transformed into a giant circus arena, you also felt part of the action.

And purely from a craft point of view, Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart’s classic score for the stage musical is in every way superior to the generic, X Factor stylings of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s film score. As Jason Zinoman remarked in his review [2] of the film for the New York Times: “The songs, which shift from defiant pop anthems to melodramatic ballads, do not evoke the circus, or at least not the American version. Their soupy soulfulness belongs to Cirque du Soleil more than Ringling Brothers.” With Coleman, by contrast, you could smell the sawdust.

The ‘liveness’ that is missing from The Greatest Showman is, interestingly, far more evident in a video of the song “From Now On” being workshopped in a New York recording studio – the day after Jackman had surgery to remove skin cancer from his nose, so had stitches in it and was told by his doctor that he couldn’t sing. Another actor sings in for him, as he stands to one side and finally can’t resist joining in. At the end of the number, he can be seen checking his nose for damage. There’s real jeopardy here [3]. Ditto Keala Settle introducing her big gospel-infused anthem “This Is Me” in the same workshop. That excitement helped get the film green-lit. If only some of that had made it into the film.

This week also came the news that Steven Spielberg is planning a remake of West Side Story, with a script newly adapted by Tony Kushner. You wonder why you’d want to muck with perfection – the 1961 film may feel dated in its look, but the amazing Jerome Robbins choreography is as fresh and remarkable as ever.