Oh what a day! June 20 marks the release of Jersey Boys, yet another attempt to bring a Broadway hit musical to the screen. There’ve been other movie adaptations of Broadway musicals in recent years: Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd, Mamma Mia!, and Dreamgirls immediately come to mind. Some have had distinguished casts, and have picked up a few critics’ prizes. But with the exception of Chicago in 2002, none has been an outstanding success. This time around, the director is Clint Eastwood, who’s insisting that Jersey Boys is not a musical so much as a dramatic story that happens to feature music. We’ll soon see how well that approach works, and whether today’s moviegoers can be persuaded to overlook the dreaded “m” (as in “musical”) word when they choose an evening’s entertainment.
There was a time when Hollywood was all about musicals. Once The Jazz Singer introduced synchronized sound, every studio rushed to make films that featured “all talking -- all singing -- all dancing.” The marquees of 1930s movie palaces touted Busby Berkeley’s backstage extravaganzas, with their oodles of beautiful girls dancing in formation. Later that decade, audiences thrilled to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who specialized in elegant dancefloor tête-à-têtes. The 1950s were the great years of Gene Kelly, the inventive genius behind such classics as An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain.
By the late 1950s, moviegoers would just as soon stay home and watch that newfangled wonder, television. That’s when Hollywood moguls—looking to compete with the tiny black-and-white screens in America’s living rooms—turned to Broadway. They shelled out big bucks for the film rights to stage musicals that could be filmed in living color, then augmented by stereophonic sound. It worked, sometimes very well. West Side Story (1961) was an enormous critical and popular success. My Fair Lady (1964) was a hit too, despite the casting of a leading lady (Audrey Hepburn) whose singing voice needed to be dubbed. After Julie Andrews, the stage star of My Fair Lady, was snubbed in favor of Hepburn, she was quickly snapped up by the Walt Disney Company, which cleverly cast her in a charming original musical, Mary Poppins.
By this time, every studio was vying to make the biggest, splashiest, most lucrative musical of all. A fascinating book called Roadshow!, by my colleague Matthew Kennedy, is subtitled “The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s.” Matt chronicles how Hollywood’s determination to produce spectacular roadshow musicals (the kind with reserved seats and intermissions) eventually killed off the genre. His opening chapter, “The Musical that Ate Hollywood,” is devoted to a Broadway adaptation that was so successful it saved Twentieth-Century Fox from ruin, following Fox’s monstrously expensive 1963 production of Cleopatra.
Of course I’m talking about The Sound of Music. This nun-and-Nazi fest hardly had instant appeal in Hollywood. Detractors called it The Sound of Mucus, and actor Doug McClure sniped that “Watching The Sound of Music is like being beaten to death by a Hallmark card.” But the film turned Julie Andrews into America’s new sweetheart. And a brilliant mountaintop opening that made maximum use of location shooting and a wide-screen format showed how cinema can breathe fresh life into a stagebound play. The film’s original release was so successful it lasted a full 4 ½ years. Only problem: all of Hollywood was now looking for the next Sound of Music. Doctor Dolittle, Camelot, Star!, Paint Your Wagon, Hello, Dolly! . . . . the costly flops just kept on coming. Which goes to prove that extravagance has its price.