Movie musicals in the age of Covid-19

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For a genre once consigned to the scrap heap, the movie musical has been doing remarkably well of late. An adaptation of The Prom will premiere on Netflix next month, In The Heights arrives in cinemas next June after being postponed by coronavirus, and a Dear Evan Hansen film is currently in pre – production. There’s been a rise in mainstream popularity of such films since the success of The Greatest Showman, La La Land, and the like, and both The Prom and In The Heights are ripe for adaptation, telling stories about love and community with underlying political threads that suit the cultural mood right now perfectly.

Film audiences don’t suspend their disbelief the same way theatre audiences do

The casting looks promising. The Prom‘s Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep are clearly relishing their roles as self – obsessed Broadway stars who descend on a small town to support a young lesbian refused entry to her prom and James Corden is comfortable as ever in bringing the comic relief. In The Heights will see Anthony Ramos reprise his role as streetwise yet bumbling bodega owner Usnavi, and up – and – coming actress Melissa Barrera make her cinematic debut as the young and ambitious Vanessa. Both will do well in the roles, but the real stand out for me has to be Stephanie Beatriz as Carla. She’s a side character, but a memorable one, who brims with a bubblegum sweetness so like Beatriz’ own persona that it’s hard to believe she’ll be acting.

Casting is important. The wrong actor can ruin an otherwise brilliant script, and the right one can turn even the most boring premise into something special. But there are different priorities when casting for the stage versus the screen, and adaptations ignore this at their own peril. For instance, in theatre, it’s not unusual for an adult to play a child or a teenager. Under the glare of stage lights, physicality and vocal quality are more important, as the details of an actor’s physical appearance are less visible, and what matters most is a good live singing voice. But on screen, HD resolution makes an adult playing a teenager far less convincing. This is the trap it looks as though Dear Evan Hansen may fall into. Ben Platt, who originated the role of Evan on Broadway, is heavily expected to return in the upcoming film. The problem is, Platt is a 27-year-old man with a full beard; Evan
is 16, and a bit of a late bloomer at that. There’s no real need for it, either. There are plenty of young, lesser-known actors who have played him since Platt left the show in 2017, who would do an excellent job. 18-year-old Andrew Barth Feldman springs to mind, or 25-year-old Jordan Fisher, who passes for a teenager far better than Platt does.

This is just one aspect of something any adaptation must understand: film audiences don’t suspend their disbelief the same way theatre audiences do. Sometimes, a show that works well on stage is very jarring on screen. Yes, I’m sorry, this means we have to talk about Cats.

The popularity of movie musicals could be a lifeline

Nothing about that musical is realistic. Nothing about it makes sense – it isn’t really supposed to. And in a theatre, where an audience is suckered by the live spectacle of the thing, not detached from the action by a screen, it works. But when you transfer a play like that to cinema, a medium filled nowadays with CGI so clever you can scarcely believe it isn’t real, two hours of anthropomorphic feline soap opera feel, much like a miscast actor, somewhat out of place. And nothing kills a piece of musical theatre faster than the audience feeling like they’re watching a show, instead of experiencing it.

Right now, the musical theatre industry is going through unprecedented and transformative times. The popularity of movie musicals could be the lifeline it needs to get through this pandemic, but if it wants to make it last, theatre will have to be willing to re-write some of its rules. If it fails to do so, all we can do is continue to wait for the end of this pandemic. If it succeeds, the movie musical looks set to remain on our screens long after theatres open once more.

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