Several months ago, my answer seemed to be “no.”
After witnessing the catastrophic failure of “Dear Evan Hansen” — a film which I hated, adapted from a musical I liked (or at least used to like. It’s difficult to listen to Ben Platt since seeing the movie) — I began to wonder whether a musical could go from stage to screen without being ruined in the process. Thinking about others I had seen, I realized with some unease that every one I came up with had disappointed me somehow. “Evita” awkwardly fits songs and story together in a way that detracts from any power the film could have had. “Les Misérables” adds songs not from the original soundtrack. Both “Les Mis” and “The Phantom of the Opera” suffer from suboptimal singing (“Les Mis” being the far worse offender).
These movie musicals feel like they aren’t meant to be movies. But they also aren’t meant to be musicals. They are unable to maintain what made them work as musicals while justifying their existence as films. It was the adaptation from one form to the other where they struggled, specifically when it came to suspension of disbelief.
If a movie is going to be a musical, this is something it must contend with. On stage, we don’t think twice when the characters start singing. We have already decided to believe that the stage is a setting other than a stage (excepting, of course, musicals where the stage is canonical). We accept this just as we accept that the story is being told through song.
It’s not the same case with movies. Or at least, this acceptance isn’t as easy or automatic. In “Dear Evan Hansen,” when high school student Evan (Ben Platt, “Pitch Perfect 2”) starts quietly singing at the dinner table in response to a question he is asked, it feels wrong, especially when the other characters continue to speak normally. It seems less like he is delivering the story through song and more like he is actually singing his side of the conversation to these people in their dining room. Much of the suspension of disbelief is lost in the film because Evan sings so much more than the rest of the cast.
Despite all his singing, there never seems to be a reason why. In musicals, when characters start singing in situations where people wouldn’t normally sing, it is usually because they are expressing something where words aren’t sufficient. They are moved to song, so to speak. But in the film, Evan appears to just decide to sing all of his thoughts, and when the other characters rarely sing about their arguably more complicated feelings, it becomes harder to accept this.
The songs themselves often don’t move the story forward because they lack movement in a literal sense. The characters stand or sit in a single place while singing or move in a way not conducive to the song’s intended effect; for example, the original impact of “If I Could Tell Her,” an alleged love song, is lost as we watch Evan awkwardly stalk Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, “Booksmart”) around her kitchen island like a serial killer.
I was given hope for movie musicals after seeing Steven Spielberg’s (“Ready Player One”) “West Side Story” last week. Unlike in “Dear Evan Hansen,” the singing in “West Side Story” doesn’t feel jarring. Everyone sings, for a start, and when they do so, it moves the story forward. When Anita (Ariana DeBose, “Hamilton”), joined by an ensemble, sings “America,” we understand not only her struggles and hopes as a Puerto Rican immigrant, but the community of similar people living in Manhattan. The film also makes use of choreography — absent in all but one song in “Dear Evan Hansen” — letting the audience know that they are not meant to take what is happening literally.
When Tony (Ansel Elgort, “Baby Driver”) and Maria (Rachel Zegler, debut) sing “Tonight,” the impression is that words would not have been enough to express how much they mean to each other. The song acts to persuade the audience that they are falling in love despite having just met. The musical element, the theatricality, the importance of music as something characters are moved to do when speaking will not suffice, is preserved in this movie. In “Dear Evan Hansen,” song simply replaces dialogue when Evan wants it to. “Dear Evan Hansen” brings singing to the screen. “West Side Story” brings a musical there.
This idea of bringing the theatrical element of musicals to the screen has led to the success, or partial success, of other movie musicals as well, at least as far as suspension of disbelief. “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Cabaret” are set in an opera house and (as the title suggests) a cabaret, respectively, where singing is a canonical part of the story. This makes it more natural for characters to break into song even when they are no longer in a scenario where they normally would. “Chicago” makes use of this as well, having most of the musical numbers take place on an imagined stage meant both to show how aspiring celebrity Roxie (Renée Zellweger, “Bridget Jones’s Baby”) imagines her life as a series of stage acts and to comment on the immoral workings of the justice system and its relation to the press.
“Chicago” is one of the few movie musicals I’ve thought was good. It manages to suspend our disbelief not only when it comes to the music, but also the story, which is where “West Side Story” falters. A story of fated lovers can work in film (and more easily on stage), but there are moments in “West Side Story” where the lack of a reason for Tony and Maria’s love makes it hard to care. These moments appear most often when the film is at its most serious. When Tony dies, we can’t help but ask the devastated Maria, “Why do you care so much? What have you found out about him in your two-day relationship besides the fact that he killed your brother?”
The events of “Chicago” are arguably just as ridiculous as a two-day love story, but they never feel out of place, in part because it is a musical and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The musical aspect and the questionable events themselves both suspend our disbelief, thereby aiding each other in plausibility. When I recently rewatched Roxie spontaneously shoot her boyfriend (Dominic West, “The Wire”) because he lied to her about helping her get into show business, it struck me that if it weren’t for the musical and imagined parts of the movie, I would have questioned this. As it was, I didn’t.
Similar to “West Side Story,” the songs in “Chicago” are (for the most part) used to progress the story or to give us information about the characters, the best example being “Cell Block Tango,” in which the six women Roxie meets in jail perform and tell the stories of how they murdered their victims. As happens during many of the songs, the set becomes more of a stage during “Cell Block Tango,” while the jail cells can be seen behind it. That’s not to say it is a filmed stage performance. The movie makes a case for itself with the filming of the songs, which involves dramatic close-ups and lighting changes that are not possible or couldn’t have the same effect on a stage.
“Chicago” works as a movie musical because Roxie’s whole life, and the society she is living in, is a stage act in one way or another. It works even better because that is the point the film is trying to make. The musical and movie parts of it work with, instead of against, each other. They each give something to the other. The theatricality is not exclusive to the songs, but exists, for example, in one of the greatest sequences in the film, which alternates between a prisoner approaching the gallows and a staged “disappearing act,” where she walks up to a gaudy silver gallows and is met with applause when she falls and leaves an empty noose.
That is to say, “Chicago,” and to a lesser degree “West Side Story,” embrace their original musical forms rather than trying to crush all musicality but the songs themselves out of the stories when they are adapted into films. To combat disbelief in these films, they cannot remain as serious or literal as non-musical movies. It is the extension of the unbelievable into the whole film, be that choreographed dancing through the streets or an over-the-top plot, that allows these movie musicals to work.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.