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How The Sound of Music Killed the Movie Musical

The Sound of Music taught Hollywood the wrong lessons about musicals
The Sound of Music taught Hollywood the wrong lessons about musicals

From the earliest days of "talkies" through the 1960s, musicals were a huge part of Hollywood. The Academy's first-ever Best Picture Oscar given to a film with sound, in 1929, went to a musical, the now-forgotten The Broadway Melody. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers became box-office champs by singing and hoofing across silver screens. From Gene Kelly to Judy Garland, countless stars were born belting Broadway-style ballads.

And yet by the '70s, the movie musical was dead. It wasn't until Chicago's success in 2002 that the studios were again willing to invest in the genre - and even now, new musicals are rare events. Even as High School Musical and Glee have been big hits on TV, and a live version of The Sound of Music was a ratings smash for NBC, film studios have been cautious enough that star-studded exceptions like Les Miserables only prove the rule. 

In this week's L.A. Weekly cover story, film critic Amy Nicholson examines a more recent murder mystery: Who killed the romantic comedy? Matthew Kennedy's new book, Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, asks a similar question about musicals - and ultimately suggests a surprising answer: The Sound of Music.

How did one of the most successful, and charming, movie musicals of all time kill a thriving genre? As Kennedy details in his extraordinarily well-researched and compelling book, it was less the film itself and more the very bad lessons that Hollywood took from it. 

The Sound of Music had been no sure-fire smash. The Broadway show it was based on was a hit, sure, but not Rodgers & Hammerstein's best work. Billy Wilder passed on directing, as did Stanley Donen (who directed Singin' in the Rain) and Gene Kelly, who, Kennedy reports, told the producers, "Go find somebody else to direct this shit." As for Julie Andrews, she was a Broadway veteran but far from a "name" at the time - famously passed over for the film adaptation of My Fair Lady after starring in the show on Broadway, she'd been signed up for Sound of Music as part of a two-picture deal at Fox worth just $225,000, with no share of the proceeds, Kennedy reports. When the shoot ran over, cranky co-star Christopher Plummer took to calling it The Sound of Mucus.

But as millions of lifelong fans can now attest, it was one of those movies that somehow became much more than the sum of its parts. While critics disliked the film, movie lovers took to it immediately: At its sneak preview, the audience gave a five-minute standing ovation at the intermission  - and then again one at the end. They weren't reacting to hype; they simply loved everything they saw on screen. By August 1966, less than two years after its premiere, the musical passed Gone with the Wind to become the top box-office champ in movie history at the time (though Gone with the Wind is still ahead if you account for inflation).

As Kennedy details, however, Hollywood took all the wrong lessons from The Sound of Music's success. Rather than focus on the smart screenplay by Ernest Lehman, the freshness of Music's stars, its glorious European setting and the immensely singable tunes, studio bosses saw only money. At $8.2 million, it had been a relatively expensive musical for its time - so the solution, surely, was spend even more on bloated spectacle. More expensive sets! More tricky shoots on location! Surely, if they spend money, they could make even more.

Following that mantra, an ill-devised movie version of Camelot starring two actors who could barely sing managed to waste $13 million; the result wasn't movie magic but a ponderous flop. And what about Doctor Doolittle? Fox spent an estimated $27 million, banking on the idea that the kid-friendly cheer of The Sound of Music would translate to a children's classic. But someone forgot to write singable tunes, much less a good script. Another huge flop. 

Writes Kennedy, 

Doolittle, perhaps more than any musical of the era, carries itself like Frankenstein. Everywhere you look there are parts borrowed and stolen, with a scripts that cannot decide to where to go. ... The best of many subplots has Doolittle reuniting Sophie, a depressed circus seal, with her husband. ... The highlight of Doolittle is a love song to a seal. The love song between two humans, "After Today," is alternatively dowdy in sound, staging, and execution. As a celebration of sudden love, it attempt to function as another "The Trolley Song," "Singin' in the Rain" or "Gigi," but in it you can hear the traditional musical go on life support.

And what of Julie Andrews? Mary Poppins had made her a star just before the premiere of The Sound of Music , and after the latter film shattered box-office records, Hollywood was frantic to capitalize on her popularity. But the films that followed The Sound of Music suffered from too much expense and too little in the way of plot. Star! was a $14 million biopic about a Broadway star (Gertrude Lawrence) unfamiliar to most audiences. It bombed - and yet Fox was so desperate to salvage its investment, Kennedy reports, that it rereleased a shorter version and later even changed its name completely ( Those Were the Happy Times ). That didn't work either.

Andrews' next picture, Darling Lili, cost another $14 million and was also a flop. As Vincent Canby concluded in the New York Times, the film was the

kind of romantic gesture we're not likely to see again for a very long time. It's the last of the mammoth movie musicals ... that were inspired by the success of The Sound of Music (and each of which cost two or three times as much as Alaska). I doubt that Hollywood, now practically broke and trying desperately to make a connection with the youth market, will ever again indulge itself in this sort of splendidly extravagant, quite frivolous enterprise.

Kennedy's book is framed around a format of movie-theater presentations unheard of to most people under 40: the roadshow. In these engagements, high-prestige films were booked exclusively at one theater in town, at a higher-than-average ticket price. The roadshow was almost theatrical in its conventions - there were reserved seats and an intermission, just like on Broadway. The idea was to make the movie seem like a big night out, not just another tossed-off amusement.

When the movie was worth it, as in the case of The Sound of the Music, that theatricality seemed special, and well-worth the extra price. But when the film was bad? It just didn't work. After the runaway success of The Sound of Music, Kennedy reports, Hollywood tried to shove every last musical into a roadshow format, even slight ones that might have seemed a pleasant delight without all the pomp and circumstance. (The rare movie musical success in the '70s, Cabaret, seems to have succeeded mostly because shellshocked execs were certain it too would be a flop - its budget was just $5 million, the running time was just 124 minutes, and it wasn't given the roadshow treatment.) For the bloated spectacles inspired by The Sound of Music, the stakes grew higher and higher, even as increasingly jaded audiences turned away in disgust.

Naturally, Hollywood's takeaway was that moviegoers didn't want musicals, not that it didn't want the crappy, overpriced, overlong musicals being forced upon them. Such thinking bears more than a little resemblance to the conclusions about romantic comedies that studio execs have drawn more recently. Some people just never learn.

See also: Who Killed the Romantic Comedy? 


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