There are times that I think being a fan of the movie musical, which I am, unabashedly, is to be in a long term love affair with cringe. I have no real problems with this since I am the world’s oldest millennial and cringe is my love language. But I do acknowledge that, for some, seeing people burst into song and dance on screen is just a no-go, a dangerous combination of extreme earnestness and enthusiasm that just doesn’t make their trolley go clang clang.
Years ago, I was watching the film adaptation of Dreamgirls. The audience, boisterous and talkative, was having a great time for much of the film’s first act, during which the titular girl group competes in a talent competition and catches the eye of Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy). Crucially, all of the characters who we’ve seen sing thus far have been actual singers in the reality of Dreamgirls. Eight songs in, however, manager Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) starts bribing DJs to play the group’s songs. To illustrate his descent into the quagmire of payola, Foxx is filmed striding down a darkened alley, bursting into the song “Steppin’ to the Bad Side.” The packed showing of Dreamgirls rippled with pockets of incredulity. I remind you, eight songs into the film, yet some folks were somehow shocked by this. One guy stood up and shouted “WAIT! Is this a musical?” The theater erupted into chaos and the guy walked out in disgust! I will, honestly, never get over this. I am sorry for him that the idea of a person singing in a musical caused a total meltdown, but I am delighted for me.
Film is a more literal medium than the stage so when we see someone singing on screen we are primed to think “this person in this reality is singing.” So the challenge for the modern movie musical is to find a way to embrace the medium without losing the essential thing that makes musicals musicals--namely that anyone, even a non-singing normie, can feel a swell of emotion so great that only belting at the top of their lung and high-kicking down an alley will suffice. And therein lies the cringe. One of the interesting things about the guy’s reaction in the opening night screening is that Dreamgirls is actually one of the most successful movie musicals in that it finds a way of contextualizing all of the singing as performances, even when there’s no audience. Because we’re focusing on Black characters with different body types in the 60s and 70s entertainment industry, we’re hyper-aware that every gesture and expression, public and private is a performance. So when Effie (Jennifer Hudson) sings her roof-raisers “And I Am Telling You” and “I Am Changing” as expressions of personal pain and transformation, they may not be in crowded theaters, but we still understand them to be responses to an audience of unspoken expectations put on her by the world.
Similarly, Chicago is successful because it frames the singing as extensions of Roxie Hart’s (Renee Zellweger) delusion and makes the audience the hungry press corps of gossip hounds. Musicals flounder not when we don’t know why they’re singing, but rather when we don’t know who they’re singing to. Are you singing to me? Why? For what purpose?!
Tick, Tick… Boom, masterfully reconceived by director Lin-Manuel Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson, understands this completely. The movie acts like the outermost layer of a sort of meta-Matryoshka doll that’s been built for decades. It started out in 1990 as a solo stage musical performed by Jonathan Larson pre-Rent, then after his death and the success of Rent, it was reconceived by playwright David Auburn in 1996 as a three-person spare show in which one actor played a version of Larson and the other two actors played a variety of characters, including his best friend Michael, who abandoned art for business, his girlfriend Susan, and an actress name Karessa Johnson who complicates his relationship and also delivers the musical wake up call that prompts his transformation. The show went from direct address monologue to a more traditionally structured story, one that hinges on the composer’s attempts to grapple with an internal conflict between wanting stability and needing to make art.
Alas, there is nothing more cringe than watching someone sing about wanting to follow his heart into a rehearsal studio. So, I was delighted to find that Miranda opted not to try to disguise the DNA of the musical, but rather laid every strand bare. It works brilliantly. Larson’s original show is replicated onscreen, casting Broadway heavyweight Joshua Henry as an actor singing backup and a truly great Vanessa Hudgens as Karessa. Both appear in the periphery of the main storyline but are mostly utilized in performance numbers from the solo-ish show in front of an audience, giving the on-stage/off-stage border some porousness. Robin dé Jesus and Alexandra Shipp appear as Michael and Susan, opposite Andrew Garfield’s revelatory Larson, but when these characters sing, they are only doing so in Larson’s mind, extensions of his artistic drive.
In giving an audience a very clear key for understanding the whens and whys of bursting into song, Miranda takes a rather insidery story of theater ambition and makes it accessible. To underscore the idea, we see, over and over again, an actual audience in the solo scenes and we understand that this is how this person processes. And we accept it.
This works best in the phenomenal number “Therapy”. Intercutting the song with an actual argument helps us to understand the story being told (the first hurdle for any musical moment). Smartly, Miranda includes a little bit of stage business--Joshua Henry whisks the mic out of view and then sits down in the background, for instance--to remind us that htis is performance. Also, helpfully, he frames a number of shots so that you can see the silhouettes of the heads of the audience members. We always know exactly who is being addressed and why, which is crucial.
And the twist of the segment--agh, it’s so brilliant, I’m screaming just thinking about it--is that as the fight resolves, we zoom in on Larson’s fingers counting out a beat as he hugs his girlfriend. There’s a JJ Abrams-esque lens flare as she and we realize that he’s turning real life into song in real time. Now we’re fully on-board with the conceit--we’re not just watching a movie about a composer, and we’re not just watching a musical about art-making; we’re watching one man’s life become music because it has no other choice. This is the ultimate hurdle. Every movie musical has to feel inevitable, as if singing and dancing is the only possible way that we can reach the destination we so desperately want to reach. I’ve rarely seen it executed as well as Miranda and Levenson do here.
I’d be remiss to not mention the great Stephen Sondheim here, who makes a vocal cameo in Tick, Tick… Boom and whose mentorship profoundly affected Jonathan Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda, among others. Sondheim passed away last week after a world-changing 91 years. His own work has seen successful film translation, a la the two very different but very great West Side Story adaptations. And his work has seen less successful film versions, like Into the Woods, which featured some wonderful performances but didn’t offer a movie audience an entry point into its dramatic reality, but that’s on director Rob Marshall (who also successfully helmed Chicago) not Sondheim.
However, in his final interview, earlier this week, the great, inimitable Sondheim espoused an ambivalence that the guy walking out of Dreamgirls might have agreed with as well: “Growing up, I was a huge fan of movies, and the only genre that I wasn’t a fan of was musicals — I loved the songs, but not the musicals.” He’d, of course, grow up to write some of the greatest works ever put on stage and win an Oscar for the heavily musical, but not musical film Dick Tracy.
So, there’s hope for everyone to be won over. Based on the work that Miranda, and John Chu, and others are putting out, I think we’re on the cusp of another golden age of movie musicals. But it will only come to fruition if directors and writers embrace the meta-mindedness and the dramatic possibilities of cringe.
Cover image: Netflix
Editorial assistant: Sean Simon