The Mean Girls musical cashes in on a brilliant film whilst softening its bite to a gummy slatherMathias Arlund via Unsplash

So, this is how the movie musical dies: not with a Tick, Tick… Boom!, but with a whimper. Timothée Chalamet sings, in 2023’s Wonka, of a chocolate that, when eaten, makes everything feel like a Broadway show. If only that did exist – then maybe we wouldn’t notice how Hollywood has traded theatricality for safe bets with its latest musicals. Wonka, Mean Girls and others rely on bankable brands and half-baked jingles without offering anything truly original, let alone a smidgen of the showmanship that characterised MGM’s heyday.

Rather, musicals have become a symptom of Hollywood’s already endemic remake fever. Television killed the cinema star so whatever Hollywood churns out for the big screen must guarantee good returns. It’ll have a known star and a textbook plot. In recent years, it might be a shot-for-shot redo of something you’ve already seen – something you’ll therefore already love. Musicals offer a neat way around criticisms of repetition that projects a sheen of ingenuity.

“Musicals have become a symptom of Hollywood’s already endemic remake fever”

The Mean Girls musical, for instance, cashes in on a brilliant film while softening its bite to a gummy slather and stilting it with musical numbers. “I’m filled with calcu-lust,” sings Cady in ‘Stupid With Love’ – the kind of song that makes you want to saw your ears off. You know it’s just there for the sake of it, labouring a point that the original film made in a few lines. Even the stage musical did little more than squeeze superfluous songs into an existing plot. Its creators weren’t struck by some artistic vision; they simply realised that there’s no need to keep thinking of new ideas. You can just sell the same old one, over and over. The Mean Girls musical we’re seeing on screen is the final, down-cycled product.

Wonka is undermined by its lazy association with Roald DahlYouTube (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Similarly watered down is Paul King’s Wonka. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory did well last time – but that was already a remake. “Well,” some savvy exec might ask, “how about a prequel?” What’s frustrating about Wonka is that it could have been good. The musical sequences are fun and original. The acting is suitably silly. Yet the film is undermined by its lazy association with Roald Dahl. This Wonka isn’t the same character as Gene Wilder’s. There’s no chocolate factory. Why not alter everything slightly and invent something new? Because the Wonka brand is known, it gets people in cinema seats. And that’s far more important to Hollywood than quality.

“What’s frustrating about Wonka is that it could have been good”

But why the sudden flush? Musicals have been fairly absent from the mainstream since Disney, their great patron, was laid out on the rocks in the late sixties. Soon, it was “Goodbye, Dolly” and farewell to the big-budget, technicolour, cast-of-thousands musical that was a tentpole for various studios, most notably MGM. Cinema moved to gritty realism à la Bonnie and Clyde. The few non-children’s musicals to succeed fit this new style (Cabaret) or evoked nostalgia for what came before (Grease). And it was wit and cynicism that characterised the turn-of-the-century revival led by Moulin Rouge and Chicago. These musicals were rarely unapologetically cheesy like their ancestors – but they worked! The movie musical looked to be making a comeback: La La Land almost won that Oscar; The Last Five Years infiltrated the indie circuit. But, if there’s one thing Hollywood knows how to do, it’s overdo.


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When will the biopic bubble burst?

Which is why we need Wonka’s Broadway chocolate. Where stage and cinema could once overlap with their bright and brilliant musicals, they now leech known names from one another, leaving no room for true originality. There’s been too many musical biopics to count since Bohemian Rhapsody made $900 million from people’s fond memories. And now we’re frontline against an onslaught of film adaptations: Wicked and The Colour Purple, horrifying rumours of Oliver! and Joseph again. Musicals, once the bastion of clever stagecraft and escapist fantasy, have become ill-conceived cash grabs. Betting on safe names and recycling old stories spells certain doom. 2024 could be the year the movie musical dies a second death.