How Disney Saved Musicals for a New Generation

Seventeen years ago, musicals were dead save for Disney. We recall how a generation growing up on animation helped save a genre.

During this past weekend, Disney dived once more into their nostalgia wheelhouse with another live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, as well as into a broader rejuvenated genre: the musical. Whether it be in La La Land almost winning Best Picture this past year at the Oscars (and still taking some impressive statues home like Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Cinematography) or the fact that Hugh Jackman is following up his gritty Logan swan song with a toetapping, big budgeted original musical in The Greatest Showman on Earth, it’s easy to say that a once dead form of cinematic storytelling has been quickened to life again.

This feat likely could never have happened without the Disney Renaissance that proceeded it in the 1990s.

To be sure, the two musicals most credited with bringing the genre back as a viable moneymaker and prestige picture subgenre, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Marshall’s Chicago (2002), are hardly Disney. With the former being a pop culture pastiche reimagining of Carmen and the latter starring a pair of literal lady killers in a Prohibition era Windy City, neither were pictures that even Michael Eisner would entertain releasing under the direct Walt Disney logo during those post-Renaissance years.

Yet, both movies enjoyed a rare thing for their times: large and enthusiastic audiences welcoming them into movie theaters and, in the case of Moulin Rouge!, into millions of Millennial college dorm rooms across the country. Each was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, with Chicago winning the contest, and each proved that there were major financial rewards for a medium-budgeted, star-studded, piece of celluloid harmony.

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This flew in the face of industry wisdom at the time, because musicals are not supposed to make money, much less generate good buzz. Not unless they were Disney musicals.

As synonymous with Walt Disney’s company as whistling anthropomorphic mice, the Disney animated musical has been a staple of the studio’s formula since 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Yet, perhaps not uncoincidentally with the rest of Hollywood, Disney began moving further and further away from the form, as well as animated fairy tales themselves, after 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. By the 1970s, singing and dancing animated characters were as dead as Bambi’s mother. Many have attributed this to a company malaise that set in following the death of Walt Disney in 1966. However, at least on the singing side of things, it was par for the course.

Around the same time that Disney was producing Snow White, Dumbo, Pinocchio, and a variety of other animated features, musicals were not just common, they were the gold standard of populist entertainment. Right after John Ford’s insistence that a man riding a horse is the most beautiful moving image in cinema came Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tripping the light fantastic in a variety of ballrooms. The first “talkie” sound-enhanced movie, The Jazz Singer (1927), was a musical. The first sound film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards was also a musical: The Broadway Melody (1929). And this side of Clark Gable, the biggest draws of the Great Depression were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, Shirley Temple daydreams, and the glitziness of Busby Berkley productions.

During such hard times, what would become the “Greatest Generation” got their greatest fantasy not from caped heroes, but in beautiful people entering the ultimate escapism of unprompted singing and dancing, usually in the world’s most glamorous locations like Venice, Rio, or a picturesque Holiday Inn nightclub-resort that spent the Second World War only open half-a-dozen days. By the 1950s, when Cinderella was looking for her glass shoe, musicals were the crowning constellation in MGM’s famed “more stars than there are in the heavens” stable. With movies like Singin’ in the Rain and Showboat, who needed Brando or Lee Strassberg’s brand of method acting, anyway?

As it turned out, all of Hollywood. While the 1960s began with Jack Warner and George Cukor breaking the bank on the decadently luscious adaptation of Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady, and Julie Andrews enjoying the doubleheader of Disney’s own Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, by the end of the decade the genre was viewed as circumspect as the draft in certain quarters. In 1968 when Oliver! won Best Picture the same year that 2001: A Space Odyssey failed to even get a nomination, the growing cultural divide’s presence in film was becoming painfully unavoidable. The United States was seemingly on fire with the Vietnam War, continuing racial tensions following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, and the political assassinations that were piling up. Yet, much of the generation that was insisting their sons should go to Southeast Asia, and not Woodstock, also continued to enforce their authority even in pop culture entertainment.

Increasingly, the studio system was collapsing in on itself, and the preferred genres of the older generation, including westerns, World War II romanticism, biblical epics, and musicals, were looking antiquated and even obscene in lieu of films like Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, and Easy Rider. The big-scaled productions that would have wowed in yesteryear became embarrassing flops and monuments for an industry drowning to connect with a younger generation. The Greatest Story Ever Told, Big Jake, and infamous musical failures Doctor Dolittle and Hello, Dolly! crashed and burned before an audience whose interest in their parents’ entertainment was more barren than Ford’s Monument Valley. Incidentally, this was the period when Disney produced its last fully animated musical for over 20 years: The Jungle Book (1967).

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When the “film school generation” that included mavericks like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, John Milius, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg inherited Hollywood in the 1970s, it was a new golden age for creativity and talent in Tinsletown (before it paved the way for corporate takeover), but the only attempts at the most popular genres of yesterday were in sober deconstructionist fare, such as McCabe & Mrs. Miller and All That Jazz, that never lit the box office on fire. Eventually genres like westerns and musicals were viewed as niche curiosities, especially the latter, which called for the goofy need to have people burst into song.

Despite Stephen Sondheim using this decade to reinvent the form into one of drama and even tragedy onstage during a period when young Andrew Lloyd Webber would do things like turn the story of Jesus Christ into a rock opera narrated by a sympathetic Judas, the movie musical had seemingly breathed its last breath for a Boomer generation that generally rejected its supposed frivolity. For every oddball success story like Grease (1978), there were plenty more Xanadus, Rocky Horror Picture Shows (which was not a hit in 1975), or even Newsies 15-years on. There simply wasn’t a big enough audience for live-action musicals. At least that is what studio logic dictated, especially when the suits took over in the ‘80s.

Ironically, it was that transition that permitted new ambitious thinking at Disney. When Roy E. Disney brought in Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg to Disney, they engineered a creative overhaul from top-to-bottom. While this new corporate structure initially undervalued their animation legacy, with CEO Eisner going so far as to tell Diane Sawyer that they only make animated movies to fulfill an obligation to the studio’s history, they nevertheless course corrected Walt Disney Animation Studios (if only to compete with Don Bluth) from the likes of The Black Cauldron to something more on par with the bland doggie-musical Oliver and Company. However, it also set the stage for new talent to resurrect the Disney animated musical proper—and by extension the movie musical as a whole.

“I just don’t think anything is quite as magical as a Disney cartoon fairy tale,” Howard Ashman once said with undeniable affection in his eyes during an interview about the production of The Little Mermaid.  As a lyricist and songwriter who along with Alan Menken wrote the songs and lyrics of Little Shop of Horrors for Off-Broadway (which became a box office failure when adapted to screen in 1986), Ashman found himself enthusiastically at Walt Disney Animation Studios by choice after his Broadway production Smile failed on the Great White Way. “I am a musical theatre person and I do see a very, very strong connection between these two mediums,” Ashman said of contrasting stage shows with animated films. He believed that unlike live-action film, the artifice of animation is so strong that, similar to theater, singing as a form of expression and narrative-building fit most naturally. Songs in an animated movie could elevate the storytelling, as opposed to being a placeholder for it like what was common in contemporary competition.

Seeking to create a musical fairy tale that could stand by the classics, Ashman more than wrote the lyrics to the songs of The Little Mermaid, he along with composer Menken and directors Ron Clements and John Musker created a new formula for Disney—one that was far more Broadway than anything the House of Mouse had produced before. It was Ashman that suggested they turn the attentive serving crab sidekick into a Rastafarian crustacean so that pseudo-reggae and calypso songs “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” could be crafted for the picture. And it was Ashman who insisted that the leading lady mermaid of the movie be given an “I Want” song when she rolled in the seafloor sand for “Part of Your World,” which is intentionally modeled after the Broadway tradition of Eliza Dolittle belting “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” under the arches of Covent Gardens. Ultimately, it was all four creators, plus a revitalized Walt Disney Animation Studios team, which ushered in The Disney Renaissance when that movie opened in November 1989.

The entire rise of the Disney Renaissance—including Ashman’s last two pictures before his tragic death in Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, as well as Elton John and Tim Rice’s contributions to The Lion King—and its ultimate decline with ambitious misses like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an article unto itself. But culturally, even if this period lasted a mere 10 years, it has birthed a far more permanent revitalization outside of just the home that Mickey built.

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However one ranks the pictures produced by Disney’s animated renaissance, there is no denying that they were as ubiquitous in globalized pop culture during the 1990s as Pixar has been since the 2000s. When The Lion King opened in 1994, it became the second highest grossing film of all-time behind the previous year’s Jurassic Park and remained the most successful animated film until Finding Nemo was released nine years later with added inflation advantages. Even if the “decline” portion of the Renaissance never reached the heights of that picture’s grosses, or even Aladdin’s $500 million-plus take, all except for Hercules still crossed $300 million worldwide. When VHS and home market purchases are taken into account, these movies were seen by virtually all moviegoing Millennials, teens, and children of the ‘90s.

Like most art-forms, the musical medium must be introduced early to develop an appreciation for it. This could be argued as a broad generalization, but most people who value the arts can trace that influence back to an early age. This is the reason that Turner Classic Movies has developed a wonderful summertime program, Essentials Jr., that annually attempts to introduce the most broadly appealing classics to an all-age audience. Host and SNL alumni Bill Hader, who this summer oversaw the airing of Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Cat People (1942), amongst others, has been drawn to the program for four years running. He told The LA Times, “There is nothing wrong with watching Transformers. You should watch everything. But you should get a bigger view. I don’t want these movies to go away and be unnoticed. You want a generation of people to appreciate it and also know they are good.”

For over 20 years, a cultural divide ended the popularity of movie musicals. As a result, the intervening generation, which barely saw new cinematic musicals, was far less likely to be drawn to films like A Little Shop of Horrors, Everyone Says I Love You, and a multitude of other adult-targeted musical underperformers. Meanwhile, younger teenagers were treating Aladdin’s “A Whole New World” like a date movie, and while the kids were enraptured by Jerry Orbach’s faux-French stylings to “Be Our Guest,” even the most jaded Hollywood insider parents were impressed enough to nominate Beauty and the Beast for Best Picture back when that actually meant something.

A generation of young moviegoers thus came of age during a period when the most popular family entertainment that most could enjoy featured characters unapologetically, and without a sense of irony, breaking into rapturous song. And with actual Broadway and West End talent like Jodi Benson, Paige O’Hara, and Lea Salonga playing many of these starring princesses, they all sounded better than the actual live-action musical movie stars to come years later.

The Disney Renaissance is widely considered to have ended by 1999 with Tarzan (for a variety of reasons). However, in its wake and without missing a beat, live-action musicals for adults came back into vogue seemingly overnight. Two years after Tarzan came Moulin Rouge!, a kinetic only-in-the-movies absinthe trip devised by madcap maestro Baz Luhrmann. That picture lured viewers uncomfortable with the idea of a musical clearly for adults—with its love story being centered around a courtesan who gives her body to the night—with familiar pop songs of the previous 30 years. It’s remarkable that “Circle of Life” didn’t make an appearance, nonetheless teenagers who grew up listening to Disney could transition easily to Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor singing Whitney Houston and Nirvana. This movie was immediately followed by musicals that were based strictly on Broadway songbooks, including Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Les Misérables.

Sweeney Todd in particular is a curiosity because it is adapted from the least family-friendly (and sing-along friendly) musical imaginable: As Stephen Sondheim’s close shave with Grand Guignol, it stars a vengeful and obsessive barber who after failing to quench his bloodlust on his enemy, settles on murdering complete strangers in his shop so that his landlady can cook them into meat pies for the unsuspecting public. Equal parts dark comedy and tragedy, director Tim Burton zeroed in on the latter for his nigh black-and-white adaptation that turned a musical rich enough for opera houses into the testing ground for Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter’s untrained voices. The movie is so desaturated of joy or happiness that it could be far more easily mistaken as a Universal Horror movie of the 1930s than any of the studio’s actual attempts to resurrect that subgenre in recent years.

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Still, audiences reared on Disney, both in animation and Pirates of the Caribbean, showed up for a movie that would mark Depp’s third Oscar nominated role, and arguably last good one in the following seven years (certainly, it’s Burton’s last good movie).

And not long after the fact, Disney itself turned to that same subversive voice of Sondheim for Into the Woods, which more or less helped pave the way for something like a Beauty and the Beast remake.

The movie musical is more than alive now; it’s thriving. Perhaps it will never become as omnipresent in pop culture as it once was—not enough CGI or masked altruism built into the DNA for that. But as a star-studded event with a medium-budget? Or a remake of a beloved animated classic? It’s been here in that form longer than the modern superhero age. Ever since the words were first uttered, it really has been part of our world.

***The original version of this article ran on Nov. 11, 2014.