For many a superhero movie fan, movie musicals require the flexing of a cinematic muscle they don’t use very often. Sure, the current pop culture generation is cool with seeing animated characters burst into spontaneous song and choreographed dance, but watching Wolverine doesn’t interest a large swath of our number. But maybe it should…
The Greatest Showman, an unabashed movie musical loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum, just hit theaters. It is a delightful celebration of the musical genre with imaginative visuals, well-crafted song and dance numbers, and a broad strokes message of acceptance that offers a few hours of feel-good escapism in an end-of-year climate that desperately needs it.
Not only does The Greatest Showman feature two of the stars of two of the year’s biggest superhero flicks—Logan‘s Hugh Jackman and Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s Zendaya—it is a reminder that the movie musical and the superhero film are two sides of the same pop culture coin, kinetic spectacles that ask their audiences to suspend their disbelief in some major ways.
Today, the biggest movies may be superhero flicks, but there was a time when movie musicals were the dominant Hollywood genre, and when people paid big bucks to see their favorite stars burst out into song and dance on a regular basis.
If you look at the highest-grossing films of all time, by year, you’ll see South Pacific (1958), Mary Poppins (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Funny Girl (1968), and Grease (1978) all make the list. If you expand the list to include highest-grossing films of the 1930s and ’50s, or even Disney animated musicals, then musicals pop up even more frequently.
So what happened? Like the dominant Hollywood genres that have come before it, the heyday of the superhero movie will eventually fade, to be replaced with a new genre. That’s just the way the Hollywood wheel rolls. At some point, movie-goers lost interest in watching people sing and dance, seemingly losing their capacity to suspend disbelief for that unique purpose along with it.
Today, it is not uncommon to hear someone say they don’t like musicals because it is unrealistic for people to burst out into song or dance as part of their everyday life. However, the average moviegoer has no problem believing that someone could swing from skyscraper to skyscraper using only their web-shooters. It’s the form of illusion we’ve chosen as a pop culture generation.
Perhaps it has something to do with the way we were eased into it. Hollywood didn’t throw us into the superhero genre deep end with the deity-laden space road trip of Thor: Ragnarok; it gave us Peter Parker, an ordinary kid who developed very specific powers as a result of a spider bite. It gave us Tony Stark, the dude who built his superpowered suit in a cave. It gave us mutants, people who develop abilities along with a universal human experience we can all relate to: puberty.
As we’ve established, the superhero genre is one obsessed with the origin story, perhaps because it is the act of explaining to the audience how someone is able to do the impossible. It gives us a reason, any reason, that allows us to suspend disbelief in a way the modern musical doesn’t usually bother to do. Sure, there are “backstage musicals,” like High School Musical, Moulin Rouge!, or The Greatest Showman itself, but the structure only explains why the characters in question might have a propensity to sing and dance, not why they’d be able to perform elaborately choreographed numbers that have nothing to do with their planned performance.
It might help that modern musicals, like The Greatest Showman and Les Miserables and La La Land before it, are being released to a Millennial generation that grew up on Disney animated musicals, and who are therefore potentially much more able to suspend disbelief in the necessary ways to enjoy a movie musical.
The Baby Boomer generation more or less rejected the movie musical’s form of unreality, causing studios to make musicals that centered the musical sequences in a logical context. In 1972’s Cabaret, all of the musical sequences take place on the stage, with the film cutting any non-diegetic numbers from the stage musical it is adapted from. The same strategy was undertaken for 2002’s Chicago, in which all of the musical numbers are either diegetic or in Roxy Hart’s head, a departure from the stage musical.
2001’s Moulin Rouge!, 2012’s Les Miserables, 2016’s La La Land, and this year’s The Greatest Showman represent a shift away from that strategy and an attempt to stage more traditional movie musicals where the unreality does not need to be explained away by a stage version or a hallucination. Thus far, the attempts have been met with success, with those first three examples enjoying both box office and criticial success.
We’ll have to wait and see how The Greatest Showman does—the film’s marketing campaign seemed to want to keep the fact that it was, in fact, a musical relatively hidden—but I wonder if perhaps we’re past the need for an origin story in our genres of unreality. We’re certainly tired of them when it comes to the superhero genre. Could that extend to a renewed capacity to suspend disbelief for a movie musical, too?
It also might help that The Greatest Showman is clever in its attempts to ground the viewer in some recognized version of reality by giving us a place in its in-universe audience. Throughout the film, there are dozens of shots of the circus’ audience joining in with the troupe’s musical numbers through laughing, clapping, and even singing along. The message is clear: anyone who wants to be a part of this world, can be. Just start singing.
It’s the difference between a backstage musical like The Greatest Showman and a musical set in the “real” world, like La La Land or Once. In the former, we are encouraged to be part of the world of the film as a member of the diegetic audience. In the latter, there is a narrative distance, a fourth wall that keeps us separate in some way.
While La La Land arguably tries too hard to be cool and loses some earnestness in the process, The Greatest Showman is the movie musical equivalent of the geeky theater kids from high school who don’t have enough chill to be anything but awkwardly exciting about their all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. They don’t care about notions of what is hip; they’re all about what’s joyful. And we could all use a little joy right now—even Wolverine thinks so. And even in La La Land‘s case, the film’s unapologetic romance with the old-fashioned fantasy of singing and dancing was embraced by a mainstream audience in a shocking way during the winter of 2016 and ’17. Earning rave reviews and nearly $450 million at the box office, it indicated audiences were embracing the artifice and fantasy of musicals in a way just like the 1930s toe-tappers.
Talking to Digital Spy about the difference between The Greatest Showman and Logan, Jackman said: “I mean, one couldn’t be lighter and one couldn’t be darker, really. I think, maybe me and the audience needed some kind of antidote to that, and that’s what this is.”
For all of their similarities, there is a joy to the movie musical that soothes a particular part of our cultural psyche that the superhero genre just can’t reach. They’re different instruments with different specialties, even when they’re applied to the same “problem”: i.e. as a mythic form of working through our national anxieties and reinforcing the dominant structures of our culture. In other words, as a way to explain to ourselves who we are—or at least who we think we are.
It’s a function The Greatest Showman is behind wholeheartedly, operating as defense of pop culture and a criticism of the exclusivity of high art. The chief tension in the movie comes not in the struggle of embracing yourself in a world that doesn’t accept you, as the trailer and tagline suggest, but in the choice Barnum must make between the rigid comforts of an upper-class life, as represented by “high” art like opera and the theater, and the freedom and community of a life lived outside of high society circles, as represented by “low” art like pop music and the circus.
From where I’m sitting, admittedly as someone who is already sold on the idea that discussing pop culture has value, The Greatest Showman‘s logic is sound: If we want to use stories to have necessary discussions about what kind of society we want to be, it has to be in a language that everyone understands and has access to. Otherwise, we’re leaving way too many people out of the conversation.
“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” asks the theater critic, this film’s equivalent of that dude at the party who has never read a comic or seen an MCU movie, but has an opinion on The Modern Superhero. “Do these smiles look fake?” Barnum asks in response. Just because it’s entertaining, doesn’t mean it’s empty.