West Side Story and the Odd Feeling that Musicals are Out of Step

West Side Story is a lavish remake of the classic 1960s musical directed by Steven Spielberg but didn't seem to make any great cultural impact despite Ariana Debose winning the Oscar for  Best Supporting Actress, which she definitely earned. This and the odd flood of musicals in the past year seems contrary to what audiences want to see.

See West Side Story Early in IMAX With a Special Cast Q&A
West Side Story Poster. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

You'd think Hollywood would get the message by now – movie audiences don't really care about musicals at the moment. Every major musical has bombed in the theatres in 2021. In the Heights, the horrendous Dear Evan Hansen, and now the remake of West Side Story. Hollywood assumed that after a year of living in Lockdown, audiences wanted something fun, and what could be more fun and extravagant than musicals?

In The Heights will now release in summer 2021.
In The Heights Poster. Copyright: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In the Heights had the best chance of being a hit earlier this year. It was heralded as the start of the summer movie season and a return to the theatres after everyone spent a year at home under lockdown. It's adapted from an acclaimed hit Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the toast of Broadway, and his work before his breakout musical Hamilton. Of the 3 big movie musicals this year, it's the biggest, an expansive celebration of Puerto Rican immigration culture in New York City and a commentary on gentrification and the erosion of traditional ethnic communities in the city. It was directed by Jon Chung, a very good director fresh off the hit-making of Crazy Rich Asians. Its failure was a shock to the system for Hollywood and the first sign that the moviegoing audience just isn't interested in musicals right now. It's a genre that's not right for the times, just like the Western is seen as largely dead as far as blockbusters are concerned. Only old people might be into it, and there aren't enough of them like kids and younger audiences that propel the box office to Marvel movie heights.

Dear Evan Hansen Review: An Award Mess of Emotional Manipulation
Dear Evan Hansen Poster. Credit: Universal

Dear Evan Hansen is the most misjudged movie of 2o21 next to The Last Duel. They're both completely tone-deaf and out of touch. The story of the original hit Broadway musical was already extremely dubious, and the movie blew up everything wrong about it. A teen high school musical about an awkward misfit who exploits the lie that he was the only friend of a classmate who committed suicide and has to learn major life lessons when the truth eventually comes out. The story was already in questionable taste but it became a hit with a huge following because of, apparently, the strength of its songs that touched the people and teens who saw it.

The movie ended up looking like a massive creep-fest by insisting on casting the original lead of the Broadway musical who is very obviously a grown man who does not look like a teenager. He might be able to get by playing a teenager on stage when the audience is tens of feet away and watching him from a distance and the stylization allows for the suspension of disbelief, but in a movie with its close-ups, he is clearly an adult man amongst a high school full of younger actors who actually look like teenagers. He comes off like an adult undercover cop trying to pass as a teenager in high school searching for drug dealers to bust. The actor trying to act like an awkward teen by slouching and hunching his shoulders like Frankenstein's Igor just makes his performance even more ridiculous. The story demanding that we identify and sympathize with a hero who's a lying, manipulative sociopath is made even worse by this insane miscasting of its lead. This might be the most psychotic, gaslighting, hysterically misjudged movie of the year, and being a musical somehow doesn't help.

West Side Story Review: It's Just a Well Made and Executed Remake
West Side Story Poster. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

West Side Story feels like a labour of love from Steven Spielberg. The script by Broadway playwright Tony Kushner is more acute in its political and social commentary and it's more authentic in its casting. On the surface, it might seem like a winner: Steven Spielberg remaking a classic and beloved musical. On the other hand, it also seems like a terrible idea: an expensive remake of a classic that no one asked for, an old movie that young audiences have zero interest in, no matter how good the new script is or how much more authentic its representation is than the original.

Another failure to mention is Cyrano directed by Joe Wright. That revision of the classic French play Cyrano de Bergerac starring Peter Dinklage was one of the biggest box office bombs of late 2021 and early 2022. It's a collision of contradictory approaches and elements that makes it a failed experiment that deserves a separate article that's coming later in the week.

There was a time – from the 1920s to the 1960s – when musicals were relevant and popular. That time has passed, possibly due to their becoming inaccessible to the majority of audiences. Musical theatre geekdom is a niche, and these movies bombing seems to prove that it's not a niche big enough to make movie musicals a hit. It might also be something that older audiences like, but again, there may be not enough old people to make a movie musical that cost over $50 million a hit. Disney was probably right to put Hamilton on the Disney+ streaming service rather than risk losing money at the theatres. The musical-loving contingency in Hollywood must have substantial clout to keep trying to trot them out. Apple TV+ keeps sticking original musicals on their service. Netflix has the cloying Tick… Tick… Boom! and the unbelievably awful Diana: The Musical. That's fine, let the musical lovers find them and enjoy them. Musicals falling out of public favour is the tragic circle of life of genres. Westerns have also fallen into a niche, and one day, so will superhero movies.

West Side Story is now out on HBO Max and Disney+.

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About Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh is a filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist. He wrote radio plays for the BBC Radio, “JLA: Age of Wonder” for DC Comics, “Blackshirt” for Moonstone Books, and “La Muse” for Big Head Press. Most recently, he wrote “Her Nightly Embrace”, “Her Beautiful Monster” and “Her Fugitive Heart”, a trilogy of novels featuring a British-Indian private eye published by Atria Books, a division Simon & Schuster.
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