“Dear Evan Hansen” failed, but not the other musicals

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Several months ago my answer seemed to be “no”.

After witnessing the catastrophic failure of “Dear Evan Hansen” – a movie I hated, adapted from a musical I loved (or at least loved. It’s hard to listen to Ben Platt since I saw the movie) – I started to wonder if a musical could go from stage to screen without being ruined in the process. Thinking about the others I had seen, I realized with some uneasiness that everyone I had found had disappointed me in one way or another. “Evita” awkwardly puts the songs and story together in a way that undermines any power the film might have had. “Les Misérables” adds songs that are not from the soundtrack. “Les Mis” and “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra” suffer from suboptimal vocals (“Les Mis” being the worst offender).

These musicals feel like they’re not meant to be movies. But neither are they intended to be musicals. They are unable to maintain what made them work as musicals while justifying their existence as movies. It’s the adaptation from one form to another where they struggled, especially when it came to suspending disbelief.

If a movie is to be a musical, that’s something it has to deal with. On stage, you don’t think twice when the characters start to sing. We have already decided to believe that the stage is a setting other than a stage (with the exception, of course, of musicals where the stage is canonical). We accept this just as we accept that the story is told through song.

This is not the same with movies. Or at least, this acceptance is not so easy or automatic. In “Dear Evan Hansen”, when high school student Evan (Ben Platt, “Pitch Perfect 2”) starts to sing quietly at the table in response to a question put to him, it’s not okay, especially when the other characters keep talking. normally. It feels less like he’s telling the story through song and more like he’s actually singing his side of the conversation to those people in their dining room. Much of the suspension of disbelief is lost in the movie because Evan sings so much more than the rest of the cast.

Despite all his singing, there never seems to be a reason. In musicals, when characters start singing in situations where people wouldn’t normally sing, it’s usually because they’re expressing something where words aren’t enough. They are moved to the song, so to speak. But in the movie, Evan seems right decide sing all of his thoughts, and when the other characters rarely sing about their arguably more complicated feelings, it becomes harder to come to terms with that.

Often the songs themselves don’t move the story forward because they lack movement in the literal sense. The characters stand or sit in the same place while singing or move in a way that does not favor the effect sought by the song; for example, the original impact of “If I Could Tell Her,” an alleged love song, is lost as we watch Evan awkwardly track Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, “Booksmart”) around his kitchen island like a killer serial.

I had high hopes for movie musicals after seeing Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” (“Ready Player One”) last week. Unlike “Dear Evan Hansen”, the vocals in “West Side Story” don’t sound shocking. Everyone sings, to begin with, and when they do, it moves the story forward. When Anita (Ariana DeBose, “Hamilton”) joined by an ensemble sings “America”, we understand not only her struggles and hopes as a Puerto Rican immigrant, but the community of like-minded people living in Manhattan. The film also uses choreography – absent in all but one of the songs from “Dear Evan Hansen” – to let audiences know that they’re not supposed to take what’s going on literally.

When Tony (Ansel Elgort, “Baby Driver”) and Maria (Rachel Zegler, debut) sing “Tonight”, it feels like the words wouldn’t have been enough to express how much they mean to each other. . The song acts to persuade audiences that they fall in love after they’ve just met. The musical element, the theatricality, the importance of music as something that the characters are brought to do when speaking is not going to be enough, is preserved in this film. In “Dear Evan Hansen”, the song simply replaces the dialogue when Evan wants it. “Dear Evan Hansen” brings the vocals to the screen. “West Side Story” brings a musical to it.

This idea of ​​bringing the theatrical element of musicals to the screen led to the success, or partial success, of other movie musicals as well, at least until disbelief was suspended. “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Cabaret” take place respectively in an opera and (as the title suggests) a cabaret, where singing is a canonical part of the story. This makes it more natural for the characters to jump into the song even when they are no longer in a storyline where they normally would. “Chicago” uses it too, as most musical numbers take place on an imaginary stage intended both to show how aspiring celebrity Roxie (Renée Zellweger, “Bridget Jones’s Baby”) imagines her life as a series of numbers. stage and comment on the immoral functioning of justice and its relationship with the press.

“Chicago” is one of the few musicals that I have found to be good. It manages to suspend our disbelief not only when it comes to the music, but also the story, which is where “West Side Story” falters. A story of fatal lovers may work in the movies (and more easily on stage), but there are times in “West Side Story” where the lack of reason for Tony and Maria’s love makes it hard to walk away. worry. These moments appear most often when the film is the most serious. When Tony dies, we can’t help but ask the devastated Maria, “Why do you care so much?” What did you find out about him during your two day relationship other than the fact that he killed your brother? “

The events of “Chicago” are arguably just as ludicrous as a two-day romance, but they never feel out of place, in part because it’s a musical and doesn’t get drunk. seriously. The musical aspect and the questionable events themselves both suspend our disbelief, thus aiding each other in plausibility. When I recently saw Roxie spontaneously filming her boyfriend (Dominic West, “The Wire”) because he lied to her about helping her get into show business, I Was struck by the fact that if it weren’t for the musical and fantasy parts of the film, I would have questioned that. As it was, I did not.

Similar to “West Side Story”, the songs of “Chicago” are (mostly) used to advance the story or to give us information about the characters, the best example being “Cell Block Tango”, in which the six women Roxie meets in prison and tells about how they murdered their victims. As happens with many songs, the whole becomes more of a stage during “Cell Block Tango”, while the prison cells can be seen behind. That doesn’t mean it’s a filmed stage performance. The film is justified with the filming of the songs, which involves dramatic close-ups and lighting changes that are not possible or could not have the same effect on a scene.

“Chicago” works like a musical because Roxie’s entire life, and the society she lives in, is one stage act or another. It works even better because that’s the point the movie tries to make. Musical and cinematic parts work with each other rather than against each other. They each give something to the other. The theatricality is not exclusive to the songs, but exists, for example, in one of the greatest sequences of the film, which alternates between a prisoner approaching the gallows and a staged “act of disappearance”, where she walks up to a screaming silver gallows and is greeted with applause when she falls and leaves an empty noose.

That is, “Chicago” and to a lesser extent “West Side Story”, adopt their original musical forms rather than trying to crush any musicality but the songs themselves out of the stories when adapted. in films. To combat disbelief in these movies, they can’t be kept as serious or literal as non-musical movies. It’s the extension of the unbelievable throughout the film, whether it’s that choreographed dance in the streets or some exaggerated plot, that makes these musicals work.

Daily Arts writer Erin Evans can be reached at [email protected].

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