Back in early December 2021, when West Side Story was struggling at the Omicron-infected box office and Encanto had yet to break out on Disney+, it seemed that a grand year of movie-musical spectacles was going to end with a whimper, not a bang. Delayed releases like In the Heights had already hit theaters and streaming platforms along with pandemic-filmed projects like Tick, Tick … Boom! and Dear Evan Hansen and a smattering of animated films (behind Encanto was Vivo, the third Lin-Manuel Miranda project of the year). It felt like an advancing, mismatched chorus line of song and dance onscreen, all elbowing each other for your attention and applause, and mostly failing to garner either by the time the calendar had run its course. In the Heights made a paltry $43.9 million worldwide after premiering in theaters and on streaming, and West Side Story eked its way to $62.6 million with a theatrical-only release. (For context, Spider-Man: No Way Home made $1.8 billion.)
Almost two months later, however, with the arrival of the 2022 Oscar nominations, there’s a little more reason to hope. Spielberg’s sumptuous West Side Story is solidly in the race with nominations in Best Picture and Best Director, among others. Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” up for Best Song, has lodged itself deep within the ear canal of every parent and child in America (even though “Dos Oruguitas” is the awards song). And while in Hollywood the phrase “movie musical” often arrives with a “big” at the beginning, in the shadow of larger projects aiming for spectacle, smaller-scale experiments have thrived. Take the upstart Tick, Tick, which just earned Andrew Garfield a Best Actor nod.
It’s not exactly easy to remember those smaller-scale experiments, though, particularly those that did not receive AMPAS nods this week. 2021 wasn’t supposed to be quite so glutted with musicals, but it quickly became so, with pandemic-adjusted premiere date after premiere date haphazardly resolving sometime between January and December. Some, like Cinderella and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, headed straight to a streaming platform (Prime Video, in both cases). Too bad, in the latter case, because Jamie was a kindly coming-of-age story that I haven’t heard a peep about since its debut. Similarly, I thought there was much to admire in Peter Dinklage’s performance in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Cyrano (even if I wished the songs wouldn’t all be in the same stately andante), but it has pushed back its wider theatrical-only release into February, desperate to get a little space from everything else.
Did the studios think their 2021 releases would be massive hits despite the crowd? They had reason to believe they might. There was the popularity of 2020’s Hamilton on Disney+ and the enduring success of 2018’s The Greatest Showman, which made $434.9 million in theaters, carried along by pure “This Is Me” smarm and Hugh Jackman pizzazz. Then, of course, 2016’s La La Land, charming and self-consciously retro, dancing in the shadow of so many old Hollywood gestures, soft-shoed its way to a bevy of Oscar nominations. Hollywood loves to do the same thing over and over again in the hopes the returns will repeat instead of diminish, and in the case of musicals, studios continue to imagine that they’ve discovered a treasure trove of work with existing audiences they can just pop from stage to screen.
But if we’ve learned anything, it’s that porting something from one medium to another is not a quick way to make a buck, nor is it any guarantee of artistic success or awards-season recognition. The film adaptation of Dear Evan Hansen might be the clearest example of that so far. Directed by Stephen Chbosky, the movie version seems reluctant to let on that it’s a musical at all, forgetting that Ben Platt’s maximalist, tears-and-snot breakdown that filled theaters and won him a Tony doesn’t work in close-up. I’ve never been a fan of the musical myself, though I get the arguments of those who see intentional frisson between its feel-good anthems and icky story. In trying (and failing) to make Dear Evan Hansen into a Serious Awards Movie, however, Chbosky lost any critical distance and just made something cloying — a PSA about high-school mental illness that happens to have songs. With a theatrical-only release, it made just $19 million worldwide.
That kind of self-congratulation is usually where movie musicals miss a step. In the Heights, which came out just as movie theaters started to reopen, positioned itself with pomp and circumstance as a victory for Latinx representation onscreen, which made the colorism of its casting all the more glaring. Overshadowed were the movie’s moments of visual ingenuity, like the scene that had Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace dancing alongside a building tilted at 90 degrees, setting Astaire and Rogers at a right angle. Similarly, West Side Story seemed to need to apologize for the musical’s history, but was best when it felt like Spielberg was playing with the cinematic possibilities of how he could move a camera through space to capture bodies in motion. He restaged “Cool” (never anyone’s favorite song) with dances along the docks, and set the camera twirling through the gym sequence in a way that made its placement as much a part of the choreography as anyone’s dance steps. Both movies are a response to the original West Side Story in their own way, and both must have depended on the existence of that original film for Hollywood to green-light them. But both are better when they use that familiarity as a space to get experimental.
Another way to do that is to simply stay at a weird, wonderful, and smaller scale. Annette, which unsurprisingly missed out on an Oscar nomination but earned Leos Carax a Best Director award at Cannes, has lingered with me since it made me viscerally uncomfortable as I watched (and not just because Adam Driver’s misanthropic comic is named Henry McHenry). It got the way that the dramatic freedom of musical storytelling can lead you to unusual and wonderful moments, like Simon Helberg narrating his character’s simmering anger with full orchestral accompaniment. Tick, Tick, a personal favorite because it played into all sorts of embarrassingly earnest musical feelings, cribbed from Fosse films and understood that a movie musical is a playground where you can have inspiration strike in a swimming pool, or invite Bernadette Peters herself to cameo in a Sondheim homage. There’s something to be said for these sequences where movie musicals allow their realities to break. How better to explain the kinetic energy released by, for instance, Barb and Star going full musical for a second just to have Jamie Dornan sing?
Even Encanto managed to push against expectations. Most of the movie’s action is confined to one magical casita, with much of the choreography, including in “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” animated off of human performers. That might strip the film of the feeling that the characters are going on a real journey — as they might in a Disney movie of the past where Ariel goes up where the people are or Hercules goes the distance — but it gives Encanto a grounded feeling, as if the whole family is just putting on a play within a magically enhanced proscenium. If 2021’s live-action musicals were laboring to be the next serious-minded movie-musical smash, Encanto faced the pressure to be yet another Disney animated adventure. But it answered that problem by coming at it sideways, keeping the dynamism inside and letting the success of its character numbers carry the story along, rather than its ballads.
If, at the end of the year of the movie musical, Encanto, West Side Story, and Tick, Tick … Boom! have risen above the din of everything else, I’d say this pack of survivors portends not a continuation of the spectacle status quo, but a weirder, more exciting future for the genre. No one title prevailed as the singular seismic, universally acclaimed, theater-saving hit, but they allowed for experimentation and new possibilities in a staid form. So let’s relieve their descendants of the pressure to become the next big movie musical. I have some hope that the Wicked movie (should it ever actually exist) and The Color Purple will be big and thrilling, but I’d be just as excited to see them embrace the quirks that helped movie musicals stand out in a calendar year accidentally full of them. At the very least, we can move on from trying to remake West Side Story. 2021 went there and did that. Easy does it. Turn off the juice, boy.