I WENT to see a musical this week; shockingly enough, it wasn't even a movie musical, it was of the stage variety. But it's a toss-up as to which format I dislike most. When I think of movie musicals, I immediately see Julie Andrews banging away on a guitar in Austria with the Von Trapps in tow and the nausea rises inside me like Dante's peak.
The last theatre musical I watched was Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles with Glenn Close in the leading role; I didn't just fall asleep, I went into a coma. It wasn't even the sweet sensation of drool trickling down my chin that finally roused me - it was when my sagging head hit the back of the wall with such a thump that Close almost lost her place in the story. This is by way of explaining my reluctance to see Rent at London's Shaftesbury Theatre.
But it's really stupid to say 'I hate musicals', even if you do, so I tagged along with a fake smile plastered on my face and had a brilliant time. Rent was energetic, youthful and even looked spontaneous, something musicals rarely accomplish. As I left, I started to think about The Movie Musical (prompted by the fact that the film rights to Rent have been sold). After much inner debate, I had an epiphany: deep down inside, I really love musicals.
But what made me, along with practically every other cinema-goer these days, believe I hated them? Music and movies have been married ever since Al Jolson sang Mammy in the first talkie. Would my life be the same without Singin' In The Rain or The Wizard Of Oz? It wouldn't be as rich, for one thing. You couldn't classify my favourite comedy, Some Like It Hot, as a musical, but Marilyn Monroe certainly sings her little heart out in it. Elvis Presley (not all of his films, of course, but certainly Love Me Tender and Jailhouse Rock. Doris Day. Even Cliff Richard ... come on, Summer Holiday is a classic.
Then I thought of Oliver!, Mary Poppins, The King And I, West Side Story and Breakfast At Tiffany's, and I almost got weepy with nostalgia. Fiddler On The Roof! Bedknobs And Broomsticks! Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang! Paint Your Wagon! Pass me the Kleenex - my childhood is flashing before my eyes! How did it all descend to Madonna as Evita? Why won't Barbra Streisand sing any more in the movies ... and can I possibly hold Andrew Lloyd Webber personally responsible for, I don't know, everything? Reading the list, you'll be coming to the conclusion that many of these musicals are camp classics - and that could be the problem. Somewhere around the time of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Jesus Christ Superstar, the movie musical took a nosedive into the camp closet. What was the last bone fide musical hit? I say Grease, and there I rest my sequins.
Since then, movies have been almost apologetic about song and dance, leaving the field open to Disney (which has come up with classic after animated classic to fill the breach). The most successful stab was Alan Parker's The Commitments which a) was cutely wrapped around a band where the songs drove the narrative, not stopped it, and b) made absolutely no money. Pity poor James L. Brooks, who spent a pile of Sony's cash on a musical called I'll Say Anything, only to have its eight Prince songs removed by panicking studio executives after poor test screenings. The Nick Nolte-starrer was eventually released in 1994 with the warbling excised. The flop's US$10 million (HK$77 million) gross probably didn't even pay the price of cutting the songs out.
We love the Lion King because he's a drawing; we no longer want to watch the Cowardly Lion going off to see the wizard. For the same reason, a Japanese man called Ken Satsuma lost his job after 11 years: we wanted to see a computerised Godzilla, not a man thrashing around in a rubber lizard suit. You have to admit though, perhaps the musical does deserve to die if the only option is watching Woody Allen quavering away to Julia Roberts in Everyone Says I Love You.
But Popcorn is still making a spirited defence of the format. It couldn't possibly be over, not when just tagging a song onto the final credits of a film means the whole world is singing it a month later - ask Celine Dion after Titanic, Bryan Adams with (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, from Robin Hood:Prince Of Thieves) or Whitney Houston (yes, that one, from The Bodyguard). Not when audiences responded so strongly to Rupert Everett crooning I Say A Little Prayer in My Best Friend's Wedding. Who remembers what happened in The Way We Were? Streisand and Robert Redford cooked lobsters and couldn't get their act together, I think - and I watched it only a couple of months ago - but just mention the title and people start humming Memories.
Perhaps Rent is the start of a new era. Let's hope so, because who wants such a treasured art form to drop off the movie map? I have bad news in that the next musical you're likely to see is Phantom Of The Opera (John Travolta and Antonio Banderas are vying for the leading role) and it's hard to imagine that particular Lloyd Webber piece rescuing the musical from the clutches of camp. The same goes for Madonna and Goldie Hawn in Chicago, directed by Nicholas Hytner.
But hey, as Julie Andrews warbled, just a spoon full of sugar. The medicine will go down. I'm confident that somebody - somewhere, somehow! - is going to reinvent the musical and, to paraphrase Singin' In The Rain director Stanley Donen at this year's Oscars: heaven, I'll be in heaven.