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‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’: 3 Reasons Why Musicals Are Box Office Gold

We're in the middle of a musical renaissance, decades after the genre's Hollywood Golden Age. We explain why.

“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again!”

Universal

While “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again” (Universal) may not open better than the eleven sequels so far this summer– well, it may beat “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” and “The First Purge”– it continues to build on the renewed interest in musicals created by 2008 surprise global smash “Mamma Mia!”

Phyllida Lloyd’s stage musical adaptation turned into the biggest domestic musical hit since “Chicago” (2002), grossing $175 million in the U.S./Canada (all figures are adjusted to 2018 ticket prices). That was less than “Chicago” at $259 million. But its success was notable enough to encourage other musicals in the years since.

In a season of non-stop sequels and franchise entries, here’s why musicals are making a comeback:

Universal

1. Sequels reign

Musical sequels are not common. Of all the genres that have been traditional staples of successful sequels, musicals have seen the fewest. (A musical is a film with singing actors, including numbers that aren’t just stage performances.)

We have seen several big-level musical successes in the last two years, including  major hits “Beauty and the Beast,” “La La Land,” and “The Greatest Showman,” preceded by “Les Miserables.” But none spawned a sequel.

Sequels to hit musical movies are hard to find. Two of the rare ones came decades ago. “Funny Girl” (domestic adjusted gross $367 million) was followed seven years later by the little remembered “Funny Lady,” which still managed adjusted $176 million with uber-star Barbra Streisand the main draw.

“Grease” in 1978, at the height of John Travolta’s appeal, grossed a staggering adjusted $705 million (that’s as big as any Marvel film). It spawned a non-Travolta sequel four years later, which grossed adjusted $47 million. That was 93 per cent less than the original.

As the MTV era in the 1980s popularized short-form numbers and soundtracks packed with music (“Flashdance”), movie musicals declined.

Fact is, studios today do not make expensive movies unless they think they can be followed up with more from the same pool. If “Here We Go Again” shows any level of success similar to “Mamma Mia!,” expect development minds to go back again.

There are two more big-budget musicals opening later this year: the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper “A Star Is Born” remake and sequel “Mary Poppins Returns.” If the former is a hit, don’t be surprised by a follow-up with Lady Gaga. And a stellar cast is joining “Les Mis” director Tom Hooper’s Working Title movie musical “Cats” –Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, James Corden and Ian McKellen. Whatever happens with these musicals, “Mamma Mia!” led the way.

The “Beauty and the Beast” remake wasn’t a sequel, but it offered more brand appeal — taking an animated musical and making it live action. It’s one in a long series. Disney is already at work on a new “The Lion King.” The genre does fit in with industry norms after all.

“La La Land”

2. Musicals play worldwide

“Chicago” in 2002-03 nabbed 44 percent of its gross overseas. “Mamma Mia!” scored 76 percent. That share put it at the very high end of all films released in 2008. That year, the two biggest domestic hits — “Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” — did more than half of their business in domestic gross. Even a huge international franchise like the Bond “Quantum of Solace” topped out at 71 percent foreign.

More than any other factor, foreign appeal gave life to the recent musical renaissance. Look at the three recent hits. “La La Land” was a stunning domestic success ($156 million). But this All-American, Los Angeles film grossed almost double that overseas ($300 million). “Beauty and the Beast” was 2018’s second-biggest domestic release at over $500 million. Though its share was a bit lower (60 percent), foreign delivered another $760 million-plus. “The Greatest Showman”? A huge sleeper domestic hit — $170 million — added another $260 million international.

None of these films fit into the usual sequel/franchise/action/male appeal dominated stereotype of what works overseas. These three films, along with “Mamma Mia!,” have as many differences as similarities.

Finally, foreign appeal drives studio moviemaking. That musicals across the board are working will make future sequels more likely.

Hugh Jackman the Greatest Showman

“The Greatest Showman”

3. Musicals lure women

“The Greatest Showman” opened right before Christmas, with a gross only a tiny fraction of its ultimate domestic total. But its initial audience was a staggering 73 percent female. Its worldwide audience has been reportedly also predominantly women. “Beauty and the Beast” was 72 percent female opening day domestic.

Those are huge shares of audience. At a time when women boosted “Wonder Woman” and their lack of interest has yielded big-budget domestic disappointments like  “Transformers” or “Pacific Rim Uprising” and “Skyscraper,” strong female interest in the genre provides a huge boost. That will help “Here We Go Again,” as well as the ones coming out later this year.

Belle (Emma Watson) in the West Wing of the Beast's castle in Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, a live-action adaptation of the studio's animated classic directed by Bill Condon which brings the story and characters audiences know and love to life.

“Beauty and the Beast”

Laurie Sparham

“Beauty and the Beast” and “The Greatest Showman” share an important distinction: a PG rating. Most blockbusters are PG-13 (that includes both “Mamma Mia!” films and “La La Land”), a few are R. PG is not a kiss of death to mainstream moviegoers. Back in the 60s and 70s when musicals were in decline they were often rated G, which hurt them.

PG-films appeal to a broad group of casual ticket buyers, mostly with families in tow. Animated films and musicals, including the upcoming “Mary Poppins Returns,” have the ability to get away with the more benign, unrestrictive PG rating. And it has worked.

We’ll see if “Here We Go Again” replicates other recent successes. But its positioning as a mid-summer alternative to comic book movies and other action/adventure tales led by VFX could be a winner. And in fractious times, musicals can be a welcome escape.

Movie musicals were once a dominant box office force. In 18 years from 1961-1978, six musicals (“West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” The Sound of Music,” “Funny Girl,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “Grease”) were the #1 films of their years, with “Mary Poppins” in reissues pushing it higher than all but “The Sound of Music.”

It was a different time. The first five were road shows, that is, higher priced, multi-month, exclusive presentations with reserved seats. That placed them alongside big-budget epics like “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben-Hur,” and “Lawrence of Arabia” at a position not unlike current films like Marvel or Star Wars franchise entries as the most anticipated films of their years.

That was long ago. Musicals, which go back to silent days (with orchestras backing up some movies with familiar songs), were a staple for decades. Their golden age ranged from the early 1930s (Busby Berkeley and Astaire-Rogers) and then bloomed at MGM (Arthur Freed, Vincente Minnelli, Donen-Kelly). The late 1950s saw a shift to Broadway adaptations, which overtook the originals that were previously the norm. Then rock and roll came along, which film only really embraced years later in short-form videos.

Hopefully we’ll see more musicals for decades to come.

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