If anyone if equipped to talk about the future of movie musicals, it’s director/producer/choreographer extraordinaire Adam Shankman. The prolific multi-hyphenate has not one but two movies out this year, both of which happen to be Disney sequels: The witchy Halloween comedy “Hocus Pocus 2” and the Amy Adams-starring musical “Disenchanted.”
Shankman has had a hand in a wide variety of big-budget studio fare over the last two decades, from kids’ comedies to dance movies, and he is uniquely equipped to assess the future of movie musicals.
“The original screen musical is difficult because trying to create an awareness around it is hard,” Shankman said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “In the heyday of musicals, the world was simply a different place. People were looking for escapism in a way that was so different than the way we think now. Everybody is so much more critical. The world is just more complicated because of the ways in which we’re connected.”
A Juilliard grad and onetime backup dancer for Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, Shankman got his Hollywood start by choreographing movies he described as “definitively not musicals,” everything from “Boogie Nights” to “She’s All That.”
After a successful Sundance short, he made his directorial debut with Jennifer Lopez’s 2001 box office hit “The Wedding Planner.” Having proved himself by saving the rom-com, he became a studio darling, and helped usher in the dance movie craze of the mid-aughts (and the launch of Channing Tatum) by producing 2006’s “Step Up,” which became a major franchise.
Shankman also directed the 2007 movie of the Broadway musical of John Waters’ “Hairspray,” and Waters fans will know he could not have had bigger shoes to fill. He said the biggest challenge to directing a movie musical lies in “creating a comfort for an audience to buy into singing in closeups.”
“When I made ‘Hairspray,’ it was super-easy because Tracy, that’s how she sees the world,” he said of the ebullient character’s spontaneous singing and dancing. “It was an expectation. She’s insane. She lives in a world of gumballs, so there was something that was very comfortable and natural and normal, and I shot her out of the cannon and I said to the audience, ‘This is the world you’re going to be living in. Take it or leave it.’ And, it ended up working for that movie.”
Though “Disenchanted” is a sequel, its 2007 predecessor “Enchanted” was an original property meant to satirize classic Disney Princess films. Both movies contain new original songs by veteran composer Alan Menken, who famously wrote the scores for practically every hit Disney musical throughout the 1990s. Even with Menken attached, as with everything else in Hollywood, original musicals are much harder to get made.
“‘Wicked’ is coming out, ‘The Little Mermaid’ is coming out. We have the big, fat ones coming out, but the footprints of both of those properties that exist in the world is so massive that they’re undeniable but they have to get made,” he said. “Disney musicals are always going to punch through. They live in their own space. They’re attached to a certain sentimental reality that people just hold sacrosanct. Things like ‘Aladdin’ or ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ sometimes I think people don’t even regard them as musicals. It’s like they’re their own thing.”
While existing IP will always draw audiences, Shankman has a theory that musicals do best when there’s not a lot going on in the news, something that is exceedingly rare these days.
“[Musicals] are always more of a gamble because honestly, a lot of times they’re about what’s happening in the world when they drop, how tough things are out there,” he said. “I think musicals work really well when there’s a neutral lull in the world where nothing really great or nothing really terrible has just happened around it. … I think the cynicism that exists in the world today is not particularly fertile ground for musicals.”
As a reliable maestro for big glitzy productions, Shankman was tapped to produce the Academy Awards telecast in 2010, a show that received 12 Emmy nominations. With the Oscars bleeding viewers every year and its relevance in question, Shankman had some ideas for bringing back some of the Old Hollywood glamor.
“I’m going to say the thing that everybody always says, which is if you want more people tuning in, you have to nominate more movies that more people have seen,” he said. “That is no disparaging in any way of independent films or smaller movies, because they’re brilliant. But in the heyday of the Oscars, there were just not a ton of them and the movies were just infinitely more popular or more people had seen them.”
“Disenchanted” is now streaming on Disney+.