Hollywood Is Betting Big on Musicals Despite ‘In the Heights’ Disappointment

Why so many musicals right now? Let's see how many wind up in theaters.
"West Side Story"
"West Side Story"

Musicals are mounting a major return to a platform near you — nearly a dozen are set to release by the end of the year. Why are there are so many lined up? It’s both flukes of timing and market forces. Some are big-budget studio efforts held back until the pandemic was “over,” others are smaller scale films, some are strictly online events. Not all will make it to theaters, especially after Jon M. Chu’s movie adaptation “In the Heights” (June 11, Warner Bros.), a less-well-known Broadway musical from “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, nabbed stellar reviews but disappointed in theaters after launching the Tribeca Festival. How it performed on HBO Max is less clear.

But there’s still a lot of Miranda — among other musical talents — in the 2021 pipeline. See below. Here’s what’s going on.

1. Studios are chasing pre-branded hits.

Despite the disaster of “Cats” ($75.5 million worldwide), global smashes like “Mamma Mia!” ($603.6 million) and its sequel “Here We Go Again” ($395 million) and “Les Miserables” ($438 million) encourage studios such as Universal to continue to push established Broadway intellectual property (IP) to Hollywood on the basis of proven worldwide popularity.

2008 Best Musical Tony winner “In the Heights” may have been established on Broadway — mainly recognized as the forerunner to Miranda’s global phenomenon “Hamilton” — but clearly, with a no-name cast even if Anthony Ramos has a stellar career ahead of him, was not a draw for audiences. While Miranda is well-known inside the realm of Disney and Broadway musicals, he is hardly a household name. Perhaps it is just as well that his directorial debut “tick, tick…Boom” won’t have to pass muster in theaters when it becomes available on Netflix at year’s end.

More likely to hit big in theaters is Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” which “is a proven commodity, a beloved classic which has been regularly revived on Broadway,” said New York literary agent Eric Myers, “and is a fixture of high-school drama clubs and community theaters all over the country.”

“The Greatest Showman”

2. Musicals play well on the big screen.

Not all movies can be Marvel superhero draws. Studios plunk down production dollars on musicals because they offer moviegoers a visual/aural experience designed for the big screen. Production decisions are focused on finding eye-popping movies to lure audiences to the multiplex. When a smash song hits the culture, it boosts a musical’s impact at the box office. “A good song is key, like ‘Let It Go’ or ‘City of Stars,'” wrote producer Michael Shamberg in an email. “Musicals are an emotional experience guaranteed to transport you. They are also a movie the whole family can watch together, like ‘The Greatest Showman.'”

Costing just $84 million, “The Greatest Showman” (2017), with songs by “La La Land” writers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is the poster child for a sleeper original musical without provenance that pleased crowds so much that it kept going and going. While it boasted star appeal in Hugh Jackman as well as youth magnets Zac Efron and Zendaya, that kind of movie magic is lightning in a bottle. Pasek and Paul’s “The Greatest Showman” had legs, lasting 219 days in release, with a North American gross of $174.3 million and $435 million worldwide, against a production budget of $84 million.

The other studio fantasy is the 2018 performance of Dexter Fletcher’s Oscar-winning concert musical “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which functioned more as a biopic with rocking Queen music. The $52 million movie grossed $216.4 million in North America, with a total worldwide gross of $903.7 million.

Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver
Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver in the cover art for “So We May Start” from “Annette”Sony Music

3. The musicals are bunched up due to pandemic delays.

The spate of a dozen musicals hitting before the end of the year is partly due to a fluke of scheduling; backed up 2020 postponements are joining other movies. But they may not all make it to theaters. Many will wind up streaming.

Here’s the current line-up:

August 6

“Annette” (Amazon) debuts at Cannes on July 6. Written by Ron Mael and Russell Mael of Sparks, and directed by French auteur Leos Carax (“Holy Motors”), the movie stars Adam Driver as a stand-up comedian and Marion Cotillard as his opera singer wife, as they raise a gifted two-year-old child.

August 13

Long-delayed Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect” (MGM/UA) stars Jennifer Hudson as the Queen of Soul, Audra McDonald as her mother, and Forest Whitaker as her womanizing preacher father, who drove her to succeed.

September 17

“Everybody’s Talking about Jamie” (Fox/Amazon) is based on the British stage musical about a teenager (Max Harwood) who wants to be a drag queen. Richard E. Grant and Sarah Lancashire costar. Original writers Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells adapted the stage hit, which was inspired by a BBC TV documentary, and is presumably too risque for Disney+.

September 24

“Dear Evan Hansen” (Universal) is based on the 2017 Best Musical Tony winner, and stars Best Actor winner Ben Platt and Julianne Moore. While Pasek and Paul’s tearjerker was a crowd pleaser onstage, it risks being too sincere for the big screen.

September TBA

“Cinderella” (Sony/Amazon) is a musical romantic comedy directed by Kay Cannon, who wrote it with producer James Corden, starring Camila Cabello in the title role.

“Come From Away” (Apple TV+) was to be adapted into a movie but those plans were scuttled during the pandemic, replaced by a film of the live stage show directed by Christopher Ashley from Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s hit musical, based on true stories, following the residents of the small Newfoundland town of Gander who take in thousands of plane passengers after the World Trade Center attacks closed American airspace.

November 24

“Encanto” (Disney), Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original animated musical, directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard, is about a young Colombian girl who comes from a magical family. Will it wind up on Disney+?

December 20

“West Side Story” (Disney), directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner, reimagines the 1961 Best Picture winner based on Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, and Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 Broadway musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The ensemble is led by Ansel Elgort (“Baby Driver”) as Tony, Rachel Zegler (“Shazam: Fury of the Gods”) as Maria, Ariana DeBose (“Hamilton”) as Anita, and “Dear Evan Hansen” star Mike Faist as Riff.

December 22

“Sing 2” (Universal) follows up writer-director Garth Jennings’s animated animals singing contest movie featuring the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, and Reese Witherspoon.

December 25

“Cyrano” (MGM/UA) stars Peter Dinklage, who reprises his role in the 2019 Off-Broadway musical, which featured songs by The National. Joe Wright (“Atonement”) directs Kelvin Harrison Jr as Christian, Ben Mendelsohn as De Guiche, and Haley Bennett as Roxanne.

Two Miranda musicals are TBA on Netflix:

Miranda’s directing debut is “tick tick…Boom,” an auto-fiction musical written by the late composer Jonathan Larson (“Rent”), starring Andrew Garfield as Larson, opposite Bradley Whitford as Stephen Sondheim. The cast includes musical stars Vanessa Hudgens, Judith Light, Beth Malone, Joshua Henry, and Robin de Jesus.

“Vivo” (Sony Pictures Animation/Netflix), an animated musical directed by Kirk DeMicco and Brandon Jeffords, stars Miranda in the title role as a kinkajou — a tropical rainforest animal native to Central and South America — traveling to Miami to deliver a message in the form of a song. The soundtrack features all-new Miranda original songs.

La La Land

4. Oscar voters love musicals. 

The history of musical Oscar-winners is long and storied. Ten have gone all the way to Best Picture: “The Broadway Melody” (1929), “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936), “Going My Way” (1944), “An American In Paris” (1951), “Gigi” (1958), “West Side Story” (1961), “My Fair Lady” (1964), “The Sound of Music” (1965), “Oliver!” (1968), and “Chicago” (2002), the last musical to earn that distinction. “La La Land” (2016) came close, though, winning six Oscars including Best Actress for Emma Stone and Best Director and Best Screenplay for Damien Chazelle.

Music, costumes, sets, and hair and makeup are all part of the movie musical tool kit. And actors get to showcase their singing, dancing, and emoting skills, too. Despite its rocky launch, expect “In the Heights” to enter the Oscar conversation, including Anthony Ramos and veteran Olga Merediz, reprising her Tony-nominated role as Abuela Claudia, along with Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and other musicals expected by year’s end. Whether or not mainstream audiences embraced the picture, Academy voters admire its craft.

Richard Linklater Ben Platt5. And wait, there’s more!

A bunch of musical projects are in some stage of development: some will get made, others not. They’re listed in alphabetical order:

“The Carole King Musical” (Sony) has been in the works since 2015, with Douglas McGrath adapting his book into a screenplay and stage producer Paul Blake producing through Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman’s production company, Playtone.

“A Chorus Line” (Netflix), already disastrously adapted into a movie starring Michael Douglas in 1985, will be tackled again by Ryan Murphy, this time as a limited series. “My favorite Broadway director of all time, producer, whatever, is Michael Bennett,” Murphy told Deadline. “So, it’s going to be ‘A Chorus Line’ with all that wonderful music, but also the idea of how did he make ‘A Chorus Line?'”

“Fiddler on the Roof” (MGM/UA) will be directed by Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”) and adapted by “Fosse/Verdon” writer Sam Levinson from Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye and his five daughters, and the “Fiddler on the Roof” 1971 musical by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein.

“Follies,” the famed Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman musical, is being adapted into a film by Dominic Cooke, who directed the National Theatre revival, with Rosie Alison and David Heyman producing.

“Fun Home”: Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company is developing a film of the Tony-winning musical by ⁦Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori based on ⁦Alison Bechdel’s memoir. Sam Gold is set to direct Gyllenhaal as Bechdel’s father Bruce, who comes out to his family, including lesbian Alison.

“The Greatest Days” is being adapted by Tim Firth and director Coky Giedroyc from “The Band,” with choreography by Drew McOnie. Cush Jumbo and Rosamund Pike are announced to star in the movie version.

“Guys and Dolls”: TriStar has bought the rights to Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling’s Tony-winning musical, the 1955 film version, and the original Damon Runyon short stories, which Danny Strong is writing for producers John Goldwyn and Marc Toberoff.

“Little Shop of Horrors,” Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s 1983 horror musical will be produced by David Geffen, Sarah Schechter, and Marc Platt, and directed by Greg Berlanti from a script by Matthew Robinson. Among the rumored cast are Taron Egerton as Seymour, Scarlett Johansson as Audrey, and Chris Evans as dentist Orin Scrivello (played by Steve Martin in the 1986 film adaptation), with Billy Porter as the evil plant Audrey II.

“Matilda the Musical” (Working Title/Netflix) is in post-production. Adapted by Dennis Kelly from the Broadway musical based on the Roald Dahl book, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, the film is directed by theater-filmmaker Matthew Warchus (“Pride”). The story focuses on a young girl (Alisha Weir) endowed with special powers who goes up against the formidable Miss Trunchbull (Emma Thompson). Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough play Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, with comedian Sindhu Vee as librarian Mrs. Phelps and Lashana Lynch as Miss Honey.

“Mean Girls” is in writer-producer Tina Fey’s sights. She’ll adapt for the screen the 2018 Broadway musical, which is based on her 2004 movie.

“Merrily We Roll Along,” the movie of the Sondheim musical, won’t be finished for another 20 years. “Boyhood” director Richard Linklater is shooting Ben Platt as Broadway composer Franklin Shepard, Beanie Feldstein, and Blake Jenner in real time, as they age, for Blumhouse Productions.

“Once On This Island” (Disney+): Producer Marc Platt (father of Ben) is developing a film for Disney with playwright Jocelyn Bioh and director Wanuri Kahiu about a young peasant girl in the French Antilles who falls for a rich boy. With book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, it was originally staged on Broadway in 1990 and revived in 2017.

“Sunset Boulevard” (Paramount Pictures) is in the works, with Glenn Close and Andrew Lloyd Webber producing; Close is eager to star in the film version of the hit stage musical based on the Billy Wilder classic.

“Wicked” (Universal): Composer Stephen Schwartz is creating new songs for the long-awaited Marc Platt production to be directed by Jon M. Chu. One actress begging for a role in the movie: “Mamma Mia!” star Amanda Seyfried.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.