Thank you for the musicals

With Les Mis, My Fair Lady and Annie coming to the big screen, stars who can sing are hot property and theatre is calling the tune in Hollywood once again

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The Hollywood Hills are alive with the sound of music, with songs they have sung, well, if not for a thousand years, for a good two decades. Films based on West End and Broadway musicals are having a bit of a moment: this year has already seen the release of Rock of Ages, Les Misérables is up next in December, and remakes of My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Wicked and even Annie are all on the way.

In fact, movie musicals have been having a moment for a while now, following the runaway success of the Oscar-winner Chicago in 2002 and the unexpected popularity of Mamma Mia!, now the highest-grossing musical ever, in 2008. But it's only recently, after a decade of "fun" musical films viewed by most heavyweight thespians with derision, that the industry has started taking the genre seriously once again.

Take the rather sombre trailer for the upcoming, long-awaited film adaptation of Les Misérables, for example. In the relentlessly upbeat world of movie musicals (High School Musical, anyone?), its focus on a sad, solitary melody is a bold choice. A single voice punctuates a series of harrowing images: the desperate expression in a man's eyes, a snapshot of a revolution.  There are no spoken words, only the voice, raw and naked.

Actually, it is the voice of a very famous person (Anne Hathaway) singing a very famous song ("I Dreamed a Dream") but neither fame nor fun are the point. This is a movie musical so confident in its musicality that it has, unusually, put the voice centre stage.

Until recently, this would have been unthinkable. After the golden age of musicals in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, studios slowly drifted away, first from pricey original scores and then from the genre altogether. The odd success – Grease and Evita, for example – came along but was usually met with hostility by critics (the late Andrew Sarris said of Grease: "It's hard to see how it could be any less fun that it is."). And an inevitable sequel, usually more expensive than its predecessor, often brought the genre's reputation crashing right back down again. Grease made a profit of almost 2,000 per cent. Grease 2, meanwhile, scraped by with just 13 per cent.

Chicago, the first musical to win Best Picture Oscar since Oliver! in 1968, did a lot to change people's perceptions. Thereafter, followed a slew of copycats, many of them good, if rather fatuous: Dreamgirls, Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, Footloose and Mamma Mia!. There were some duds, too, of course. Remember Rent? Exactly.

But Chicago was careful not to overwhelm audiences not used, at that time, to songs beyond the realms of Disney animations. Director Rob Marshall cleverly remodelled the musical numbers as figments of Roxy Hart's imagination, thereby retaining a distinction between the story and the music.

John Kenrick, a musical theatre and film historian, credits two things with slowly rebuilding the reputation of movie musicals. Firstly, casting movie stars who can actually sing. Rock of Ages might not have rocked the box office but was given a leg up by the fact that it starred a surprisingly tuneful Tom Cruise.

Secondly, a new troupe of producers and directors who have crossed over from Broadway to film, including Cameron Mackintosh, the producer behind the original stage version of Les Misérables and now the film, Adam Shankman (director of Rock of Ages and Hairspray) and Craig Zadan, a driving force behind Chicago and now a producer on the musical TV show Smash.

As the popularity of stage musicals grew throughout the Eighties and Nineties, (today nine out of every ten dollars spent on Broadway is spent on musical theatre) this new posse of music-lovers recognised the untapped profitability of transferring from stage to screen.

"Now that audiences are more accepting of song on film, studios have realised that they work the same way as franchises – they already have a built-in audience," says Kenrick. Theatreland too seems to have caught on to this mutual publicity, with Sam Mendes returning to the West End for a stage musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and a stage version of The Bodyguard coming to London's Adelphi Theatre in November.

The result, though, is not simply more musicals, but a shift in tone. Les Misérables, directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), will be the first musical film ever to be fully live recorded. In other words, its stars – Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne and Helena Bonham Carter – will sing as they are acting, rather than pre-recording the songs and then lip-syncing on set.

Kenrick predicts that the immediacy of filming in this way will give the film a fresh, realistic quality that is more in keeping with the kinds of films made today. "I think this way of doing Les Mis will bring much more grit, more spontaneity to the performances. The only time when this has been done before was when Rex Harrison insisted on filming his solos live for My Fair Lady, because he said the intricate interplay between talking and singing made it difficult to lip-sync. As a result, his scenes simply leap off the screen."

Other movie musicals are heading in the same direction. Following controversial criticism from Emma Thompson (who is writing the script for the new My Fair Lady) of Audrey Hepburn's singing ability, the team behind the remake have cast Carey Mulligan as Eliza Doolittle.

Mulligan, who won plaudits for her heartrending rendition of "New York, New York" in Shame, is expected to bring a groundedness to the role that was lacking in Hepburn's gamine portrayal. Colin Firth, fresh from the other side of the speech therapy couch in The King's Speech, is rumoured to be up for Henry Higgins.

Similarly, Bob Balaban, the producer behind the South Pacific remake, told Variety that it will be "a tougher, more realistic retelling of the same classic story", and, in what will be an avant-garde take on that most saccharine of musicals, Annie, Willow Smith and Jay-Z have been confirmed as the star and maestro respectively.

Movie musicals have more muscle than they have had in a long time. Whether a more modern approach will render angelic orphans and London's grateful poor more palatable for cynical present-day audiences remains to be seen. One thing's for sure: when Mr Beyoncé and one of the Smith clan get involved, you can betcha bottom dollar it's not going to be low key.