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Hollywood back in tune

Published Aug. 31, 2005

Musicals were a staple on the Hollywood production slate until the early 1970s, when the music died _ or hit a bad note.

That off-key refrain lasted so long that this is the first time since Fiddler on the Roof in 1972 and Cabaret in 1973 that movie musicals have been nominated two years in a row for best picture. Last year Baz Luhrmann's hypnotic Moulin Rouge opened to raves and copped a nomination. This year Chicago, a story satirizing celebrity, the media and greed, grabbed 13 nominations and is the odds-on favorite to walk away with the best picture prize March 23.

The movie, based on Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb's Broadway musical, has raked in $96-million and counting at the box office. And if it enjoys great success on Oscar night, it can count on more.

Not bad for a genre that, with the exception of a slew of Walt Disney animated musicals, has suffered through creative doldrums for the better part of 30 years.

"It was neglected," said Neil Meron, one of Chicago's executive producers. "I think the whole genre was being maligned because there was a period of time where the musicals that were being done were bad and they blamed it on the genre and not an individual film."

After the early 1970s, the decade witnessed the likes of A Star is Born and a bloated Annie. In the '80s, filmmakers gave fans a wretched adaptation of A Chorus Line, a musical that enjoyed more than 6,000 performances on the Great White Way. The '90s were even bleaker; audiences were treated to masterpieces such as Blues Brothers 2000 and Everyone Says I Love You.

To be fair, some musicals in the time frame did garner raves (Milos Forman's brilliant adaptation of Hair) and modest box office achievement (Alan Parker's version of Evita, which starred Madonna).

However, Chicago's recent success is the reason that bean-counting studio execs appear willing to give musicals another chance, said Thomas Hischak, author of the book Film It With Music: An Encyclopedic Guide to the American Movie Musical.

Musicals won't exactly be flooding out of Hollywood _ a trickle is more likely _ but among the titles given a new lease on life are some that have languished in development hell for years.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group in London has announced that Joel Schumacher will direct the cinematic version of Webber's Phantom of the Opera. And an executive for Miramax, the studio that produced Chicago, confirmed that despite rumors to the contrary, Jonathan Larson's Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent is in development. Last week, reports surfaced that Meron and his producing partner, Craig Zadan, were negotiating to bring Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls back to the screen.