Hollywood heavies facing the music

Will “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago” inspire a resurgence in musical films? We have three words on that idea: Oy, yoy and yoy.

Baz Luhrmann, Rob Marshall and their collaborators should be allowed to do whatever musical they want because they know how to do it. As for the rest of you, proceed with caution.

Hollywood, as you may have noticed, always imitates success. “Star Wars” was followed by a flood of sci-fi epics (“Krull,” “Ice Pirates”) and the world was no richer for them. “Animal House,” “Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon” and “There’s Something About Mary” all spawned a slew of terrible imitators.

After a long dry spell, the Hollywood majors again are receptive to the idea of song-and-dance films. The problem: When a thriller or romantic comedy opens, media pundits do not declare that box office will determine the entire future of the genre. But with musicals (or Westerns), every entry seems to be the test case and even a small flurry of clunkers will eliminate good tuners for another decade or so.

After the mega-success of the 1965 “Sound of Music,” studios eagerly cranked out “The Singing Nun,” “Song of Norway,” “Star!” “Doctor Dolittle” and “Hello, Dolly!”; by the early 1970s, “Darling Lili,” “Paint Your Wagon” and “Lost Horizon” pretty much sealed the fate of the genre.

There was a resurgence after the 1978 hit “Grease,” and audiences were subjected to a bunch of “hip” youth-targeted tuners like “Xanadu,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Can’t Stop the Music,” “Grease 2” and the immortal “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I can go through this again.

Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, John Woo and other filmmakers have expressed interest in directing tuners. If they start, others will follow.

At first glance, the idea seems exciting: Hollywood has a long history of “serious” filmmakers who triumphed with tuners. Robert Wise went from “I Want to Live!” to “West Side Story”; Fred Zinnemann followed “From Here to Eternity” with “Oklahoma!” Others making the successful leap into tune-land included Howard Hawks (“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“Guys & Dolls”), William Wyler (“Funny Girl”) and Norman Jewison (“Fiddler on the Roof”).

But we mustn’t forget that Richard Attenborough, fresh off his success with “Gandhi,” gave the world “A Chorus Line.” After “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network,” Sidney Lumet segued into the Michael Jackson-Diana Ross vehicle “The Wiz.”

It’s too easy a target for me to mock; just supply your own punchline here.

Other great filmmakers similarly stumbled when they went into the dance: Robert Altman (“Popeye”), Francis Coppola (“Finian’s Rainbow”), Milos Forman (“Hair”), Arthur Hiller (“Man of La Mancha”), John Huston (“Annie”) and Martin Scorsese (“New York, New York”).

The phrase “can’t stop the music” suddenly seems like a plaintive cry.

“Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago” are not successful because audiences crave musicals. It’s because audiences crave good musicals. That was the problem with all the “Sound of Music” wannabes. Just because a project had stars, great scenery, a big budget and some songs, studio execs figured they couldn’t lose.

Think of the combinations that could be unleashed if Hollywood again embraces tuners: Michael Bay directing “Mame.” Or M. Night Shyamalan with the film version of “Mamma Mia.” (With a twist ending: It turns out all the characters are actually dead!)

Maybe James L. Brooks and “I’ll Do Anything” could provide the solution: Let filmmakers direct their musical numbers, then edit them out.

Of course, we’re kidding! There are other filmmakers who could do a musical (but beware of the musicvid helmer making his feature debut!). When a musical is done right, from “42nd Street” to “Singin’ in the Rain” to “Cabaret,” audiences will be dancin’ in their seats. And, frankly, Hollywood needs variety.

Yes, the Hollywood hills are alive with the sound of music, but please: Use a little common sense as you head for the hills.

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