The arrival of a new movie trailer online is received with a level of excitement and scrutiny that once waited for the film itself; even photos get analyzed in depth, as the recent hubbub over the first image of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman has proved. So it’s no surprise that the theatre fan community went into a frenzy over the first full trailer for Disney’s film of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into The Woods; after all, superhero movies now arrive like clockwork, while movie musicals, though more common than in the 70s and 80s, are still infrequent events. That dearth caused a previous bit of alarm and umbrage over Into The Woods, when Mr. Sondheim suggested there might be some plot changes.
Almost as quickly as the Into The Woods trailer appeared, my social media feeds were filled with an anguished refrain: where are the songs? Yes, the core audience felt betrayed, even though I suspect every person who was moved to write already knows the score by heart.
What those of us who love theatre in general, musicals in particular, and Sondheim most of all have to remember is that, sadly, we are not representative of the majority of moviegoers, and movie marketers have to throw a wide net. Those of us who flock to watch the trailer of Into The Woods are already committed to seeing it, no matter how much we may want to grouse about it. The film studios are trying to reach a much wider crowd, for whom the sight of stars singing may be off-putting, strange as such a thought may be to those of us who are ready to belt out a show tune at the slighted prompting. It’s also possible that we’ll get a more representative trailer as the film draws closer.
Minimizing the musical theatre connection has certainly been true for movie musicals for some time. It’s almost as though marketers are trying to slip the fact that people sing past potential audiences. Unlike Into The Woods, which does seem more like a moody tour of the film’s production design than anything, music is prominently featured in countless trailers, even for non-musical films, and sometimes with music that isn’t ever heard in the film. But when it comes to seeing people sing, let’s keep that quiet, shall we? We can hear singing in trailers, and see people moving their lips, but not in sync. Take a look at the trailer for Hairspray as an example.
Dancing, apparently, isn’t so problematic. The Dancing with the Stars effect has probably only increased its appeal. Another example is Mamma Mia! which looked as if it was a romantic comedy with a bunch of Abba songs on the soundtrack, rather than a story told using Abba songs. One can understand why they wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see and hear Pierce Brosnan warbling, but the sight of master thespian Meryl Streep going to town on some Swedish pop might have added some appeal in its very incongruity.
Maybe Paramount knew the theatre purists were already on edge when they cut the trailer for Sweeney Todd, given the relative musical inexperience of the main cast (which many feel lived down to their expectations), which keeps vocals to a minimum. Despite that, more than most musical trailers, Sweeney actually gave us a real look at a bit of a song, “Epiphany,” spoke-sung by Johnny Depp (although we were halfway through the trailer before it was deployed). However that could easily be recognized as a fantasy sequence and seemingly not the style of the whole film. Overall the trailer hewed closer to the Hammer Films homage that director Tim Burton had appropriated for the Grand Guignol tale, and maybe a few Fangoria devotees were lured into a musical they’d have avoided otherwise.
It’s not that we don’t get a few glimpses of people singing in some trailers, but in the quick-cut style that brings them flash and energy, there is a certain “blink or you’ll miss it” quality, even when the making of music is central to the plot, as in the Dreamgirls trailer, where one would think performance footage of a superstar like Beyoncé would actually be a plus.
The incongruity of Eddie Murphy singing may be why we saw a bit of exactly that in Dreamgirls, and the same rationale may have applied to Depp in Sweeney, as well as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellwger as the merry murderesses in the trailer of Chicago. For Zellweger, the singing was new; for Zeta-Jones it was part of her professional background, but before she became a star. Perhaps singing from people we least expect to sing has marketing value.
Mind you, this fear extends to movies that aren’t musicals but tell musical stories and in which the main characters are known to us precisely because they’re singers. The flash of the trailer for the just-released Get On Up, about James Brown, gives us glimpses of his energetic performances and we hear his music along with narration and dialogue, but lips actually moving along with the songs go largely unseen. Of course, given the subterfuge with which actual musicals are being marketed, I can’t help but wonder whether some audiences see this and think, “Uh, I dunno. I think they’re trying to slip one of those durned musicals by us.”
As much as we purists might be desperate to see musical scenes as quickly as possible, we can be fairly sure that the film itself will be a musical, even if it has been adapted and altered from its stage version. The example of Irma la Douce, one of the very few musicals to be adapted for the screen without the songs, is unlikely to recur.
So what about original musicals for the screen? To be fair, original live action film tuners are scarce, except for animation, where, since Disney’s The Little Mermaid, a mini-song score seems de rigeur. But is that a selling point? On the basis of the trailer for Frozen, which ultimately drilled Idinia Menzel’s “Let It Go” into the brains of millions of kids and their parents worldwide, even Disney wasn’t sure that the massively successful score was going to bring in the crowd. The film seemed to be the story of one girl, one boy and one talking snowman. However, to be fair, even though they hid it, the word got out about the exceptional songs.
The trailer for Les Miserables did show us Anne Hathaway as the doomed Fantine singing “I Dreamed A Dream,” in fact it’s all we hear as we watch that trailer – all of the other visuals that are laid over it could easily come from a non-musical. No warbling Wolverine here. Perhaps, to the handful of people in the world who have managed to escape any knowledge of the stage musical, this one song could be an isolated case. But this trailer more than any demonstrates the marketing tactic that prevails: don’t make it look too much like a musical in the hope of capturing some people who may not like musicals, and as for the core audience, we’ll throw ‘em a bone.
I wish I could recall which Twitter wit I read who compared movie trailers without songs to foreign film trailers without dialogue, since I would like to credit them for that very astute observation. But it’s worth noting that foreign films are financed and produced abroad, then picked up for distribution over here; the Hollywood studios shoulder vastly greater risk when they release musicals. While I’m fairly grouchy about the studios these days, with the endless remakes, sequels and films from dystopian young adult novels (thanks Mark Harris for that), I really am willing to give them a lot of leeway on musicals, to a degree on how they adapt them, but certainly on how they sell them. For perspective: if a musical sells 600,000 tickets in a year, it’s a smash; if a movie musical sells 600,000 tickets in its first week, it’s a disappointment. And after all, if a trailer whets our appetite for a movie musical, we can always fire up the iPod, or our Sondheim channel, and listen and sing along to our heart’s content until the movie comes out. After all, haven’t we been doing that already?
Incidentally, we’re getting two musicals this Christmas. In addition to Into The Woods, everybody’s favorite orphan is back, and on the basis of the trailer, while it’s hard to know what’s been done with the story and most of the score, at least we know it will still be a hard knock life tomorrow, though we may not be entirely sure of who’s singing.