My Gripe with Movie Musicals


I love musicals. I was in my high school’s production from Year 8 to Year 12 and loved every minute of it. It’s always exciting when you learn that your favourite story is being made into a movie. But as many of us know, film adaptations often leave a lot to be desired. In my experience, movie musicals have it the worst. 

My first movie musical was Chicago, which I loved. The dream sequences are a perfect example of a film doing what a stage musical can’t. Stagecraft is amazing, but film can take the characters across a range of real locations in a way that’s more immersive than a stage backdrop – in a sense. 

Theatre never hides the fact that it’s performing to an audience. This makes the audience feel close and intimate with the show, especially when the actors interact with them. Movies are immersive in another way – they want to make the film seem real as possible, making the viewers voyeurs. 

You just don’t get that level of connection with movies, and the humour doesn’t land in the same way (see Into the Woods, and how the darkness was toned down for a cinema audience).

Mixing these two mediums can be successful, but movie studios seem to have trouble getting it right. 

Pitch Perfect

There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to singing in movie musicals. 

The recent Disney live-action remakes record in the studio, then play it over the actual scenes. But they use a lot of editing to make the voices sound “pure”, which ends up erasing all the personality. Emma Watson in Beauty and the Beast is being pitch-corrected to make her sound as sweet and melodic as a Disney princess should, but all it does is make her sound manufactured. They remove the natural ridges and grittiness of the human voice for the sake of sounding “pretty” and lose all emotion. 

But musical theatre is about emotion, and a convincing performance will naturally have some rough edges. Think of the biggest Broadway divas: their voices waver at the most intense part of their solos. 

A Little Too Realistic

On the other end of the scale is Les Miserables, which purposely tried to avoid the over-correcting of its vocalists. They did this by having the actors sing live while filming to get the rawness of each scene. 

Sounds good in theory, right? 

In truth, the set of the Les Mis movie was a disaster. Hugh Jackman was severely dehydrated to look the part, damaging his voice. Anne Hathaway lost a frightening amount of weight and once spent 8 hours shooting the same scene, only to use the first take. 

It was the actors leading the timing of the music, not the band, so many of the songs were out of time. The musicians had to keep up with whatever the actors were doing, and there’s a reason that isn’t the standard method in musicals. 

The casting for this movie was incredible, and the actors can actually sing in the right conditions. This movie failed because the creative team were too fixated on making it seem realistic that they forgot to make it sound good. 

I love Les Mis, but no amount of gritty realism will make these kinds of conditions ok. 

Hope Going Forward?

I’ve just seen the trailer for the new Little Mermaid, and it looks amazing. As far as I can tell, they’ve toned down the pitch correction for Halle Bailey. It wasn’t necessary anyway, because she’s a great singer and you can hear it even in the brief footage we’ve seen. As the biggest maker of movie musicals, I hope Disney learns to embrace unique voices and let singers just be themselves. And I hope future movie musicals will reconsider recording the songs “live”. 

Most of the facts here came from these videos by Sideways. Check it out if you’re interested in music!

And as a reminder, I have a RedBubble store with designs like this adorable fairy dragon!

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