When films were silent, there were various musical short films where recordings of songs with full bands and singers would play alongside footage of actors portraying characters as they would in a silent film, without dialogue.
It wasn’t until 1927’s The Jazz Singer that synchronized dialogue became an option, as well as allowing musical films to closely resemble their Broadway counterparts.
Many musicals would follow during the late 20s and early 30s, launching the careers of Shirley Temple, and prolonging the careers of stars such as Al Jolson, who starred in The Jazz Singer.
In the 60s and 70s, despite the success of films such as Mary Poppins, and West Side Story, the popularity of rock and roll led to the decline of the traditional musical, setting the stage for musicals such as Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar in the 70s.
While the typical musical has music performed in a soundtrack layered over the film, musical numbers in the 70s were diegetic, meaning that the music came from within the world of the movie. Numbers like that can be found in films such as Saturday Night Fever.
The genre picked up in the 80s and 90s for two reasons. The first was the healthy success stage musicals on Broadway and London’s West End, which led to the adaptations of musicals such as Annie, Xanadu, and Little Shop of Horrors. The second reason was the string of animated musicals, a majority of them produced by Disney. The success of The Little Mermaid would kick off what many people refer to as “The Disney Renaissance.”
In the 2000s, the musical was once again on the decline, but got an unconventional jump-start thanks in part to the popularity of Bollywood films, which feature musical numbers regardless of the genre. Inspiration from the Bollywood style led to the creation of Moulin Rouge!, which is credited for reviving the genre.
The musical film saw its share of unexpected success with films such as High School Musical and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. There were also more adaptations of stage musicals, all with varying success.
We are seeing a slow but steady resurgence of the genre as more of the popular musicals are getting the film treatment, most notably the upcoming adaptation of Les Misérables. While they are not being produced as regularly as they were in the past, they are being produced with a greater degree of quality. As more popular musicals make the journey to the silver screen, we can most certainly expect to find higher quality films in the future.