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Year of the Prestige Musical

Blockbuster musicals have been few and far between for some time now. Excluding jukebox musicals, your Mamma Mias and Bohemian Rhapsodys, proper musicals appear rarely. More like one or two a year, but that's still a far cry from the hay-day of the hit-parade that was the musical in the '60s (Look at 1964: A Hard Day's Night, Muscle Beach Party, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Viva Las Vegas, one of THREE Elvis Presley musicals that year). It seems audiences can only stomach so much whimsy every twelve months. Then, the question is, with 2021 packed a little tighter with high profile musicals than usual, due to coincidence and pandemic-related belated schedule changes in equal measure, who will be the one with all the figgy pudding? Will it be Annette, In The Heights, Tick… Tick…Boom, or West Side Story?

year of the prestige musical

Well, we can already count out one of our contestants, as In The Heights is in its second week of release, and things are looking downright disastrous. Despite a massive marketing push and a spirited reception from critics and the 7 or 8 people who've gone to see it in theatres, it looks like the Lin-Manuel Miranda penned Broadway adaptation did not have the appeal to draw audiences to theatres, opening in third place at an already weak box office and dropping 63% in its second week. This is a real shame, because, small releases notwithstanding, In The Heights is the best film in theatres right now and, small releases withstanding, the best film to see only in a theatre, on the big screen, out now.

The cast is a spotless collection of triple threat talents, an ensemble of characters so charismatic, captivating and kind that the conflict almost exclusively arises from characters having misunderstandings over wanting the best for each other, and while, yes, it has a strong streak of cheesiness to it, In The Heights is full of infectious joy and is very obviously a labor of love and pride from a supremely talented cast and crew. There is no time to touch on the virtuoso choreography and imaginative musical sequences, but it is important to note that unlike much of its kind these days, In The Heights is packed nearly end-to-end with MUSIC. Here's about 8 minutes from film.

Next, Annette. Let's not beat around the bush here, this one is not going to be the box office champion for reasons that should become clear further on, but there is a good chance it may end up being the best of these musicals. Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard star as a couple whose baby daughter has a “surprising gift”, in what in likelihood will be a pretty strange movie, directed by Leos Carax, a French director with a penchant for experimentation, and music from the nutjob absurdist pop duo Sparks (nutjob being a term of endearment around these parts). With a solid shot at being the most unpredictable entry here, it will be exciting to track the fallout from its premiere at the upcoming Cannes film festival, seeing as it's recently been picked up for distribution by Amazon Prime. We've had very limited look at Adam Driver's singing capabilities at the end of 2019's Marriage Story before, but to be honest, if Sparks are handling the soundtrack, we're in for a treat.

Whilst Lin-Manuel Miranda's In The Heights, a project he oversaw much of the story and song writing for, seems to be floundering, he's got another musical lined up later in the year. Tick… Tick… Boom! is his first directorial effort, adapting Jonathan Larson's (of Broadway favorite Rent fame) semi-autobiographical musical about a struggling playwright in 1990s New York, from an adapted screenplay by Steven Levenson. Suffice it to say, there are a few Tony's and Pulitzer prizes floating around this bunch, and that's before we get to the big draw; Andrew Garfield, who's been descending into ever more eccentric roles as of late. The teaser trailer dropped recently and there's more Garfield to go around than in your average funny pages. This is a Netflix release, so theatrical distribution will be sparse, but Tick… Tick… Boom! has a shot at drawing at least more eyeballs than Heights and Annette through the ease of streaming services. Despite this, Netflix will be showing the film in a limited theatrical run, meaning they're probably hopeful enough that it will garner some nominations to give it a qualifying run.

And finally, the most likely Academy hopeful, the remake of the unassailable classic West Side Story, a legacy title for both prestige musicals themselves, and its director; Steven Spielberg. One could scarcely attempt to write a more awards-baity sentence, but the question remains: Will it draw audiences? Well, there's a fair chance, the studio has been putting its weight behind the film in promotion for ages now, and with the return of Ansel Elgort, after a brief and let's say regrettable hiatus, it seems telegraphed that this will be the film that lands best. Spielberg's reverence for the material means the adaptation probably won't stray far from the original West Side Story, this being backed up by the trailer, which very obviously harkens solely to elements from the original musical.

So, all in all, the film that will make the biggest splash? Probably West Side Story, but then again, what's popular and what's not has been terribly unpredictable since theatres first reopened. One thing is for sure; if every musical to release this year bombs, as Disney rakes in what remains of the box office, we'll all end up worse off for it.