Timeline: The Life and Death and (Maybe?) Rebirth of the Hollywood Musical

In spite of all our best efforts, Rock of Ages — currently sitting at 38% fresh among top critics on Rotten Tomatoes — is out this Friday, because if the multiplexes were missing anything this summer, it’s painfully earnest renditions of “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and Tom Cruise in assless chaps. Yes, the movie musical has fallen on rather hard times, but if we can learn anything from tracking its ebbs and flows of popularity, it’s that you can never count the genre out. So we’ve put together a brief but educational timeline to illustrate the many beat-downs and comebacks of the movie musical.

1927: The Jazz Singer

The very first feature-length (partially) talking film was also, wouldn’t you know, the very first movie musical. Al Jolson sang four songs in the film, and audiences ate it up; the first “all-talking picture” (as it was promoted), the following year’s Lights of New York, had three production numbers as well. In the first flush of talkie-fever, musicals were all the rage — why bother making a talking picture if they weren’t going to sing and dance too? — and when the first few were box office hits, the studios went nuts. The put out over 100 musicals in the single year of 1930, and created a glut that immediately soured the form for audiences who were, in the early days of the Depression, suddenly not that interested in gaiety onscreen. In 1931, that number dropped to only 14 musicals, with studios scrambling to take musical numbers out of films that had already been completed. The musical, it seemed, was dead.