A bum note – why are movie musicals not taking off at the box office?

We reflect on some recent box office performances

West Side Story
West Side Story
© Walt Disney Studios

It is a producer's dream – a show with a tepid opening slowly gaining momentum until wham – it makes megabucks and enters the Hollywood hall of fame. I'm talking about 2017's The Greatest Showman, which ended up as the fifth-highest-grossing live-action musical of all time.

Putting aside animation, musicals have always had a turbulent time at the box office. For every La La Land ($446 million), there's a Cats (failing to meet its $100 million budget). Yes, critical response to the latter was nothing short of litter-sniffy, but the hefty amount of brand recognition for a $3 bn grossing stage show should have delivered something.

But this year has been a particularly gruesome one for the musical movie. In the Heights, critically lauded, earned $43.9 million on a $55 million budget. Dear Evan Hansen, critically loathed, earned $18.2 million on a $28 million budget. Even with critical clamour, major reviews and Steven Spielberg's name attached, West Side Story has fared mildly – box office takings stand at $27.5 million – that may rise.

One obvious factor is the pandemic of it all – almost every film is underperforming, except the seemingly plague-proof Tom Holland-led Spider-Man: No Way Home, which has managed to shatter records and muscle Spielberg's musical out of the limelight.

What's more, there is a dense spree of musical films coming out – mostly due to Covid delays – with a few delayed from last year (Everybody's Talking About Jamie, Heights, West Side), now nestled next to Cyrano, tick, tick…Boom! or Hansen. Over-saturation naturally leads to less demand, while those projects deciding on a big-screen release may find themselves undercut by films heading straight to streaming. More on that below.

But is it something more fundamental than this? Is it the form itself that is a turn-off? Have musicals, perhaps, become too niche of a format – hence why a lot of studios and distributors have gone with the safer decision of online-only? Everybody's Talking About Jamie, for one, had been set for a major silver screen debut before being swiftly snapped up by Amazon. Watching tick, tick…Boom! was a momentous occasion for any musical fan but it's fair to say it's a niche offering – perhaps more of a curiosity or awards-courter than a big-screen event experience worth forking out for.

This might suggest a degree of studio reluctance – for example, giving a thumbs down to a Glenn Close Sunset Bouelvard. At the same time, the likes of La La Land, Showman, even Les Misérables and more have all performed particularly well – so maybe that's just some gloomy forecasting.

As for the future – the upcoming Matilda the Musical is a bit of an oddity – across the world, it will be released on Netflix, but in the UK it will get a cinematic opening – Sony seemingly hoping the domestic appeal of Roald Dahl will get audiences flocking out.

Wicked, with rising star Cynthia Erivo and pop icon Ariana Grande, may deliver the goods – there is even rumblings that some want to see the movie split into two parts, Deathly Hallows style.

Another prediction – don't expect West Side Story to be the next Greatest Showman – while it might get a bump with some awards love at the Oscars, there are already signs that a slow first week is as good as it will get.

But if Spider-Man is anything to go by, at least the Holland Fred Astaire biopic might buck what seems to be evolving into a trend.