Despite the fact that Les Misérables is based on events that occurred in the early 1800s, Entertainment Weekly’s Anthony Breznican suggests that the new film adaptation of the musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel might be “the most politically provocative mainstream movie of 2012.”
The film’s director, Tom Hooper, told EW, “One of the reasons I thought it was timely to make it now, despite the musical having been around for years, is we’re living in a time of incredible rising anger against the extraordinary explosions of inequality and injustice in our society.”
It’s not too outlandish to picture a few modern-day Jean Valjeans in the Occupy movement, and you don’t need to look very far to find more examples of movies reflecting or calling for social change through song. Often, these pictures with pitch-perfect passion are adapted Broadway hits, but some true originals have been created as sing-along narratives to give voice to issues that wouldn't be sounded off otherwise.
Click through and hum along with Hollywood’s history of musicals with a message.
Photo: Universal Pictures
Carmen Jones (1954)
Considering how difficult it is today to get a major studio to greenlight a musical, let alone one with an all-African American cast, this 1954 update of Bizet’s opera Carmen is a minor miracle. Further miracle: Carmen Jones earned its star Dorothy Dandridge the first Best Actress Oscar nomination for an African-American. She and Harry Belafonte, a trailblazer in his own right, toplined the tragic drama in which a sultry seductress escapes the custody of a soldier instructed to escort her to prison and sets off on the road to terrible misfortune ahead. In an era when Hollywood productions didn’t dare not feature Caucasian actors, Carmen Jones, based on a 1943 stage version by Oscar Hammerstein, spoke volumes about race by never saying a word about it. Carmen Jones gave a host of African-American performers their greatest platform to date. Incredibly, the same held true decades later. In 2001, a remake of the musical—which MTV redubbed as a “Hip Hopera” set on the inner city streets of Philadelphia—provided Beyoncé Knowles with her first major movie part.
West Side Story (1961)
Rita Moreno became the first Hispanic actress—and sadly just one of eight to ever be nominated—to win an Academy Award for her work in the 1961 retooling of Romeo and Juliet, an update that reflected a time of cultural change in New York City. The fact that Moreno was the only actual Puerto Rican to portray one in the groundbreaking musical, which pitted the Hispanic immigrant gang of the Sharks against the all-Caucasian gang of the Jets while star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) did their best to transcend their clashing cultural heritages, has long been used as an example of Hollywood’s aversion to diversity. Still, the film introduced millions of Americans who couldn’t catch the musical in its Broadway run to a culture they had little exposure to and understanding of (and some still don’t, if this year’s presidential election was any indication). If anyone wants to know of the enduring promise this country holds, and the built-in hurdles we still must overcome to truly fulfill that promise, just watch Moreno singing “America.” She has the whole free-market system figured out.
The musical from Little Mermaid composer Alan Menken didn’t quite live up to expectiations when it was released in 1992, but it has since grown into cult status and spawned a very successful revisit currently running on Broadway. An early star turn by Christian Bale in his teen years and some catchy numbers have helped Newsies endure, but its story is proving timeless: A ragtag group of paper boys bands together as a union in 1899 when their meager wage is threatened by a raise in rates charged by newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer. The Newsies themes resonate now more than they did in the prosperous time it was released, as corporations and state governments vigorously seek to break up unions and reduce pay and benefits. Anthems such as “Seize the Day” and “The World Will Know” aren't just showstoppers; they are songs to live by, which combine individual voices into one united front to stop those in power from taking advantage of workers in the trenches.
Although the reunion of much of the original Broadway cast took place a decade after Jonathan Larson’s La Boheme-inspired portrait of a group of twentysomethings living in New York’s East Village during the AIDS plague hit the stage, the movie version nonetheless faithfully adapted one of the most culturally important musicals of our time. Perhaps Rent didn’t serve as the most elegant and wrenching expression of living with a loved one with the HIV virus, but the musical is very much relevant for making musicals in general relevant again, which led to a movie adaptation of the Broadway run in the first place. As director Chris Columbus argued when the movie version of Rent came out in 2005, the musical was perhaps even more significant in an era when AIDS and the diversity of its cast were considered issues that only existed in the past. That’s not the case at all, and just one reason why Rent’s signature tune, “Seasons of Love,” is evergreen with meaning.
Two thousand seven’s Hairspray is the rare movie to be remade into a Broadway musical and then return to the big screen. One constant in the various incarnations of the 1960s Baltimore-set coming-of-age story is that the power of music is a greater force than the power of hate. In both John Waters’ original 1988 film, with its soundtrack of rock ’n’ roll from the era, and in the song-and-dance remake the composer/lyricist team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman cooked up for director Adam Shankman, the story unfolds as a tale of two underdogs—the overweight Tracy Turnblad, who overcomes sneers about her figure to become a dance champion on the fictional Corny Collins Show, and her friends in the African-American community who aren’t allowed anywhere near the TV station except when it’s “Negro Day.” That sound of walls coming down? It’s more pleasant when set to the rollicking rhythm of “You Can't Stop the Beat.”