It seems to me that musicals are much less common in the American Film Industry these days in comparison to the 30's, 40's, and 50's. Of course, I'm not saying that they never make musicals (e.g. Disney/Pixar films, Baz Luhrmann films, etc...), but it seems like they used to make a lot more a long time ago.

When did this shift away from musicals occur? What are the factors which led to the apparent decline? Why don't we see very many american musical films?

  • I don't know the logistics of when, but it all comes down to the mighty dollar and what people want to see. When the majority of people aren't looking for musicals, the production companies will quit making them. If there is a resurgence for musicals, they will come back into vogue. Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 2:38
  • @Paulster2: Even if that were true, it doesn't really explain the essence of why people stopped wanting to watch; when there is a clear trend of commercial viability in the past.
    – Paul
    Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 3:55
  • Pixar's never made a musical, it makes more sense to just say Disney films, or even animated as non-Disney production houses had fair amounts of success with musicals.
    – vastra360
    Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 20:47
  • See also Lindsay Ellis on this topic. google.com/…
    – TRiG
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 10:47

2 Answers 2


The reason why musicals are less popular now, or more prolific back in the first half of the century is pretty long, but hopefully engaging and interesting. It certainly was to me when I studied it. There are tons of academic books written about the downfall of musicals, but here's the short(er) version:

Musicals (along with Westerns) were very much a staple of the now defunct Star System that American studio's used to participate in. As such, if you could make a Musical Western, you were laughing all the way to the bank.

enter image description here

As you have correctly pointed out, these days Musicals (and Westerns, for that matter) are only produced as Prestige Pictures, and there are reasons for that...

The 1920's saw a technological leap forward that would change cinema forever: Namely, the introduction of sound. The Jazz Singer featured the first sequence of synchronized sound in a widely distributed feature film, and was met with immediate success. From its very inception, the use of sound in cinema was linked with music, and more specifically yet singing, so the connection to musical theater was recognized and explored immediately.

The Star System was already in place, and as such singing and dancing were added to actors feature lists to make them all rounders. Early successes of the pre-sound cinema, like Florence Lawrence, the 'Biograph Girl' fell to the wayside in favor of more musical fare. Appropriately, the Biograph Girl's story was turned into a musical itself, and both The Artist and Singing in the Rain borrow elements from her story. The studios enjoyed great success from the stars they promoted into musicals, and there was global appreciation for them for many years.

It wasn't until the late 1950's that things within the Star System started to fall apart, and it was just as much the studio's fault than it was that the audiences didn't want to see musicals anymore.

You see, for a long period The Studio System enjoyed Vertical Integration, meaning that they owned and controlled their entire production, distribution and exhibition processes themselves. This level of control may seem beneficial, but it whittled movie production into only 5 competing studios, 'The Big Five': MGM, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, and RKO. (There was also 'The Little Three', but as their nomenclature would indicate, they weren't as big!)

The result of this set up meant that Studios were only really competing with a small market, and as they had all more or less decided to keep out of each others pockets, very little even there. This meant that there was no competitive market to decline or bargain for movies, so the only thing that could influence what sort of film was being made was a studio executive in his office, who were hardly representative of the masses!

It wasn't until 1948 that the Supreme Court ruled that this system should be broken up, and it was itself only delayed because of the focus on the war. This meant that the studios' control was finally broken up, but it had very little real effect to the Big Five who had used their time wisely to consolidate their assets into a firm grip on the industry.

However, for the time being, the studios continued to prosper. Different Genre's came in and out of popularity, and so not being a genre itself, but more of a method of application Musicals survived by simply adopting the genre a la' mode and wearing it like a mask for a while.

WWII nostalgia films become popular? War Musicals.

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Warner Bros. have a spate of successful Gangster movies? Gangster Musicals.

enter image description here

It didn't matter whether or not people actually wanted to see these movies, there was no choice in the matter and as a result of that, they enjoyed the illusion of popularity, not to mention being genuinely popular anyway as a means of family entertainment in a very conservative America.

The real killing blow to musicals came with the same blow that threw the entire industry into crisis: advent of Home Television. It was a slow death however, over a number of years. For the most part, the Industry didn't even realize it was dying. People had been provided with Choice for the first time, and for an industry who's unofficial motif was "You'll get what you're given", this was bad news...The motto slowly became its epitaph. Some Studio's began to experiment with Television, and set up sister studio's in the rival industry, but even this did little to change their programming output.

The rise of Suburbia also struck its blow, as people were expected to take long journeys into cities to see movies, and the Television was already sat in their living room. It would have to be something pretty impressive to budge them, so in a way they were voting with their feet.

Still, the studio's remained stubborn in their refusal to adapt. Whatsmore, the Hays Code was still very much in place, not only prohibiting certain types of film but encouraging Studios to stick to what they knew already, stifling any creative experimentation.

When this all finally came to a head in the late 60's, the industry was in crisis. It didn't know, or more accurately didn't care, what their audiences wanted anymore.

The only solution to this was tantamount to almost total replacement. Crew and Cast from leading men to lighting operators, Directors to set designers were systematically replaced for younger, fresher and more in touch counterparts. This became known as The New Hollywood, and produced what many people consider the greatest movies of 20th century's second half.

This came at its price...

The Directors had to fight for years, and continue fighting, to wrestle creative control from the old guard. They heavily resented the former ringleaders of the industry, and poured scorn on their pitiable output of incessant Musicals.

Furthermore, many of these directors looked up to the writing of Cahiers du Cinema, and the European cinematic giants who wrote for it: Bresson, Goddard, Truffaut to name a few. These were figures that hated Musical Cinema, not only for what they considered to be unoriginal copies of stage productions, but for the American Imperialistic intent these films harbored as they washed over Europe. This hatred found its way stateside and embedded itself into the New Hollywood.

The Hays code was finally lifted in 1969, giving these film makers a freedom no one had experienced since the mid 1920's. And what did they do with this freedom? They ran as far away from Musical cinema as possible.

The only studio to continue exploring Musicals as a prolific statement is Disney, for obvious animation reasons. It is for this reason that they are able to credibly produce programmes like Glee and movies like High School Musical: They have a fair claim to owning the Modern Musical Mastership, and they pretty much kept it breathing for the last part of the 20th century.

So, until the late 60's, audiences were forcibly saturated with Musicals, and came to collectively loathe them, even if it took a bunch of pretty spiteful up and comers to point this out to them.

These up and comers ended up taking on their own downfall, however, proving history repeats itself. But that is a story for another time!

  • Isn't there also a parallel with stage musicals? Both forms appear to have dwindled in popularity at around the same time/rate. Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 13:54
  • @coleopterist as I said, saturation is probably the key player there. Stage Musicals still enjoy wide success, but their territory is largely Broadway and the West End, as opposed to Hollywood. Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 14:13
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    If only all questions could be answered this well. Bravo good sir!
    – MattD
    Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 17:21
  • Thanks Matt. I'm on a bit of a spree at the minute, trying to lead by example and contribute interesting answers! Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 17:26
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    @SystemDown thankyou, that's cool to read. I think the reason I was able to give an interesting answer is because it was an interesting question, and sometimes we're way to quick to close down questions like this without giving them time to blossom into discussion. I hope other people have different contributions/research to add, but sometimes we close in on questions before they have a chance... I'll step down off my soapbox, now. Commented Dec 12, 2013 at 17:40

I think the decline and fall of the movie musical goes back to the events of 1948, when the studios were forced to divest themselves of their theatre chains. Until that happened, the big studios almost never had a movie that lost money, because they could regulate where and how often it was shown. You didn't need a lot of money to chase after the audience's money; all you needed was a stable of stars and a few producers with a passion for their work (and for innovation), even if it wasn't likely to meet with universal enthusiasm. So we got musicals like Arthur Freed's "Yolande and the Thief", which not many people liked, but which at least was widely shown, thanks to names attached to it such as Vincente Minnelli and Fred Astaire.

In the fifties, however, the studios, now without a guaranteed outlet to screen their products, had to be more careful with their money. and taking chances by innovating wasn't such an acceptable pastime. After a few more tries at "classic"-type musicals (The Band Wagon, An American in Paris), both Minnelli and Freed started making fewer musicals and started taking on assignments in other fields.

And at the same time, the economy drive started taking its toll on the famous star system; one by one, the great mainstays of the musical (Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, all of whom no longer had the bloom of youth) were let go, and the more-youthful talent that was kept on, with a few exceptions, just wasn't up to their standard. Musicals started appearing with stars such as Grace Kelly, who could neither sing nor dance. And the writers started moving on, too. Comden and Green went to Broadway; Cole Porter started handing in work that he wouldn't have put his name to a decade earlier. And the musicals gradually started showing signs of being a "rush job". "High Society" was supposedly in VistaVision, but some of the second-unit stuff was so blurry that it would have been sent back to be done again if Louis B Mayer had still been head of the studio. "Rose Marie", "Jupiter's Darling" and "Hit the Deck" had Cinemascope to help paper over the cracks, but the colour had suddenly deteriorated as fast as the screens grew wider, and they had to rely on minor stars like Ann Blyth, Debbie Reynolds, and an aging Tony Martin to keep them afloat. Despite a Cole Porter score, "Les Girls" didn't have a single song you could remember by the time you got to the car, and Gene Kelly never even seemed to get a close-up (maybe he wasn't looking his best). And his French leading lady, instead of Leslie Caron (who was by that time looking to the UK for work in dramas) was Taina Elg. His one big dance number was "Why Am I So Gone About that Gal"... remember it? Neither does anyone else. "Jupiter's Darling's" songs were, at best, trivial (I don't think MGM bothered with a soundtrack album), and while it did, finally, find some rationale for Esther Williams to get into the water, it was the kind of musical that you waited somewhat impatiently for "The End" to be displayed, so you could go home and do something better. No one waited impatiently for "The End" to roll up at the close of, say, "Meet me in St Louis" or "The Band Wagon"!

So the movie musical died out through lack of watering and nutrients, and Hollywood looked to Broadway for a means to crank it up again. Pre-sold title, pre-sold score, and, with any luck, a pre-sold Broadway star such as Robert Preston or Rex Harrison or Yul Brynner or Barbra Streisand or Julie Andrews, who would come in and replace all those stars that had already been let go and were now turning up in most unmusical-like projects such as "Judgment at Nuremeberg", "On the Beach", "Inherit the Wind", "Day of the Triffids" and "The Unguarded Moment" (some of them adapted well to the new milieu... others, like Kathryn Grayson, quietly called it a career and moved to other pursuits).

The increasing popularity of television has to be taken into account, too. The people who went to the movies week after week, and applauded every time the MGM lion came onto the screen, had gone to see talent, and the musicals gave them a feast of what they craved. Suddenly, television was providing that same feast, and you could eat at home. Virtually every one of the musical stars that had been discarded by the studios during their economy drive was snapped up by television, and the old audience for musicals could now stay home and watch "The Bing Crosby Show", "The Rosemary Clooney Show", "The Frank Sinatra Show", "The Doris Day Show", "The Judy Garland Show", "An Evening with Fred Astaire", "The Gene Kelly Show". Some of those stars -- notably Garland -- did even better work on television than they had done in the hey-day of the movie musical.

Most of the new recruits from Broadway soon moved onto other genres, also, because the musicals they made in Hollywood were, generally, ghastly: huge, overblown spectacles with the money right up there on screen but with none of the charm and grace and "Freed-unit-enthusiasm" of the pre-1955 musicals. There were some good ones, of course, such as "The Music Man" and "Guys and Dolls". But for every one of those, there was also a "Hello Dolly" or a "Paint Your Wagon" or a "Can-Can" to drive the last nail into coffin of the traditional Hollywood musical.

In the long run, it was the money men and the bad movies that killed the Hollywood musical.


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