Wonka, Mean Girls and The Color Purple aren’t just remakes, they prove movie musicals are back

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
4 Min Read
The Color Purple, Mean Girls and Wonka are proving that the movie musical is back.
The Color Purple, Mean Girls and Wonka are proving that the movie musical is back. Credit: William Pearce/The Nightly

The movie musical is surely back.

Despite proclamations of its early death (Mark Twain would have had some thoughts on that), and signals Hollywood had little confidence in the genre, audiences are still open to a toe-tapping time.

There are currently three musicals at the Australian cinemas right now – Wonka, Mean Girls and The Color Purple. Yeah, yeah, we don’t like that American spelling either, but that’s the official title. If you love a bright colours and extravagant choreography and heightened emotions, you are well served.

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But when the trailers for Wonka and Mean Girls were released, there was little sign they were musicals. The dialogue-heavy promo videos led many online to ask if the studios were deliberately hiding the genre. Anecdotally, some moviegoers went into those films and were genuinely surprised when the first song came on.

Why make an all-singing and all-dancing movie but then feature none of those selling points in your marketing? Unless you think those aren’t selling points.

There were reasons for that fear. Recent musicals have bombed, including In the Heights ($US45.2 million), West Side Story ($US76 million) and Dear Evan Peters ($US19 million). None of them came close to breaking even.

Partly it was the timing, releasing not long after the pandemic when some of the more traditional audiences for the genre (ie. older demographics) were reluctant to return to the physical cinema. And at least in the case of Dear Evan Hansen’s case, it was just a bad movie.

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Calah Lane, left, and Timothee Chalamet in a scene from "Wonka." (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Wonka has crossed the half a billion line at the global box office. (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP) Credit: Jaap Buittendijk/AP

Then Wonka came along and became one of the highest grossing movies of 2023 (because of its December release, every dollar it makes this year is still counted as last year). And it’s already overtaken the 2017 Hugh Jackman flick The Greatest Showman.

So far, Wonka has made $US552 million at the global box office in its seven weeks of release, defying expectations. With a production budget of $US125 million, it’s passed the break-even mark, even accounting for marketing costs and the cinemas’ cut.

Mean Girls is also quietly making the bucks. Globally, it’s on $US83 million, which is respectable given its production budget was a modest $US36 million.

Only The Color Purple lags. It’s currently sitting on $US59 million from a reported $US100 million budget. The film opened in Australia this past weekend but didn’t crack the top 10. It grossed $368,000 locally but where it really faltered is its screen average of $1356. That compares to Wonka’s screen average of $4001 and Mean Girls’ $3027.

The Color Purple opened well in the US but then fell off pretty quickly, allowing Wonka to take back over. Its underperformance in Australia could be down to several factors, including a relatively understated marketing campaign.

The Color Purple stars Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson and Danielle Brooks.
The Color Purple stars Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson and Danielle Brooks. Credit: Warner Bros

The film also didn’t garner as many Oscar nominations as the filmmakers would’ve hoped – one lone nod for Danielle Brooks in best supporting actress. The 1985 non-musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel earned 11 Oscar nominations but famously holds the record the most nominated film in Oscars history to not win any.

As much as Oscars detractors like to label the event irrelevant, it can be a powerful marketing force for smaller movies. The other new release of last week was French film Anatomy of a Fall. High off its five Oscar nominations, it grossed $343,000 but averaged an impressive $6604 across 52 screens.

So, maybe there’s not a full embrace of the movie musical but there will be a few more chances to test out audience appetite this year.

The long-awaited screen adaptation of the Wicked stage production will be out at the end of the year, although it’s only the first half of a two-parter. Directed by John M. Chu (In the Heights and Crazy Rich Asians), the Wizard of Oz rewrite stars Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande as Elphaba and Galinda.

Joker: Folie a Deux is, reportedly, a musical.
Joker: Folie a Deux is, reportedly, a musical. Credit: Supplied/Warner Bros

The Wicked brand is intrinsically tied to its musical stage production, far more than Gregory Maguire’s political allegory novel, so it would be difficult to hide its chord-belting ways.

However, it’s tempting to think Joker: Folie a Deux will want to obfuscate that it is, according to reports, a musical, albeit, says Vulture, more in the vein of “A Star is Born than In the Heights”. The bros who found themselves spiritually aligned with Todd Philips’ aggressive and nihilistic villain story might be shocked to be confronted with a sing-a-long.

At least with upcoming the Lion King CGI prequel, Mufasa: The Lion King, no one will be surprised when the characters start to hum a little ditty.

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