‘Roadshow!’: the death of the movie musical

roadshowIt’s one of the ironies of the current era that as mainstream movies have gotten worse, the quality of books about movies has never been higher.

Mark Harris, William Mann, Ethan Mordden and several other contemporary Hollywood chroniclers have set very high standards when it comes to analyzing film eras and the personalities who worked within them.

Yesterday in this space I wrote about Anne Thompson’s wonderful new book on the movie business in 2012, “The $11 Billion Year,” which is partially about the way that dumbed-down pictures designed for international audiences have turned U.S. multiplexes into kiddie zones most of the time.

I read the Thompson book on a recent flight to Texas — it almost made me forget about the exceptionally bumpy ride — and on the way back I enjoyed Matthew Kennedy’s “Roadshow!” (Oxford University Press) about the collapse of the movie musical genre in the 1960s.

Kennedy shows us how the success of three musicals in 1964-65 — “My Fair Lady,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music” — caused a catastrophic run of would-be follow-up hits in the same genre, such as “Doctor Dolittle,” “Star!,” “Paint Your Wagon” and “Hello, Dolly!” (above).

The title derives from a long-vanished form of movie exhibition in which big pictures would play exclusive runs in select urban areas with roadshow1only two shows a day and reserved seat tickets — a “prestige” release strategy that aped the way that live theater is presented.

The roadshow was a means of making big movies seem special as television became more popular in the 1950s. Spectacular movies such as “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Ben-Hur” were roadshow hits, playing in some urban theaters for a year before going into general release. Because ticket prices were significantly higher for roadshows, the grosses could be huge despite a movie playing only in major cities for the first year of their release.

As Kennedy points out, the roadshows got longer and the budgets got higher to justify their presentation with stereophonic sound and in such expensive wide screen formats as Todd-AO, Cinerama and 70mm. As the 1960s began, “West Side Story,” “Exodus” and several other pictures became big hits as roadshows.

20th Century Fox struck out with one early 1960s roadshow, “Cleopatra,” but then hit the jackpot in 1965 with “The Sound of Music” which became the most successful film in history while it was playing in this limited release pattern (screenwriter Ernest Lehman made $1,000 a day from his small profit percentage).

As Fox studio executive Richard Zanuck pointed out later, however, “The Sound of Music” pushed the major studios to the verge of bankruptcy due to all of the copycat flops such as “Camelot” and “Sweet Charity” which played in half-empty urban movie palaces in the late 1960s.

The huge cultural shift that took place between 1960 and 1969 also doomed the roadshow musical.

Kennedy points out that as such films as “Hello, Dolly!” slowly moved into production and then limited theatrical release, public taste began to change radically. By the time the gargantuan Barbra Streisand musical opened in 1969, the audience was more interested in “Midnight Cowboy,” “Easy Rider” and other gritty, low-budget fare.

“Roadshow!” recalls an important but forgotten piece of movie history, and it is also packed with juicy gossip involving the personalities who worked on the mega-musicals, including the Streisand-Walter Matthau feud on “Dolly” and Rex Harrison’s diva antics on “Doctor Dolittle.” Kennedy mixes exhaustive research with sharp analytical skills for a very tasty read.

Joe Meyers