No matter how you feel about them, I think we can all agree that musicals are having a moment right now. Not just a moment, but a moment. If you had told past-us that future-us would one day be going nuts over a hip-hop musical about the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, past-us would have immediately assumed we were trolling them.
Yet here we are in the early stages of 2016 and Hamilton is hands-down the hottest show on Broadway, a true cultural phenomenon that is reaching across all demographics. So was NBC's The Wiz LIVE!, with social media exploding the night it aired. This fall, Fox is debuting the remake of cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show with actress Laverne Cox in the lead as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. And over on The CW, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has become a weird, wonderful musical-comedy hit in its first season.
But the movie end of the business hasn't quite caught up yet. Outside of Les Miserables and Into the Woods, there have not been many notable live-action movie musicals in recent years. That's set to change with this summer's La La Land from Lionsgate, which director Damien Chazelle (he of Whiplash fame) described as a "love letter" to the city of Los Angeles and the dreams it inspires.
What is it about musicals that we're embracing so fully right now? Why has it gone from a genre that was largely seen as corny and outdated for so long to - dare I say it? - one that's actually, well...cool?
The answer is all right there in Chazelle's description of La La Land: They're love letters. For the past few years, we've been immersed in a world of grimdark and gritty in Hollywood. The antihero and villain are de rigueur; we're fascinated by bad people doing bad things on screens both big and small. There is no pure white now, only black and varying moral shades of gray.
In the post-9/11 years, entertainment's shift toward stark and conflicted realism made sense. The economy had collapsed. We were at war. Our politicians continued to fail us, as did our religious leaders. Entertainment reflected the uncertainty, anger, and fear we felt at a world in which all of the systems upon which we'd relied had broken down: economy, government, religion.
But trends can't remain what they are forever. Like everything else in life, they come in and out of vogue. In the past few years, entertainment has found us embracing the idea of hope again; as the economy has started to rebound, for example, so has the collective spirit of audiences. There are still major systemic problems in our society. Racism. Sexism. Corruption. But for every problem, there are groups of people rising to meet it.
Musicals, by their very nature, carry with them the element of hope. They can also be heartbreaking - one need look no further than Marius singing "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" in Les Miserables for proof enough of that. But it's almost impossible to watch a showstopper ensemble musical number and not feel triumphant and hopeful. They're designed to rouse our emotions, to delight and inspire, to make us want to jump up and cheer for the characters. Again using Les Miserables as an example, I defy anyone to listen to or watch "One Day More" or "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and not want to immediately join the young revolutionaries and root for their cause.
The millennial generation is a largely hopeful generation. It's a forward-looking one, not prone to navel-gazing. Cynicism is starting to die out; taking its place is activism, in whatever form that takes. In essence, it's no longer cool to not care about things, to not want to be a part of something, to not give a shit. Social media has created a generation that absolutely gets the concepts of community and interactiveness, and no movie genre is more communal or interactive than musicals. They reflect the changing mindset of a generation - and by extension, society - that is pushing back against the idea that heavy is the heart, and that only bad deeds are worth writing stories about.
To that end, La La Land just might do for L.A. what very few movies have cared to: paint it in a positive light. Most films and television series set in Los Angeles like to focus on the noir element of the city, the seedy underbelly that perverts those dreams, warps them. And it's true, there is much to dislike about LA. The cost of living is absurd, and it's a struggle to survive. This is a city for hustlers, not slackers. The legendary traffic absolutely deserves every bit of the fearsome reputation it's earned. The dark side of Hollywood can eat a person alive if they're not prepared for it, and it's sometimes hard to know when you meet someone whether they're genuine in their interest or just sizing you up to see if you can advance their career in some way.
But there is a reason why so many people move here and decide to stay - I'm one of them. For all that there is to dislike about L.A., there is just as much to love. More, even. La La Land seeks to remind audiences of why this is still the city of creation, the place where people come to dream big, and dreamers come to make them happen. For every person who wants to use you for their own aims, there are two more with huge ideas just waiting to collaborate. For every person who is all talk, there are five getting down to business with passion and determination. Just as it's impossible to be in a throng of people in New York City and not feel the palpable energy around you, it's impossible to stand atop any of L.A.'s famous overlooks and see the City of Angels spread out before you and not feel a little bit awed at all the possibilities it contains. Los Angeles has its own energy, one of potential and creation.
The cast of La La Land reflects the star power and charm of L.A., with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling's sizzling chemistry together anchoring the story of a jazz pianist (Gosling) who falls in love with an aspiring actress (Stone), with the two struggling to make it work as they each become more successful in their respective careers. It's a simple, boy-meets-girl story at its heart, but what's more optimistic than two young people falling in love? And what's more relevant now to a millennial generation than the concept of having to choose between a serious relationship or building a career first? It's a struggle for balance that so many are familiar with.
The supporting cast has "Oscar" written all over it, with the inimitable J.K. Simmons and John Legend joining Gosling and Stone, along with Finn Wittrock and Rosemarie DeWitt. And Academy voters do so love movies about their own industry, Oscar winners Argo and The Artist being recent examples of this.
It's almost certain that La La Land will garner its own handful of Oscar nominations. And just like other musicals have already done for Broadway and television, it looks poised to bring the concept of the "cool" musical back to Hollywood. Will it pave the way for more original musical movies? It's hard to say. But if it's as much a love letter to musicals as it is to L.A., it seems likely.