Artists whose works should inspire modern musicals


Twenty-five years ago this past July, When Harry Met Sally… revitalized the romantic comedy genre, ushering in an era of modern rom-coms great (Pretty Woman, Clueless, Bridget Jones’ Diary) and wanting (most Katherine Heigl vehicles). The occasion of the film’s anniversary prompted writers the Internet over to re-evaluate recent offerings; Grantland, for instance, devoted an entire section of its website to nothing but genre musings for the duration of its “Rom-Com Week.”

Most pundits agree: Romantic comedies of the past several years have failed to attain the heights of wit and sentiment achieved in Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally… But the rom-com is not the only genre to have lately fallen from grace. Once staples of the cinema, musicals no longer enjoy an exalted standing. Every few years, a Chicago or a Dreamgirls wins a few Oscars, a Mamma Mia! or a Once develops a cult following, and a Nine or a Jersey Boys becomes popularly regarded as the creative misstep of a talented filmmaker. Something like the recent Begin Again or Get On Up incorporates musical elements into the framework of another genre (the romantic comedy and biopic, respectively); or a specialty offering such as the French Beloved or upcoming God Help the Girl uses a more traditional musical approach to service a narrative so odd, it's like as not to halve the genre’s already niche audience. Thus, filmmakers continue to make musicals, but those of great success, and great acclaim, and mass appeal, are relatively few. Just as the modern romantic comedy seems to want its modern Ephron, the modern musical appears to be lying in wait for its modern Vincente Minnelli.

And yet, the music industry is not without artists capable of scoring or inspiring a musical hit. On Broadway, the songbooks of Billy Joel (Movin’ Out), Queen (We Will Rock You), and, most recently, Carole King (Beautiful) have all been theatrically interpreted to successful results. Instead of adapting another Broadway show, however, we would love to see Hollywood generate its own original fare. One look at the current domestic box office, in which Luc Besson’s Lucy recently opened to a surprisingly strong $44 million, and it’s clear there is yet demand for novel premises.

So, whose songs could make for a great new and original Hollywood musical? Our picks below:

Kate Nash & Childish Gambino
Both the work of Nash, an English chanteuse who boasts Adele’s accent, Lily Allen’s attitude, and Regina Spektor’s arrangements, and the rapper Childish Gambino, a.k.a. “Community” actor Donald Glover, could support independent musicals. But there’s something appealingly zeitgeist-y about pairing the two. This would be the 20something musical, the Brooklyn set and Brooklyn-set. Both artists concern themselves with the tragicomic state of modern dating, exercising a wit, incisiveness and inventiveness above the common make of Top 40 contemporaries. Perhaps the Nash & Gambino musical could feature duel leads who each perform the tunes of the respective songwriters? Perhaps we simply want to hear a “Foundations”/ “Freaks & Geeks” mash-up.

Frank Ocean
The songs on Ocean’s debut album Channel Orange feature protagonists who struggle with issues related to race, class, drugs, and desire. The wonderful “Pyramids,” which takes for its central character a beset stripper; the operatic tale of homosexual unrequited love that is “Bad Religion;” even the album’s melancholy and most successful single, “Thinkin’ Bout You,” could each serve a climactic number. We’re thinking a coming-of-age romance, perhaps one in which the main character has been suddenly thrust from a life of poverty into one of privilege, allowing him to reflect on the place from which he has come (“Crack Rock,” “Pilot Jones”) and comment on the new troubles to which he is now bearing witness (“Sweet Life,” “Super Rich Kids”).

Rufus Wainwright
Wainwright is, simply, one of the best songwriters of the past several decades. Three of his early albums in particular, Poses, Want I and Want II, are exercises in beautiful weirdness best described using a litany of adjectives: theatrical, spiritual, vulgar, sly, melancholy, hilarious. Having written 11 albums and an opera, Wainwright’s body of work is large enough to provide screenwriters with plenty of potential storylines. Given his tongue-in-cheek humor, which is of the sort that would fashion a double-entendre out of the aforementioned phrase, we would suggest a black comedy.

Leonard Cohen
It’s surprising no one has yet written a Leonard Cohen musical, or that the prolific writer himself never attempted the feat. His songs have already featured in a number of films, from McCabe & Mrs. Miller to Natural Born Killers. If Wainwright is one of the best songwriters of the past several decades, Cohen – whose daughter, Lorca, is the biological mother of the daughter Wainwright is raising with his partner Jorn Weisbrodt, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen – is one of the cleverest and loveliest lyricists of the past half-century. The LC musical would likely be a reflective affair, but the spiritualist has several  up-tempo works that could serve a dance number or two, notably “The Future” and “Everybody Knows.” We’re partial to “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” the song Cohen wrote about Janice Joplin. A musical about the talented and the doomed, or, as Cohen sings, those “fallen robins?” Endless potential.


After the fast sink of the cinematic Rock of Ages, a rock-inspired musical may give many a studio exec pause. But the eminent sing-ability of Spoon’s work, particularly hits “Don’t Make Me A Target,” “The Underdog,” and “You Got Yr. Cherrybomb” from the album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, plus the widespread familiarity the band enjoys with the teen-to-20something crowd (Spoon’s songs have appeared in “Scrubs,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and, most definitively for its breakout success, “The O.C.”), could just be the perfect, successful combination. A kind of Monkees-esque flick that sees a bunch of likeable guys pal-ing around and singing catchy song after rock tune sounds like great alternative summer programming to the slow and steady march of Marvel films to which we’re to be treated through 2020.