Roadshow!: The Fall of Film
Musicals in the 1960s by Matthew Kennedy
Oxford University Press, 2014; 320 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
In modern Hollywood, the live action musical is a rare breed. In 2014, for instance, the major studios only have had four live action musicals slated for the year, a boost from the single release in 2013. In trailers, studios even try to hide the musical origins of some of these titles, like Annie and Into the Woods, so as not to alienate potential ticket buyers. In the case of Jersey Boys, a Broadway sensation that’s been a hot ticket for nearly a decade, the filmmakers hid its stage origins by refashioning the movie into a standard music biopic.
When did the musical become Hollywood’s shame? This is the question that Matthew Kennedy chases in his uneven but readable book Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s. Kennedy focuses specifically on the final days of the roadshow format, a release strategy in which studios marketed high-priced, reserve seating screenings of their major films across America, replicating the elements of live theatre with souvenir programs, intermissions, and music cues (overture, entr’acte, and exit). Roadshow begins around 1964 when The Sound of Music smashed box office records across the globe to become the highest grossing movie of its time. Hoping to emulate that film’s success, the major studios attempted to make more elaborate and expensive musicals for rapidly changing audiences of the 1960s.
Kennedy’s book shines when tackling how the old guard of Hollywood handled the erratic cultural shifts and diminishing control they had in an industry they built. Walt Disney’s The Happiest Millionaire, Jack Warner’s Camelot, and Darryl Zanuck’s Dr. Dolittle exposed the creative hubris of these former titans struggling to craft late career swan songs. Kennedy moves from studio to studio, tracing how each regime handled the various productions and rising stars (Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, and Rex Harrison, among others) with an increasing lack of control.
And yet, as good as the history is in Roadshow, Kennedy feels as emotionally empty as the assembly-made musicals chronicled in the book. Roadshow has all the disastrously alluring tidbits to satisfy the reader, but I never felt much passion from Kennedy in his writing about these films. He’s a man who knows his facts, but why some musicals found success and others floundered is never made clear. Filmmaking became an increasingly chaotic business as the 1960s wore on thanks to a number of factors, with every genre taking a creative and financial hit. The film industry soldiered on despite these setbacks, but why did musicals disappear? Kennedy closes out his book with some hits in the final years of the roadshow format, both epic (Fiddler on the Roof) and the modestly scaled (Cabaret). These films won over audiences and endured the test of time. Kennedy offers some conflicting ideas on the failings of the musical throughout Roadshow that reading his history became a greater opportunity to amass new trivia rather than gain insight into a formerly thriving genre.