BROOKE GLADSTONE: Blame Canada is of course from the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. One of the very few successful film musicals in recent years, and like virtually all the others in that exclusive group it's a cartoon. Where have all the traditional American movie musicals gone? They've migrated to the small screen as On the Media's Tony Maciulis reports.
TONY MACIULIS: Actress Glenn Close has performed in blockbuster films like Fatal Attraction and 101 Dalmatians, but her heart lies in musicals.
GLENN CLOSE: I still think there's really no entertainment like it, because you have that emotional moment and then it's augmented by music, and it's just -- it's a double whammy.
TONY MACIULIS: But for Hollywood musicals are more like a jinx. There was a day when gang members in ballet slippers sold tickets at the box office. West Side Story won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1961. [MUSIC FROM WEST SIDE STORY] But a the Wall Street Journal's Hollywood reporter Tom King explains, adult tastes have changed.
TOM KING: Over the past couple of decades, audiences have reacted rather strangely when people --actors and actresses on the screen in modern times -- break into song! It just seems weird! [JAMES CAGNEY SINGING YANKEE DOODLE DANDY]
TONY MACIULIS: It used to be just another night at the movies. Movie musicals are as American as McDonald's and pickup trucks. In the 1940s, MGM's chief, Louis B. Mayer had a vision for the entertainment industry. Call it "doing his part for the war effort." Author and Hollywood storyteller Stephen Schochet explains.
STEPHEN SCHOCHET: He said what the country needs now is escapism, and so he gave Arthur Freed permission to start making musicals which he absolutely loved. Mayer was the one who said if you want a message, call Western Union.
TONY MACIULIS: Moviegoers got enough messages in the newspaper headlines. The Depression, a Second World War. The feel good films Freed and Mayer created hit the spot. Films like the Wizard of Oz, Oklahoma and On the Town starting Frank Sinatra. [SONG NEW YORK, NEW YORK FROM ON THE TOWN] MGM launched one musical after another. Some were film adaptations of Broadway hits. Others, like Singing in the Rain, were original creations written beside the cardboard trees and painted sunsets of a Hollywood studio. Just at the height of the musical's Golden Age an unexpected challenger was vying for the spotlight.
TOM KING: Television started keeping people away from the movie theaters, and the movie studios felt that in order to compete with television they had to go with big blockbusters.
TONY MACIULIS: The cost of production soared as the projects became ever more spectacular to compete with TV. Unable to stay afloat, the genre fell by the wayside, occasionally revived in a kitschy cult classic like Grease or the Rocky Horror Show. Gigi was the last blockbuster musical for MGM, winning 9 Academy Awards in 1958.
[MAURICE CHEVALIER SINGING THANK HEAVEN FOR LITTLE GIRLS] But now, ironically, the medium that contributed to the musical's demise, has provided a new home. Tom King.
MAN: The success in movie musicals these days is on the small screen.
TONY MACIULIS:It began as a gamble in 1993. [SONG FROM GYPSY] CBS developed Gypsy starring Bette Midler. It was a success with both advertisers and audience. When ABC gained Disney's creative knowhow in the merger, the network began feverishly developing musicals. One of their first efforts, Cinderella, starring Whitney Houston, captured an audience of over 30 million. That's better than the reality show Survivor. ABC's executive vice president for movies and mini-series, Susan Line [sp?].
SUSAN LINE: Up to now every musical event we've done has been exactly that -- an event. Because it feels different - it feels fresh.
TONY MACIULIS: Audiences won't part with the ten bucks to see a musical at the movie theater, but on television it makes for great family viewing. And so when Glenn Close was approached for a revival of South Pacific, she knew exactly how to get the project accomplished.
GLENN CLOSE: I think we would have had a hard time getting it financed for a feature. [SONG: I'M IN LOVE WITH A WONDERFUL GUY]
TONY MACIULIS: But ABC was happy to comply, spending nearly 15 million on the production. That's a lot for a TV movie but a fraction of the cost for a feature film. They average about 60 million. ABC executive Susan Line says it's money well spent. The musicals reach the 18 to 49 year olds that advertisers covet. But they also appeal to 50 plus viewers -- a vastly ignored audience.
SUSAN LINE: That's fabulous. That's really something we are giving back to a television audience that has to put up with somewhat mundane entertainment a lot of the nights of the year.
TONY MACIULIS: After Monday's broadcast of South Pacific, ABC charges on with production of The Music Man starring Matthew Broderick; Mame, produced by Barbara Streisand; and Fiddler on the Roof. In New York, I'm Tony Maciulis for On the Media.