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Netflix and Movie Musicals: It's Complicated

Can Tick, Tick... Boom! turn things around for the streamer, or is it Prom season all over again?
  • Photos: Netflix
    Photos: Netflix

    Netflix premieres one of the most anticipated movies on its famously packed schedule this weekend, although if you're not big into musical theater, you may not be so sure why there's such enthusiasm for it. Tick, Tick... Boom! began its life in 1990 as a solo production by playwright and composer Jonathan Larson, who a few years later would write the acclaimed Broadway sensation Rent. Larson tragically died on the eve of Rent's off-Broadway premiere, and in the years that followed, Tick, Tick... Boom! would find a life of its own, all the more fascinating and emotional because it was such an autobiographical story. The show has been a cult favorite among musical theater fans for years, and its filmed adaptation — directed by Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda, no less — is a big deal. What's curious, and what's led to some level of trepidation, is that it's coming from Netflix, whose track record with musicals is.... well, complicated.

    By now we've seen Netflix gain a foothold in new genres countless times. After building its reputation on prestige drama series like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, the streamer has marched through other genres like an invading army, releasing comedy series (Arrested Development, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), reality shows (The Circle; Selling Sunset), cooking shows (too many to mention), prestige films (Roma), and action dramas (Army of the Dead), like they were playing a game of beat the clock. As such, it was only a matter of time before the streamer turned its big red eye to musicals, but the road so far has been rocky. The streamer's most high-profile musical to date was last year's Ryan Murphy adaptation of the Tony-nominated musical The Prom, a film that was as star-studded (Streep! Kidman!) as it was critically reviled. And just last month, critics got to sharpen their knives once again when Netflix premiered a filmed version of the Braodway show Diana: The Musical, a misbegotten, mellifluous take on the People's Princess.

    It would be one thing if these musicals had been critically reviled but had struck a chord with audiences, but that hasn't happened either. Although it's foolish to draw conclusions from such a small sample size — and perhaps even more foolish to bet against Netflix in the long term — the streamer's track record with musicals is spotty at best. A closer look at every Netflix original film labeled as a musical reveals a few interesting findings:

    Paradox (2018)

    While the 2015 special A Very Murray Christmas is the first Netflix original to hold the musical designation, it's not really a feature film, so instead we'll start with Paradox, a title that most Netflix subscribers have likely never heard of. Billed as a "musical western fantasy," the film stars Neil Young as The Man in the Black Hat, and also features appearances by Willie Nelson and Eric Roberts. Directed by actress Daryl Hannah, Paradox was not well reviewed; Variety called it "A waste of time made bearable only by its brevity." So, yeah, ouch. An inauspicious start.

    Been So Long (2018)

    The same year it released Paradox, Netflix delivered a pretty good musical, actually, starring one Michaela Coel, who at that point had already starred in the Netflix comedy series Chewing Gum but was still a couple years off from I May Destroy You. In the London-set Been So Long, Coel plays a single mom who enters into a romance with a guy who's out on parole. While it didn't garner much attention at the time, it's something of a hidden gem in Netflix's catalog.

    Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020)

    As often happens with Netflix when they're taking on a new genre, a switch is seemingly flipped and all of a sudden there's a flood of product. Such was the case in 2020, when Netflix premiered five new musical films, the first of which was this fun, silly, and quite charming story of a small-town Icelandic couple (Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams) who try to win the titular Eurovision Song Contest. The exuberant comedy was a crowd-pleaser and a welcome delight during people's pandemic quarantines. It even managed to snag a Best Original Song Oscar nomination (which they should have won), making this easily Netflix's most objectively successful musical to date.

    Over the Moon (2020)

    Another Oscar nominee, this was an animated story about a young girl who misses her dead mom so much that she goes on a journey to the moon and meets a goddess who looks like a pop star. The music is super fun, but as a movie it's only pretty good, and it ended up getting lost in the shuffle of last year's holiday-season releases.

    Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020)

    Netflix had a LOT of holiday season releases last year. Among them was this lavish holiday tale whose ambitions sometimes outpaced its execution, but was a spectacle regardless. The movie boasts a strong cast (Forest Whitaker, Keegan-Michael Key, Phylicia Rashad) and feels like the kind of Christmas movie that has a chance to become an annual tradition with kids.

    Dolly Parton's Christmas on the Square (2020)

    Christine Baranski as an Ebenezer Scrooge-esque rich lady who needs to learn the spirit of Christmas? Dolly Parton as a meddlesome angel? Debbie Allen directing some fantastic dancing numbers? Christmas on the Square was easily the cheesiest thing to hit any streaming platform last year, but it was also something you had to see to believe. Was it viewed by more people who were watching ironically than those who watched it earnestly? Perhaps. But it was far more fun than…

    The Prom (2020)

    Yes, The Prom. Ryan Murphy's tenure with Netflix hasn't worked out the way most had hoped, and the hype surrounding this movie — based on the 2018 Broadway show that earned seven Tony nominations — was huge. Which isn't to say people weren't nervous, even after the likes of Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman joined the cast. What was meant to be a big, loud, exuberant celebration of inclusion turned out to be a gaudy, poorly lit cringe of a movie, and The Prom ended up bombing with the very audience Netflix wanted to please: musical theater fans.

    It's that same audience that's going to need to respond well to Tick, Tick … Boom! in order for Netflix to finally plant its flag as a destination for stage musical adaptations. Maybe it helps that this year's punching bag for ill-conceived Broadway adaptations has already arrived, in the form of Dear Evan Hansen. Maybe the combined talents of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, and Robin de Jesus knock this one out of the park. If they do, it'll be a movie that Netflix will gladly hang their hat on, proof that they're on their way to conquering yet another genre. If they don't … well, there's always that adaptation of 13: The Musical with Debra Messing yet to come.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Netflix, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, The Prom, Tick, Tick ... Boom!