Since the advent of synchronized sound, the movie musical had been a cornerstone of the Hollywood filmmaking machine. From “The Jazz Singer” to “The Sound of Music,” the form had 40 years of cinematic ubiquity. During the transition to the New Hollywood in the late 1960s brought about by films such as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” and “Easy Rider,” the ultra-earnest, glamorous movie musical was no longer in fashion. People wanted realism, and an increasingly political generation of young people was looking for art that dealt with the complicated issues that all boiled over in the 1960s. Sequins, tap dancing, and toe-tapping songs weren’t dealing with these topics. When something has proved to be a tried and true success for that long, it is often difficult for it to evolve with the times.
Meanwhile, Broadway was evolving. Shows were dealing with darker and more sophisticated subject matters. You had Stephen Sondheim emerging as a composer, upending the hummable melodies and poetic lyrics of his predecessors and mentors into melodically complex and linguistically intricate puzzles. You had “Hair” bringing rock and roll music to the theatre, and it, along with “Oh! Calcutta!,” putting nudity on stage. Musical theatre was progressing just as the New Hollywood was, but movie musicals were still about a decade or so behind. If Hollywood still wanted movie musicals to be viable, they needed an update in style, subject matter, and tone. Enter: Bob Fosse.