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Even before an iconic distant whistle opened the first screenings of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, it was clear that musicals would factor into this year’s Oscar race.
Hollywood loves musicals, and the classic 1961 West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, is the most honored in the genre, winning 10 Oscars, including best picture and director, plus crafts awards like cinematography, music and sound. “Look at West Side Story, All That Jazz, Singin’ in the Rain. Those are really good stories, great performances and music — these are well-crafted movies,” says recording mixer Michael Minkler, who is no stranger to musicals, having won two of his three Oscars for Chicago (2002) and Dreamgirls (2006). “Those are important ingredients that draw people to the movies.”
Rob Marshall’s Chicago is the most recent musical to win best picture — it also earned trophies for supporting actress Catherine Zeta-Jones as well as for art direction, costume design, editing and sound. Talk of contemporary musicals also includes Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001), while others point to the more recent success of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016). A resurgence the past few years is undeniable, and more of this genre is on the way.
Pointing to factors such as the global pandemic and the divisive political climate, some believe this is what audiences are looking for. “Musicals tend to just bring so much unbridled joy for people,” says sound editor/designer and rerecording mixer Paul Hsu, whose 2021 credits include Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tick, Tick … Boom! and the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect. Adds an Academy member who did not wish to be named, “The country is broken. In the past, we have healed with music.”
This year’s lineup includes the new West Side Story, featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who died just days before the film’s premiere, and Tick, Tick … Boom!, Miranda’s directorial debut that tells the story of Rent creator Jonathan Larson. Also out this year were Jon M. Chu’s production of Miranda’s Tony-winning In the Heights; Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen, starring Ben Platt, with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul; Joe Wright’s Cyrano, a musical retelling of Edmond Rostand’s play; and Amazon’s Cinderella.
Miranda’s busy year also included original songs for two animated musicals: Disney’s Encanto and Sony’s Vivo (for which Miranda also voiced the title character). And opening Dec. 22 is Universal and Illumination’s Sing 2, the sequel to its 2016 crowd-pleaser that introduces Bono in his first animated feature as well as an original song, “Your Song Saved My Life,” by U2.
THR awards analyst Scott Feinberg and other experts predict that musicals will factor in Oscar races across the board, from the best picture, director and acting categories — West Side Story‘s Rachel Zegler and Tick, Tick … Boom‘s Andrew Garfield are among those generating buzz — to the crafts, including sound.
“The mixing of musicals is very complex and requires a special skill set. It’s easily understandable why quite a few musicals in the past, especially live-action musicals, have gotten sound awards from the Academy,” notes sound editor/designer and re-recording mixer Randy Thom, an Oscar winner for The Right Stuff (1983) and The Incredibles (2004).
“You have to do all kinds of internal surgery in a musical piece to make it work,” he adds, citing as an example Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), which won Oscars for sound editing and mixing. “The amount of sound editorial surgery that they had to go through to get to the magnificent sonic place that they got with that film was amazing. They had to edit together lots of different performances — some of the vocalizations were from Rami Malek [who played Queen’s Freddie Mercury], and some of the vocalizations were from Freddie Mercury himself. They did it so well and so seamlessly.”
Bohemian Rhapsody also won the film editing Oscar. In seven of the past eight years, the winner of the sound mixing Oscar (and last year, for the combined sound category) mirrored the winner of the Academy Award in film editing.
The sound category has seen a number of changes of late. A year ago, sound editing and sound mixing were recombined into a single category for best sound. A single sound award was actually one of the earliest categories, first presented in 1930 at the third Academy Awards ceremony. A second, elective award for sound effects or sound effects editing wasn’t used until the early ’60s. The names changed several more times, and during the mid-2000s, sound editing received permanent status.
An additional step in the sound category procedures — a shortlist and a “bake-off” — also returns this year. In mid-December, the sound branch will vote on and establish a shortlist of contenders, which will be presented to the branch during a bake-off in January for nomination voting. (The branches that select the Oscar nominees in VFX and makeup and hairstyling hold a bake-off as well.)
“It’s a time when you can listen to 10 different products in the exact same environment, on the same night. There’s no hiding,” Minkler says with a nod to the concern that numerous branch members have expressed since the start of the pandemic about how voters hear the movies when they are judging from home. “When people rely on a TV to make an accurate vote about the sound category, it’s kind of dicey,” he says.
Historically, it’s not uncommon for the sound branch to nominate big action films (think winners like Mad Max: Fury Road or Dunkirk) as well as musicals (Yankee Doodle Dandy, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, Hello, Dolly! and Les Misérables all won). The 2021 winner, Sound of Metal, didn’t tick either box, but as Minkler explains, “It’s the good use of sound that was apparent.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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