Can Anna Kendrick Single-Handedly Save the Movie Musical?

By  · Published on December 9th, 2014

Walt Disney Pictures

Anna Kendrick started early. The actress of both stage and screen earned her first Tony nomination at the tender age of 12 (for her turn in High Society), which she followed up five years later with an Independent Spirit Award nomination for her very first feature film role, in the big screen Camp. Kendrick has continued to pursue her movie career in the subsequent years, throwing most of her attention at various and varied cinematic endeavors, with significantly less attention paid to her stage work in the interim (Kendrick hasn’t starred in a stage outing since 2003).

Yet Kendrick has never balked at her theatrical background, and she’s begun more effectively blending her various skills – namely, acting and singing – into her own unique career, becoming bankable and dependable in a way that her other peers have not. And she might be able to save the modern musical.

Earlier this year, I bemoaned Hollywood’s lack of contemporary romantic musicals, writing:

“Sure, the romantic genre is already floundering at the box office as is, thanks to the consistent wealth of Nicholas Sparks films (which, yes, all feel the same) and the lack of more traditional romantic comedies (which isn’t a bad thing, really, as long as Nancy Meyers keeps making fizzy stuff and we aren’t subjected to another bloated holiday feature, like Arbor Day or similar), but that means that there should be more room for some different spins (and twists and turns) on what constitutes a romantic film. There’s nothing more romantic than singing and dancing, right? So there’s shouldn’t be anything more cinematically romantic than an all-singing, all-dancing movie musical, right?”

Although the box office hasn’t been suddenly flooded with more contemporary romantic musicals (com-rom-mus?), there has been a steady uptick in more musically-tinged features tapping and crowing into theaters, and three of them feature Kendrick on center stage.

Back in 2012, Kendrick starred in Pitch Perfect, which became a massive and unexpected box office hit, earning $113M in worldwide returns and establishing Kendrick as both an actress and a singer to watch. Hell, she even got a hit single out of it. The film will get a much-ancitipated sequel next year, with the arrival of Pitch Perfect 2 in May. While the Pitch Perfect films are not true musicals – instead, they’re “musical comedies” – Kendrick and her compatriots sing their way through both of them. For all intents and purposes, these things are goddamn musicals, and Kendrick excels at them.

Next up, Kendrick has a pair of true-blue musicals – like, the kind adapted from Broadway shows – that continue to show off her range as a musical lead. If the musical itself is going to succeed as a viable genre, it needs to be willing to try different things and different ideas, an ideal that Kendrick herself is embodying.

Over the holidays, the Kendrick-starring Into the Woods will hit theaters. A large-scale Disney the musical the likes of which we haven’t recently seen on the big screen, the adaptation of the Sondheim show of the same name, a smorgasbord of fairy tales, boasts a star-studded cast – including Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine and James Corden — and a massive number of huge musical sequences. It’s quite an undertaking and, as Cinderella, Kendrick still stands out.

Next year, Kendrick again takes on the big screen adaptation of a stage show, with Richard LaGravenese’s spin on The Last Five Years, a time-bending romance that fits my demand for a contemporary romantic musical almost too well. The film will hit theaters in February of next year, but it already premiered at TIFF back in September.

When I saw the film – on its opening night, surrounding by clapping and whopping theater fans who appeared to be positively giddy with the possibilities – I lauded Kendrick’s performance, writing “the delights of The Last 5 Years are all on Kendrick’s side, and her skilled performance – both in terms of her acting ability and her well-honed pipes – is the one element of the film worth reveling in. And, hey, the songs aren’t too bad, either.” You can get a sense of the show from the film’s first trailer below.

Kendrick may not be able to single-handedly save the musical genre, but her contributions to it in just a handful of years are already marked. Kendrick’s ability to effectively engage with variations on the genre within the actual genre itself – from the new school to the established, and back again – are already breathing new life into an arena that had gone a little stale. That’s what other performers and productions need to attempt in order to make sure the musical can rise up and hit some high notes.

You might even say it’s time for them to sing a new song (oh, my God, I am so sorry).

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