Who would I cast if I were making a movie musical?, or, in other words: Who is My” Movie Musical Dream Team”?
Obviously, to answer this question without context presents its share of problems. You may ask: What musical is it? What is the musical about? What are the ages of the characters? What type of music is being sung within the musical? And you would probably have even more questions than that. These hypothetical questions are valid and important . . . and I am ignoring them completely. This movie musical “dream team” is simply about the people that I find so dynamic or iconic that I would find room for no matter what the project was. They are the ones who would be amazing in their parts even if the part didn’t necessarily fit their normal style. This is not to say that these are the six best big-screen musical performers EVER. I take no such responsibility. The exercise is thus: if I were in charge of casting for a major Hollywood musical, who are the first six names I would call and beg to be in it? Well, that is not even extra enough: Who would I keep begging to be in it until I wore down their defenses and they said yes? I have limited it to actresses and actors that are still alive. Though it this a purely made-up musical production, I choose to focus on those that would be able to come and act today. If you are looking to hear my tastes regarding movie musicals, our podcast episode about our favorite live-action movie musicals is available here (and wherever you listen to podcasts).
With such lists, I always come up with a massive amount of names of incredible performers and am tempted to increase the number of people on the dream team to make my job easier. I am going to resist that temptation this time and keep the numbers down to just three men and three women. This forced me to make some excruciating decisions. At the same time, this short list features just the six actresses and actors that are guaranteed to garner a spot; that doesn’t mean I could not find room for the majority of those that did not make this list, all of whom I admire and adore. Since this movie musical is a completely theoretical proposition, I can believe in my heart that I would have room for every other name I am about to list if we were really making a movie.
Brilliant performers who just missed a spot on my musical “dream team”: James Marsden (an unsung hero of multiple musicals), Kristen Bell (yeah, Frozen is what everyone knows, but her no-nonsense attitude and comedic abilities would elevate any production), Lin-Manuel Miranda (who would definitely help us write the script and the songs, though!), Jonathan Groff (agonizing cut), Emma Stone (let’s all go watch her performance of “Audition” anyway), Robert Preston (I will watch The Music Man over and over until I die), Julie Andrews (the true first lady of movie musicals), Gordon McRae (I all but worship Gordon McRae’s voice and “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” will always brighten my mood), Queen Latifah (soaring voice, powerful actress), Ben Platt (hilarious in Pitch Perfect, relevatory in Dear Evan Hansen), Jack Black (he seems more like a novelty choice, but he is such an emotive singer and his comic timing is unparalleled), and my awesome daughter Savannah would be angry at me if I did not mention Jeremy Jordan (his Newsies performance made her a believer). If you are reading this, comment on Facebook or Twitter who would be in your movie musical dream team.
Without further ado, the Chad Durham Movie Musical Dream Team:
Elijah Kelley — Though Kelley has only been in a few big-screen musicals and his career has never taken off like it should have, his megawatt smile, incredible dancing ability, and silky smooth voice made him the first choice for my musical dream team. Kelley voiced a character in the wonky animated musical Strange Magic (singing “Three Little Birds” and “Say Hey” and sounding angelic on both) and starred on TV in The Wiz Live! But his best moment came as Seaweed in Adam Shankman’s adaptation of Hairspray where he managed to steal the show from a talented roster of performers. Kelley is magnetic in every scene he is in and somehow gives off the vibe that he is not even trying. Performances of such effortless brilliance are hard to come by, especially in a musical where everyone is doing the “most.” Kelley’s charm and good looks would make him the ideal lead character; his casual humor and older brother vibes would make him the ideal sidekick; and his “steal your girl” smirk would allow him to play a callous but sympathetic villain. I have continually been disappointed that Kelley is not in more movies and has not somehow had a second career as an R&B singer. If I had the control of the casting of a musical, his combination of charisma and dazzling moves would be impossible to pass up. Kelley Performance to Check Out: “Run and Tell That,” Hairspray
Shirley Jones — This is obviously a tiny bit of a cheat, although I would be glad to have the current Shirley Jones in my hypothetical movie as well. I have an “across generations” crush Shirley Jones from her indelible performances in two of my favorite movie musicals of all time, The Music Man and Oklahoma. Though this spot is reserved for her because of her younger years, the presence of an iconic performer on our set would be awesome for the new generation to hear her tales of old Hollywood, as well as being a stabilizing presence whose professionalism and stately nature would rub off. Jones’ knack in her earlier roles was for being the seemingly unattainable love interest but always injecting the roles with unforced empathy. She may have been beautiful and hard-edged (in the case of Marian) or lovely and fickle (as was the case with Laurey) but she was somehow going to finagle the audience’s sympathy easily, even in the midst of her compelling contradictions. If I needed Jones to light up the screen as a hard-to-get goddess or challenge the audience’s perceptions as an angry antihero, I would trust her to get it done and I have not even talked about her marvelous singing yet. The simplicity and clarity of the lullabye “Goodnight, My Someone” and the sweeping grandeur of “Being in Love” and the unforced melancholy of “Out of My Dreams” showcase her once-in-a-lifetime voice, which would be spotlighted no matter what genre we gave her to sing. Jones Performance to Check Out: “Till There Was You,” The Music Man
Neil Patrick Harris — A no-brainer, ultimately. The multi-hyphenate has proved his mettle as a singer and performer over and over and over again. To trumpet his talents here would amount to beating a dead horse. Suffice to say, Harris adds class to any production he participates in, be it How I Met Your Mother, Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (which gave Harris the opportunity to sing a different version of the opening credits every other episode), or the still-criminally-underseen and Joss Whedon-directed Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. As a four-time host of the Tonys, Harris has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to shine under the brightest lights and biggest pressure, so whatever we threw at him in our theoretical musical would be memorized and dominated without him breaking a sweat. On the commentary track of Dr. Horrible, one of the producers says that Harris’ delivery of the opening lines of “Brand New Day,” which are rapid-fire and verbose, was always perfect and in sync with the backing track. Showing up prepared and positive is a hallmark of Harris’ now decades-long career. I am already salivating at the prospect of a Harris and Kelley duet a la Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron in The Greatest Showman, but in a much better movie than that. :) Harris Performance to Check Out: “My Freeze Ray,” Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
Emily Blunt — Though Emily Blunt has made her name as a serious, Oscar-bait actress (and if you have never seen Sicario, you should probably stop reading this frivolous article, go right now to stream it somewhere, be riveted for two hours, and then come back and continue reading about her musical abilities — I’ll wait), she has proven quite adept at headlining big-screen musicals, as the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods (a hit-and-miss musical, but not a hit-and-miss performance) and as the quintessential Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins Returns. Though her emotional and nuanced performance in Into the Woods receives far less hype than it deserves, it is her dazzling performance following in Julie Andrews footsteps that really secured her place on the Movie Musical Dream Team. To take on a roll that has become legendary and do it with such aplomb as to put it on the highest shelf next to the original is something that one or two actresses (literally) could have pulled off. And I will be honest, when I wrote “one or two” in the previous sentence, I was only thinking of one: Blunt herself. It is no knock on Julie Andrews, one of the most gifted musical performers of all time, to say that Emily Blunt joined her in the pantheon with a performance that had subtle bits of imitation but gigantic slices of reimagining without damaging. One could argue that the performance in Mary Poppins Returns is less subtle than her work in Into the Woods and I would argue that this simply proves my implied about her versatility. In our musical (that certainly does not exist), Blunt would be the one to get all the messy, complex scenes that required deep human emotion. And right when the scene threatened to get too heavy and too oppressive, she would begin to sing with that technically proficient voice, somehow adding pathos and hitting the release valve for the audience, allowing them to process the cathartic moment. I cannot wait (theoretically). Blunt Performance to Check Out: “Moments in the Woods,” Into the Woods
Ewan McGregor — This final male spot was the hardest choice for me, as I had it narrowed down to Ewan McGregor or Jonathan Groff. Those reading that line who favor Groff will be disappointed, obviously, especially since Groff has a LOT more musical performances under his belt as a Broadway star and former Glee cast member. And I could make a compelling case for Groff and his casual charm and his beautiful singing. In the end, I had to go with my heart. Since I am building a completely made-up Musical Dream Team, I have the final say and I would venture to say that Ewan McGregor’s performance in Moulin Rouge is one of my top two or three favorite musical performances ever. Those who know me or listen to our podcast have heard me harp on this before. The earnestness in that performance is something I have never seen in a musical before or since. In even the greatest performances, there is always a sheen of unreality that is lightly pasted over everything. That slight and subtle barrier completely disappeared with McGregor’s Moulin Rouge turn. His Christian truly sold the feeling that when he sang, it was a personal decision that simply overtook him in the emotional moment. I would want that to anchor some of the overly sentimental scenes in our musical. The ability to make the audience believe that the singing is organic is one that I cannot prize too highly. So, though McGregor’s only other real substantive musical performance was as Lumiere in the live-action Beauty and the Beast (a good performance, if not a stand-out one), he earned his way into the film with a previous performance for the ages. But Jonathan Groff, I love you, my friend. You are wonderful. McGregor Performance to Check Out: “Your Song,” Moulin Rouge
Catherine Zeta-Jones — Though this is a nod to one real performance only, I stand by it. Zeta-Jones’s Oscar-winning turn in Chicago is revelatory enough, flashy enough, and accomplished enough to win her my final female spot all on its own. Though Zeta-Jones has not been acting quite as much as she once did, I feel confident that we could lure her back to a musical, especially with the cast we are gathering to surround her. Chicago, alongside Moulin Rouge helped revitalize the movie musical, and Zeta-Jones is one big reason why. Her performance as Velma Kelly, from the electrifying opening scene to the final big number, takes over the DNA of the film. The actresses and actors around her are all great (Queen Latifah, Renee Zellweger, John C. Reilly, and Richard Gere), but in my opinion the movie always belongs to her. Though we might have a smaller role for Zeta-Jones in this pretend musical, she would make the screen pop whenever she graced it. And since we have only had a few chances, really, to hear her sing in our world, this would afford us a perfect opportunity to celebrate that smoky but clear instrument of hers. Imagine she and Emily Blunt going toe-to-toe during a show-stopping number: it’s enough to give me goosebumps just thinking about it. Zeta-Jones Performance to Check Out: “All That Jazz,” Chicago