When English broadcaster Michael Parkinson interviewed actress and singer Julie Andrews and her husband Blake Edwards in 1974, he observed an annoying tendency common to the film industry, one Andrews had just experienced when she lost out on the lead role in the film version of My Fair Lady: “It’s a very curious system, isn’t it though, when you’ve had someone who’s been very successful on stage with a musical, a smash-hit musical, and then you pick somebody to play the part in the film who can’t even sing.”
Edwards, an American film director, quickly analyzed the predicament that cost his wife the role: Directors who fill singing roles with big names lacking big voices visit Hollywood in cycles, he said, but the casting method reflects the film’s priority—not quality, but box office receipts.
As fans of Mary Poppins no doubt already know (and Walt Disney Studios announced), Emily Blunt will revive the role made famous by Andrews in the film reboot of Mary Poppins (called Mary Poppins Returns), which is set to open in December 2018. And it seems like the trend Edwards pointed out in 1974 has returned to poison Hollywood once again.
Blunt joins a cast made up mostly of actors of her ilk—that is, good actors with pathetically average voices. Although entertainers fit for Broadway earned the original Mary Poppins movie its fame and magic, the reboot will rely on a fusion of the folks who warbled their way through the 2008 movie, Mamma Mia, which one can enjoy only after a few spoonfuls of sugar…. or better yet, tequila; and the hodgepodge of actors who struggled through the rapid-fire lyrics of the film version of Into the Woods in 2014. (Having starred in both Mamma Mia and Into the Woods, Meryl Streep will complete her movie musical trifecta by appearing in Mary Poppins Returns).
Mamma Mia and Into the Woods are good examples of the deficiencies of recent movie musicals. Both relied on cinematic eye candy and A-list names to carry them, and both did well at the box office. But both movies were also missed opportunities; they could have dazzled musically had they been equipped with a cast of professional singers. Even a beloved actress like Streep came in for criticism for her musical performance. In a New York Times review of Mamma Mia, A.O. Scott likened the movie to cheap, fruity cocktails—fun to throw back, hard to sleep off. Of Streep’s performance, Scott said it was the worst of her career.
Even if they do an adequate job with the songbook in the new Mary Poppins movie, actors like Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep are unlikely to garner the kind of praise Julie Andrews received for her performance in Mary Poppins, which was her first film role after years of performing in the West End and on Broadway. Critic Bosley Crowther said of Andrews, “And it is she (Mary Poppins), with her unrelenting discipline and her disarmingly angelic face, who fills this film with a sense of wholesome substance and the serenity of self-confidence.”
Andrews had already proven herself a talented singer and performer when Walt Disney tapped her to play the role of the world’s most famous nanny on film. Blunt, by contrast, is not a professional singer: her singing in Into the Woods did little more than get the job done. But studio executives obviously assume that her name, like Meryl Streep’s, will sell tickets, regardless of her singing chops.
It’s natural that some movie musicals will be more compelling than others, and perhaps inevitable that actors with little to no vocal talent will continue to try to sing in them; recall how Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz tortured audiences who watched Annie in 2014. At least the live-action Beauty and the Beast in 2017 tried to compensate for Emma Watson’s heavily auto-tuned voice with glitter and the presence of Josh Gad. Actors’ lack of singing skills has driven some critics to call for a return to voice dubbing, which used to be a more common practice in Hollywood.
Hollywood will likely continue its unfortunate trend of allowing inexpert singers to bellow music too complex for their talent so long as it sells tickets. But in doing so, producers risk committing a greater crime than the one inflicted on hapless audience members listening to actors’ tuneless singing: the industry might be missing out on finding the next Julie Andrews.
And what a shame that would be.
Image: Walt Disney Pictures