Can ‘West Side Story’ Break the Box Office Curse for Big-Screen Musicals?

Steven Spielberg’s remake has advantages that ”In the Heights“ and ”Dear Evan Hansen“ didn’t… but will that be enough?

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Over the course of 2021, big-screen musicals have been in a deep slump at the box office — a condition exacerbated by a pandemic that is keeping the genre’s core demographic of older moviegoers at home. It is into this tough environment that Steven Spielberg’s daring remake of “West Side Story” will enter theaters on Friday.

Since the musical’s premiere in New York City last week, glowing reviews have poured in. Newcomer Rachel Zegler and Tony nominee Arianna DeBose have been hailed as new Hollywood stars for their performances as Maria and Anita. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have also been praised for bringing one of Broadway’s most famous musicals into the 21st century with a film that both honors and updates the 1961 film adaptation that won 10 Oscars.

But we’ve been here before. It was just five months ago that critics were exulting over Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony winner “In the Heights,” calling it as a joyous, life-affirming spectacle while Warner Bros. was marketing it as a summer event release that could liven the spirits of a nation beaten down by COVID.

But beyond the most devout theater lovers and Miranda fans, “In the Heights” was rejected by the public, becoming a box office flop with just $43.8 million grossed worldwide against a reported budget of $55 million. Even on HBO Max, where the film was released at the same time it hit theaters, Warner insiders said viewership was extremely low. The public just wasn’t interested in what “Heights” was selling. Less piraguas, more “Fast & Furious.”

The bad times for musicals continued into September with Universal’s “Dear Evan Hansen,” though that film got a much more mixed reception from critics that further dampened its box office hopes. The 2017 Tony winner for Best Musical from Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul was made at half the price of “Heights” ($28 million), but failed to gross even that amount, settling for just $17.9 million worldwide.

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Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • • Twitter: @jeremyfuster