Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations

Crafting Utopia and Dystopia: Film Musicals 1970-2002

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Theatre and Film

First Advisor

Cynthia Baron


With the end of the Hollywood studio era, big budget blockbuster musicals had to find ways to compete in the economic and cultural marketplace. Historical events such as the rise of television, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal influenced the way American audiences saw, and continue to see, the world. Film, theatre, and other artistic disciplines helped audiences understand, cope, and criticize societal changes. As audience perceptions changed, the film musical faced a crisis. In an attempt to maximize profits, Hollywood business practices forced an evolutionary branch in the development of the musical. One fork took the genre towards the embodiment of capitalistic and cultural excess as pointed to by Altman, Dyer, and others. These film musicals attempt to present Utopia. Film musicals such as Grease (1978), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Evita (1996) are large spectacles that utilize the high concept business model, as outlined by Justin Wyatt, to please audience expectations by managing conflict at the expense of presenting the story world as a utopia. The other branch of film musical exemplified in the films of Cabaret (1972) and All That Jazz (1979) criticize the price paid by an individual in pursuit of ideals that lie beyond dominant social values. The dystopic film musical connects with audiences and critics by drawing on the cynicism and skepticism of contemporary historic and cultural events to forward a clearly dystopic view of society.

This study utilizes an interdisciplinary approach to analyze the connection between selected film musicals and the American culture for which they were produced. The study shows that from 1970-2002 film musicals promoted and marketed visions of Utopia that were reflective of specific historical moments rather than ahistorical utopia ideals. While a film like Grease shows that Utopia is the ideal high school experience, later films like Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Chicago (2002) depict imagination as a utopia to escape otherwise dystopic social realities. The interdisciplinary critical frames applied in this study allow scholars to examine the fluid nature of the boundaries between film, theatre, and mass entertainment.