'Moulin Rouge' choreographs encore for movie musicals

— More so than they've been in decades, the Hollywood Hills are alive with the sound of musicals.

"Moulin Rouge" � with eight Academy Award nominations and decent box-office and video receipts � has reminded the movie industry that song-and-dance flicks can win over audiences and compete for Hollywood's top honors.

Virtually dead since the 1970s, the movie musical has returned for a curtain call in the last two years. The grim musical "Dancer in the Dark" won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, and "Moulin Rouge" opened that fest a year ago. The glam-rock musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" took the Sundance festival audience award last year and earned a Golden Globe acting nomination for its star and director, John Cameron Mitchell.

Miramax is shooting a movie version of the Broadway hit "Chicago," due in theaters late this year. The studio also has a film adaptation of the Broadway musical "Rent" in development.

Is the musical poised for revival?

"Sure, why not? They're fun to do and they're fun to watch," said Renee Zellweger, a best-actress Oscar nominee for "Bridget Jones's Diary," who co-stars with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere in "Chicago."

"I really, really hope so, because it's such a lost genre," said fellow nominee Nicole Kidman, star of "Moulin Rouge." "It's a form that's divine to work in and challenges you in all areas. I would love for other actors and actresses to have a chance to do it."

Reinventing the musical

"Moulin Rouge" was the first live-action musical nominated for best picture since "All That Jazz" 22 years ago. The animated musical "Beauty and the Beast" had a best-picture nomination for 1991, but it has been 33 years since a musical ("Oliver!") won the top Oscar.

The other best-picture nominees are "A Beautiful Mind," "Gosford Park," "In the Bedroom" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."

Set in a bawdy Paris nightclub in 1899, "Moulin Rouge" updates the underworld romantic quest of Orpheus and features wild re-imaginings of 20th-century pop tunes, including a "hills are alive" snippet from "The Sound of Music," best-picture winner for 1965.

"It has not been the easiest of roads, reinventing the musical, and it doesn't get better than getting so many Academy Award nominations," said "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann. "When I was growing up, 'The Godfather' and 'Cabaret' sat side by side in the best-picture category. I feel we've taken the musical back to where it came from, at the very heart of the cinematic form."

Lavish musicals became a Hollywood staple in the 1930s and '40s as pick-me-ups for a nation mired in Depression, then World War II. The form reached its critical peak in the 1950s and '60s, when such musicals as "An American in Paris," "Gigi," "West Side Story" and "My Fair Lady" won best picture.

The musical faded in the late 1960s and throughout the '70s as films turned toward gritty naturalism that left little room for crooning and hoofing.

A dicey proposition

There have been a handful of musicals in recent years, among them "Evita" and Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You." But the genre generally has been replaced by music-driven films � including best-picture nominees "Nashville," "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Tender Mercies" and 1984 best-picture winner "Amadeus" � films that more realistically integrate music into their stories.

The fly-by-night nature of today's pop trends makes it a dicey proposition to try a musical using contemporary sounds, said Will Smith, who has been kicking around ideas on a rap musical for about five years.

"I think part of it is that the tempo with which music changes today is different than what it's been before," said Smith, a best-actor nominee for "Ali." "The life of a song is much shorter than it was 25 or 30 years ago. By the time the picture comes out, the music could seem dated. But for some reason, the songs seemed timeless 35 years ago."

If "Chicago" succeeds on the heels of "Moulin Rouge," it may send Hollywood a message that audiences are once again primed to watch characters burst into song on screen.

"I think Baz Luhrmann has done a great thing to rejuvenate the musical," said Sissy Spacek, a best-actress nominee for "In the Bedroom" and an Oscar winner for "Coal Miner's Daughter." "It was really a very brave and creative project. I hope this means there'll be more singing and dancing in the future."

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