Oscars: ‘La La Land,’ Just How Musical Is It Really?


La La Land, which arrives at tonight’s Oscar ceremonies with 14 nominations, proudly pays homage to the classic movie musicals of the genre’s golden age. It’s hard to watch Damien Chazelle’s jazzy work without hearkening back to the films of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Kelly. But La La Land differs from its ancestors in one notable way: it contains fewer instances of characters singing songs than most musicals in history.

Using the soundtrack listing, and disregarding reprises and instrumental-only songs, La La Land has just six unique numbers: “Another Day of Sun,” “Someone in the Crowd,” “A Lovely Night,” “City of Stars,” “Start a Fire,” and “Audition (The Fools Who Dream).”

By way of comparison, the only post-1968 musical to win best picture, 2002’s Chicago, had 12 songs with lyrics, from “All That Jazz” at the top of the film to “I Move On” during the credits. Here are all ten musicals to win best picture, along with La La Land on the far right. The higher the image on the chart, the more songs a film had:

In total, 43 musicals have been nominated for best picture, from a pair in 1929 – The Broadway Melody and Hollywood Revue – to one this year. The distribution of their song counts follows, with best picture-winning films marked in green, and films that did not win marked in red.

At the far left, those six losing nominees with 3-5 songs are all from the pre-1940 era. Since 1956, out of 20 best picture-nominated musicals, only two had fewer than eight unique songs: 1991’s Beauty and the Beast and 2016’s La La Land, each with six.

At the far right, 2012’s Les Miserables had 48 unique songs, followed by 2001’s Moulin Rouge! with 34.

In fairness, defining this dataset is admittedly a bit subjective. I went through all 43 of these musicals one song at a time, judging which songs were distinct (are “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard” from The Wizard of Oz one song or two?), which songs are reprises (is “Tonight Quintet” sufficiently different from “Tonight” in West Side Story?), and what even counts as…