I’ve gone on record before as stating I enjoy a good musical more than any straight man probably should, even though I made my case last week for why the art form exists, and why–particularly where movie musicals are concerned–it represents a demanding commitment above and beyond its non-singing, non-dancing brethren.
This is true even when the end result seems like pure feel-good fluff. Delve into some of the behind-the-scenes stories from the making of Singin’ in the Rain and you’ll be amazed Debbie Reynolds was able to summon up such a sunny smile on her face and a spring in her step–at the end of the “Good Morning” number, her feet were bleeding, and Gene Kelly was as grim a taskmaster in his own way as Kubrick ever was. But then again, you can’t accuse him of not being willing to put his own ass on the line… he danced the title song while suffering from a 103 degree fever. Despite all that, when the cameras rolled, everything was supposed to seem like effortless, effervescent joy. And somehow, that’s exactly what comes across.
Not every musical is a nightmare for its cast and crew… I’m just saying, again, these are productions where everyone has to be at the top of their game or it all falls apart, or at least falls short of potential. Singin’ in the Rain is also an interesting case in that it was made first as a movie, with the stage production being an adaptation, rather than the much more common instance of stage to screen. I don’t doubt that this is because of the difficulties of bringing a movie musical to fruition–any original screenplay is going to be a gamble, but musicals are a bigger gamble than most. Pre-existing fans of the material and pre-existing knowledge of a property make things exponentially easier from a marketing standpoint, and also make it much easier to secure a healthy production budget. So in the case of most musicals making it to the screen, they’ve already seen at least a few Tony awards under their belts and a lot of well-received performances on-and-off Broadway.
Not every award-winning, popular musical is worth adapting, though, and not every adaptation that does make it to the screen does so in an effective fashion. What’s the magic formula? Well, when I look back on some of my all-time favorites, I see certain similarities, and I think it all comes down to the best movie musicals all being period pieces.
But let me elaborate, since that’s not a good enough statement for my tastes. The best musicals venerate a certain time & place, even if it happens to be a heightened, nostalgic version of it. They populate it with archetypes of that world, devising a storyline that’s at once universal but also uniquely dependent on its environment… and then… oh, then the very, very best ones construct their songs out of that environment as well.
This is why Chicago hits its notes so well (pardon the pun). On one level we have a darkly wry tale about celebrity culture that resonates with a modern audience, but we also have a story and production design firmly rooted in the corrupt liveliness of the Jazz Age… and what song starts us off? Why, “All That Jazz”, the song, along with the hedonist Fosse-esque costumes and cheography reminding us that once upon a time, your grandma and grandpa were wild young things, and this was the music of their rebellion. Chicago finds ways to seamlessly incorporate the music of its depicted era into its storyline. Here, a slick lawyer plays puppetmaster, manipulating his client and the populace as they ragdoll appropriately to frenzied ragtime. Here, a poor sad sack imagines himself as a Vaudeville clown, singing his heart out to an audience that never even acknowledges him. Here, murderous women tell their tales to a sultry tango beat, hearkening back to a time when the tango was still considered the dangerously sexy music of foreigners and gangsters.
It all fits together as an organic, seamless package, and that lets the audience be transported by what they’re experiencing. Nothing feels as out of place as, say, using electric guitars in your introduction to a show about Atlantic City during prohibition.
This is also why I’ve never felt musicals like Phantom of the Opera or Miss Saigon are as good as they could have been. The music feels tacked on, or even, dare I say, tacky. They don’t fully embrace the setting being presented. Compare that with a musical like Little Shop of Horrors, where nearly every song sounds like it could have come straight off the pop charts of the early 1960s where the story takes place, or Fiddler on the Roof, with its veneration of all the ups and downs of traditional (heh) Eastern European folk music. Singin’ in the Rain took all its cues from the extravagant golden age of movie musicals at the dawn of the “talkies”.
They’re not 100 percent perfect, for instance “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Wonder of Wonders” are both fairly generic pieces, even though their lyrics seem to realize this and double down in an effort to keep the themes of the production intact. But the more the singing and dancing side of the equation keeps in line with the setting and characters, the better. Even a piece as simple on the surface as The Music Man actually stands as one of my favorites because it has so much love for and connection to early 20th Century small town America, with songs that celebrate barbershop harmony, prayer revivals, and (of course) John Phillip Sousa. It also doesn’t hurt that the classic film version stars the inestimable Robert Preston, and boasts a musical sequence set in a multi-story library that is a master achievement both in choreography and how to properly showcase that choreography in a movie environment.
The copyright beast is jealous, alas, or I would show it to you. There’s no helicopters landing, or chandeliers falling, or people being shot off of barricades… there’s just a charming con man attempting to woo a skeptical librarian in her lair, with a song as upbeat and irrepressible as his attitude, resisting every urge to be shushed. They go here, they go there, every action timed to the beats, the ebb and flow… not just the actions of the principals but of all those extras in the background as well, even if they’re not paying attention–and I contend the effect of that is more powerful than a whole street full of people flipping around as they smile directly into the camera. In “Marian the Librarian” they just seem unconsciously swept along, like the audience themselves should be.
The best musicals, and movie musicals, are the ones that strive the most to bring their worlds to life in all aspects. The choice of that world doesn’t matter so much as weaving together story, visuals, and music in a manner where everything works to reinforce the environment, with nothing discordant that might break the spell before the curtain comes down or the credits roll.
My first article about the topic is here. Or you can seek refuge from the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world by learning how Gary Busey was reincarnated as a small dog. Just be warned– after that even Repo: The Genetic Opera may seem good.