- Michael Rickard II
“The Magic of Musicals”
To the casual filmgoer, the musical may seem like any film that has songs but the musical is a genre with many subgenres derived from various categories. These categories include the backstage musical, the revue (collection of acts), the Showcase or Star Vehicle, the screen adaptation, the dance musical, and the animated musical. A close examination will reveal there is more to the musical than just people singing.
The first type of musical is the backstage musical, which shows the rise and/or fall of a singer, dancer, or composer. The backstage musical often shows life backstage (thus the name) for would-be stars, whether it is life backstage at a theatre or in a recording studio trying to make a hit record. An enduring subgenre of the backstage musical is the storyline that shows one star rising while another falls. Films like A Star is Born (remade during the 1970’s) chronicle an aspiring star rising to fame while her star husband’s fame withers away and he withers physically as well. Another subgenre is the story of a group of would-be stars breaking up and one star emerging, such as Ziegfield Girl where three young women aspire to break into the Ziegfield Follies, but only one manages to do so. A related subgenre is the rags to riches story such as The Great Ziegfield which depicts the rise of showman Florenz Ziegfield. Sometimes these stories show a singer (or dancer’s) rise to fame and subsequent fall. Films like The Rose (a fictionalized account of the life of singer Janis Joplin) and Dreamgirls show the struggles sometimes accompanied with fame. Musicals based on actual people are known as biopics, stories about singers, dancers, or composers. The film Yankee Doodle Dandy tells the story of famous composer George M. Cohan while more recent ones like Walk the Line and Ray, depict the lives of Johnny Cash and Ray Charles respectively.
Another category of musical is the revue. The revue is the film equivalent of the stage revue, “…an assemblage of sketches, songs, and dances, usually with a thin storyline to link the otherwise unconnected sequences but often lacking any sort of narrative.’ Revues are a studio’s way of putting its stars on display, a sort of smorgasbord of talent. Graves and Engle mention MGM’s The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and Fox’s Happy Days as two examples of revues. The first features Jack Benny introducing thirty acts in all (139) while the Fox film has a superficial plot of a desperate showman’s friends helping him put on a show to get him back in the black.
The showcase or star vehicle is designed to take a successful musical personality and make them into a successful film star too. Musical superstars such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Barbara Streisand made the transition from vinyl to film, appearing in musicals that showcased their singing talents and revealed a talent for acting as well (All three would win Academy Awards at various points in their careers). Crosby’s Road to Morocco and other “Road” films with comedian Bob Hope delighted audiences with Crosby’s singing and wit (and even occasionally Hope joining in on a tune) while Frank Sinatra proved multi-talented, singing and dancing alongside Gene Kelly in Anchors Away and co-starring along Bing Crosby years later in the musical High Society (including their performance of Cole Porter’s “Well, Did You Evah?”). Barbara Streisand’s singing and acting talent shone through in films such as Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly! Rock and roll didn’t end the showcase/star vehicle as supergroups like the Beatles appeared in musicals (A Hard Day’s Night and others) and singing superstar Elvis Presley appeared in over thirty films. As noted in the text, musical success does not always transfer to the big screen as Mariah Carey proved with Glitter and American Idol’s Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson did in From Justin to Kelly.
The screen adaptation is a film adaptation of a stage musical or operetta (although as noted in the text, the operetta is no longer popular as a film adaptation). Like any literary adaptation to film, there are challenges in producing screen adaptations. “A stage success does not ensure a film hit. What works on Broadway or in an opera house cannot always be captured on or translated effectively to the screen…” (141). In the early days of adaptations, filmmakers sometimes removed large portions of a musical including songs, creating new songs they owned the copyright to (potentially increasing profits). Songs by secondary characters in musicals are sometimes dropped such as in the film adaptation The Sound of Music. Certain locations may be stripped from a film as noted with Cabaret. New scenes can also be added though as the medium of film allows for opening up what is confined on stage such as seen in musical adaptations like Grease where the song segment “Greased Lightnin’” is able to show the race between the T-Birds and the Scorpions in a location shot.
The dance musical features songs but here, “…dance rather than song is the means of delineating character and furthering narratives. Songs are often involved but assumes primacy as the films medium” (142). Love stories were portrayed with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers showing the winding road to love in films such as The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat. Dance musicals’ success is not limited to one generation of filmgoers if the success of films like Saturday Night Fever (1977) or Dirty Dancing (1987) are any indication. Dance musicals can show more than romantic pursuit. They can also show the violent consequences of a love triangles as seen in the dance number “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” in 1948’s Words and Music.
The animated musical has been an important category of musicals for decades, producing different types of musicals but through animation. Animator Walt Disney paved the way for full-length animated musicals when he created the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Graves and Engle also consider musicals that combine animated sequences with live action sequences as animated musicals, listing Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (144) as two examples.
With musicals encompassing many categories and subgenres, it is clear musicals are more than just films with songs. These varieties show the many approaches to telling a story through song and/or dance, giving audiences different ways to be entertained. The recent success of the film La-La Land shows there is still an audience for musicals.
Graves, Mark and F. Bruce Engle. Blockbusters: A Reference Guide to Film Genres. Greenwood,