Make Musicals, Not Museum Pieces! (The Real Revival Lesson From Hollywood’s Musical Golden Age)

Some people may think I’m beating a dead War Horse devoting so much of this blog to the problems with recent Hollywood adaptations of Broadway shows. But with Sunday night’s Oscar tribute to the New Movie Musical, as well as a recent smattering of articles on the subject, I think it’s safe to say this is still a relevant subject. And, let’s be honest, many of you are now just reading to see what insult I hurl at Les Mis next. (Don’t worry; I have a list.) But what I want to specifically address in this post is the much-discussed Modern Revival Of The Movie Musical.

Before Sunday’s Oscar telecast, Slate posted an article called “The Myth Of The Movie Musical Renaissance.” Aisha Harris argued that contrary to what Hollywood is telling you, movie musicals aren’t coming back any time soon. She pointed to the low numbers and uneven quality of movie musicals in the last decade as proof. I made a similar list a few weeks ago. But neither of us knew how applicable this argument would be to the much-hyped Oscar Tribute itself, where a whopping total of three musicals were put on display. First there was a so-so send up of Chicago, then drama and Dreamgirls. Finally, this celebration of cinematic songbirds ended not with a bang, but with Russell Crowe’s whimper. Crowe and most of the cast of Les Mis mumbled their way through “One Day More,” while over-achievers Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman attempted to prove loudly and with feeling why they were the only ones onstage to receive Oscar nods.

Anne Hathaway, why are you in this number? Your character died forty minutes ago!

Anne Hathaway, why are you in this number? Your character died twenty minutes in!

But observant Broadway fans should have noticed the most damning detail of all: this might have been a celebration of Hollywood musicals of the last decade, but these are really Broadways musicals of the last half-century. If this is any indication of Hollywood’s breakneck pace, it’s going to take at least another twenty years before platinum-winning Wicked gets its big-screen debut. (Not that I mind. Take as long as you want with that one, MGM.) More to the point, it shows how ambivalent Hollywood is about the musical genre, even as the industry pats itself on the back for successfully reviving it. So, how did it get so skittish?

The argument that modern audiences are too sophisticated to believe people just randomly break into song frankly gives modern audiences too much credit and past audiences too little. We, as an audience, are willing to suspend our disbelief to watch a guy in dressed like a Viking fly by twirling his magic hammer really fast, but scoff at Amy Adams chirruping through Central Park? How fickle does that make us sound? The problem, such as it is, has less to do with why people are singing. It’s about what they’re singing. I’m talking about the history of Popular Music.

(For those of you who thought I was going to post that song from Wicked: no. You should know me better. Now watch Julie and Carol make my point for me.)

It’s hard to believe now in the era of iTunes, music videos, and the illegal download, but a century ago Broadway was the center of popular music. Most Broadway shows were thin plots loosely connected by hit songs from such star composers as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. When the 1927 explosion of The Jazz Singer ushered in talking (singing) pictures, Hollywood came calling to Broadway. Studios bought musicals and coerced songwriters to migrate from the East Coast to the West. Broadway remained a strong popular force, but with the rise of song-and-dance movie stars such as Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Judy Garland, soon Hollywood shared Broadway’s musical influence. In 1936, the Fred & Ginger musical Swing Time scored over $2 million at the box office and two Top 5 songs, “A Fine Romance” and “The Way You Look Tonight:”

Similar to Broadway before, Hollywood musicals were really just (occasionally well written) hit parades with the stars of the day recording covers of popular songs from stage and screen. While many stage musicals did make it to the screen more or less intact, many more were re-written or plundered for their hottest numbers. In some cases, as with most of the Arthur Freed Unit at MGM, these musicals were an excuse to re-release popular songs tucked away in the studio files. Have a bunch of turn-of-the-century standards you want to revive? Add Judy Garland and some red hair dye and Meet Me In St. Louis! Got a hold of a Gershwin ballet? Add a few more of George’s songs and release it as An American In Paris! What about those early talkie Jazz hits?

That’s right, folks. Singin’ In The Rain, one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time, is made from recycled parts. This doesn’t make it a bad musical. Obviously, many of these films are still classics today. We tend to forget the ones that weren’t, movies such as Thousands Cheer, which is utterly forgettable except for a phenomenal version of “Honeysuckle Rose” by Lena Horne.

However, popular music began moving farther and farther away from Broadway and Hollywood. Instead of being the origin for hit songs, the “musical” increasingly became its own genre of music. The 1950s introduced American Bandstand, Rock n’ Roll, and Youth Culture, and Broadway started to wane. Movie musicals split into two types – dippy, low budget surfer flicks and faithful adaptations of stage musicals – and then faded altogether. The last stage musical to produce any crossover hits was Promises, Promises, by pop songwriting duo Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

Fast forward to the present day. Now very little music is written specifically for movies. Pop songs are used only after cutting through vast swaths of legal red tape, and sometimes still must be removed when the copyright expires. (In case you’re wondering, that’s why your DVD of Beverly Hills 90210 sounds different – they replaced the music.) Hollywood still looks to Broadway for musical ideas, but Broadway no longer has the same cultural relevance, and so Broadway has increasingly turned to Hollywood for its ideas. And so movies become musicals become movies become musical sequels as the entertainment industry turns itself into a modern Ouroboros eating its own tail through infinity.

Ironically, the movie musicals that have the most cultural relevance are the ones that we tend to dismiss. Yes, I’m talking about the pop music musicals. Moulin Rouge, Pitch Perfect, the Step Up movies, Once (now on Broadway), Glee, and Smash are all examples of shows that express themselves through pop music and/or covers. But most aren’t given the weighty title of “movie musical” and all that’s supposed to go with it – presumably a musty crown of sheet music and an obligatory award nomination. Still, if ever there was a show that strings together hit songs with weak plot points like the musicals of yore, it’s Glee. These shows are the spiritual successors of the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals as much as if not more so than their wheezing Broadway-adapted contemporaries. Maybe if we really want to revive the movie musical, the first step is to take it out of its ivory-key tower and let it have fun.

(I linked to one option, but over at Film Fresh you can find scores of classic Hollywood musicals for your viewing pleasure.)

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About Anne Marie Kelly

Classic Film history & restoration nerd. Writer of A Year With Kate and Women's Pictures for The Film Experience. Follow me on Twitter @WeRecycleMovies.
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3 Responses to Make Musicals, Not Museum Pieces! (The Real Revival Lesson From Hollywood’s Musical Golden Age)

  1. Sandy Maben says:

    This was a wonderful post Anne. I especially enjoyed Julie, Carol & Lena Horne, but I tend toward the musty side anyway. Thanks!

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  3. Pingback: What A Year It Was! 2013 In Review | We Recycle Movies

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