Free Film School #79: The Theory of Movie Musicals (Part 1)

In the first part of a two-part lecture on movie musicals, Professor Witney Seibold walks you through his theory of musicals' glorious artificiality. 

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold


Ave, discipuli! (Now you respond by saying “Ave, magister!”) Welcome back to CraveOnline's award-winning Free Film School (awarded the Golden Book of Awesomeness by the Made-Up Committee that Gives Itself Awards). Have you been doing your homework? I hope so, because the homework usually involves watching movies.

This week, I will embark on a two-part lecture devoted entirely to the notion of movie musicals. The holidays are directly upon us, and it's likely you watch at least one or two musicals during this time, be it something classical like White Christmas, or something a bit more modern like The Nightmare Before Christmas. It's high time we ponder, my dear students, the theory of musicals, and some of the genre's more notable examples. This first week will be entirely my own rambling notions as to what a musical is and how it can be executed in film. Next week will be a mere list of movie musicals that illustrate my theories. Strap in tight, kiddo, and prepare to have songs stuck in your head.

It's often been said that film is a close cousin to its more ancient counterpart, live theater. Both, for instance, are typically used to depict fictional dramas, involving human actors playing larger-than-life characters. Both can employ realist tropes, broad fantasy, special effects, and music. Both require sets, both often have written scripts (although improv/interview/documentary works don't necessarily), and both must have living people to perform for an audience. Theater, however, is inherently more lifelike, as it must necessarily be performed live, in the moment. Cinema tends to skew a bit more technical, as it is, in an essential way, a technological art form requiring cameras and projectors in order to be made and to be consumed by an audience.

If you will allow me to wax poetic for a moment: it can be said that singing songs for others is perhaps the oldest form of entertainment outside of prostitution. Music probably predates spoken language, and creating music for others is a practice that stretches back to when we were mere protohumans. Before there was drama, dramaturgy, script, structure, etc., there was the singing of legends and tales. This is the origin of theater; mere performance. Theater has, perhaps, not needed to evolve much since these simple prehistoric days of poets and bards. The form has become more complex and sophisticated, the content more varied, and the stages have become more codified, but there's something beautifully primal about theater. We are storytelling beings, and theater is where our stories live, vital and alive, with real people, before our very eyes.

It should only make perfect sense, then, that musicals should step from this very primal urge. The act of singing for an audience is one of the simplest forms of entertainment. From ancient days, all the way up to Wicked and beyond.

When film first began, a little over 100 years ago, the first instinct was to film plays as we already had them. If you've seen some of the earliest silent cinema shorts, you may notice how stagey and static they are. The camera would not move (for one, it was typically a massive and heavy piece of equipment), and the actors would move as if they were on a stage, blocked carefully to face an audience (now a camera). What's more, actors would gesticulate and emote as if they were performing to a massive room; film acting wouldn't really be codified until Mary Pickford helped to establish the new acting form of playing small to a camera that is right up close to your face.

Even while film was quickly evolving into its own form, though, we were not so easily rid of our theatrical obsessions. To this day, you will find feature films that play like usual theatrical dramas, enlisting character types that stretch back hundreds, if not thousands of years. It wasn't until 1929 that sound was introduced to movies, and it's no wonder that the first feature film with sound (that'd be The Jazz Singer, in case you didn't know) would be a musical. We could finally hear the top singers of the day, in this case Al Jolson, crooning in an immortal strip of film.

But, as the years passed, and film evolved, the notion of the musical became an increasingly dissonant one. I still feel that movie musicals are alive and well, and can be made with skill and wonder; why just today, a film version of the Broadway smash Les Misérables opens in theaters. But there is a disconnect between the way most movies are made, and the way most musicals are thought of.

I have said before that movies are all melodramas that are – stylistically anyway – made to resemble real life as closely as possible while still cleaving closely to a specific dramatic structure. We go for natural acting, real settings, and most filmmakers (who aren't making a broad fantasy film anyway) strive to put as much weight and resemblance to real life as possible. And while we're still fond of artificially constructed dramas and bold fictions, most audiences prefer a balance between constructed conceits and something that, at least on the surface, resembles reality.

One of the central criticisms of musicals, however, is how forthrightly artificial they are. Unless it's a story about musicians (take the heartbreaking and wonderful film Once for instance), most musicals are merely about people who express themselves through song. And, in life, this is not something real people typically do. And, assuredly, the people around you aren't going to be in step with your dancing, and know the lyrics to your song. Musicals are, in a very pure way, about theatrical entertainment first. They make an unspoken pact with the audience, and we are willing to accept that the characters within the drama are singers and dancers, because we, on a basis that is more fundamental than structure, just love music and love hearing people sing, and watching people dance. For a brief period, we can look past structure and aesthetic realism, and accept that song and dance are the only ways that humanity is able to convey its vast and complex emotions.

Film is, of course, multifaceted, and can express all levels of reality. Film can be staunchly factual (as in the documentary form), it can be melodramatic (as in just about every fiction feature drama you may see), and it can be downright abstract (as in any surrealist experimental film you may have seen), but the vast bulk of films you see borrow from directly theatrical traditions, and are used to tell a very particular kind of story; There's a reason why The Hero's Journey is so heavily hammered away at in any screenwriting course worth its weight in waitstaff tips. That films try to be “realistic” taps right into the famed contract that the audience wordlessly signs with the filmmakers: the suspension of disbelief. We silently agree to accept certain notions of unreality, treating the films like actual reality for a brief span, and in return, the filmmakers will make our hearts beat quickly. Films, then, become a kind of hyper-real version of life. A version that, by inserting itself directly into our brains, become our reality.

And as long as that's true, why not throw in some music? Why not have a heightened reality where we can have a story, characters, and the usual dramatic conceits, combined with the primal enjoyment of music? The characters will sing, and we will smile or cry accordingly.

Music and theater have been closely married since the inception of the theatrical form thousands of years ago, but when I say “musical,” for the purposes of this lecture, I'm referring to a very specific form of American musical theater tradition that, I think, we're all kind of inherently familiar with. For the most part, we even think of a specific tone; light, fun, romantic comedy. To offer a very brief (and entirely sloppy) history of American musical theater: most musicals before the early 1930s were simply musical showcases of the Vaudeville type; variety shows that had brief jokes, vignettes, and songs that stood as brief intermissions to the action. If you were to look at the musicals of Cole Porter, to offer and example, you'll find that all the (often excellent) songs were showcases to establish mood, and to show off musical skill. Shows like 42ndStreet (originally from a 1933 film) had stories, but the stories were not advanced through the music. It wasn't until 1927's Show Boat that songs themselves began to interlace with the narrative itself. And it wasn't until 1943's Oklahoma! that songs were truly used to advance the narrative. Given how much music and theater there was in the world before Oklahoma!, this “realist” weave of musicals to story is a very recent trend. Some say that the musical was codified in 1950 with Frank Loesser's Guys & Dolls.

Film was relatively nascent when these musicals became big, and films with sound came later, so you'll see both musical traditions leaking into early musicals. When sound was a novelty, filmmakers tended to overindulge in the new technology, and you'll find that many movies from the 1930s are showcase musicals; finally, Hollywood seemed to say, there was a way to record and package the musical theatrical experience. There's a trend you may notice amongst musicals of the 1930s toward shiny, glitzy, opulent musicals that are entirely separate from reality altogether. Take a look at any film made by Busby Berkeley. Or, better yet, watch any of the Astaire/Rogers musicals. These are films about insanely talented and visionary performers who are doing the actual musical footwork (rather literally) to sweeten and entertain our reality. Thanks to movies like these (and to their Broadway forebears), musicals are often seen as “glitzy” to this very day, and are typically used for reasons of romance and joy.

Not that musicals can't be dark. Look up Stephen Sondheim sometime. Watch Pink Floyd: The Wall if you get a chance, and you'll see a harrowing and disturbing surreal phantasmagoria of traumatic representations and insanity. Look up Marc Blitzstein's 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock, or watch Tim Robbins' film about that musical, and you'll find that a musical can be so boldly political as to b censured by the government. But glitzy is the default. Sometimes to a fault. The 2002 film adaptation of Kander & Ebb's Chicago, for instance, aimed for glitzy when the original musical played more wicked and satirical.

I admire realist dramas a lot, and I'm a big fan of Mike Leigh, one of the world's best working directors who has a strong knack for theatrical realism on film. But I equally admire some movies for their bold artificiality. In an intellectual context, movie musicals seek to off-handedly analyze the very artificial nature of cinema, by presenting us a world that is boldly fake – and yet one that we really love to watch. It is simultaneously fake, and entirely real. There is a purity to that. A tacked on story, paired with some awesome tap dancing and hummable songs. The shimmering conviviality of live theater shines through the screen, and we have a subtle comment on how we view fiction.

So the next time you find yourself scoffing at how far-fetched movie musicals are, and you cynically dismiss them as being a little too false for your tastes, know that is deliberate. Know that the song is the Platonic pleasure-in-itself. Hear the music and enjoy.

Next week, I will be looking at some of the best examples of movie musicals, and tracing their history through the ages.

Homework for the Week:

Watch any movie musical. Yes, Disney animated features count. How do you feel about the songs? Do you mind when strangers burst into song? How realistic do you like your movies to be? How much artificiality to you prefer? Can good music and/or dancing make up for a bad story? Can a good story make up for bad music/dancing?

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film Schooland The Series Project, and follow him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.