Movie Musicals – A Lost Art

I grew up on the classic MGM musicals.  I cleaned out the musicals section at Rocky’s Video, and eventually had to resign myself to watching the same movies over and over again.  Gene Kelly and Judy Garland were my heroes.  Their films were sweeping and romantic.  I bemoaned the fact that no one really made movie musicals anymore.  Though I understood the practical facts that movie musicals were expensive to produce and no longer the sure-fire money makers that they once were, I still had a dream of seeing a modern movie musical on the big screen.  In recent years, the movie musical has had a renaissance.  You can imagine my disappointment, therefore, with the lackluster quality and reception of many of these new films.  Why don’t modern movie musicals resonate the same way as their early predecessors?

I think that the answer to this question is twofold.  First, I think there are problems with the ways in which modern movie musicals are handled.  In the heyday of movie musicals of the 1940s and 50s, directors and actors often worked exclusively in that genre.  They understood that a musical movie was a different beast from a dramatic movie and from a musical play.  It takes an entirely different style of both directing and acting to make a musical come to life on the screen.

The second missing piece is the audience’s willingness to suspend their disbelief.  Today, with the whole world at our fingertips, it is harder and harder to sit down in a movie theatre and buy into the fact that people are singing and dancing on the screen.  The directors and actors have an even harder job of creating circumstances in which the audience will believe that the characters would actually need to sing about something.

Let’s do a little side-by-side analysis.  First, take a look at this clip from the 1944 movie, “Meet Me In St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland and directed by Vincent Minelli. In “The Trolley Song,” a group of teenagers are on their way to tour the site of the upcoming World’s Fair.  Esther, played by Judy Garland, is in low spirits because the boy she likes hasn’t shown up.  Low and behold, he appears, chases down the trolley, and manages to join the group!  The day is saved!

Now, a modern day comparison.  Go with me here.  “High School Musical 2.”  Starring Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens.  Directed by Kenny Ortega.  In this closing scene of the second movie, Troy believes that he is left to close the show that the kids have been working on all summer by himself.  But wait!  His girlfriend, Gabrielle, who we thought had up and moved away, returns to save the day!  All of the kids join in and the show is a success!

I know many people will disagree with me, but I actually believe that the High School Musical franchise represents the most successful attempt at modern movie musicals to date.  First of all, they are the most reminiscent of the old Mickey and Judy, “Hey, kids!  Let’s put on a show!” musicals.  Look at this scene from “Strike Up the Band” (1940):

Now, look at this scene from “High School Musical 2” (2007):

The clothes and style of music are different, but the idea is exactly the same!  These films are successful because they establish the idea that these characters are supposed to be singing.  It’s easier for the audience to accept any song and dance that they see from this point forward because we’ve established that the characters are creative, musical people.

Ok, but what about characters that aren’t supposed to be musical?  First, a successful classical example: “Oklahoma!” (1955) Starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.  Directed by Fred Zinnermann.

A singing cowboy?  Sounds far fetched, and yet, somehow it works. First, the acting is superb.  Gordon MacRae endows Curly with such booming masculinity that you accept the singing without question.  He seems joyous and natural.  There is nothing affected about his performance.  And what about the direction?  Sweeping technicolor!  Full of life.  The characters are real country folk, yet everything is bright, beautiful, and heightened.  It’s exciting, and that excitement forces people to believe it.

Modern “realistic” musicals are less successful.  Look at this clip from “Rent.” (2005) Starring Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, and Rosario Dawson.  Directed by Chris Columbus.

It just doesn’t work.  The music is upbeat, but the characters are somehow boring.  The scene doesn’t make sense.  There’s too much ambient noise, and the light somehow isn’t right.  One of the things that made “Rent” so exciting on stage was the rock show quality of it.  Chris Columbus took all of that away and tried to make this a regular feature film where the characters just happen to be singing.  But that isn’t what movie musical are about.  The situations must be heightened, otherwise the characters end up looking as awkward as they do here.

So, the question is: Is there something in between “High School Musical” and “Rent”?  I found “HSM” to be entertaining and successful, but it doesn’t typically appeal to the target adult movie-going demographic.  Is it possible to make a modern movie musical that appeals to a mass audience and is artistically convincing?  We may get the answer to our question when the highly-anticipated “Les Miserables” movie hits theatres this Christmas.  Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathway; and directed by Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of “The King’s Speech.”  It’s a huge budget film with an all-star cast.  Word is that Hooper had all of the actors sing live during filming, an bold move that will hopefully bring a dose of realism to the film.  My fingers are crossed for its success.  It’s a sweeping classical story with all of our favorite modern day film stars in it.  Hopefully this blend of old and new will be the key to unlocking the elusive contemporary movie musical.


Published by rachelrobinsonmusic

Rachel Robinson is a teaching artist, director, music director and performer based in San Francisco. She is a graduate of New York University’s Steinhardt School, and holds a degree in Vocal Performance. In addition to her work as a singer/actress, Rachel maintains a very busy schedule directing, music directing, and teaching. Rachel grew up in the Washington, D.C. area where she became an active performer at a very early age. She appeared many times with The Washington Opera, and she also played roles at the Adventure Theatre and with the Washington Savoyards. In 2003, Rachel moved to New York City to begin her degree at New York University. During the next four years Rachel appeared in many cabarets and productions, both at NYU and in the city. After graduating in May 2007, Rachel became the resident Music Director at Stage Left Children’s Theater in Tappan, NY. She was in residence there for three seasons. At the same time, she founded a private voice and piano studio. In September 2010, Rachel relocated to San Francisco. She began working as a music instructor at ViBO Music, Village Music School, and the San Francisco Friends School. She also was brought on as a music director at the Willows Theatre Company. In 2011-2012, Rachel spent a year as the Conservatory Director at the Willows, where she worked on developing opportunities for youth and up-and-coming theatre artists. No matter what level of student she is working with, Rachel believes in finding the student's "natural voice." Playing any instrument is a process, not an event, and her goal is to make that process as fun, productive, and insightful as possible.

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