The Golden Globe Awards, conferred by Hollywood Foreign Press Association, divide films into two major categories, drama, and comedy or musical. Last year, the award for best film in comedy or musical category was given to Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic. But the film is not your conventional Hollywood musical.
In Hollywood, musical is a genre with its own tradition and history, where songs and dances are infused within the narrative in such a way that you cannot dream of the film without the songs. Remove the songs, and The Sound of Music or My Fair Lady would appear lifeless.
Musicals are American invention, a cross between European opera or serious stage drama. And it has its roots in theatre, in Broadway, to be precise. Stage musicals are essentially comedies in which songs and choruses, instrumental accompaniments and interludes and often dance are integrated into dramatic plot.
It was developed in the theatres along Broadway in New York in the early part of 20th century.
There were several composers such as George Cohan, Victor Herbert, who popularised musicals in theatres. Then came the pair of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein who took musicals to new heights with compositions like Oklahoma!, The King and I, South Pacific, Carousel, and the most famous of them all, The Sound of Music.
Hollywood Musical is a journey from stage to the silver screen. When The Jazz Singer spoke a few words for the first time on screen, there was an increasing demand, for not only sound in films, but also, songs and music. Hollywood producers naturally turned to Broadway musicals, and a new genre was born.
A musical is usually known by its composers. We know The Sound of Music as work of Rodger and Hammerstein, or Evita as work of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Earlier, musicals were songs and dance extravaganza, like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and sheer fantasy like The Wizard of Oz.
In 1961, Robert Wise’s West Side Story changed the face of musicals forever. Romeo and Juliet reincarnated as Tony and Maria in New York, who gave love a new meaning (‘I have a love’), thrilled generations of movie-goers and produced numerous mutants (including the Michael Jackson song, ‘Beat It’).
Three years later musical reached its zenith with My Fair Lady, the story of a flower girl turned into a socialite. The Broadway success with Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle was reborn in celluloid with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, coupled with beautiful songs like, ‘I could have danced all night’, ‘the rain in Spain,’ among others.
Singer-accretes Julie Andrews carved her own niche on screen with films like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, perhaps the most popular of all musicals.
There are numerous other names, the Fred Astaire movies, Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, Deborah Kerr and Yule Brynner’s The King and I, and so on. It was the golden age of musicals.
In 1970s musical discovered a youthful face in Saturday Night Fever. The story of a Brooklyn lad who dreams to be the king of dance floor made John Travolta a star. A year later Grease lit the screen to make Travolta and Olivia Newton-John youth Icons.
The magic of youthful exuberance and freshness of these musicals was again recreated in Dirty Dancing. The chemistry between Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze was something to see to believe.
In 1986, Madonna started as Eva Peron in Evita. The story of a B-grade actress who rose to become the first lady of Argentina, Madonna relived the aura of Eva to the hilt, with Antonio Banderas offering ample support. The songs, especially, ‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina,’ gave the film an emotional edge.
Musicals are not always song and dance extravaganza. Within the perimeter of playfully entertaining medium, it tries to expose some deep seated conflicts. So, Fiddlers on the Roof is not only about a Tevye Milkman’s problems, but also about decaying Jewish tradition and the coming of Russian revolution. The Sound of Music is not only a family drama, but also talks about Hitler and Nazi Germany. My Fair Lady is about class difference in terms of speech while Chicago satirises the system of judiciary.
In a musical, songs are not an external element, but the highlight of the narrative. The songs bring out characters and their emotions to the fore. When Prof Higgins sings ‘I’ve grown accustomed to her face,’ we know he’s in love with Eliza. When Milkman sings, ‘If I were a rich man,’ we come to understand his personality. So, we know more about Maria through the ‘Maria’ song in The Sound of Music.
Another important aspect of a musical is that it always ends in happy ending. While Eliza leaves Higgins in G B Shaw’s original play, Pygmalion, in the musical they finally meet to live happily ever after.
Hollywood continues to make musical, the latest famous examples being, Chicago and Moulin Rouge. Despite being entertaining, somewhere these films lack the grandeur of the golden age of Hollywood musicals.