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They Lost It at the Movies

From the heights of West Side Story to the depths of Moulin Rouge, Marc Miller charts the devolution of the movie musical.

By New York City
A scene from the prologue of West Side Story
A scene from the prologue of West Side Story
It's 2001. Do you know where the movie musical is?

It's a pertinent question, given the scrutiny the form has received this year in the press, which is to say The New York Times. Months ago, the paper suggested that, with the critical success of Dancer in the Dark, and with Moulin Rouge and Hedwig and the Angry Inch on the way, the barely-breathing genre was enjoying a comeback. Since then, we've seen a spruced-up Funny Girl sustain a long (if not overpopulated) run at the Ziegfeld, and October 6 will bring a gala screening of West Side Story at Radio City Music Hall with guest appearances by as much of the movie cast as can be rounded up. So, what's going on here? Is the movie musical back?

The two older titles provide a useful contrast to the new-form movie musical. Funny Girl (1968) and, in particular, West Side Story (1961) are excellent examples of the traditional stage musical transferred gracefully to the screen. Both rely on the sturdy old Rodgers & Hammerstein song setup: When the emotions become big enough, a character opens his mouth and sings, while another character dances because she feels pretty, oh so pretty. This generally calls for a shift from realism to fantasy, unless the song or dance is "diegetic"--i.e., part of an "actual" show sequence in the plot, such as "My Man," "I'd Rather Be Blue," and several other numbers in Funny Girl. I call this moment "the bump," as in speed bump, and today's audiences seem to have a devil of a time negotiating it.

People don't burst into song in real life, the argument goes, so it's silly when they do it in a movie. But that depends on how adeptly the bump is managed. The film of Carmen Jones (1954), for example, has some ludicrous bumps, with characters switching from dialogue to aria without so much as pausing for breath (it's still a helluva flick). But few movie musicals handle the bump as artfully as West Side Story. Every time a number begins, the lens goes out of focus, or the lighting turns stylized, or the orchestra sneaks in under the dialogue--or all three. Anyway, director Robert Wise subtly telegraphs to the audience, "OK, that was real, but the following is not."

While there's plenty wrong with the movie (Richard Beymer's Tony is, to quote Ethan Mordden, "like something scraped out of a pie"), its storytelling skills are superb. As on stage, the arts of drama, dance, and music are balanced in almost perfect synthesis, and to these are added the scope of the wide screen and the rhythm of good film editing. Take "America" or "Cool": While the cutting is rapid, we can still see the dancers' bodies and admire their technique. The numbers aren't so hacked-up that we can't tell what's going on (see below). If the movie lacks the excitement and immediacy of live performance--as it must--it is enhanced by evocative location shooting, smart casting, and moviemakers who obviously know what they're doing. Even younger, bump-averse audiences seem to take to it: On the Internet Movie Data Base (imdb.com), which seems to be populated almost exclusively by pimply 17-year-olds, West Side Story ranks #249 on the all-time-favorite list.

The same professionalism graces Funny Girl, with old pro William Wyler behind the camera--though wags have suggested that Barbra Streisand deserved a co-directing credit. In this, her movie debut, Streisand dominates every scene she's in, and she's in virtually every scene. The late Pauline Kael, who panned West Side Story, this time praised both the star, for her galvanic talent, and the director, for his sure handling of tricky material. It's a smooth, well-engineered job, even if the giddy heights of the song-rich first half aren't matched by the soap-opera theatrics of the second. The bumps are handled a little less elegantly than in West Side Story; Streisand's abrupt "don't tell me..." segue into "Don't Rain on My Parade" elicited giggles from recent audiences at the Ziegfeld. But the movie works anyway, because she's such an overpowering presence. When Streisand sings "I'm the greatest star, I am by far," you know she believes it--and so do you.

Barbra Streisand singson a tugboat in Funny Girl
Barbra Streisand sings
on a tugboat in Funny Girl
The musical storytelling here is aided by the skilled use of montage. Movies aren't as anchored down in time and place as stage musicals (the older ones, anyway), so why limit a song to one locale or to "real time"? The trick goes back at least as far as 1932's Love Me Tonight (my own choice for the world's greatest movie musical) and was famously employed in the "Do-Re-Mi" number in the film version of The Sound of Music. There, you'll recall, Maria and the little von Trapps conduct a five-minute, self-guided tour of Salzburg that would probably take 13 hours in real life. Similarly, Funny Girl's "Sadie, Sadie" takes Fanny from honeymoon to pregnancy in a matter of minutes, and the famous "Don't Rain on My Parade" sequence skips quickly from Baltimore to the New York Central to that determined little tugboat sailing past the Statue of Liberty. It's another step away from literalism, and a reminder that "realistic" movie musicals needn't be that realistic. Indeed, their power to defy time and space is among their greatest strengths.

But Funny Girl was one of the last big, successful movie musicals of the post-Sound of Music era. Remember, we're talking about the years that brought you Star!, Paint Your Wagon, Song of Norway, Darling Lili, Lost Horizon--are you wincing yet? By the mid-1970s, the movie musical was experiencing a drought, and by the 1980s the genre had dried up almost completely, despite the occasional mild success (Little Shop of Horrors) or monster hit (Grease).

As I've noted before, in a chapter in Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays (SUNY Press, 2000), movie musicals did return in the 1990s, though mainly in animated form. Beginning with The Little Mermaid (which was actually released in 1989) and continuing through Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, the Disney hits were laid out like good Broadway musicals. Their huge box-office appeal proved that audiences still had an appetite for such fare and didn't mind the bump--as long as the movie was a cartoon, something so inherently unreal that bursting into song seemed as natural as speech. Starting with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), though, receipts fell, and Disney interpreted that as a rejection of the musical form. As a result, later Disney cartoons like Tarzan (1999) and The Emperor's New Groove (2000) have had few or no musical numbers.

In the live action realm, the tea leaves have been hard to read. Evita (1996) seemed like a good bet to revive interest in the form--and, since it was through-sung, it had no bumps, playing instead like a two-and-a-half-hour MTV video. But, after the Madonna-does-Eva fuss died down, the film performed inconclusively at the box office, leaving the movie musical's viability an open question. Around the same time, Michael Ritchie, upon wrapping The Fantasticks (1995), boasted to me: "I'm gonna bring back the movie musical!" You have to get nervous when anybody says that. Test audiences reportedly laughed at The Fantasticks' ingenuousness and movie-musical conventions, including the bumps. The thing sat on the shelf for years and, when it was finally released, hardly anybody noticed. It's not a disgrace of a movie, but it did not, to put it mildly, invigorate the form.

Meanwhile, though, the movie musical has become, if not bracingly healthy, at least a cottage industry. You might date the renaissance from South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999), which no less an authority than Stephen Sondheim called the outstanding movie musical of the '90s. All right, it's animated, and crudely at that; the happy surprise is that it's a real musical with a potent satirical target (parents who scapegoat the media for their own inept parenting) and an unusually full score. Of South Park's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, it is said that one loves musicals and the other hates them. That ambivalence comes through ringingly in the movie's score, which both celebrates the form and mocks it. Big ensembles like "Blame Canada" and "La Résistance" (which spoofs the first act finales of both Les Misérables and West Side Story) seem to say: We know all this singing and dancing is silly, but isn't it wonderful? Recent events make South Park's war mongering plot less palatable, but there's no denying its adeptness as a musical comedy.

South Park is as close to a traditional movie musical as we've gotten lately; Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark (2000) pushes the genre in a direction that many people (mainly, those who hate musicals) found liberating, and others found merely perplexing. Early word from the film festivals led us to expect a long, wide-screen, suffering-diva musical melodrama on the order of, say, the Garland A Star is Born (1954). What emerged was far less categorizable.

Melodrama it is, all right, with star-songwriter Bjork going blind, committing murder, sacrificing all for her child, and starring in an amateur production of The Sound of Music. (What is it with today's filmmakers and The Sound of Music? They've been kicking it with increasing force and frequency, as if they were still blaming their rotten childhoods on the pretty lies the movie told. Get over it, guys!) Bjork's bleak, bleak, bleak existence is bearable only through fantasy musical numbers that contain excruciating music and lyrics, muted colors, and jerky editing and cinematography that suggest All That Jazz minus the finesse. As did his earlier, nonmusical Breaking the Waves (1996), von Trier's artless, close-up portrait of his heroine's anguish and humiliation deeply affected many moviegoers; but whatever impresses about Dancer in the Dark, it isn't the dour, anti-musical tone. Musicals needn't be celebratory, but they'd better not be dirges.

Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregorin Moulin Rouge(Photo: Ellen Von Unwerth)
Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor
in Moulin Rouge
(Photo: Ellen Von Unwerth)
That point isn't lost on Baz Luhrmann, who while filming Moulin Rouge (2001) kept telling the press, "I'm gonna bring back the movie musical!" Uh-oh. Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom (1992) was a buoyant dance musical, and his 1950s-flavored stage version of La Bohème, headed for New York, feels like a musical and looks like Funny Face. That was enough to make Moulin Rouge sound promising, and it does have many movie-musical charms: a cast of thousands, ripe color, gaudy production design, and a singable storyline lifted from La Traviata ("Whore loves innocent youth, dies").

If only Luhrmann knew when to say when. But he chose instead to overlay his simple tale with a bizarre, eclectic tribute to 20th-century pop culture. So the music of Moulin Rouge runs from Jule Styne to Fatboy Slim; the numbers are MTV-style, meaning the camera is too nervous to just sit there and record human movement; and the tone is all over the place. The first 45 minutes play like an old Monkees episode, with slapstick, manic pacing and a Toulouse-Lautrec out of early Jerry Lewis (it'll take me a long time to forgive John Leguizamo for this one). The stars--Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, chosen more for their prettiness than musical talents--look like kids playing dress-up with Mommy and Daddy's old clothes trunk. The villain (Richard Roxburgh) plays to the gallery, leering and hissing like Snidely Whiplash. Everything is insincere and overwrought, and when Luhrmann wants to show off his sophistication, he bashes--you guessed it--The Sound of Music. Around the eighth reel, Luhrmann decides he wants us to Care About His Characters, and he whips up a half-hour or so of potent musical melodrama. But he hasn't grounded it in anything; it's like tacking the third act of The Little Foxes onto the first act of Arsenic and Old Lace. Coming after so much meaningless sound and fury, the finale collapses like a 10-ton soufflé.

Luhrmann makes a movie-musical mistake that was common in the 1960s and 70s: overspending on production values while underserving the singing, the dancing, and the musical structure. John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2000) is the reverse: a story conceived in musical terms, outfitted with a smart score, and produced on a low budget but with a high talent quotient. Granted, the premise--transsexual rock-star wannabe pines for ungrateful protégé--isn't everyone's cup of Fruitopia. And both the narrative and Stephen Trask's original score become indecipherable at times. (Can anyone explain the final 10 minutes, please?) But what counts is that Hedwig moves like a musical, runs on musical energy, uses music to express a broad array of emotions, and showcases a bravura musical-comedy performance by Mitchell. And it does so in a way that honors its stage origins but still feels convincingly cinematic. It deserves to be a huge art-house hit.

And there's the rub. While the $52 million Moulin Rouge has made back its cost and then some (and is currently prospering in foreign markets), Hedwig, at this writing, has taken in not quite half of its $6 million price tag. Maybe word-of-mouth and DVD rentals will inch it into the profit column. But the financial fate of these two

John Cameron Mitchellin Hedwig and the Angry Inch
John Cameron Mitchell
in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
state-of-the-art works suggests that the public simply doesn't know a good movie musical when it sees one.

Where does that leave us? While Moulin Rouge is no runaway hit, it's doing well enough that studios are unlikely to start canceling musicals on their rosters, the way they did after Newsies. Stage properties like Chicago, Phantom, Rent, and Dreamgirls, forever in Hollywood development hell, may get greenlighted yet. (Update on Chicago casting: Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Roxie and Velma, perhaps to be joined by Richard Gere as Billy Flynn.) Also, word from the Left Coast is that, in this post-September 11 world, the studios will be blowing up fewer buildings and looking more to romantic comedy and human-scale drama. Let's hope that there's room in the mix for an occasional song or dance. But let's also hope that the new musicals are made by people who understand and love the genre, have at least a passing acquaintance with films like West Side Story and Funny Girl, and want to honor our musical past rather than merely mock or cannibalize it. If Moulin Rouge only begets more Moulin Rouges, we're doomed.


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