Some of the first words heard in a motion picture were set to music. Al Jolson sang six songs as part of the first feature-length “talkie” The Jazz Singer. Since then, movie musicals have been a part of the landscape, though their prominence within that landscape has changed drastically over the years. Most of us know the Golden Age of movie musicals, from Wizard of Oz to Singin’ in the Rain, but what is the place of movie musicals in today’s cinema?
While movie musicals tend towards critical acclaim, they do not follow suit with corresponding box office success. The number one earning spot for musicals is the live-action Beauty and the Beast, which grossed around $504 million, according to IMDB. Comparatively, the highest grossing film of all time is Avatar at $2.78 billion. Continuing down the list of movie musicals, another trend becomes apparent: the majority of these films are animated. Most of the live action titles are family fare, like Annie and Sound of Music. The few “mature” films that make this list include Chicago, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Purple Rain.
Looking at box office can be enlightening because it tells us where the movie musical sits in the popular consciousness. Musicals are seen as childlike fantasy fare. Even the “mature” titles weave an element of fantasy and escapism into a darker world. They are essentially cartoons for grown-ups, in a manner of speaking. This form of the movie musical has roots in the dream sequences of Oklahoma! and Singin’ in the Rain, but really took root in one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, Cabaret. In that film, the musical sequences, with one notable exception, are completely contained within the fantasy world of the Kit Kat Klub. Most movie musicals since then have followed that pattern, including Pennies from Heaven starring a young Bernadette Peters with Steve Martin and Christopher Walken.
When we think about non-animated movie musicals, we generally wax nostalgic for the great MGM-era productions. Starting with The Broadway Melody in 1929, these musicals were the must-see events of their day, starring actors such as Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, and Frank Sinatra among others. These films introduced us to now-familiar faces including Donald O’Connor and the beloved Debbie Reynolds. These musicals did not rely on a frame of “realism” the way later musicals did. They are unabashedly “unreal” in a way that allows them to get closer to the heart of the human condition.
As fantastic and far flung as non-musical movies can be, they generally follow a traditional narrative and dialogue structure. People speak with each other to communicate to varying degrees of efficacy. Movie musicals flaunt this tradition by having characters break out in elaborate, semi self-aware, song and dance numbers to express heightened emotional states. This does not promote suspension of disbelief. Take one of the most iconic musical theatre songs in history, “And I am Telling You” from Dreamgirls. The audience can’t help, nor should they, be swept in by the performance itself along with the content of the performance. In traditional movies, the audience is encouraged to suspend disbelief, forget they are even watching a movie. Movie musicals demand the opposite, an audience can never forget the virtuosity of Jennifer Hudson or the grace and humor of Gene Kelly, for example.
Taking a step back into the pre-Cabaret movie musical landscape, the unironic use of song to advance plot and character increases the range and vocabulary of human emotion available to us as human beings, breeding empathy and openness. Fittingly, BroadwayHD has an upcoming release of Holiday Inn (tickets now available for the one-night only cinema screening on 11/16) that invites audiences to enjoy this kind of musical experience. It’s more important now than ever to explore these movie musicals because they engage us in important work as functioning human beings. By being further from what we consider “reality,” they allow us to construct an augmented “reality” that happens to include singing and dancing. Why not?