A while ago I was chatting to a friend about theatre and I said ‘Well, I’m not really into musicals’. As soon as those words had left my mouth, I was reminded of how not true that is.
I don’t like ALL musicals, any more than I like all opera, all detective novels, all Motown songs, all superhero movies. But to not like musicals one would have to have a problem with that central feature, the moment where everyone suddenly bursts out singing. And those moments make me laugh with delight, well up a bit, want to dance and applaud.
Obviously there are variations on the genre. To oversimplify things horrifically, in opera, all of the story is conveyed in music and song. In some musicals that is the case, but more often, there is spoken dialogue interspersed with songs. In some, the songs are diegetic (my son did A level Film Studies), i.e. the characters in the film are required by the plot to perform the songs at that moment, and all of the music is provided by the people we see on screen (no invisible orchestra). In others there’s no particular reason why this person or this street full of people should suddenly be singing and dancing, but hey, we’re in a musical so they do.
So, in complete and humble retraction of my idiotic statement, I hereby offer some of my favourite musicals and moments in musicals.
Busby Berkeley’s musicals blew me away when I first encountered them, in my early teens, I think. The visuals are stunning (though one has to acknowledge that in terms of objectification of women’s bodies, they are a tad problematic). But the dancing, the tunes – and unexpectedly in Golddiggers of 1933, social commentary, about the Depression, the men who returned from service in the First World War to find only unemployment and poverty.
From the same era, Fred and Ginger. The plots are daft. Who can even remember the plot of Top Hat, or Swing Time? But if you’ve ever seen them dancing cheek to cheek, that you won’t forget. The songs are sublime – well, of course they are, given that they were written by Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and their ilk – and the dancing is if possible sublimer. He was elegance and subtelty personified, she did everything he did in heels and backwards.
There’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ (heaven, I’m in heaven), and there’s also this, Never Gonna Dance, from Swing Time. Beautiful.
There’s a bit of a gap in my musical repertoire, till South Pacific. 1949 for the original stage show, 1958 for the film.
You’ve got to be taughtTo hate and fear,You’ve got to be taughtFrom year to year,It’s got to be drummedIn your dear little earYou’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught to be afraidOf people whose eyes are oddly made,And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,You’ve got to be carefully taught.You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,Before you are six or seven or eight,To hate all the people your relatives hate,You’ve got to be carefully taught!
The theme of interracial relationships isn’t handled as it would be now, of course. But it’s handled. And back then, Rodgers and Hammerstein took an enormous risk in including a track which seemed to present a challenge to ‘the American way of life’. There was huge pressure to take the song out when the musical was staged, especially in the southern states. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, “The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.” And that song, those words, are powerful still.
And then there’s West Side Story .
Not going to mess with you, this is the best musical ever. Everything is right – Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, Robert Wise’s direction. The tunes, the moves, the words.
DIESEL: (As Judge) Right!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.
DIESEL: (Spoken, as Judge) In the opinion of this court, this child is depraved on account he ain’t had a normal home.
ACTION: (Spoken) Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived.
If I try to pick my favourite moments from WSS, I end up with so many, it’s practically the whole damn film.
An oddity in the annals of the musical is a single episode from season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. An episode where a demon compels the inhabitants of Sunnydale to burst into song, and in so doing to express thoughts and feelings which they might have been trying to hide. It moves the series arc along in important ways, but it’s a glorious watch on its own, referencing more musical tropes than even the nerdiest nerd could spot. Rather than the trained singers who supplied the vocals for almost all of Natalie Wood’s songs, all of Richard Beymer’s and at least some even of Rita Moreno’s, the singing is by the regular Buffy cast members. This has been the more recent trend (see the film of Les Miz, and La La Land), and there is a vulnerability in the voices which, arguably, adds to the charm and immediacy of the music.
And so to La La Land.
The influence of Jacques Demy (especially Les Demoiselles de Rochefort) has been noted, particularly in the colour palette for the film. But the movie is, again, dense with intertextual references to films (Mia points out a window that was used in Casablanca, they visit the Griffith Observatory that was used as a location in Rebel Without a Cause, the film they try to see at the – long-closed – Rialto cinema, and which Seb quotes to Mia, and those are only the most overt references). The director has said that he wants to “to make a movie that would embrace the magic of musicals but root it in the rhythms and texture of real life”
The opening number invites us into the movie musical world:
A world where everyone dances and sings, and where a traffic jam is transformed, briefly, into a technicolour marvel until the car horns stop being part of the orchestration and become again just car horns.
Stone and Gosling dance and sing like actors who dance and sing, rather than like pros, and that works. Their story is simple and poignant and human, even when they float towards the stars.
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make
(Audition – The Fools Who Dream)
What is it that is so joyous, so life-affirming about these shows? I think there is something magical about singing and dancing, something that every society has discovered and built in to its rituals and rites of passage. Even when we can’t join in, we feel that sense of exhilaration and exaltation as the protagonists whirl and tap and their voices soar and harmonise and weave into one anothers’. The flash mobs which we’ve all seen on social media, where in a shopping precinct or a town square or a railway station one person starts to sing or play and then more, and more – if you look at the faces of the audience what you see is delight.
The unreality, the fragility of what we are seeing and hearing in the movie musical is part of its power. We know the plots are paper-thin, we know we can’t really tap dance and sing our way out of the cinema and into the taxi, we know real life ain’t like this, we know it’s darker and meaner than this. Which is why we need it.
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus. … One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
(Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari – A Thousand Plateaus)
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939
The musicals I have selected above aren’t quite singing about the dark times. But some of them are singing as shadows gather – 1933, 1936 – shadows of which the mainly Jewish songwriters and composers must have been very conscious. There’s darkness in South Pacific despite the sunshine, there’s darkness in West Side Story as the swagger of adolescent tribalism turns to violence and rape.
We should not ask these lovely confections to carry a weight of political meaning and portent that they were never constructed to bear. That isn’t what they are for, even if they can turn aside for a moment and remind us of the forgotten man, the indoctrinated child, the humiliated woman. What they are for is to lift our hearts and our spirits, to inspire our imaginations. If we can imagine this technicolour world, where everyone sings, we can imagine other worlds too. That’s what we do, as humans, we sing and dance, and whilst we have that much in common with the non-human inhabitants of this planet, unlike them we can choose our own songs and our own steps, and we can choose to sing and dance together.
It’s not enough, but it’s vital. Whatever we face in the next few years, we won’t be any weaker or less able to face it for finding that sheer delight in a fragile love story told in song and dance, and sharing that delight with each other.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;And I was filled with such delightAs prisoned birds must find in freedom,Winging wildly across the whiteOrchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;And beauty came like the setting sun:My heart was shaken with tears; and horrorDrifted away … O, but EveryoneWas a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.(‘Everyone Sang’,by Siegfried Sassoon)