History of the Musical

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A thesis on MUsical Theater History



A History of the Musical

What Is A Musical?
by John Kenrick
Copyright 1996-2003
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

The musical, in all its various forms, is very much a living art form. Our goal in these
history essays is to see how the musical has developed over the last few centuries on
stage and screen, to asses where it currently stands, and to then make some educated
guesses as to where it is headed in years to come. Let's start with a basic definition –
musical (noun) – a stage, television or film production utilizing popular-style songs
and dialogue to either tell a story (book musicals) and/or showcase the talents of
varied performers (revues).
Book musicals have gone by many names: comic operas, operettas, opera bouffe,
burlesque, burletta, extravaganza, musical comedy, etc. Revues have their roots in
variety, vaudeville, music halls and minstrel shows. In the spirit of Shakespeare's "a
rose by any other name would smell as sweet," this site discusses all these forms. The
best musicals have three essential qualities –

Brains – intelligence and style
Heart – genuine and believable emotion
Courage – the guts to do something creative and exciting.

(And you thought The Wizard of Oz was just a children's flick?) Of course, quality is no
guarantee of commercial success. However, musicals with these qualities are more
likely to stand the test of time.
I believe that a great musical is a great musical, no matter what its point of origin. Those
created for the large or small screen are no less interesting than those written for the
stage. As one character in Boys In The Band (Crowley 1968) puts it, "Pardon me if your
sense of art is offended, but odd as it may seem there wasn’t a Shubert Theatre in Hot
Coffee, Mississippi!" So whether we are discussing Astaire & Rogers or Rodgers &
Hammerstein, we are still considering the musical at its best.

"How Long Has This Been Going On?"
The Greek Amphitheatre near Taormina in Sicily. Odds are it saw its share of
Greek and Roman musicals two millennia ago.

The art of telling stories either through or with songs dates back to time
immemorial. We know that the ancient Greeks included music and
dance in many of their stage comedies and tragedies as early as the 5th Century B.C.
While some Athenian playwrights simply interpolated existing songs, we know that
Aeschylus and Sophocles composed their own. Staged in open air amphitheatres, these
plays featured sexual humor, political and social satire, jugglers, and anything else that
might entertain the masses. The songs were often a means for the chorus to comment on

the action, but solos were not unheard of. The scripts and lyrics for a few of these plays
survive, but no evidence of ancient musical notation has been preserved, so the
melodies are long lost. While these plays had no direct effect on the development of
musical theater as we know it, they prove that showtunes have been around for twenty
five hundred years.
The Romans copied and expanded the forms and traditions of Greek theatre. The Third
Century B.C. comedies of Plautus included song and dance routines performed with
full orchestrations. To make the dance steps more audible in large open air theatres,
Roman actors attached metal chips called "sabilla" to their stage footwear – the first tap
shoes. Because Roman theatres sat thousands, there was a stress on spectacle and
special effects. This too echoes into our own time.
If the Roman theatre contributed little to the Greek literature that today's dramatic
theatre rests on, musical comedy inherited spectacle and numerous technical
achievements from this austere, mechanical, and jaded society.
- Denny Martin Flynn, Musical: A Grand Tour (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997), p. 22.

In the Middle Ages, Europe's cultural mainstays included traveling minstrels and roving
troupes of performers that offered popular songs and slapstick comedy. In the 12th and
13th centuries, there was also a tradition of religious dramas. Some of these works have
survived, such as The Play of Herod and The Play of Daniel. Intended as liturgical
teaching tools set to church chants, these plays developed into an autonomous form of
musical theatre.
In some of the musically most interesting, poetic forms – often as a sort of set piece –
alternate with the prose dialogues and liturgical chants. In others, older prose texts were
remodeled into poetry and provided with modified or completely new melodies. The
process was occasionally carried to such extremes that almost the entire text was cast in
poetic forms, with little or no dependence on liturgical texts and melodies. The result of
this process is nowhere more evident than in The Play of Daniel, perhaps the best
known because the most widely performed of medieval dramas. Except for two
concluding items – one stanza of a hymn and the Te Deum – the texts and melodies of
this play are entirely nonliturgical.
- Rochard H. Hoppin, Medieval Music (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1978), pp. 180-181.

This reached its apex during the Renaissance in the commedia dell'arte, an Italian
tradition where raucous clowns improvised their way through familiar stories. These
clown characters included Harlequin, Pulcinella and Scaramouche – personas that set
the course for Western stage comedy for centuries to come. Formal musical theatre was
rare in the Renaissance, but Moliere turned several of his plays into comedies with
songs (music provided by Jean Baptiste Lully) when the court of Louis XIV demanded
song and dance entertainments in the late 1600s
By the 1700s, two forms of musical theater were common in Britain, France and
Germany – ballad operas like John Gay's The Beggars Opera (1728) that borrowed
popular songs of the day and rewrote the lyrics, and comic operas, with original scores
and mostly romantic plot lines, like Michael Balfe's The Bohemian Girl (1845). Which
brings us to a key question . . .

Are Musicals Descended From Opera?
Opera has been with us since the late 1500s, but (and there are those who will scream
when they read this) . . . contemporary musical theatre and film are not direct
descendants of grand opera. However, opera can be called a descendant of classical
theatre. When Renaissance writers and composers tried to resurrect the forms of Greek
drama, they added music. This eventually led to the birth of grand opera. From its birth
in the 1800s, the musical has often spoofed opera, but it traces its main lineage to other
sources. Vaudeville, burlesque, and many other forms are the true ancestors of the
modern musical -- not opera.
Of course, the melodies of grand opera were part of the popular musical culture of the
1800s and early 1900s, and therefore had some residual effect on the musical theater
melodies of that time. However, the so-called "comic operas" that dominated Broadway
in the late 1880s and 90s, including Robin Hood and the works of Gilbert & Sullivan,
are not operas -- at least not as most people use the term. Producers called these shows
"comic operas" to make them sound more high minded, but with extended dialogue and
melodies designed for the popular taste of that era, they were clearly musicals.
Some noted authorities disagree with me on this one. While I respect their opinions, I
have not encountered a line of reasoning strong enough to make me change my position.
The musical tradition that I trace in the pages to come did not build on the work of
grand opera – popular tastes and, in some cases, legal restrictions, forced musicals to
develop in an entirely different style and spirit.
Musicals101.com features separate histories for musical theatre, film, television and
cabaret, with a bibliography and a collection of dates and figures called "The Musicals
Index." Pick your starting point –
History of Musical Film

Hollywood Learns To

The Jazz Singer

You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet!

by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996 & 2004)
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Souvenir program cover for The Jazz Singer, starring Al

The late 1920s saw the birth of a new performing art,
musical film. Although popular, the earliest Hollywood
musicals were clumsy, and it would be several years
before filmmakers recognized this new genre's unique
artistic needs and possibilities.

Technologically primitive "talkies" were introduced as a vaudeville
filler in 1907, but audiences were not impressed. Early sound
technology was plagued by poor reproduction and weak amplification.
Few in Hollywood believed that sound would ever be used in feature
films. After all, silent films used a wordless language of image and
gesture that the whole world responded to. Who needed or wanted to
ruin that by adding dialogue?
By the mid-1920s, several studios were experimenting with different
sound systems. Warner Brothers Studio began using Vitaphone, a
system which coordinated filmed images with sound recorded on large
phonograph disks. It also used an innovative speaker system that could
fill large theatres with sound. The executives at Warners were not
interested in making films talk – they were intrigued by the musical
possibilities. Harry Warner said, "Who the hell wants to hear actors
talk? The music – that's the big plus about this."
Don Juan (1926) starring John Barrymore was the first feature film
released with a full-length recorded background score (performed by
the New York Philharmonic) and sound effects, but no dialogue. It was
shown with several Vitaphone short subjects starring opera and
vaudeville stars. The premiere at Warner's Theatre in New York City on
August 6, 1927 drew raves, particularly for tenor Giovanni
Martinelli's rendition of Pagliacci's "Vesti la giubba." The Warner
brothers decided to use prerecorded background scores for all their
future feature films -- dialogue and songs were not in the plan. As the
Vitaphone Don Juan program toured to other cities (there were too few
technicians to enable a general release), audiences responded with the
same sense of awe.
Fox Studios started using sound in its popular newsreels, including
Vitaphone appearances by politicians and celebrities. With change
knocking at the door, most of Hollywood decided to stonewall. In A
Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film (NY: Oxford,
1995), film historian Richard Barrios tells us that most of the major
studios (including MGM, Paramount and Universal) secretly agreed
that "the threat of sound should be officially ignored. abrogated, or at
least forestalled as long as possible." Even the studios that accepted
sound were convinced silent features would remain the norm.
All of Hollywood's denials and objections were swept aside by a tidal
wave of audience demand -- a wave provoked by a Broadway legend
in black face minstrel make-up.

The Jazz Singer
Warner Brothers' The Jazz Singer (Warner Bros. - 1927) was the first
full-length feature to use recorded song and dialogue. Original plans

were to film it with vaudeville comic George Jessel, who had starred
in the 1925 Broadway production. When Jessel increased his salary
demands, the studio heads realized that they would be better off
investing in a major star -- Al Jolson. With "the world's greatest
entertainer" heading the cast, they also decided to insert a few songs.
Viewers today are often surprised to find this landmark sound film is
mostly silent -- and mostly awful. Only Jolson's sound sequences
vibrate with life. Although no dialogue had been planned, Jolson began
ad-libbing around his songs. At one point, he shouted his familiar stage
motto, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!" This impromptu moment was so
vivid that more dialogue was added. Because of the scarcity of
equipment and technicians, all of the sound scenes had to be filmed
during the last nine days of a month long shooting schedule.
Sarah Rabinowitz (Eugenie Besserer) kvells as her beloved son
(Al Jolson) serenades her with Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" in
The Jazz Singer.

The Jazz Singer involves an Orthodox Jewish cantor's son who must
choose between following his father's tradition or pursuing success on
Broadway. In a climactic scene, Jolson chats with his doting mother
before treating her to a jazzy rendition of "Blue Skies," igniting his
father's outrage. Accounts differ on whether Jolson's banter was
scripted. Although the piano accompaniment (a studio musician played
while Jolson fingered a silent keyboard) was well rehearsed, co-star
Eugenie Besserer is so visibly uncertain in her responses that it is
reasonable to assume that Jolson was not slavishly following a script.
Most likely he was engaging in the same kind of improvisation that
marked his stage performances.

"You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet"
The film premiered at Warner's Theatre in New York City on Sept. 23,
1927. Audiences showed tremendous enthusiasm, but so few theatres
were wired for sound that much of America saw it as a silent film, with
the neighborhood pianist banging out accompaniment. That did not
prevent the film from raking in major profits. Produced for
approximately $422,000, The Jazz Singer grossed $2.6 million.
Although no record setter, it bulldozed a trail towards serious change.
Aside from the executives at Warners and Fox, everyone else in the
film business denied that The Jazz Singer proved anything other than
Al Jolson's amazing popularity. Industry publications like Variety
downplayed or ignored sound film altogether, and insiders derided it
all as a fad. Only a few dozen theatres were wired for sound, and the
systems were too expensive for most small theatres. Vitaphone
technology was fragile -- the sound disks had to be replaced after every

ten uses, and it was easy for the picture and discs to fall out of synch.
But The Jazz Singer played to packed houses in city after city, and
professionals who attended the Hollywood premiere in December 1927
were shaken -As the film ended and applause grew with the houselights, Sam
Goldwyn's wife Frances looked around at the celebrities in the crowd.
She saw "terror in all their faces," she said, as if they knew that "the
game they had been playing for years was finally over."
- Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution (NY:
Simon & Schuster, 1997, p. 160).

More Vitaphone shorts and features with musical soundtracks
appeared, each new entry stoking the public's appetite. By the time
The Singing Fool (1928) was released, Warners had equipped a
nationwide chain of theatres with Vitaphone systems. The Singing Fool
is a maudlin, partially silent melodrama about a performer who loses
the young son he loves. But few complained. For the first time, the
commercial impact of sound became evident. Jolson's tear-stained
rendition of "Sonny Boy" packed theatres, and the film (which cost
$388,000) grossed $5.6 million worldwide -- a figure that would not be
surpassed until Gone With the Wind came along a decade later.
Change was no longer knocking at Hollywood's studio doors -- it was
blowing those doors off their hinges.
 Panic!
History of Musical Film
 Oscar-Winning Clunker

1927-30: Part II
by John Kenrick

Forgotten Gem

(Copyright 1996 & 2004)
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Sound + Hollywood = Panic!
By 1928, chaos reigned in Hollywood. Most major studios had been
caught unprepared by the overwhelming demand for talking films. The
public knew what it wanted, and voted with its dollars. Critically
acclaimed silent films were playing to near-empty theatres, while even
the tackiest part-talkies were drawing crowds. Small town theatre
owners watched locals drive off to the nearest city with a sound
theatre. Silent film, the most popular form of entertainment the world
had ever known, was suddenly yesterday's news, and no one in the
industry was sure what lay ahead. MGM silent star William Haines
later recalled –
"It was like the night of the Titanic all over again, with women
grabbing the wrong children and Louis B. (Mayer) singing 'Nearer My
God To Thee.'"

- as quoted in Bob Thomas, Thalberg: Life and Legend (New York: Doubleday,
1969), p. 146.

As theaters scrambled to install sound equipment, the studios raced to
build soundproof facilities and come up with sound projects. Desperate
executives purchased the rights to hundreds of existing plays and
songs, and every major studio hired Broadway composers to write new
screen musicals.
For all their enthusiasm, audiences were also caught off guard. In The
Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), historian Scott Eyman tells us
that moviegoers were so overwhelmed by the first "talkies" that they
did not mind "that what was being recorded was of no real dramatic
Top vaudeville stars filmed their acts for one-time pay-offs,
inadvertently helping to speed the death of vaudeville. When "small
time" theatres could offer "big time" performers on screen at a nickel a
seat, why ask audiences to pay higher amounts for less impressive live
talent? RKO studios took over the famed Orpheum circuit and turned it
into a chain of movie theaters. The half century tradition of vaudeville
was wiped out within four years.
Sound supplanted silent film completely by 1929. As a visual medium
gave way to an audio-visual one, professionalism degenerated in an
atmosphere of desperate improvisation. It was all too easy for
inexperienced bozos with self-confidence to talk their way into
production jobs. And the new technology involved serious drawbacks.
Cameras and their motors had to be muffled in immobile booths,
giving talkies a static appearance. Primitive recording techniques made
many voices sound tinny.
Almost all of Hollywood's early sound films interpolated a few songs.
Silent stars with thick accents or voices that could not overcome early
recording techniques slipped into quick obscurity, and the public did
not seem to mind one bit. In several cases, studio executives used
sound as an excuse to dispose of "difficult" stars. Latin heart-throb
Ramon Novarro had a fine voice, but he refused studio demands that
he marry to cover up his homosexuality. Although his one musical was
well-received, MGM sent him into semi-retirement.
Two films in particular provide contrasting illustrations of what
Hollywood studios were doing with musical features. One is a
mediocrity that achieved landmark status -- the other is a delight that
few people today have ever heard of.

Oscar-Winning Clunker
Charles King and his clod-hopping chorines appear on this
page from the souvenir program for Broadway Melody (1929).

Most early sound films were melodramas. In the
summer of 1929, the manager of New York's Capitol
Theater told MGM production chief Irving Thalberg
that a decent romantic comedy would guarantee sellout business. Thalberg promised to throw one together.
He assembled a production team, shot the film in just 28 days and had
it ready for release that October. The plot centered on the backstage
tale of two sisters battling for over their shared passion for a song and
dance man. The film turned out so well that MGM passed over the
Capitol and opened Broadway Melody (MGM -1929) across Times
Square at the company's own Astor Theater. Audiences and critics were
delighted, and Thalberg was credited with bringing MGM the first in
what would become a long line of musical triumphs.
MGM was the last major studio to switch to sound production, but it
went first class all the way. The studio's sound team invented two vital
technologies for this film – sound editing and pre-recorded
soundtracks. When studio executives decided that the elaborate
"Wedding of the Painted Doll" sequence should be re-shot, sound
technician Douglas Shearer suggested they save some money by using
the existing soundtrack. Since the use of pre-recorded sound allowed
for more creative camera angles and better sound quality, it quickly
became standard procedure for all musical films.
Broadway Melody cost about $379,000 to produce, and raked in a
healthy $1.6 million in its initial release. Advertised as the first "AllTalking, All-Singing, All-Dancing" feature, it became the first sound
film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The score by Nacio
Herb Brown and Arthur Freed included seven songs, including the
title tune and "You Were Meant For Me."
Time has not been kind to Broadway Melody. In fact, I dare you to sit
through it and stay awake. The talking stinks, the singing hurts and the
dancing is lead-footed. However, most viewers in 1929 considered
Broadway Melody a comparative miracle, with content and sound
technology superior to every "talkie" that had come before. Although
Bessie Love (as one of the sisters) overacted, her work seemed
refreshing and naturalistic compared to Al Jolson's histrionics.
Whatever its flaws, Broadway Melody was the first all-out movie
musical hit, and its success opened the way for the genre.

Forgotten Gem
The souvenir book for Love Parade includes this photo of
Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier performing
"Anything to Please the Queen."

That same year, veteran silent screen director Ernst
Lubitch put together an original screen operetta that
still delights viewers. He knew that finding musical
stars for this new medium was tricky. Broadway performers Fanny
Brice (My Man 1928), and Helen Morgan (Applause 1929) landed in
weak musical melodramas that even their legendary talents could not
save. Worst of all, stage-based performance techniques seemed
outsized on screen. Lubitch sought out singing newcomers whose
personalities might respond well to the intimate scrutiny of the camera.
He also found ways to get around clumsy equipment, achieving the
same sexy but inoffensive sense of fun that marked his silent films.
As a result, the famed "Lubitch touch" is evident in Love Parade
(Paramount 1929), a lighthearted operetta worthy of Broadway but
custom tailored for the screen. Soprano Jeanette MacDonald plays the
young queen of a fictional European country who summons home a
scandalous playboy diplomat played by French cabaret star Maurice
Chevalier. They fall in love and marry, but Chevalier must fight to
become more than a puppet consort. Love and male chauvinism win
out, with plenty of laughs along the way. Chevalier is charming and
hilarious, and the lovely MacDonald makes a poised screen debut. The
melodic and witty score includes the hit ballad "Dream Lover" and the
playful duet "Anything to Please the Queen." A memorable sequence
has Chevalier serenading the courtesans of Paris from a window with
"Paree, Stay the Same" while his valet serenades the local housemaids
and Chevalier's dog "woofs" the tune to the local poochettes.
Success breeds copycats – almost always inept ones. The 1930s would
start off with an avalanche of bad screen musicals. When the public
turned away from movie musicals in disgust, Hollywood redefined the
genre so thoroughly that audiences took it to their hearts. "Come and
meet those dancing feet . . ."
 A Glut of Trash
History of Musical Film
 Cut the Music
 Marlene Dietrich
1930s: Part I

"Hip, Hooray and Ballyhoo"
by John Kenrick

Rodgers & Hart

(Copyright 1996 & 2003)
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger

A Glut of Trash
The original sheet music cover for "Singin' in the Rain,"
which was introduced in MGM's all-star Hollywood Revue of

1929. This popular song by lyricist Arthur Freed and composer Nacio Herb
Brown would be used in many future MGM films.

The stock market collapse of 1929 had a tremendous impact on every
aspect of American culture. While the film industry suffered its share
of losses, it survived the 1930's by meeting a very real need.
True, the movie business would never again enjoy the figures of 1929,
when 23,000 theatres were visited by an average of 95 million people a
week. By 1936 the number of screens would be shaved by a third. . .
The number of weekly filmgoers would also decline permanently,
slashed by radio . . . Still, never was escapist entertainment needed
more than during the Depression. Hollywood rose to the occasion. As
the wolf settled in for a lengthy stay, entertainment provided solace and
balm. But reduced prices and varied giveaways were not enough to
lure people into trading hard earned pennies for filmed vaudeville.
They wanted magic and romance and novelty; stories with happy
endings and a chastened wolf.
- Gary Giddins, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940
(New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001), p. 205.

Meeting this need proved to be a tricky proposition. The commercial
success of Love Parade and Broadway Melody spawned a glut of
clunky musical spectacles, each bigger and tackier than the last. Every
major studio attempted at least one musical revue, most to disastrous
effect. The best of the bunch, MGM's Hollywood Revue of 1929 mixed
weak production numbers with Joan Crawford performing a Charleston
and silent stars Norma Shearer and John Gilbert offering an amateurish
balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.
Some screen musicals early were downright bizarre. Director Cecil B.
DeMille offered the only musical of his long career, Madam Satan
(1930), which included a madcap costume party on a zeppelin –
anything for a visual thrill. Small wonder that the public soon became
bored with these brain dead spectacles.

Cut the Music!
Thanks to rigid studio distribution systems, some theatres were stuck
showing these unappealing musicals for weeks at a time. Audiences
started staying home. Combined with the onset of the Great
Depression, this silent boycott drove most of Hollywood to the brink of
financial extinction. In a sudden twist, movie musicals were written
The figures tell the story. Over 100 screen musicals were released in
1930 -- only 14 in 1931. Studios went so far as to cut the songs from
musicals already in production, turning Cole Porter's Fifty Million
Frenchmen (1931) and Irving Berlin's Reaching for the Moon (1931)

into ineffective comedies.
The few filmmakers who tried to swim against this commercial current
made some fascinating, innovative films. Eventually redefining the
musical film, they opened the way to the genre's future.

Marlene Dietrich: "Falling In Love Again"
As the musical boom palled, a unique screen star appeared with
enough talent and sex appeal to soar above shifts in public taste.
Marlene Dietrich's smoldering rendition of "Falling in Love Again"
(the original German title translates as "From Head to Foot I'm Built
for Love") in the German film The Blue Angel (1930) fascinated
audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Months later, she caused an
even greater furor making her American screen debut in Morocco
(1930). A tuxedo-clad Dietrich finished a ballad by kissing a female
admirer on the lips. Classy, exotic, daring, and always one of kind, this
husky-voiced blonde became one of the most iconographic stars of the
20th Century.
Dietrich's appeared in few musicals, but she sang a number of popular
songs in her popular screen comedies and dramas. For example, as a
frontier saloon singer in Destry Rides Again (1939), she titillated a
screen full of cowboys (and a few million fans) with "See What the
Boys in the Backroom Will Have." An early opponent of the Nazis,
Dietrich performed for Allied troops during World War II. She
remained popular through her final stage performances in the 1970s.

Rodgers & Hart: "Isn't It Romantic?"
At Paramount Studios, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart continued
the innovative approach to musical comedy that had marked their stage
works. After The Hot Heiress (1931), they collaborated with director
Rouben Mamoulian on a film which most buffs (including this
author) consider a masterpiece – Love Me Tonight (1932).
One of this film's most remarkable sequences uses a song to travel
across time and space. A Parisian tailor (Maurice Chevalier) sings the
catchy "Isn’t It Romantic?" to a customer – with a lyric spoofing the
notion of romance. The customer hums the tune to a taxi driver, and
the driver "la-da-da's" it to a composer – who then sings the tune to
soldiers on a train. When these troops sing it as they march, a passing
violinist picks up the melody and plays it for a gypsy camp. Their
instruments are heard by a melancholy noblewoman (Jeanette
MacDonald) who sings the song on her palace balcony – with a lyric
about finding her prince in shining armor.

A sense of inventiveness runs through almost every frame of Love Me
Tonight. Each song is woven into the dialogue, propelling plot and/or
character development. (The popular "Lover" is interspersed with
MacDonald's orders to her misbehaving horse.) But Mamoulian's
exacting methods forced the film's production costs into the million
dollar range, making it almost impossible for the film to turn a midDepression profit. As a consequence, Love Me Tonight's innovations
were ignored in Hollywood.
Rodgers and Hart worked on other ambitious film projects, with
disappointing results. The Phantom President (1932) starred George
M. Cohan in a dual role as a boring presidential candidate and the
charismatic look alike who is paid to campaign in his place. Cohan's
only screen musical, it was an unfocused political satire that fared
poorly at the box office. Cohan's churlish off screen behavior and open
disdain for Rodgers and Hart did not help.
For Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933) Rodgers & Hart provided an
integrated score and several scenes of rhythmic lyrical dialogue. Al
Jolson starred as a tramp who tries to reform himself in order to please
the girl he loves. Film historians have long championed this picture,
but most viewers today find it a noble experiment that failed -preachy, overwritten, and miscast. The dynamic Jolson as a shiftless
bum? Rhyming dialog was different, but it served no clear purpose in
such a dour tale. From this point, Hollywood made meager use of
Rodgers and Hart, assigning them to unimaginative projects. Their
only hit song during this period was "Blue Moon," which studio
executives had cut from its intended picture! The duo left Hollywood
in 1935, realizing that their best creative options were back on
By this time, another Broadway veteran was reshaping the musical
film into a genre the Depression-era public could not get enough of.
Think big, kaleidoscopic ensembles in settings that were naughty,
gaudy, bawdy, sporty . . .
 Forty-Second Street
History of Musical Film
 The Berkeley Style
 After the Waterfall
1930s Part II
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996 & 2004)
 The Production Code
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger

Forty-Second Street
Warner Brothers' stellar cast is featured on the original sheet
music cover for "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me" from
42nd Street (1933). This backstage saga rekindled America's
interest in musical films.

Busby Berkeley built a reputation as dance director for numerous
Broadway shows and early sound films. But he reshaped his career and
the future of musical cinema when he staged the dance sequences for
Warner Brothers' backstage saga Forty-Second Street (1933). This
surprise hit established several show business plot clichés –

The hard-nosed Broadway director literally dying for a new hit.
The egotistical star who breaks an ankle, making way for . . .

The chorus girl who takes over the star's role on opening night
and (what else?) triumphs.

The score had no more than four songs by composer Harry Warren
and lyricist Al Dubin, but they did the trick. Delighted audiences
packed theatres nationwide. A $400,000 gamble, 42nd Street earned
millions in its initial release.
Warner Brothers put Berkeley to work on a series of lavish
musicals. He perfected the still-embryonic technique of synchronizing
the filmed image to a pre-recorded musical soundtrack. As a result,
microphones were not needed during the filming of musical sequences,
and cameras no longer needed to be imprisoned in sound-proof
casings. For the first time since the silent era, fluid camera motion and
intricate editing were possible.

The Berkley Style
Berkeley realized that screen choreography involved the placement and
movement of the camera as well as the dancers. Instead of filming
numbers from fixed angles, he set his cameras into motion on custom
built booms and monorails – if necessary, cutting through the studio
roof to get the right shot. Sweeping views of geometrically arranged
dancers moving in unison became Berkeley's trademark, delighting a
nation desperate for cinematic distraction from the Great Depression.
Sometimes erotic, sometimes vulgar, the best of Berkeley's inventive
images still dazzle viewers today.
The original sheet music cover to "By a Waterfall" from
Footlight Parade (1933) uses Busby Berkley's splashy staging
of that number as background art.

Berkeley often showcased the talents of Ruby Keeler
and Dick Powell. Likeable rather than glamorous, they
were the perfect "boy/girl next door" combination. The
Berkeley-Warner films also featured wonderful songs
by Harry Warren, Al Dubin, Richard Whiting, and Johnny Mercer.
Not designed to advance character or plot, the best of these songs were

almost always stand-alone showpieces –

42nd Street - "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "Young and Healthy"
Footlight Parade (1933) - "By a Waterfall," "Honeymoon

The Gold Diggers of 1933 - "We’re In the Money"

The Gold Diggers of 1935 - "Lullaby of Broadway"

Hollywood Hotel (1937) - "Hooray for Hollywood"

Although Berkeley's musical sequences remained inventive, his
formulaic backstage plots grew predictable. When the popularity of his
films faded, Berkeley left Warner Brothers for a long (if less stellar)
career at MGM.
But a uniquely American style had been set in the film musical, one
that owed little to the Broadway model. "Lullaby of Broadway" for
instance, is pure film and pure Hollywood: visually, in its real-life
montage; physically, in its cavernous nightclub; musically, in its seedy
populist jive; and ideologically, in its horrified fascination with New
York nightlife.
- Ethan Mordden, The Hollywood Musical (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981),
p. 88.

After the Waterfall
Berkeley's later work at MGM was commercially successful but not as
memorable, and he knew it. His abusive treatment of Judy Garland
and other performers eroded his reputation. Personal instability drove
Berkeley into alcoholism and attempted suicide. He continued working
as a screen choreographer, but faded into relative obscurity in the early
Then Berkeley enjoyed a surprising renaissance as his films were
rediscovered in a series of retrospectives. Hailed by historians and film
buffs, he became a popular presence at universities and on TV talk
shows. He served as production supervisor for the smash hit 1971
Broadway revival of No, No Nanette starring Ruby Keeler. Whatever
his personal demons, Berkeley's 1930s musicals remain cultural
landmarks, cementing his place in cinematic history.

The Production Code
When a series of off-screen scandals inspired an anti-Hollywood
backlash in the early 1920s, the major studios joined forces and hired

Will Hays to restore the industry's reputation. This alumni of President
Harding's corrupt administration surprised everyone by taking his job
seriously. Hays forced a number of superficial changes in the film
industry, then settled into the background. When the advent of sound
film brought a new uproar over Hollywood's increasing use of sexual
innuendo, Hays instituted the 1930 Production Code.
Along with forbidding nudity and profanity, this code included a long
list of rules that now seem laughable. A few examples -

Screen kisses had to be close-mouthed and were limited to six
Whenever two characters embraced, at least one of them had to
keep one foot on the floor.
No plot would present evil "alluringly."
A man and woman could not be seen sharing one bed -- even if
Seduction could not be the subject of comedy.
Such words as "broad," "pregnant" and "hold your hat" were
In fact, anything Hays deemed "unnecessary" could be

For several years, most film makers ignored or resisted the code. Then
the Catholic Church formed a nationwide Legion of Decency to force
studio compliance. Spurred on by this, Hays appointed Joseph I.
Breen to stringently administer the production code. A devout
Catholic, blatant anti-Semite (he referred to Jews as "the scum of the
earth") and homophobe, Breen set out to reform the content of
Hollywood films with unflinching zeal. By 1934, all American films
conformed to the code.
The Production Code Administration took part in the writing, filming
and post editing of every Hollywood project from 1934 though the
mid-1960s, so the code had a major impact on screen musicals. Sex
and adultery were not acceptable as comic subjects. Aside from flesh
becoming less visible, the sort of witty naughtiness championed by
director Ernst Lubitsch was banished. The post-code films of bold
performers like Mae West were simply were not the same.
The studios had to find new, creative ways to bring sex to the screen in
covert, code-friendly forms. For example, RKO discovered a duo that
made the whole world want to dance "cheek to cheek."
 RKO: Fred & Ginger
History of Musical Film
 The Astaire-Rogers
1930s Part III
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996 & 2003)
 Later Years

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

RKO: Fred and Ginger
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are separated by a Top Hat on
the original sheet music cover for Irving Berlin's "Cheek to

Broadway veterans Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
made little headway in Hollywood until RKO Studios
cast them as supporting players in Flying Down To Rio
(1933). When they touched foreheads and danced a few
steps in "The Carioca," their energy turned this so-so number into the
highlight of the film. Rio had a surprising impact on viewers. Future
director Stanley Donen described his reaction this way -I was nine, and I'd never seen anything like it in my life. I'm not sure I
have since. It was as if something had exploded inside me. . . I was
mesmerized. I could not stop watching Fred Astaire dance. I went back
to the theatre every day while the picture was playing. I must've seen it
at least twenty times. Fred Astaire was so graceful. It was as if he were
connected to the music. He led it and he interpreted it, and he made it
look so effortless. He performed as though he were absolutely without
- as quoted by Stephen M. Silverman in Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen
and His Movies. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), pp. 11-13.

Producer Pandro S. Berman persuaded the studio to design a star
vehicle for Astaire and Rogers. In The Gay Divorcee (1934), they
danced and romanced, inventing what became a set formula – a devilmay-care playboy and a sweet girl with spunk get into a tangle of
mistaken identities, fall in love on the dance floor (to something like
Cole Porter’s "Night and Day"), resolve their misunderstandings in the
nick of time, and foxtrot their way into a black and white "happily ever
after." Despite glamorous surroundings and witty banter, Astaire and
Rogers are likeable "just like us" folks – or just like the folks most
people wished they could be.
(NOTE: The stage version had been called Gay Divorce, but the Hays
office demanded a change for the film. Under Hollywood's new
Production Code, it was acceptable to say a divorced person was "gay"
or happy -- but you couldn't say that divorce itself was!)
Top Hat (1935) embodies RKO's Astaire-Rogers formula at its best,
with comic support from Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore and
Helen Broderick, and a solid-gold score by Irving Berlin. "Isn’t This
a Lovely Day To Be Caught In The Rain," "No Strings," the title tune
and the unforgettable "Cheek to Cheek" are woven into a story of
mistaken identities set in an eye popping art deco vision of Venice. The
dialogue is witty and the atmosphere one of elegant delight. It is still
hard to resist this giddy cinematic cocktail.

A popular cliché suggests that "Fred gave Ginger class, while she gave
him sex appeal." While there may be some truth in this, the fact is that
both Astaire and Rogers already had each of those qualities. It was the
indefinable connection between their screen personas that made their
class and sex appeal so apparent and so irresistible.

The Astaire-Rogers Formula
Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire share the original sheet music
cover for the Roberta (1935) hit song "Yesterdays" with co-star
Irene Dunne. Now remembered as a dramatic actress, Dunne
had a fine soprano voice and starred in numerous screen

RKO used the same basic formula for Astaire and
Rogers in five more films, most directed by the
innovative Mark Sandrich. Choreographed primarily
by Astaire and his associate Hermes Pan, these were the first musicals
(on stage or screen) to make substantial use of dance to develop plot
and character. The scores were provided by some of the greatest
composers in the business.
– Roberta (1935) included Jerome Kern's "I’ll Be Hard To Handle"
– Follow The Fleet (1936) had Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music
and Dance"
– Swing Time (1936) boasted Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight"
– Shall We Dance (1937) offered George and Ira Gershwin's "Let’s
Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can’t Take That Away From
– Carefree (1938) included Berlin's "Change Partners"
Whenever the formulaic plots get tired, Astaire and Rogers start
dancing and joy reigns on screen. Never more than cordial colleagues
in real life, their dance numbers exude a playful yet seductive passion.
Astaire had more technically accomplished dance partners over the
years, but the effect he achieved with Rogers was unique.
The dancing duo ended their RKO partnership with The Story of
Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), a film that dropped the formula and
triumphed all the same. To the studio's chagrin, the public didn't give a
hoot about the formula -- they only cared about two ingredients called
Fred and Ginger. However, Astaire and Rogers both wanted to pursue
separate paths.

Later Years
In the years following their RKO series, Astaire concentrated on
musicals while Rogers sought to prove herself as a dramatic actress.
She even won an Academy Award as Best Actress for Kitty Foyle
(1940). (Author's note: Garland, Kelly and Astaire never received
acting Oscars, but Rogers got one? Talk about the importance of
Astaire and Rogers were re-united in MGM's The Barkleys of
Broadway (1949), and their chemistry remained delightful. Astaire
later appeared in the hit screen musicals Royal Wedding (1951), The
Band Wagon (1953), Funny Face (1957) and Finian’s Rainbow (1968),
and starred in a series of acclaimed dance specials for television. He
was nominated for an Academy Award for a dramatic role in The
Towering Inferno (1974), and made his final musical screen appearance
dancing with Gene Kelly in That's Entertainment II (1976). To the end
of his life, Astaire was a class act.
Rogers filmed forgettable dramas, limiting her musical efforts to
occasional stage projects. In interviews, she often downplayed the
importance of Astaire in her career. When Rogers died, every
newspaper and television newscast in the world carried pictures of her
– dancing with Astaire. But what else could anyone have expected?
The image of Astaire and Rogers dancing their hearts out is one of the
definitive cultural icons of the 20th Century, a reminder that a violent
age also had a sense of music, fun, and sheer style that no calamity
could snuff out.
In dance by the couple, we see our world and what it is possible to
make of its spaces – in the light of such movements we can find that
our earthbound nature is made acceptable, even delicious.
- Edward Gallafent, Astaire and Rogers (New York: Columbia University Press,
2000), p. 224.

Outside the gates of RKO, musicals were percolating at almost every
other major Hollywood studio . . .
 Paramount: Crosby
History of Musical Film
 Goldwyn: Cantor
 Universal: Durbin
1930s Part IV
 Fox: Temple, Faye and
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996 & 2003)
 Walt Disney
 MGM: The Lion's Roar

Nelson & Jeanette

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger

With the exception of Columbia (which was too tight fisted
to invest in many musicals) every major Hollywood studio of
the 1930s had its own particular style of musical, and its own
bevy of musical stars. It was almost as if each studio's
executives felt their formula was a sort of talisman against
the embarrassing failures that had plagued the start of the
sound era. This did not leave much room for artistic
innovation, but it resulted in several decades of enjoyable (if
predictable) cinematic entertainment.

Bing Crosby's film career began with featured roles in a
series of Mack Sennett comedies. His pop recordings and
radio series took off in the early 1930s, and Crosby soon
became the most popular entertainer of the mid-20th Century.
Paramount Studios featured Bing in The Big Broadcast
(1932). After his winning performance in MGM's Going
Hollywood (1933), Paramount never loaned him out again -Bing was too valuable.
Crosby's starring vehicles included Mississippi (1935),
Pennies From Heaven (1936) and Sing You Sinners (1938).
Often mediocre, these films were popular thanks to Crosby's
folksy, laid back screen persona. His warm baritone crooning
popularized many hit songs, including "Temptation,"
"Pennies From Heaven" and "Blue Hawaii." Crosby's best
screen work lay ahead -- you'll find more on him in our
coverage of the 1940s.

Goldwyn: Eddie Cantor
Independent producer Samuel Goldwyn produced six screen
musicals starring Broadway comedian Eddie Cantor, who
was more popular than ever thanks to his ongoing radio
series. The Goldwyn-Cantor films included Whoopee (1930),
Roman Scandals (1933), Kid Millions (1934) and Strike Me
Pink (1936). Cantor played nervous weaklings who somehow
outsmarted tough guys, offering such hit songs as "Makin'
Whoopee," "My Baby Just Cares for Me" and "Keep Young
and Beautiful."
Cantor & Goldwyn's creative partnership would remain a
high point in both of their careers. But Cantor eased away
from films in the 1940s, focusing on radio and television
projects. Goldwyn, the most successful independent producer
of Hollywood's so-called Golden Age, continued to make

successful musicals into the 1950s.

When MGM dropped teenage soprano Deanna Durbin,
Universal Studios had the good sense to put her under
contact. They showcased this attractive, upbeat girl in
musical comedies that blended operatic selections with
popular songs. Durbin's biggest 30s hits included Three
Smart Girls (1936), 100 Men and a Girl (1937), and Mad
About Music (1938). Her films were such major money
makers that they saved Universal from financial ruin during
the worst of the Depression.

Fox: Temple, Faye & Henie
Shirley Temple was Hollywood's top box office star of the
late 1930s. When this irrepressible child stole Fox's
otherwise forgettable Stand Up And Cheer (1934), the studio
realized that they had a pint-sized goldmine on their hands.
Temple's acting & singing seemed unstudied, and her natural
enthusiasm and charm were irresistible. Loved by both
children and adults, her likeness appeared on lunch boxes,
dolls and other collectibles. In 1935, Fox merged with 20th
Century Studios to form 20th Century Fox -- and this new
studio, under mogul Darryl F. Zanuk, found little Shirley
Temple was its most bankable asset.
Although most of Temple's films were not full-scale
musicals, the songs she performed on screen rank among the
top hits of the decade, including "Animal Crackers in My
Soup" and "On The Good Ship Lollipop." Temple also gave
the world the memorable image of herself and Bill
"Bojangles" Robinson tap dancing in several hits, including
The Little Colonel (1935 - photo at left). It was the first
interracial pairing to succeed in commercial film, smashing a
long-standing Hollywood barrier.
Alice Faye was Fox's top adult musical star of the 1930s.
This throaty-voiced blonde co-starred with Temple in Poor
Little Rich Girl (1936), and went on to delight audiences in a
series of showbiz-themed romances, including Sing Baby
Sing (1936), In Old Chicago (1938), Alexander's Ragtime
Band (1938) and Rose of Washington Square (1939). Faye's
reign would continue into the 1940s – you can find more on
her in the essays covering that decade.

Fox created a less likely musical star when it featured
Olympic figure skating champion Sonja Henie in Once in a
Million (1936). This shapely blonde could not act or sing, but
her natural enthusiasm and skating ability delighted
moviegoers. Placing the music and dramatics in the hands of
stellar co-stars, Henie headlined a series of profitable screen
musicals through the late 1940s. She also produced a series
of popular skating spectacles that played in Broadway's 3,000
seat Center Theatre (the same space that now serves as
Rockefeller Center's parking garage).

Walt Disney had been turning out animated short subjects
for years, but industry experts scoffed at his plans for a fulllength animated musical. Many believed there was little of
any audience for such a project. Thanks to Disney's
insistence on quality, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
(1937) was as expensive to produce as most live-action films.
However, Snow White's visual beauty and genuine sense of
wonder made it a sensation with all age groups. Every
number in its tuneful score ("Heigh-Ho," "Some Day My
Prince Will Come") was used to develop plot and/or
characterization, and there was a refreshing balance of
humor, color and sentiment. Other studios would dabble in
feature-length animation, but none matched the Disney
team's accomplishment.
Disney seemed to overplay his hand with Fantasia (1940),
an animated revue blending classical music and stunning
cartoon imagery that was initially rejected by the movie
going public. Over the years, Fantasia developed a cult
following and is now recognized as a unique achievement.
But the film's failure effected the future course of Disney's
output. As much a businessman as he was an artist, he
thereafter stuck to straightforward animated book musicals.
Almost all of these films became classics, and they
introduced such Academy Award-winning songs as "When
You Wish Upon a Star" (Pinocchio - 1940) and "Zip-a-DeeDoo-Dah" (Song of the South - 1946). Disney remained the
pre-eminent creator of animated features until his death in
One more studio spent the 1930s building a peerless dynasty
of musical talent, so much so that they were considered the
premier musical film factory. For more on these legendary
years at MGM . . .

MGM: The Lion's Roar
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had the most well-funded
production system in the business. It was the only studio that
showed an annual profit and paid regular dividends to
shareholders throughout the Great Depression. More than any
other studio, MGM used audience reaction from sneak
previews to re-shape and re-shoot its films. Studio head
Louis B. Mayer (a former scrap metal dealer) blended a
tyrannical managerial style with a shrewd eye for talent. His
insistence on family entertainment and personal passion for
great singers made musicals a big part of MGM's annual
output. Mayer and production head Irving Thalberg
managed over 4,000 employees, including many of the finest
creative and performing talents available.
When Thalberg decided to use a new version of The Merry
Widow (1934) to herald MGM's renewed interest in musicals,
he spared no expense, hiring Ernst Lubitsch to direct the
already established screen team Maurice Chevalier and
Jeanette MacDonald. The acclaimed production amounted
to a radical rethinking of Franz Lehar's stage operetta, filled
with the sexy visual wit that was Lubitsch's trademark -- but
all calibrated to appease the dreaded Production Code. (New
lyrics by no less than Lorenz Hart certainly helped!)
MGM executives varied their output, balancing expensive
prestige projects with lighter fare. Dancer Eleanor Powell
starred in a series of first-rate MGM musical comedies,
including Born to Dance (1936), Rosalie (1937) and three
installments of the Broadway Melody series. Powell's natural
charm and sensational tap technique made her limitations as a
singer and actress irrelevant. Her "Begin the Beguine" with
Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 proved to be the
most electrifying tap duet Hollywood ever filmed. Powell
retired in the 1940s to raise a family, and enjoyed a brief
nightclub comeback in the 1950s.

Nelson and Jeanette: "Wanting You"
Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald have
inspired several books, including this tribute to
their film careers. The cover shows them singing
their best remembered duet, "Indian Love Call" in
Rose Marie (1936).

Jeanette MacDonald's most memorable
screen partnership began when MGM paired

her with unknown baritone Nelson Eddy in Naughty
Marietta (1935). This initiated a series of popular operettas
starring the pair. Their heartfelt rendition of "Indian Love
Call" ("When I’m calling you-oo-oo-oo") in Rose Marie
(1936) cemented their place in popular culture.
Some critics complained that MacDonald and Eddy were too
sweet, their acting limited and their singing less than perfect.
None of this mattered to the movie-going public. Eddy and
MacDonald had an on-screen chemistry that meant more than
technique. And some now feel that the charges of sweetness
were off the mark.
On the contrary, in a cycle of films where physicality is
repressed, the erotic often ends up all the more insistent –
which just may account for the hypnotic pull these films
continue to exert on so many viewers. In Astaire-Rogers
musicals, overt physical playfulness is essential to courtship.
In MacDonald-Eddy pictures, sex behaves differently.
Channeled through song, it becomes as disembodied as
Indian spirits echoing sweet love calls throughout the
Canadian Rockies.
- Edward Baron Turk, Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette
MacDonald (Berkley: Univ. of California Press, 1998), p. 174.

Eddy and MacDonald's hits included Maytime (1937) and
The New Moon (1940). The romantic plots may seem corny
today, but the two stars have an appeal that still shines
through. Their memory lives on because they gave a warm
believability to emotions that might otherwise have seemed
ridiculous on the big screen. If you watch Sweethearts (1938)
with its witty Dorothy Parker script, you can see why Nelson
and Jeanette became such favorites. After co-starring for the
last time in Rodgers and Hart’s I Married An Angel (1941),
they made occasional joint appearances on radio. For all their
on-screen passion, the two stars were just friends in real life.
They socialized, and each sang at the other's wedding, but
suggestions that they had an off-screen affair have been
dismissed by responsible sources.
Both stars made films with other partners. MacDonald was
memorable as a nightclub singer who pursues Clark Gable
and survives a devastating earthquake in San Francisco
(1936), and Eddy had more than a little fun opposite
Metropolitan Opera diva Rise Stevens in The Chocolate
Soldier (1941). However, the pairing of "Nelson and
Jeanette" became the stuff of show business legend,
spawning fan clubs that would outlast both stars by several

More was going on at MGM -- enough to take the world all
the way from a barnyard to somewhere over the rainbow . . .
 World War II
History of Musical Film
 Warner Brothers
 Goldwyn: Danny Kaye
Screen 1940's: Part I
by John Kenrick

Paramount: Bing Crosby

(Copyright 1996 & 2003)
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger

WWII: "Yankee Doodle Do or Die"
The original sheet music cover for Irving Berlin's "Be
Careful, It's My Heart," introduced by Bing Crosby
in Holiday Inn (1942). A lighthearted musical comedy,
it was filled with the nostalgia and patriotism that
were the hallmarks of Hollywood's World War II-era

Throughout the 1940s, America was either
preparing for, fighting in or recovering from
World War II. Since movie goers needed breaks from these
often nightmarish realities, humor and unquestioning praise for
"American values" were Hollywood's cinematic order of the
A number of major stars (Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, etc.)
served in battle, but others pitched in by providing
entertainment. Almost every important musical screen star
toured military camps and sold war bonds. At the same time,
Hollywood's musicals, sometimes patriotic, sometimes
nostalgic (and often both), provided a much needed morale
boost before, during and after the war.
The songs were key attractions. In the 1940s, many film songs
reached the top of the pop charts. The most popular
songwriters of the era all wrote for Hollywood -- including
Kern, Berlin, Porter, Fields, Warren, Rodgers and
Hammerstein. So it is no surprise that many of the greatest hit
songs of the World War II era ("White Christmas," "You'll
Never Know," etc.) were introduced on screen.
As in the 1930s, each major studio had its own approach to
churning out hits.

Warner Brothers
Warner's produced several musical biographies. The best -arguably the most entertaining film bio of all time -- was
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), which soared thanks to James
Cagney's Oscar-winning performance as Broadway legend
George M. Cohan. This flag-waving film sanitized any
controversial aspects of Cohan's life, providing a first rate
morale booster for a nation at war. Thanks to frequent
broadcasts on television, this film has reintroduced several
generations to Cohan's most memorable songs, and kept alive a
great name that might have otherwise faded into obscurity.
There were many patriotic screen musicals during World War
II, but none matched this one's lasting appeal.
After the war, Warners began a profitable series of musicals
starring Doris Day, a band singer who proved to be a fine
actress with an appealing screen presence. Her most
memorable musicals would come in the next decade.

Goldwyn: Danny Kaye
Although independent producer Sam Goldwyn is best
remembered for his many dramatic films, his contributions to
the history of musical film deserve greater attention. When his
1930s star Eddie Cantor eased away from film projects,
Goldwyn went in search of new talent. He found Danny Kaye,
who had won praise in the Broadway hits Lady in the Dark
(1940) and Let's Face It (1940). Goldwyn featured the slim,
nimble comedian in a series of hilarious screen musicals,
including Up in Arms (1944), Wonder Man (1945), The Kid
From Brooklyn (1946) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Although Kaye could be difficult to work with, he had a good
professional relationship with the equally difficult Goldwyn.
Kaye went on to other studios after 1947, but re-teamed with
Goldwyn for Hans Christian Andersen (1952). With a
delightful score by Frank Loesser ("Anywhere I Wander,"
"The Ugly Duckling," "Thumbelina"), it remains a perennial
favorite on TV and home video more than half a century later.

Paramount: Bing Crosby
Rhythm on the River (1940) was no classic, but it
offered innocent fun with Bing Crosby and Broadway
favorite Mary Martin as struggling songwriters.

Bing Crosby remained America's most popular entertainer and
Paramount's top musical star right through the 1940s. He
became the only person who ever reigned as Hollywood's top
box office star for five consecutive years -- 1944 through 1948.
His warm vocals and laid-back persona made him one of the
most recognized celebrities in the world, and a nation at war
saw him as a reassuring presence.
Launched by The Big Broadcast (1932), Bing Crosby's career
soared in a steady arc; a trajectory ascending with greater
velocity every year until, at its late 1940s pinnacle, he would
be transformed from an actor-singer-star into an incontestable
national icon, a match for motherhood, apple pie and and
- Gary Giddins, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years
1903-1940 (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001), p. 297.

"Der Bingle" enjoyed phenomenal success. Aside from his
weekly radio shows and numerous hit recordings, he toured to
entertain the troops, raised millions for war charities, and
starred in more than two dozen films. Most were full-fledged
screen musicals, but even his comedies usually included a song
or two. America loved to hear Bing sing. For example –
-The Road series of comedies co-starred Crosby as a schemer,
Bob Hope as a bumbler and Dorothy Lamour as the
glamorous sarong-clad beauty they pursue through a variety of
exotic settings. The Road to Singaopore (1940) had four 1940s
sequels, and stretched on until The Road to Hong Kong (1962)
-- becoming the most profitable film series up to that time.
Hope and Crosby exchanged barbs and played a riotous game
of patty-cake, their on-screen chemistry reflecting their close
off-screen friendship. Formulaic but funny, the Road films
introduced several hit songs including the Hope-Crosby
version of "Put It There" and "We're Off On the Road to
Morocco," as well as Crosby's solo hit "Moonlight Becomes
- Holiday Inn (1942) teamed Crosby with Fred Astaire. as
two performers in love with the same talented girl. This wellworn plot was just an excuse to slip in a truckload of great
Irving Berlin tunes, including "White Christmas." (Bing's
recording of that song became the best selling single of all
time, returning to the charts annually for nineteen of the next
twenty years.) Crosby crooned, Astaire danced on air, and
audiences loved it all. The two stars were teamed again in Blue
Skies (1946), using much the same plot and more Berlin tunes.
- Going My Way (1944) had Crosby and the thickly-brogued

Barry Fitzgerald as priests in an impoverished Manhattan
parish. The story made the most of Crosby's trademark warmth
and unpretentious humor, and his renditions of "Swinging On
A Star" and the breezy title tune topped the pop charts. The
film, Crosby and Fitzgerald won well-deserved Academy
Awards, and became Paramount's highest grossing film up to
that time. When RKO invited Crosby to play the role again, he
made his only non-Paramount live action hit of the decade . . .
- Bells of St. Mary's (1945) pitted Crosby's Father O'Malley
against Sister Ingrid Bergman in yet another financially
strapped parish, this time trying to preserve its crumbling
elementary school. Solid acting triumphed over a sometimes
melodramatic plot, and Crosby introduced "Aren't You Glad
You're You" as well as the sentimental title tune. Although not
on a par with Going My Way, this is one of Hollywood's most
entertaining sequels.
- The Emperor Waltz (1948) had Crosby as a phonograph
salesman courting aristocrat Joan Fontaine in the pre-World
War I court of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. The results are
picturesque, but Bing's fans preferred seeing him in American
- The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) is Disney's
diverting animated version of two classic fairy tales, with
Crosby providing the narration (both spoken and sung) for
Washington Irving's tale of timorous schoolteacher Ichabod
Crane and the fearsome headless horseman.
Crosby's position slipped somewhat with the rise of rock n' roll
in the mid-1950s, but he remained one of America's most
beloved entertainers, making top-rated appearances on stage,
screen and television right up until his death in 1977. The
reason for his lasting popularity is simple -- however musical
styles changed, people liked Crosby. To this day, there are
many who do not feel a December is complete until they hear
one of Bing's mellifluous renditions of "White Christmas."
 Universal: Deanna
History of Musical Film

Columbia: Miller & Co.
Screen 1940s: Part II
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996 & 2004)
 The Fox Blondes
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to
see larger versions.

Universal: Deanna Durbin
Operatic ingénue Deanna Durbin remained an

audience favorite, starring in more than a dozen Universal
Studios musicals during the 1940s. But some of these vehicles
clunked. Spring Parade (1940) featured Durbin as a young
baker's assistant who sings her way to glory in Imperial Vienna –
the results were colorful but idiotic. Can't Help Singing (1944)
was Durbin's first adult role, with a score by Jerome Kern and
E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, but the story of settlers in the Wild West
seemed a strange choice for an operetta. Durbin's vehicles grew
weaker as the decade progressed, culminating in a lavish but
uninspired screen version of Up In Central Park (1947) that lost
most of Romberg's charming stage score. Disenchanted with
Hollywood, Durbin retired at age 27, refusing all invitations to
return to performing – including a plea from Lerner and Loewe
to create the role of Eliza in My Fair Lady.

Columbia: Miller & Co.
Hollywood's most cost-conscious studio concentrated on low
budget comedies and action films. Columbia also filmed a series
of inexpensive black & white wartime musicals featuring
statuesque tap dancer Anne Miller, including the popular
Reveille With Beverly (1943). Although the presence of jazz
greats Duke Ellington and Count Basie helped draw audiences,
the film was made on the cheap, with production numbers that
look as if they were staged in a high school auditorium. Miller
soon moved on to MGM, where her outstanding dance talents
found classier showcases.
Columbia's most memorable wartime musical was Cover Girl
(1944), the story of a Brooklyn nightclub dancer who becomes a
top magazine model. Designed as a vehicle for screen beauty
Rita Hayworth (who's singing was always dubbed), it marked
Gene Kelly's transition to stardom. On loan from MGM, his
"alter ego" dance with a reflection of himself in a glass window
proved to be the first of many classic screen moments. The
number was conceived and staged by Stanley Donen, who
would play a major role in Kelly's career and the great MGM
musicals of the next two decades. Cover Girl was such a hit that
MGM would never again loan Kelly out for a musical role.
After the war, Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn (whose harsh
managerial style won him the nickname "White Fang") decided
to film Al Jolson's life story, taking the usual liberties with
historic fact. For once, this parsimonious studio spared no
expense, hiring Jolson to record the songs that actor Larry Parks
lip-synched to on screen. The Jolson Story (1946) revived
Jolson's popularity and led to that rarest of things, a successful

sequel – Jolson Sings Again (1949).

The Fox Blondes
The original sheet music for "You'll Never Know," the
Academy Award winning ballad introduced by Alice
Faye in Hello Frisco, Hello (1943). One of the most
popular ballads of its time, it captured the longing of
those separated by the war.

20th Century Fox lost a major asset when
Shirley Temple reached her teen years and
stopped making musicals. (She retired from the
big screen altogether in 1949.) But the studio had a battery of
adult female stars who continued to churn out lighthearted
musicals, delighting servicemen and civilians alike. Most of
these films relied on the same premise – an all-American girl
(usually a blonde) tries to hold onto her man in the crazy world
of show business. For example –
– Tin Pan Alley (1940) featured Alice Faye as a singer
romancing insecure but handsome songwriter John Payne
through their adventures in the crazy show biz worlds of Tin Pan
Alley, Broadway, London's West End and World War I -- as
sidekicks Jack Oakie and Betty Grable cheer them on. The
peerless Nicholas Brothers add to the fun with one of their
patented knockout tap duets.
– Betty Grable (who had become Hollywood's top wartime pinup girl) starred in Springtime in the Rockies (1942) as a singer
trying to keep the love of John Payne (yet again) amid the crazy
showbiz world of the big bands. Grable shows off her famous
legs and eventually gets her man, but Brazilian comedienne
Carmen Miranda steals the film. (Grable and Payne used the
same formula in The Dolly Sisters (1945) -- set in the crazy
showbiz world of vaudeville.)
– Hello Frisco, Hello (1943) starred Alice Faye as the girl who
loves (who else?) John Payne, an egotistical producer in the
crazy showbiz world of the Barbary Coast. The film is best
remembered for Faye introducing "You’ll Never Know," this
author's nominee for Hollywood's most
irresistible love song. Disputes with idiotic Fox
executives led Faye to retire from the screen in
1945 -- at the peak of her popularity. She never
regretted the decision, but her millions of fans
sure did.
Dick Haymes, Vivian Blaine and Jeanne Crain appear

on the original sheet music cover for "It's a Grand Night for Singing,"
the hit waltz from State Fair.

– State Fair (1945) was the only Rodgers & Hammerstein
musical written directly for the big screen. This gentle,
reassuring bit of Americana involved the adventures of an Iowa
farm family at the annual state fair. The score featured "It's a
Grand Night for Singing" and "It Might As Well Be Spring." One
of its subplots involved a farm boy (Dick Haymes) who tries to
hold onto his girl (Vivian Blaine) in the crazy show-biz world of
touring bands . . . R&H took the sacred Fox formula and
reversed the genders!
As impressive as all the above efforts were, there was one studio
that turned out a superior musical product throughout the decade.
 MGM Reigns
History of Musical Film
 Judy Garland

1940s III:
by John Kenrick

Gene Kelly

(Copyright 1996 & 2003)
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

MGM Reigns Supreme
Throughout the 1940s, songwriter Arthur Freed headed MGM's
main musical production unit. There were other fine musical
producers at that studio (including Joe Pasternak), but Freed's
team set the industry standard. After proving himself as associate
producer of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Freed supervised forty
musicals over the next twenty years. With associate producer
Roger Edens, he selected a dazzling line up of creative talents,
including Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, Fred Astaire, Betty
Comden & Adolph Green and Alan Jay Lerner. But Freed's
greatest achievement was shaping the career of one young

Judy Garland: "Get Happy"
At the height of her screen popularity, Garland was
supportive of her For Me and My Gal (1940) co-star,
newcomer Gene Kelly.

The top musical film star of the 1940s, Judy
Garland appeared in sixteen MGM musicals (and
fourteen additional feature films) during that
decade, most produced by Freed. No other musical
screen star ever had such an exhausting track record. Aside from
her work with Mickey Rooney (see the 1930s film essays), her

musicals included –

Little Nellie Kelly (1940) - Garland patches up a feud
between her father and grandfather.
Ziegfeld Girl (1941) - Three women have their lives
changed forever when they are hired to appear in the

For Me And My Gal (1942) - Garland and newcomer
Gene Kelly star as vaudevillians hoping to play The
Palace. The title tune became a major hit.

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) - directed by Vincente
Minnelli (Garland's future husband) is the most fondly
remembered of her wartime films. Garland was the picture
of wholesome talent in what she often said was her
favorite role. This nostalgic story of a 1903 family facing
harmless domestic problems was embraced by a war-torn
world. The score blended period tunes with new Hugh
Martin-Ralph Blane hits – "The Boy Next Door," "The
Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little

The Harvey Girls (1946) - Waitresses bring civilization to
a town in the Wild West. Judy and the ensemble
introduced the hit "On the Atchison Topeka."

The Ziegfeld Follies (1946) - In this all-star revue,
Garland scored with a hilarious musical spoof of celebrity

Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) - For this bio of Jerome
Kern, Garland appeared as Broadway legend Marilyn
Miller singing "Who."

The Pirate (1948) - Garland mistakes a circus performer
for a dreaded pirate. She shared "Be a Clown" with Gene

Easter Parade (1948) - Garland becomes Fred Astaire's
vaudeville dance partner in this romantic comedy set to
mostly vintage songs by Irving Berlin. The two stars
introduced the memorable hobo duet "A Couple of

In the Good Old Summertime (1949) - Garland and Van
Johnson are coworkers in an 1890s music store, unaware
that they are romantic pen pals. Garland sang period

favorites "Dreamland" and "I Don't Care."

Summer Stock (1950) - Gene Kelly's theatre company
tries to stage a show on Garland's farm. Highlights include
Garland's rendition of "Get Happy."

Summer Stock (1950) turned out to be Garland's last
MGM project. Gene Kelly, now at the height of his
career, offered her the same kind of moral support she
once offered him.

MGM got the most out of Garland by having
studio doctors prescribe a dangerous array of pills
to crank her up by day and force her to sleep at
night. Between the pressures and the pills, this
gifted young lady was often a physical and nervous wreck.
Summer Stock (1950) included Garland's memorable rendition of
"Get Happy," but her unreliable behavior stretched the filming
over many months.
Garland's refusal/inability to film Royal Wedding in 1950 led to a
humiliating suspension. The same studio executives who had
worked Garland like a dray horse for sixteen years now labeled
her "unreliable." The day after the suspension was announced, a
distraught Garland attempted suicide. MGM exercised a "morals
clause" and terminated her contract. Star and studio went on to
separate triumphs, but both lost something irreplaceable.

Gene Kelly: "Gotta Dance!"
MGM's next great musical star got his big break on screen costarring with Garland in For Me And My Gal (1942), where Gene
Kelly's good looks and macho dance style made him an audience
favorite. He was loaned out to Columbia for Cover Girl (1944),
where assistant choreographer Stanley Donen put Kelly in a
series of winning dance numbers, most notably an "alter ego"
dance with his own reflection. Kelly won such acclaim that MGM
refused to loan him out for any future musicals, and the studio
began to treat him like a major star. Kelly helped pop crooner
Frank Sinatra look like a capable hoofer in Anchors Aweigh
(1945), and shared a dazzling song and dance duet with Fred
Astaire in Ziegfeld Follies (1946).
Kelly starred in and choreographed the screen version of On The
Town (1949), the first of several films he would co-direct with
Stanley Donen – a former Broadway chorus dancer with a
remarkable instinct for musical film. Donen, Kelly and producer
Arthur Freed would create some superb screen musicals in the art
form's remaining years. Kelly understood what a remarkable team
the Freed unit was.

"The members of the group who worked at MGM during my
tenure there were very serious about musicals. That is not to say
we didn't make them to entertain and lift the spirit, but we thought
that to do this effectively they had to be superbly crafted; and that
meant the closest kind of collaboration among the choreographers,
directors, producers, musicians, conductors, musical arrangers,
designers, costumers – the list is endless. There were probably
more assembled talents in this field at Metro than anywhere else at
any other time."
- Kelly's introduction to Clive Hirschorn's The Hollywood Musical (NY:
Crown Publishing, 1981), p. 7

Although film scholars make much of the "Freed unit," Stanley
Donen has denied that such a thing really existed. However, one
could say this denial amounts to a confirmation –
"The Freed unit, of course, is a myth. You were under contract to
MGM just like everybody else was. It was only that Arthur Freed
had particular taste and appreciation of things, and would collect
those people together. And he kept collecting those same people
over and over so they got to be known as the Freed unit. The other
producers were very envious of people being called that, when in
fact it didn't exist. There was no Freed unit, except that we did all
keep working for Arthur Freed. So, there was a Freed unit in a
way, but it was only in all our heads."
- From an interview in The Movie Makers: Stanley Donen (Los Angeles:
AMC/Lorac Productions, 1995).

Few would have believed that the original Hollywood musical
was entering its final decade, but television was changing
America's movie-going habits. When all-star spectaculars
appeared in your living room for free, why pay to see a movie?
(The old vaudevillians who starred in many early television shows
must have felt a bittersweet sense of revenge as their work on the
small screen made studio moguls squirm.) Although the
Hollywood musical was doomed, its last gasps would be among
its best
 End of an Era
History of Musical Film
 Better Efforts

Screen 1950s
by John Kenrick

MGM's Lesser Gems

(Copyright 1996-2003)
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

End of an Era
The 1950’s were both the brightest and the saddest years for the
Hollywood musical. The form reached its zenith, with two
musicals winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. At the same

time, television drew customers away from movie theatres. How
sharp was the change? In the mid-1940s, 90 million Americans
went to the movies each week – by the late 1950s, the figure had
dwindled to 16 million. This coincided with the U.S. courts forcing
the studios to sell off their theater chains. Unable to adapt to these
changes, a once profitable system descended into chaos with
amazing speed.
The once powerful studios became little more than distribution
companies with production facilities available for lease. By the
decade's end, the major Hollywood studios disbanded most of their
fulltime employees and either hired on a project by project basis or
left the actual film making to independent producers. This gave
low budget film makers greater creative freedom, but the
experienced production teams needed to develop original screen
musicals were a thing of the past. That's why the few producers
still filming big musicals relied on adapting works from the
Broadway stage.
In a business where profit margins are everything, big musicals
were dinosaurs. Why invest time and money in a quality musical
when a quick, low-budget "Beach Party" movie could rake in
millions? And if an even quicker and cheaper teen comedy or
drama would make the same profit, who bother with musicals at
A number of 1950s Hollywood musicals were done on the cheap.
Phil Silvers' Broadway hit Top Banana (1953) was filmed onstage
at The Winter Garden for a paltry $150,000. The result may be a
unique visual record of period stage techniques, but its a
disgraceful excuse for a feature film. MGM's soundstage version of
Brigadoon (1953) feels claustrophobic, and the screen versions of
Damn Yankees (Warner 1958) and Li'l Abner (Paramount 1959)
looks chintzy despite the presence of their original stage stars.

Better Efforts
Even though the studio system was fading, Hollywood managed to
turn out a number of solid musical films -- and a few worthwhile
originals were scattered among the adapted stage shows. Here's a
studio breakdown covering some of the most notable efforts:
– 20th Century Fox filmed all of Richard Rodgers & Oscar
Hammerstein II's stage hits. Oklahoma (1955) and Carousel
(1956) turned out well and King and I (1956) turned out even
better, but South Pacific (1958) was marred by the use of annoying
colored filters and the vocal dubbing of most of the leads. Fox's
most successful R&H adaptation would come in the 1960s – more

on that later.
– Warner Brothers created a series of vehicles for Doris Day, a
former big-band singer who proved to be a solid screen actress. She
followed up her success in such films as Tea For Two (1950) and
On Moonlight Bay (1951) with a standout performance as singing
cowgirl Calamity Jane (1953). Those who underestimated Day's
acting ability were wowed when she played Ruth Etting in MGM's
powerful musical bio Love Me or Leave Me (1955). Day joined
members of Broadway's original cast for Warner's energetic screen
version of The Pajama Game (1957), and made her final musical
screen appearance in the underrated Jumbo (1962) – the last film
with musicals sequences staged by Busby Berkeley.
Songwriter Irving Berlin old and new songs in the score of
White Christmas (1954). Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen
shared "Sisters" – then co-stars Bing Crosby and Danny
Kaye lip synched to the ladies' soundtrack, creating a a
hilarious moment.

– Paramount's White Christmas (1954) had Bing
Crosby and Danny Kaye, a trunk load of old
Irving Berlin hits, plus the new charmers "Sisters"
and "Counting Your Blessings." The setting was borrowed from the
1942 Crosby-Astaire hit Holiday Inn (the Berlin score that
introduced "White Christmas") – Fred Astaire had been forced out
of the project by illness.
– Walt Disney produced a string of animated musicals that remain
classics today. Cinderella (1950), Alice In Wonderland (1951),
Peter Pan (1953), The Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Sleeping
Beauty (1959) all had fine scores, but superb animation was the
real key to the popularity of these films. Although Disney made
several live-action musicals in the 1960s (most notably Mary
Poppins), animated musicals remained his forte right up to his final
film, the acclaimed Jungle Book (1967).

MGM's Lesser Gems
Whatever the other studios were doing, the best musicals were still
coming from MGM. Among MGM's lesser 1950s jewels you'll find

– Royal Wedding (1951) had Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling,
partnering a hat rack, and joining Jane Powell for the knock-about
duet "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When
You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life?" Stanley Donen
directed, composer Burton Lane and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner
wrote the score, and Lerner penned the story of what happens to a

brother/sister dance team when sis wants to marry a British
nobleman. This plot was inspired by Astaire's real life story – his
sister Adele had ended their long partnership for the same reason in
– Kiss Me Kate (1953) featured Howard Keel and Kathryn
Grayson as the battling co-stars in a strong adaptation of Cole
Porter's stage hit. (The only musical ever filmed in 3-D, it is
televised in a standard version.) Ann Miller gave her finest screen
performance as Lois, and the exceptional supporting cast included
Bob Fosse and Carol Haney in numbers co-choreographed by
– High Society (1956) boasts an original score by Cole Porter, a
book based on The Philadelphia Story, and the powerhouse trio of
Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Crosby and
Sinatra shared the showstopping "Well Did You Evah?," but the
film lacked the brilliant cohesion of MGM's best efforts.
If these were MGM's "also rans," what were the landmark films?
For details on the finest screen musicals that Hollywood's greatest
studio ever made, continue on to .
 An American in Paris
A History of Musical Film
 Singin' in the Rain
 The Bandwagon
1950s Part II
 Seven Brides for Seven
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996-2004)

MGM's Best?

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Four of MGM's Greatest
Amid Hollywood's general decline, MGM produced its share of
low budget quickies. However, it also managed to turn out some of
the most extraordinary musicals ever filmed. Four in particular were

1. An American in Paris (1951)
An ex-GI turned painter played by Gene Kelly falls in love with
shop girl Leslie Caron while pianist Oscar Levant provides
sardonic commentary. Director Vincente Minnelli used Alan Jay
Lerner's screenplay to showcase classic George and Ira Gershwin
songs. "By Strauss" and "I Got Rhythm" became giddy sidewalk
production numbers, and a 17-minute fantasy ballet (which took
more than two months to rehearse and shoot) turned the tone poem
"American in Paris" into the most ambitious use of dance ever

attempted in a feature film.
This amazing film has some pretentious moments, but they are
swept up by the sheer style, energy and genius the Freed unit
brought to every frame. An American in Paris received six
Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Screenplay (for
newcomer Alan Jay Lerner) and a special award for Gene Kelly's
contribution to dance on screen.

2. Singin’ in The Rain (1952)
Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen co-directed this hilarious
screenplay written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, inspired
by the insanity that reigned in Hollywood when sound was
introduced. Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor
performed a parade of producer Arthur Freed's vintage MGM
songs with several new comedy numbers by Comden and Green.
Few cinematic images are as well known as a rapturous, rain soaked
Gene Kelly swinging from a lamppost as he performs the title tune.
A modest success in its initial release, the film's reputation as a
classic grew over time. After half a century, Singin' in the Rain is
hailed as one of the best films ever made, and is often called
Hollywood's greatest musical comedy. More than a few scholars
consider this to be Kelly and Donen's masterpiece.

3. The Band Wagon (1953)
Comden and Green wrote this brilliant backstage
story of a stage musical’s struggling on its way to
Broadway. Vincente Minnelli directed and Michael
Kidd provided the witty choreography. Using songs
from several Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz
stage scores (plus the newly composed "That’s
Entertainment"), it featured Fred Astaire, Cyd
Charisse, Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant and British stage star
Jack Buchannan. Astaire and Charisse shared a stunning pas de
deux in "Dancing In The Dark," Fabray, Astaire and Buchannan
were riotous as "Triplets," and the suave Astaire-Buchannan duet "I
Guess I'll Have To Change My Plan" is one of the most underrated
moments in MGM's vaults.

4. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1957)
This is the only film in this MGM quartet that was not created by
the Freed unit. Produced by Jack Cummings and directed by
Stanley Donen, this gem featured singing stars Jane Powell and
Howard Keel, but it’s fame rests in several hearty ensemble dance
sequences choreographed by Michael Kidd. The plot involves a
mountain woodsman (Keel) who's marriage to a wholesome town
girl (Powell) inspires his six spirited brothers to kidnap six town
girls of their own – and all of them are so gosh-darn honorable that

the film winds up with seven happily married couples. Even a fine
Johnny Mercer-Gene dePaul score ("Wonderful Day," "Sobbin'
Women") has trouble outshining Kidd's rousing barn-raising
challenge dance and the ax-wielding machismo fest "Lonesome
Polecat." Overlooked by studio executives, Seven Brides became a
major hit and received a well-deserved Academy Award for Best

"MGM's Best?"
Each of these films has been called "the best movie musical ever
made" by different critics and fans. And why not? They are
everything great entertainment should be, with fresh, witty
storytelling, wonderful casts and handsome productions. They also
feature superb scores and some of the finest choreography ever
devised for film. It’s interesting to note that only Seven Brides has a
100% original score. The others use recycled songs from previous
stage or screen projects, depending on a stylish blend of story and
dance to make them new and exciting.
Hollywood has always viewed musicals with something less than
total respect. How else can one explain that the cornball drama The
Greatest Show on Earth won Best Picture in 1952, while Singin' in
the Rain was not even nominated? When MGM celebrated its 50th
anniversary by releasing That's Entertainment (1974), a dazzling
collection of scenes from over 100 of their musicals, these films
began to get serious attention as cultural treasures. Scholars, critics
and the general movie-going public finally recognized that the
1950s at MGM were truly a golden age.
In their own time, the titles discussed above were not the only
claimants to the title of "best screen musical." In fact, several other
masterworks may very well top the list of all-time greats. While
most of these films came from other studios, all were made by MGM alumni.

History of Musical Film

Screen 1950s
Three Classics
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996-2003)

Funny Face
A Star is Born

The Best?

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Three more magnificent musical films belong on the list of alltime greats. Although filmed by three different studios, all were
created by alumni of Arthur Freed's legendary production unit at

Funny Face
Funny Face (1957) was conceived at MGM, but when
Paramount refused to loan out Audrey Hepburn, members of the
Freed unit (which was being disbanded) went to Paramount.
Arthur Freed's longtime associate Roger Edens produced,
Stanley Donen directed, and singer-composer Kay Thompson
(Edens' longtime MGM colleague) gave a film-stealing
performance as a ruthless fashion magnate. Fred Astaire made
everything from a raincoat to an umbrella come alive as dance
partners in "Let's Kiss and Make Up." The score consisted of four
classic George and Ira Gershwin songs, with several new
numbers by Edens and Leonard Gershe. Hepburn gave a
disarming performance as an intellectual beauty wooed by
photographer Astaire when they work on one of Thompson's Paris
fashion shows.
Impressive as the cast and score are, it is Donen's unique sense of
cinematic flow that makes film a masterpiece. Every song flows
out of the action surrounding it, and unforgettable images abound.
Cineast's have long treasured Hepburn's exuberant descent down
a staircase in the Louvre, waving a red tulle wrap in imitation of
the massive sculpture "Winged Victory." Although visually
stunning and thoroughly entertaining, Funny Face was such a box
office disappointment that Paramount stopped making musicals
altogether, and MGM allowed the Freed unit to melt away .
However, the film developed a dedicated following over time and
remains a great favorite with film buffs.

A Star is Born
Warner Brothers' most masterful 1950s musical was built by
another stellar team of MGM alumni: director George Cukor,
screenwriter Moss Hart, composer Harold Arlen, lyricist Ira
Gershwin and performer Judy Garland. The magnificent A Star
is Born (1954) was based on a classic 1937 tearjerker about an
unknown actress surviving Hollywood stardom and personal
heartbreak. After months of long and tortured filming, Garland
gave the most spontaneous and powerful screen performance of
her career, while Cukor and company made "The Man That Got

Away" and other songs emotional highpoints that fit seamlessly
into the story.
Convinced that A Star Is Born was too long, Warners executives
cut 27 minutes from all prints soon after the premiere. As a result,
most audiences saw a confusing, incomplete version. It was not
until an archival restoration in 1983 that the true impact of the
film could be appreciated. The "Born in a Trunk" sequence
(scored without credit by MGM's Roger Edens) had always been
praised, but "Lose That Long Face" and other restored scenes
make this the best screen performance of Garland's career. That
Hollywood's greatest musical star did not receive an Academy
Award for her finest performance remains one of the saddest
injustices ever perpetrated in an unjust business. (You have to see
winner Grace Kelly's pallid work in The Country Girl to know
how senseless this choice was.)

Gigi: MGM's Finale
MGM had dismissed it's contract employees, but a
defiant Arthur Freed pulled together one last
triumph. At the urging of director Vincente
Minnelli, Freed called in My Fair Lady's Alan
Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe to musicalize
French novelist Colette's story of a young girl
who is raised to be a courtesan but manages
instead to fall in love with (and marry!) a
millionaire. The result was Gigi (1959). The cast included Leslie
Caron as the title character, Hermoine Gingold as her protective
grandmother and Louis Jourdan as the millionaire. Maurice
Chevalier, his roguish charm as irresistible as ever, made a
triumphant return to the musical screen as Jourdan's aging
playboy uncle.
Gigi had minimal choreography, but the score ("Thank Heaven
For Little Girls," "The Night They Invented Champagne," "Gigi")
and ingenious screenplay made the unsavory subject matter into a
surprising, sophisticated hit. Where other film makers settled for
a standard postcard vision of Paris, Minnelli shows the city from
the everyday perspective of Parisians. Instead of gazing at the
Eiffel Tower from a distance, we travel beneath it; instead of
glittering hotel or romanticized garret, we see a frowsy bourgeois
apartment. Minnelli also makes amazing use of light and shadow.
In one sequence, a pensive Jourdan is silhouetted against
illuminated fountains, communicating a key moment of revelation
with a few mute movements – the sort of pure cinematic magic
that could never be accomplished on stage.

Despite Gigi's tremendous critical and commercial success,
MGM's Freed unit passed into history. Producer Arthur Freed and
his associates would not receive their full due until the release of
That's Entertainment (1974) reminded the world what a rich
legacy they had left behind.
Gigi was Freed's last original musical, and the line begun in The
Wizard of Oz and continued through Meet Me in St. Louis, On the
Town and Siingin' in the Rain came to an end in one of the ritziest
films ever. Here is a musical that uses decor, color, motion, even
the juxtaposition of true locale and sound stage, for tone . . .
Minnelli makes a movie, as Lubitsch and Mamoulian did when
almost no one else knew what a musical was, and as few knew
now that musicals were turning into Broadway souvenirs.
- Ethan Mordden, The Hollywood Musical (New York: St. Martin's Press,
1981), p. 198.

Why Are These Musicals "The Best"?
The seven 1950s film musicals we've just discussed have two
common factors. First, all seven set their musical numbers in the
context of everyday life. Gigi has Maurice Chevalier sits in the
middle of a bustling city park and sings right to the camera about
girls whose beauty can send men "crashing through the ceiling."
In Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a septet of mountain men in
the Wild West win feminine attention by kicking up a macho
storm at a town dance.
While stage musicals had long since relied on this blend of song
with real life activities, it had only been tried on film by a few
experimenters like Rodgers and Hart (i.e. - in Love Me Tonight's
pass-the-song-along "Isn't It Romantic" sequence). Minnelli toyed
with the concept in Meet Me In St. Louis, but compromised by
presenting most of the songs proscenium-style (framed in
windows or doorways) or on a raised space with an audience (the
top of a trolley).
Another key issue in these films – the songs were sensational.
When Judy Garland sets A Star is Born smoldering with her
rendition of "The Man That Got Away," Harold Arlen's music and
Ira Gershwin's lyric matter just as much (if not more than) the
visually arresting presentation. Whether pain-filled, witty or
celebratory, 1950s screen musicals used some of the finest songs
in the history of American popular music. (Of course, this is a
qualified distinction. An American in Paris, Funny Face and
Singin' in the Rain resurrected many existing hit tunes, so the
songs were actually written over a period of several decades.)

The next decade would bring the most profitable musical films of
all time. Almost all would be adaptations of Broadway shows, but
there was an occasional "spoonful of sugar" to help the medicine
go down
 Julie Andrews
History of Musical Film
 The Sound of Music
The 1960s:

"A Spoonful of Sugar"
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996-2003)
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Julie Andrews: "The Lady's a Star"
One of the best-selling soundtrack recordings of all time,
and one of the most recognizable film logos – The Sound
of Music (1965). This logo is a collage – this scene does
not occur in the film.

Hollywood's top musical star of the 1960s arrived
by means of a flying umbrella. Julie Andrews
had every reason to believe that she would reach the big screen
recreating her Broadway triumph as Liza in My Fair Lady, but
producer Jack Warner rejected her as "not photogenic." (So much
for his eyesight!) In the wake of this idiotic decision, Walt
Disney cast Andrews as Mary Poppins (1964), a magical nanny
who brings joy to a family in Edwardian London. With a
delightful score by Richard and Robert Sherman and a
supporting cast that included Broadway veterans Dick Van Dyke,
Ed Wynn and Glynis Johns, Mary Poppins was the best liveaction musical Disney ever made. Its inventive musical sequences
include Andrews magically cleaning house during "Spoonful of
Sugar," being serenaded by every animal in an animated
barnyard, and cavorting about with Van Dyke on a "Jolly
Holiday" with several animated penguins. The film was one of
Walt Disney's personal favorites, and according to film critic
Leonard Maltin –
In a way, Mary Poppins is the culmination of Walt's career in that
it draws on everything he learned how to do – blending animation
and live action, integrating songs with story and of course, not the
least, his great eye for talent – because after all he's the one who
brought Julie Andrews to Hollywood for the first time to make
this film.
– as heard in The Making of Mary Poppins, Disney DVD, 1997.

Mary Poppins won five Academy Awards – the most ever for a
Disney production. "Chim, Chim Chiree" won for best song.
Andrews won for Best Actress, and had much to celebrate as her

next project made her the hottest star in Hollywood.

The Sound of Music
20th Century Fox had driven itself into bankruptcy spending $40
million on Cleopatra. Fox moguls Darryl and Richard Zanuck
slashed expenditures and searched for a hit to restore their
fortunes. They had done well filming Richard Rodgers and
Oscar Hammerstein II's stage hits in the 1950s, and already
owned the screen rights to the final R&H show. Fox filmed The
Sound of Music (Fox - 1965) as their last hope, with a tight $8
million budget. It proved to be one of the most popular films of
all time, raking in hundreds of millions and garnering five
Academy Awards – including Best Picture.
Millions of movie goers purchased the souvenir book for
The Sound of Music. The cover depicts Julie Andrews
singing the title song amid the Alps just outside of

The Sound of Music remained in general release
for an unprecedented four years. Decades later, it
remains a classic, with a wonderful score, criticproof performances and breathtaking
cinematography. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer kept
the sentiment in check, and many underrate the crucial, edgy
performances of Eleanor Parker as the acerbic Baroness and
Richard Haydn as Uncle Max.
Detractors who call this film "The Sound of Mucu," have missed
the point. In this film (and its original stage version), the real bad
guys are not the Nazis, but the "decent" people who acquiesce to
them. Amid all the sentiment, this musical offers a quiet,
devastating condemnation of those who empower evil by refusing
to oppose it. The Sound of Music has been instilling that
powerful, timeless idea in several generations of viewers. It will
be a lasting source of pleasure and unexpected enlightenment
long after its detractors are forgotten. In fact, most of its original
critics already are.
Andrews next starred in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), a
spoof of the 1920s that featured a hilarious farewell performance
from stage comedienne Bea Lillie. Although the film fell short of
expectations, it did give Andrews a chance to poke fun at her
goody-goody image. She had high hopes for Star (1968), a
biography of stage star Gertrude Lawrence. Ruined by clumsy
studio cuts, the film was Andrews' first commercial failure. The
restored version now available on video is uneven but fascinating,

with Andrews delightful in several stupendous musical sequences.
Andrews then played a Mata-Hari-style double agent in Darling
Lili (1969), with direction by husband Blake Edwards and a score
by Henry Mancini. Despite some fine moments, the film did not
do well. Andrews went on to her own musical variety TV series in
the 1970s, (winning an unprecedented twelve Emmys) and
appeared in non-musical films. She would return in the 1980s
with one final musical – more on that in the next chapter. What
set Julie Andrews apart? She combined superb vocal technique
with insightful lyric interpretations, and her singing voice had a
rare crystalline quality. Above everything, she had an unaffected
screen presence. Hitting high notes on a Salzburg street corner or
in a barnyard full of cartoon animals could have looked ridiculous
– but these things worked when Julie did them.

One other name merits special mention here. Elvis Presley, the
hip-gyrating King of Rock 'n' Roll, starred in thirty musical
movies between 1956 and 1970. The most memorable titles on
the list include Jailhouse Rock (1956), Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962)
and Viva Las Vegas (1964). By grafting Presley songs onto
routine plots, these low budget quickies made tons of money.
Presley's original film songs include the charming ballads "Love
Me Tender" and "Can't Help Falling in Love." While they may
not be artistic landmarks, these films appealed to millions of
movie goers – no small accomplishment at a time when musicals
were fading from the scene!
Aside from Elvis projects, most of the Hollywood musicals of the
1960s were Broadway retreads. Why? And were they worth the
effort and expense?
 Broadway's Leftovers
History of Musical Film
 Big Winners

1960s Part II
by John Kenrick

Big Losers

(Copyright 1996-2003)
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Broadway's Leftovers
The souvenir book for the film version of My Fair Lady (1964)
– an outstanding example of the multi-image logos that were
very popular with 60s screen musicals.

Without the old studio system to help generate original
projects, Broadway became Hollywood's main source

of musical projects. With a typical corporate belief that large budgets
could compensate for a lack of imagination, filmmakers often went
overboard in adapting stage musicals for the big screen. Some of the
resulting films, although uneven, still had their virtues. In many cases,
the presence of a project's original stage star made the difference –

Bells Are Ringing (1960) was the last screen musical produced
by MGM veteran Arthur Freed. With his production unit
disbanded, Freed found it challenging to adapt this Broadway
hit. Although the film was less than satisfying, it preserved
Judy Holliday's inspired performance as an answering service
operator who finds love and adventure in Manhattan.
The Music Man (1962) was over twenty minutes longer on
screen than on stage, but stellar performances by Robert
Preston and Shirley Jones and a picture-perfect physical
production made it all irresistible.

My Fair Lady (1964) also ran on the long side, but Rex
Harrison recreated his definitive stage performance as Henry
Higgins, and Cecil Beaton's costumes were even more
breathtaking than they had been on Broadway. And although
Audrey Hepburn's singing was dubbed, her luminous
performance has proved a timeless delight. Few were surprised
when My Fair Lady received the Academy Award for Best
Picture, and Harrison was named Best Actor.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1967)
preserved the hilarious stage performances of Zero Mostel and
Jack Gilford – director Richard Lester stressed the comedy over
the music, with amusing results.

Hello Dolly (1969) had Gene Kelly directing and a team of
MGM musical veterans behind the scenes. It offered Barbra
Streisand in the title role and included tons of solid
entertainment, including Streisand joining forces with Louis
Armstrong for a memorable duet. But the late 1960s saw so
many lousy screen musicals that critics were not in the mood to
give this film its due. Many complained that Streisand was too
young to play the title role, and the $15 million film failed to
pay for itself. But fans developed an affection for this period
spectacle, making it a ratings winner on television reruns.
When home video was introduced in the 1980s, Hello Dolly
earned a long overdue profit as one of the first best sellers on

Sweet Charity (1969) is an underrated gem, thanks to the vision
of director/choreographer Bob Fosse and an endearing title role
performance by Shirley MacLaine. Like the screen version of
Hello Dolly, it had the misfortune of opening at a time when

critics and audiences were turned off by a surfeit of bad movie

Big Winners
An ad for the soundtrack recording of Oliver! (1969). It was
the last musical film of the 20th Century to win the Academy
Award for Best Picture. In fact, no other musical took the
coveted prize until Chicago won in 2003.

On at least four occasions, filmmakers adapted a stage
musical with real imagination, creating musical films
that were arguably stronger than the Broadway
originals –

West Side Story (1961) had Jerome Robbins on hand to adapt
his stage choreography for the camera – producer/director
Robert Wise did the rest. The results garnered ten Academy
Awards, including Best Picture and Director.
The Sound of Music (1965) became one of the highest
grossing films of all time. It combined sweeping visuals with
shrewd casting to counteract the sweeter aspects of the story.
Directed by Robert Wise, it received five Academy Awards,
including Best Picture and Director.

Funny Girl (1968) had veteran director William Wyler on hand
to help Barbra Stresiand reshape her stage performance as
Fanny Brice in vibrant cinematic terms. The "Don't Rain on My
Parade" sequence, beginning in a Baltimore train station and
ending on a tugboat steaming through New York harbor, was
pure big screen magic. Streisand's impressive screen debut
brought her an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Oliver! (1968) was as magical as any musical film could hope
to be. It dazzled in all departments, with unforgettable
performances by Ron Moody as Fagin and young Jack Wild
as the precocious Artful Dodger. British director Carol Reed
and American choreographer Onna White fashioned a lasting
triumph. The film received six Academy Awards, including
Best Picture and Director.

Oliver was the fourth musical in ten years to win Best Picture – no
previous decade had seen more than two musicals cop the top prize. It
would be thirty four years before the Academy Award went to another

Big Losers

The smashing success of these films led others to attempt big musical
films, but the trend soon petered out. Why? For one thing, rock had
become the predominant sound in popular music, but the key issue was
the poor quality of the musicals in question. Again, money was poured
into the creative breach, resulting in bloated, boring musical films –

Half a Sixpence (1967) still had the energetic British stage star
Tommy Steele in the lead, but even he could not kick his way
through an overblown physical production.
Camelot (1967) had possibilities, but director Joshua Logan
squelched them all. Despite having a score by Alan Jay
Lerner and Frederick Loewe He cast leads who could not
sing, and took such a muddled approach that he was relieved of
his duties before the film could be completed. No wonder the
final product wanders into incoherency.
Paint Your Wagon (1969) saw Logan directing yet another
Lerner & Loewe project, with even more ghastly results. The
leads can't sing and the film descends into chaos. Harve
Presnell's thrilling rendition of "Mariah" seems like it wandered
in from another movie.

Believe it or not, the worst was yet to come. The decade ahead would
bring some of the most appalling screen musicals ever seen – and a
new record-setting hit.
 Goin' Like Elsie
History of Musical Film
 Costly Bombs
 Rocking the Big Screen
The 1970s
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996-2004)
 Big Names, Mixed Results
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

"Goin' Like Elsie"
Adaptations of Broadway originals continued to dominate the musical
screen in the 1970s. Two were bona fide hits.

Director Norman Jewisohn filmed Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
with enough sensitivity to make audiences overlook a buttnumbing three hour running time. Israeli actor Chaim Topol
energized the film with a vital, sensitive performance as Tevye,
the milkman who sees his traditional Russian Jewish village
shaken by the forces of change.
Bob Fosse's searing version of Cabaret (1972) turned a stage
hit into a screen classic. The often harsh story of people caught
in the political turmoil that gripped Germany in the early 1930s
featured memorable performances by Liza Minnelli as amoral
vocalist Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as the leering Emcee.

Fosse, Minnelli and Grey took home Academy Awards.

Costly Bombs
However, most of this decade's Hollywood musicals – originals as well
as adapted stage works – were mishandled. With millions of dollars
spent to make bad ideas even worse, the early 1970s became the
golden age of bad big-budget movie musicals. Some of the most
memorable clunkers –

Song of Norway (1970) tried to mimic The Sound of Music but
missed the whole point, turning a 1948 stage hit into a clunker
that left film critics howling. A magnificent opening montage
of Norway's lush countryside was followed by an
incomprehensible story with a mauled version of the Broadway
score. Even the talented Florence Henderson was unable to
brighten this disaster.
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) had some stylish
flashback scenes set in the past, but director Vincente Minnelli
flubbed his attempts to blend these into the main contemporary
storyline. French vocalist Yves Montand was hopeless in the
male lead. Although Barbara Streisand was now a top
audience draw, she was not strong enough to save the film from
commercial and critical failure.
Lost Horizon (1973) desecrated the 1937 Frank Capra classic
and humiliated an all-star cast. A saccharine Burt Bacharach
score, ugly sets and a long list of top priced stars had business
insiders referring to this film as Lost Investment.
Mame (1974) had Lucille Ball – a poor singer, but far better in
the title role than most critics admitted. Supporting
performances by Broadway veterans Bea Arthur, Jane
Connell and Robert Preston were delicious, but the film did
not capture the magic of the stage version and did little
At Long Last Love (1975) was a fiasco, with director Peter
Bogdonovich squandering $6 million so that his then-girlfriend
Cybil Shepherd and Burt Reynolds (top Hollywood hunk of the
moment) could beat some immortal Cole Porter tunes within
an millimeter of death. Critics howled, audiences stayed away,
and the film grossed a paltry $1.5 million.

The commercial failure of several animated musicals, including the
enchanting Charlotte's Web (1973), coupled with the dismantling of
the Disney Studio's animation unit, seemed to spell the end of screen
animation of any kind. Attempts to revive the genre drew tepid results
until the 1990s, when animation would make an industry-shaking
comeback. More on this in the chapters to come.

Rocking the Big Screen
Rock movie musicals had a mixed record in the 1970s. Jesus Christ
Superstar (1973) and the Who's Tommy (1975) had real audience
appeal despite somewhat overblown productions. Mindless spectacles
like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) were dismissed by
critics and the public. Hollywood's most successful original rock
musical was The Rose (1979), the story of a Janis Joplin-like rock diva
who's professional success sends her into a self-destructive spiral. Pop
favorite Bette Midler a dynamic screen debut, with a performance that
won raves despite the burden of a melodramatic screenplay.
Of course, there was room for the bizarre. Despite a poor critical
reception, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) developed a oneof-a-kind cult following. Teenagers came back to see the film week
after week, singing along, talking back to the screen and enacting
scenes in costume. The film became a camp classic. Late night
screenings for Rocky Horror buffs continued all across America right
into the next century.
The screen musical dinosaur had one tremendous kick left in it. Grease
(1978) and its story of white trash teens in a 1950s American high
school became a world-wide phenomenon. The stage score was
augmented by several new songs, including the new interpolated pop
hits "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "You're the One That I Want."
Where the stage version stressed period spoof, the film stressed the
love story involving a leather jacketed grease-headed boy and a
squeaky-clean "Sandra Dee"-type girl. Ingratiating performances by
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John and a spirited production
charmed audiences, making the film a pop-culture landmark and the
highest grossing film musical up to that time.

Big Names, Mixed Results
Several major directors attempted screen musicals during the late
1970s, but the results were more interesting than successful.

New York, New York (1977) was Martin Scorcese's attempt to
do a dark big-band era musical. The John Kander & Fred
Ebb title tune was a major hit for star Liza Minnelli, but the
film suffered from heavy studio editing and was a box-office
disappointment. Years later, a home video release restored key
footage, making the film easier to follow and far more
Sidney Lumet helmed an adaptation of the stage hit The Wiz
(1978). A lavish production and sometimes imaginative
production that turned Manhattan into the Emerald City could

not make up for funereal pacing and uneven casting.
Bob Fosse's semi-autobiographical All That Jazz (1979)
blended fantastic musical sequences with a self-indulgent story.
Based on Fosse's experiences during rehearsals for Chicago and
earlier shows, this was the first musical to include actual
footage of open heart surgery.
Milos Forman adapted the radical Broadway hit Hair (1979)
into a sometimes intriguing film, capturing the anti-war, prohippie spirit of the original show. But most filmgoers were not
ready to rehash the often painful memories of the 1960s.

By 1980, the consensus in the business was that film musicals were
dead and buried . . . the same way they were back in 1933. This time it
would take puppets and dancing teapots to prove the experts wrong. In
Hollywood, it takes all kinds . . .
 Crazy World
History of Musical Film
 The Muppets
 Victor/Victoria
The 1980s
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996-2003)
 Ashman & Menken
(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

"Crazy World"
Several big-budget screen musicals lost millions in the early 1980s,
leaving behind a litany of titles that still cause heads to shake in
Hollywood. Some were just hopeless ideas, but two were stage hits
demolished by acclaimed directors who had no idea how to film a
- Can't Stop the Music (1980) featured the Village People, a posse
of non-singing celebrities, a disco score and a production that
overstepped the line between camp and idiocy.
- The charmless Grease 2 (1982) became the latest in an unbroken
line of disastrous musical sequels. (Would Hollywood never learn?)
- Legendary director John Huston decided to try his hand at
musicals, turning the international stage smash Annie (1982) into a
clumsy spectacle
- Sir Richard Attenborough's adaptation of A Chorus Line (1985)
drained every ounce of inspiration from one of the most dynamic
Broadway musicals of its time.
Pink Floyd - The Wall (1982) was a hit with a limited audience, but
this series of rock songs was more a precursor of music videos than
a musical. In an eerie re-enactment of the early 1930s, the film
musical was proclaimed dead by most industry executives -- just as
musicals started kicking their way out of the grave to become a top-

grossing genre by the 1990s.

The Muppets: "The Rainbow Connection"
Jim Henson's Muppets had been entertaining Americans on
television since the 1950s, winning their greatest acclaim on
Sesame Street and The Muppet Show (1976-81). By 1980, the
Muppets could claim an audience of 235 million viewers in over
100 countries. Henson took things a step further and brought the
Muppets to the big screen, with the most successful new screen
couple since Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. That the couple in
question was a frog and a pig only added to their appeal.
The Muppet Movie (1979) featured the loveable frog Kermit and
the irrepressible Miss Piggy as the romantic leads. It was an
international success and the song "Rainbow Connection" became a
standard. The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take
Manhattan (1984) did well, appealing to both kids and adults.
Henson focused on non-musical fantasy films until his untimely
death in 1990. His son Brian directed a new series of successful
musicals including The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and The
Muppet Treasure Island (1996).

Victor/Victoria: "Try To Hang On To Hope"
Victor/Victoria (1982) was the best new screen musical since Gigi.
It told the story of "a woman pretending to be a man pretending to
be a woman" in 1930s Paris. That the film dealt with the touchy
issue of sexual identity made its success all the more remarkable.
Director Blake Edwards (best remembered for his Pink Panther
films) provided a witty screenplay and memorable visual gags.
Even without songs, the film would have been a first-rate comedy.
But wonderful songs made the film all the grander. Henry Mancini
provided the score, and Julie Andrews (Edwards' wife) provided
the star power, giving one of the funniest performances of her
career. From the uproarious "Le Jazz Hot" to the introspective
"Crazy World," she was in top form. When Music Man's Robert
Preston joined Andrews for "You and Me" or took center screen
for an uproarious drag finale, it was pure magic. It was also the last
great live-action musical film of the 20th Century.

Ashman & Menken: "The Meek Shall Inherit"
The new golden age of animated musicals began when Little Shop
of Horrors opened in a small Off-Broadway theatre in 1982.

Composer Alan Menken and lyricist/librettist Howard Ashman
turned Roger Corman's campy horror film into a wickedly funny,
family-friendly stage musical. When they adapted it for the screen
in 1986 (directed by veteran Muppeteer Frank Oz), the results were
even more entertaining, capturing the humorous sense of fantasy
that most stage and screen musicals seemed to have lost. Ashman
and Menken moved on to separate unsuccessful stage projects, but
Little Shop did not go unnoticed.
At the Disney studio, the new regime of Disney CEO Michael
Eisner, Vice Chairman Roy Disney and Studio Chairman Jeffrey
Katzenberg was rebuilding their animation team. The Great Mouse
Detective (1986) and Oliver & Company (1988) looked great but
suffered from so-so scores. Remembering the success of Little
Shop, Disney and Katzenberg called on Ashman and Menken to
create the score for an animated feature.
The Little Mermaid (1989) was the finest animated musical in
decades. The classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale was given a
Disney twist with singing sea creatures, a spunky title heroine and
an evil humanoid octopus witch. Ashman and Menken's score
opted for a traditional Broadway sound, using seasoned stage
performers to sing the soundtrack. The ballad "Part of Your World"
was worthy of any stage hit, and "Under the Sea" was the wildest
showstopper in a generation.
Disney's Little Mermaid became the surprise hit of the year,
grossing over 100 million dollars. It received Oscars for Best Song
("Under the Sea") and Best Original Score, won Grammys for its
best-selling soundtrack CD, and inspired a successful animated TV
series. Ashman and Menken were given the go ahead for more
projects. Their efforts would make animated musicals one of the
most profitable genres in the decade ahead.
 More Dead Than Live
History of Musical Film
 Disney's New Golden Age
 A Whole New World
The 1990s
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996-2004)
 Beyond Disney

More Dead Than Live
Live-action musicals were rare in the 1990s -

Shock/schlock filmmaker John Waters concocted Cry Baby
(1990), an uneven comedy about 1950s Baltimore teenagers
(rockers vrs. squares, of course) that featured Johnny Depp and
others mouthing a mixed bag of dubbed musical set pieces.
Woody Allen recycled some classic Tin Pan Alley hits for the

charming Everyone Says I Love You (1996).

The long-delayed screen version of Evita (1996) was stolen
from Madonna by the steamy Antonio Banderas.

None of these films caused any critical or commercial sensation, and
Hollywood remained convinced that live-action musical film was not
worth the effort. But big-screen musicals remained a multi-million
dollar business in the 1990s thanks to the efforts of one studio.

Disney's New Golden Age
The Disney team's Beauty and the Beast (1991) was one of the best
musical films ever made, and proved a worldwide sensation. The
screenplay by Linda Woolverton made Belle Disney's gutsiest
animated heroine, and the Beast became more touching than in any
previous version of the classic tale. The Howard Ashman and Alan
Menken score was worthy of Broadway, performed by a cast of voices
that included Angela Lansbury as a teapot and Jerry Orbach as a
Chevalier-esque candelabra. Standout numbers included the hilarious
spoof of masculinity "Gaston," the Busby Berkley-style "Be Our
Guest" and the endearing title tune.
When the unfinished Beauty and the Beast was previewed at the New
York Film Festival, the audience responded with a wild standing
ovation. I was there, overwhelmed to see my long-lost friend the
musical film looking as big and lovable as ever – and heartbroken that
lyricist Howard Ashman had not lived to see it happen. His death from
AIDS weeks before silenced a genius just reaching his creative peak. If
anyone could have guaranteed that musicals would thrive into the 21st
Century, it was Ashman. Without him, the art form will never be what
it could have been.
Beauty and the Beast won the musical Oscars (Best Song went to the
title tune), and was the first animated film ever nominated for Best
Picture. It earned hundreds of millions of dollars in worldwide box
office sales, a figure that skyrocketed when the film became available
on home video. It went even further when the film was adapted into a
smash hit Broadway show, running well into the next century and
recreating its success in productions all over the world. At a time when
Broadway musicals were in a serious decline, Beauty and the Beast
proved that the musical could live on profitably in animated films. The
movie musical, in animated form, was once more box office gold.

"A Whole New (Animated) World"
Ashman had partially completed one more project with Menken.
Lyricist Tim Rice helped to finish Aladdin (1992), which was even

more of a box office sensation than Beauty. Robin Williams gave an
inspired performance as the voice of the Genie, singing the Ashman &
Menken showstoppers "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali." In what was
becoming a tradition, the Rice/Menken ballad "A Whole New World"
received the Academy Award for Best Song.
Newsies (1992), an awkward live action musical based on an 1899
newsboy strike in New York, was such a disaster that it guaranteed
Disney would stick to animated musicals.
Disney's next effort was The Lion King (1994), with a pop-style score
by Tim Rice and Elton John and a story that mixed Hamlet with a
dash of Bambi. Broadway clowns Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella sang
the lighthearted "Hakuna Matata," and many loved the chorale "Circle
of Life," but the Oscar winning score was otherwise mediocre. Even
so, The Lion King became the highest grossing musical film ever, and
its 1997 stage adaptation became one of the biggest Broadway hits of
the decade.
After Jeffrey Katzenberg left the company, Disney executives decided
to follow Lion King's formula and emphasize action and animation
rather than music in future projects. As if the music didn't matter? Alan
Menken teamed up with Broadway lyricist Stephen Schwartz for the
score to Pocahontas (1995). It won Academy Awards for Best Original
Score and "Colors of the Wind" won for Best Song, but many felt that
the film took itself too seriously.
Menken & Schwartz followed this with The Hunchback of Notre
Dame (1996) which did not receive any Oscars but damn well should
have. "Out There" and "God Help the Outcasts" were first rate songs,
and the opening sequence was a masterpiece of musical narrative.
Although the dark Victor Hugo story seemed a questionable choice for
a musical, Hunchback was the most mature animated musical yet.
Parents who thought nothing of letting their children see blooddrenched action films complained that Hunchback was "too intense."
(Go figure!) Despite limited domestic attendance in the US,
Hunchback brought in over a hundred million dollars in worldwide box
office and video sales – proving that America is not always the most
perceptive audience for great animated musicals.
Without Katzenberg, Disney's animated division wandered off in new
directions, and the scores for their feature cartoons became something
of an afterthought. Alan Menken worked with Broadway lyricist David
Zippel on Hercules (1997), an action comedy with a few songs that did
poorly at the box office. Mulan (1998) had even less of a score and was
even more of a box-office disappointment. By the end of the decade,
Disney's popular action cartoon Tarzan (1999) offered a few pop songs
noticed by no one. After eight years, the Oscar-winning lessons of

Beauty and the Beast had been forgotten.

Beyond Disney
Other studios tried to get on the animated musical bandwagon, but
most one-shot projects could not compete with Disney's wellestablished animation division. Few efforts were as misguided as the
animated remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I (1999),
which dumped more than half of the score and "dumbed-down" the
story -- turning the Kralahome into an evil sorcerer and the King into
an action hero. Soupy orchestrations drowned the remnants of the stillglorious score, making this project altogether pointless.
The last big-screen musical of the 20th century was South Park:
Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999) – an independent animated feature
that would have left Walt Disney's ghost quivering in disbelief. Based
on a popular cable television series, this foul-mouthed, artistically
primitive and altogether brilliant satire spoofed obscene pop lyrics,
overprotective parents, and the contemporary obsession with blaming
others for one's problems. The score (with song titles so explicit that
several cannot be mentioned on this family-friendly site) was one of
the funniest ever used in a feature film. Some found the film offensive,
but it proved that screen musicals could still entertain. It also proved
that animated musicals are not just for tots.
 Film's Second Century
History of Musical Film
 Chicago

2000 to Today
by John Kenrick

Dropping the Ball

(Copyright 2000-2004)

Film's Second Century
While the 21st Century opened with a rebirth of musical comedy on
Broadway, musical film remained in a state of near-limbo. The
animated musical boom of the 1990's had petered out, and musical
films once again became almost as rare as literate sitcoms. Those
projects that did make it into production were unlike any film musicals
that had come before.
No one could quite figure out why Oscar-winner Kenneth Branagh
chose to reset Shakespeare's Loves Labour's Lost (2000) in 1930's
Europe, speckling it with songs by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the
Gershwins. Intended as a tribute to the musicals of Fred Astaire, the
result was an unsatisfying mish-mosh that left audiences giggling with
embarrassment. British director Mike Leigh had far greater success
with Topsy Turvy (2000), a delicious look back at the birth of Gilbert
and Sullivan's 1882 stage hit, The Mikado. Leigh's cast sang for
themselves and helped to develop the final screenplay, sticking very
close to the historic facts. The result was a cinematic love letter to the

theater – a truly great film about the history of musical theatre.
With almost no stage musicals making it to the big screen, it was a
pleasant surprise to see the unconventional Off-Broadway hit Hedwig
and the Angry Inch (2001) succeed with original star (and co-creator)
John Cameron Mitchell repeating his uncompromising performance
in the title role. Effective despite a limited budget, Hedwig proved that
offbeat musicals could find an appreciative commercial audience.
That same year, the even stranger Moulin Rouge (2001) captured the
imagination of millions of filmgoers by presenting a pedestrian love
story through a wild mixture of musical sequences and eye-catching
images. Director Baz Luhrmann threw together a dizzy hodgepodge
of old and new pop songs, and kept the screen whirling with MTVstyle quick cut editing. Nicole Kidman and Ewan MacGregor looked
and sounded sexy in musical sequences that flew by at such speed that
their lack of musical talents hardly mattered. Most critics and film
goers overlooked the often confusing pace and turned Moulin Rouge
into the first real musical screen hit of the new century. It garnered
numerous awards and – more importantly by Hollywood standards –
earned millions at the box office.
Musical film took another turn into new territory with 8 Mile (2002),
the first film to feature a hip-hop score that grew out of and played a
part in the film's story line. Dark and angry, the film delighted teen
audiences that might have steered clear of a traditional musical, and the
soundtrack CD topped the pop charts. Controversial rap artist Eminem
starred in this supposedly semi-autobiographical story of an ambitious
white trash rapper struggling to make his name in Detroit's all-black
rap music culture. No one seemed to mind that the rapster, born
Marshall Bruce Mathers III and raised in suburban comfort, had never
known such a struggle with poverty.

Chicago: Reclaiming the Oscar
And then, when everyone in show business assumed that traditional
screen musicals were a lost cause, along came the knockout screen
version of John Kander and Fred Ebb's long-running Broadway hit
Chicago (2002). This project had been bouncing around for more than
25 years before making it to final production. Broadway directorchoreographer Rob Marshall's first feature film blended theatrical
know-how with a socko cinematic approach, placing most of the
musical numbers in a leading character's imagination.
The result was that rarest of accomplishments, a film adaptation that
improved on the original stage version. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee
Zellweger and Richard Gere sang and danced the lead roles with
genuine flair, and rap star Queen Latifa delivered a sizzling

performance as the conniving prison matron. Critics raved, and
musical lovers reveled in the kind of gleeful, shameless musical film
few thought they would ever see again. Strong box office and six
Academy Awards (including the first "Best Picture" award to go to a
musical in 35 years) made it clear that quality musical films had
commercial and artistic potential. The question was, would the
decision makers in Hollywood get the message?
A series of small independent productions tried to prove that original
screen musicals were still viable. At the head of the short list was
Camp (2003), a touching yet hilarious look at teen egos and hormones
clashing at a performing arts summer camp exploded with wit and
talent, wining rave reviews across the country. The lion's share of the
credit went to director/screenwriter Todd Graff, who based the film on
his own experiences at such a camp. Some of the score was taken from
old stage hits, but there were fine new numbers too, and the screenplay
was 100% original. The live-action musical film, dismissed as a dead
genre when the new century began, was alive and singing again

Dropping the Ball
But Hollywood, as if resentful that the public would embrace musical
films again, seemingly did their best to sabotage the newly reborn
genre. De-Lovely (2004), a purported screen biography pf songwriter
Cole Porter, turned his glamorous life into a bad musical. A potentially
brilliant performance by Kevin Kline as Porter was burdened down by
a clumsy story, inexplicable casting, and stylistically unforgivable pop
performances of classic songs. Everything Chicago had done well, this
film doggedly got wrong. You could almost hear studio executives
howling, "See? We told you musicals were dead!"
The lavish screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of
the Opera (2005) did little to repair the damage. What had been
pretentious on stage seemed all the more so on screen. With no stars in
the leads, the film suffered dismal domestic box office results. Foreign
returns put the film in the profit column, but the industry still perceived
this musical movie as a failure
History of the Musical - Stage & Film

The Future?
by John Kenrick
(Copyright 1996 - Updated 2005)
The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)
Once-squalid Times Square now greets theatergoers with bright lights and
familiar chain restaurants.

Some respected sources insist that the outlook for the Broadway musical is dim.
"Musicals flourished into the early sixties, but there were few new playwrights . . . and
there seemed room for only one new writer of musicals, Stephen Sondheim. By the
early eighties Broadway became a tourist attraction mounting fewer shows each year,
some years not even ten, and these ten were often star vehicles or extravaganzas that
depended on sensational stage effects. The same holds true today. It is difficult to
imagine when Broadway will again play a significant role in New York's literary life."
- William Corbett, New York Literary Lights (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998), p. 37.

Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim was equally blunt –
"You have two kinds of shows on Broadway – revivals and the same kind of musicals
over and over again, all spectacles. You get your tickets for The Lion King a year in
advance, and essentially a family comes as if to a picnic, and they pass on to their
children the idea that that's what the theater is – a spectacular musical you see once a
year, a stage version of a movie. It has nothing to do with theater at all. It has to do with
seeing what is familiar. We live in a recycled culture . . . I don't think the theatre will die
per se, but it's never going to be what it was. You can't bring it back. It's gone. It's a
tourist attraction.
- as quoted by Frank Rich in Conversations With Sondheim (New York Times Magazine, March 12,
2000), pp. 40 & 88.

Sondheim has ample reasons to be be disheartened. From 1943 to the mid-1960s,
Broadway musicals could be mounted for under $250,000, and a well-managed
production could turn a solid profit in less than a year. Now a physically stark
production like Rent costs approximately $3,000,000, while The Producers is rumored
to have cost over $10,000,000. Even with ticket prices topping $100, shows can close at
a loss even after running for several years. The combined effects of inflation and too
many people demanding a bigger share of potential profits have all taken their toll.
At the same time, the core audience of musical lovers is believed to be shrinking. In
1999, The New York Times claimed that CD producers limit cast recording releases to
5,000 copies because that's how many collectors are out there. That would not be
enough people to constitute one full house at Radio City Music Hall! While this figure
may sound extreme, sales figures back it up. Which brings us to a question so inevitable
that it has become a cliché . . .

Is The Musical a Dead Artform?
At New York's St. James Theatre, ticket buyers fork over more than $100 a seat
for The Producers.

Theatrical professionals have fretted over this question for decades. Selfappointed experts offer all kinds of ideas. However, among those who
have lived and thrived in the world of the American musical, one finds a
remarkable similarity of opinion. Try three of the genre's greatest
songwriters --

The musical theatre will go on, and the showtune will never die. But I don't think we
will ever have that special kind of American entertainment in quite the same way.
- Jerry Herman, Showtune (New York: Donald I. Fine Books, 1996)

History is replete with dire predictions about the future of the New York theatre . . . This
time the malaise may indeed be terminal . . . Broadway cannot live without the musical
theatre, but the musical theatre can live without Broadway. After all, its first home was
Paris and then Vienna and then London and then New York. So changes of address are
not uncommon.
- Alan Jay Lerner, The Musical Theatre: An Appreciation (New York: McGraw Hill, 1986)

It is clear that the musical theatre is changing. No one knows where it is going. Perhaps
it is going not to one place but to many. That would be healthy, I think, just as the search
in itself can be healthy. . . Thus it was for Shakespeare in Elizabethan times; thus it was
for writers of musicals after Rodgers and Hammerstein; and thus it will be again. In the
meantime, we have no choice but to be explorers as well as practitioners, to discover
and set the limitations which will provide us our own discovery and release.
- Tom Jones, Making Musicals: An Informal Introduction to the World of Musical Theatre (New
York: Limelight Editions, 1998), pp. 84-85.

British Mega-musicals dominated Broadway in the late 20th Century, but they are not
the art form's future. Right now, the corporate Disney musical reigns supreme on both
sides of the Atlantic. The Lion King boasts magnificent Disney marketing and
$12,000,000 worth of puppetry, but the Elton John-Tim Rice score has all the wit of a
State Department press release. Luckily for Disney, contemporary audiences have been
trained to prefer style over substance, and Lion King has style by the truckload.
Titanic and Ragtime proved that the Broadway musical was still capable of artistic
achievement in the 1990s. Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll and Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel
showed that new American musicals with a pop-music approach could find an audience
despite critical scorn. But none of these could touch the decade-plus runs of the British
Crowds line up to see the long-running Rent.

Rent was a bona fide sensation in 1996. Critics trumpeted that it
heralded the Broadway musical's future. Well, time has already proven
they were wrong. With amateurish production values, lust mislabeled as
love, and bathos where a plot should be, Rent is less a hope than a
stumble. After almost a decade, it has spawned no trends, leaving nothing in its wake
but the disastrous stage adaptations of Footloose, Saturday Night Fever and Bright
Lights Big City. If style, romance, melody and joy are things of the past, what is the
point of a musical? Why not just go to a rock concert? The super-exclusive circle of
Pulitzer Prize winning musicals (Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello, How To
Succeed, A Chorus Line) – a circle that lacks My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof –
now includes Rent? What kind of madness is that? Rent's original New York subway
advertising proclaimed, "Don't you hate the word 'musical'?" As a musical lover, I will
celebrate on the day this cacophony closes – despite the fact that it was the last
Broadway show I was personally involved with.

Since 2000, the all-American musical comedy has made a stunning comeback. With the
triumph of The Full Monty, The Producers, Urinetown, Thoroughly Modern Millie and
Hairspray, critics and audiences have re-embraced a genre many (this author included)
had supposed dead. With the exception of Urinetown, they are based on hit films.
Musicals have been inspired by movies for decades, but not with such concentrated
success. These musical comedies show tremendous promise, offering a happy blend of
nostalgic pastiche and original spoof. They have turned long-empty hopes into filled
theater seats – the ultimate sign of a successful theatrical trend.
It is almost impossible to overestimate the role musical theatre plays in the economic
life of New York City. According to the League of Theatre Owners and Producers,
Broadway shows currently sell one and a half billion dollars worth of tickets annually –
and the overwhelming majority of those tickets are for musicals. Figure in what
theatergoers spend at hotels, restaurants and stores, and it is estimated that Broadway
contributes four and a half billion dollars to New York's economy. Off Broadway
musicals add millions more to that figure.

And Film Musicals?
Animated musicals were one of the most lucrative screen genres of the 1990s, and two
of those feature length cartoons have mutated into long-running Broadway stage
versions. While the results may be artistically questionable, they certainly keep millions
of people listening to show tunes. While animated musicals have petered out, the
surprising success of the live action Moulin Rouge (2001), Chicago (2002) and Camp
(2003) show that innovative directors can still make film musicals profitable, fresh and
exciting. At the same time, the costly failures It's Delovely (2004) and Phantom of the
Opera (2005) prove that Hollywood is still too easily weilling to rely on empty
production values rather than on quality material and intelligent presentation.
It is worth noting that the number of televised musicals is once more on the rise, with
major stars and composers adapting old works or preparing new ones for telecast. This
may not be an avalanche, but these productions are reaching millions of viewers in
every age group and income bracket.

You're Hedging! Is the Musical a Dead Artform?
Hey, if it sounds like I'm hedging, I'm not alone. Musical theater historian Denny Martin
Flinn writes –
When A Chorus Line gave its final Broadway performance fifteen years after it opened,
the last great American musical went dark, and the epoch was over.
- Musical! A Grand Tour (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997), p. xiii

But by the book's end, he borrows a bit of a Jerry Herman lyric to reassure us that –
A light, however dim, shines at the end of the tunnel. . . After two decades of
domination by heavy-handed entertainment without substance, style or sense, perhaps

the American musical theater will still be here tomorrow – alive and well and shining.
- Flinn, pp. 494-495

The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Urinetown and Hairspray succeeded by
doing what great musical comedies have always done – approach material in fresh and
funny ways no one has attempted before. (Male strippers, singing Nazis, bathroom
politics and interracial romance would have been unthinkable in the so called classic
musicals of the 1950s!) At the same time, several Broadway revivals have taken new
approaches to well-known material, largely respecting the author's original intentions
while infusing these shows with fresh energy.
Is this really a new "Springtime" for musical comedy on Broadway, or just a momentary
thaw? Only time will tell. For this trend to last, we need an army of new talents to keep
new hits coming. One wonders how many creative people will be willing to attempt the
costly, high-risk process of creating musicals for Broadway – especially when film and
television offer far more lucrative employment. A hit musical takes years to pay
anything like the six figure income a sitcom writer earns in just one season.
There is also the ongoing trend towards "jukebox musicals" -- shows built around an
existing catalog of old pop songs. These range from plot-based book musicals (Mamma
Mia, All Shook Up) to essentially plotless semi-revues and/or dance musicals (Movin'
On). In once case, the dance musical Contact (2000) mixed classical and pop
recordings, dispensing with any live musicians or singers -- and still managed (in a
weak season) to win the Tony for Best Musical. While traditionalists may not be happy
with jukebox musicals, it is hard to deny that the best of them sell lots of tickets on
Broadway and on tour. So long as the money keeps flowing in, this trend will continue.
One can only hope it does not reach the point where Broadway turns into Las Vegas

So Like We Asked Before, Is The Musical Dead?
All right, it is time for a direct answer . . . Dead? Absolutely not! Changing? Always!
The musical has been changing ever since Offenbach did his first rewrite in the 1850s.
And change is the clearest sign that the musical is still a living, growing genre. Will we
ever return to the so-called "golden age," with musicals at the center of popular culture?
Probably not. Public taste has undergone fundamental changes, and the commercial arts
can only flow where the paying public allows.
But the musical is far from dead. It will survive, and occasionally thrive, by adapting to
changes in artistic and commercial expectations. But change often comes at a price. The
new century will take musical theatre and film to places we could no more imagine than
the people of the early 1900s could have foreseen the technology of The Jazz Singer or
the subject matter of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. In fact, the musical will go places
some of us may not care to follow. But so long as a song helps to tell a story, musicals
will be around.
Just as we opened this series of essays with a definition of the musical, so now we close
with another, courtesy of Oscar Hammerstein II –

"It is nonsense to say what a musical should or should not be. It should be anything it
wants to be, and if you don't like it you don't have to go to it. There is only one
absolutely indispensable element that a musical must have. It must have music. And
there is only one thing that it has to be – it has to be good."
- as quoted by Stanley Green in The World of Musical Comedy (New York: Ziff Davis Publishing,
1960), p. 7.

This ends our History of Musical Stage & Screen

Annie Get Your Gun
Annie Moses was an Ohio farm girl whose skill with a rifle saved her
impoverished family from starvation. It is true that she beat touring
sharpshooter Frank Butler in a competition and became his partner.
They married in 1876, and she took on the stage name "Annie Oakley."
It is also true that Annie was befriended by Chief Sitting Bull, who
adopted her and named her "Little Sure Shot." From the 1880s through
1901, Annie, Frank and Sitting Bull toured the world with Buffalo Bill's
Wild West Show. The Butlers continued to give exhibitions (mostly to
benefit women's & children's charities) until both died within days of each other in
1926. Two key things: it is highly unlikely that Annie would ever have thrown a match
to appease a man's ego, and there is no record of Frank Butler ever expressing
resentment of Annie's superior talent. In fact, he adored her for it.

P.T. Barnum was one of the most colorful characters in American history, and Barnum
sticks reasonably close to the facts. However, the affair with opera star Jenny Lind
depicted in the musical is librettist Michael Stewart's fabrication. All reliable sources
suggest that Barnum was devoted to his wife Charity.

The real Arthur was a war lord who ruled part of Britain in the pre-Christian dark ages.
He bore no resemblance to the medieval Christian monarch seen in this musical, which
was based on T. H. White's delicious comic fantasy novel The Once and Future King.
Librettist Alan Jay Lerner based his script on only a portion of the novel -- rights to the
early chapters had already been purchased by Walt Disney, who turned out the animated
charmer The Sword in the Stone (1964). Lerner sticks to White's original
characterizations, but changes Lancelot into a handsome hunk – the novel depicts the
French super-knight as powerful but remarkably ugly.

In 1924, Chicago housewife Beulah Annan shot and killed her lover, Harry Kolstadt.
Beulah's husband Al lined up prominent defense attorney W.W. O'Brien to keep his wife
from hanging. After a highly publicized trial, and announcements to the press that
Beulah was pregnant, the all-male jury needed only two hours to reach a verdict of "not
guilty." After the pregnancy proved a hoax, the Annans divorced -- Beulah wound up
dying in an asylum in 1928. Inspired by this and other murder cases, reporter Maurine

Dallas Watkins took a playwrighting course at Yale and penned the hit stage drama
Chicago (1927). There was a silent screen version, and Twentieth Century Fox later
eventually filmed a sound version entitled Roxie Hart (1942). Watkins resisted all
attempts to turn her story into a musical, right up to the time of her death in 1969. The
Watkins estate finally sold the rights to producer Robert Fryer, and Bob Fosse, John
Kander and Fred Ebb took it from there. The corruption and media madness depicted in
both the stage and screen musical version of Chicago were very much a part of the
1920s -- just as they are all too much a part of our own time.

The Civil War
Presented as a series of unconnected scenes, this Frank Wildhorn musical made it
impossible to follow the war's progress. For example, the final scene depicted the battle
of Gettysburg, ending with the ensemble lying dead onstage – until Frederick Douglass
strode out over the corpses to announce that the war ended and Lincoln was assassinated
within a month. Huh? As if the final two nightmarish years of the war don't really
matter? Aside from Douglass and the disembodied voice of Lincoln, the characters in
the show were fictitious. The Civil War's three librettists mauled history. What was their
inspiration, Springtime for Hitler?

While the basic order of events in Evita is historically accurate, Webber
and Rice opted for the most unsavory version of every episode. Mind
you, that does not mean they got it wrong. Power has changed hands
often in Argentina over the last fifty years, and with each change the
"official" version of Eva Duarte's life story seems to mutate yet again.
Che Guevara's revolutionary ideals may have been a reaction to corrupt
movements like Peronism, but he never had any personal contact with
Eva. Eva's foundation provided the Peron's and their cohorts with
millions in graft, but it also built hospitals and schools and provided desperately needed
services for the poor. After cancer took Eva's life at an early age, her funeral was as
spectacular as the musical suggests, and the film version includes a fairly accurate reenactment of this ghoulish event. Peron quickly resumed his old fascination with
teenage girls, recruiting them from various government run schools. Within a few years
of Eva's death, the old reprobate was deposed and forced into exile in Spain. Peron
returned in triumph in the 1970s, with his new wife Isabel as vice president – the job
once denied to Eva. Peron died soon afterward. In a desperate attempt to prop up her
sagging regime, Isabel located Eva's long-hidden mummified body and brought it back
to Argentina. Isabel Peron was deposed before plans for a new tomb could be executed.
Eva's corpse is currently locked away in the Duarte family's Buenos Aires vault –
Peron's remains lie beside it.

This almost forgotten show proves that accurate history can be turned into excellent
entertainment. Except for a brief prelude, the action takes place long before LaGuardia's
turbulent years as mayor of New York. It concentrates on his years as a crusading
attorney for the downtrodden, depicting his earliest attempts to enter the corrupt world
of New York politics. While a few of the supporting characters are fictitious, many of
the people and incidents in Fiorello come directly from the "Little Flower's" life. His
first wife did die at an early age, after which he married his longtime secretary.

Floyd Collins
Floyd Collins in another cave, shortly before his fatal accident.

The true story of this cave explorer who became fatally trapped while
searching for a tourist-worthy cave caused nationwide headlines in
1925. The musical accurately captures the tragedy and the media-frenzy
that surrounded this tragedy. Collins, his family and the reporter who exploits really
existed. However, many of the lesser characters and discussions are fictional, based on
Billy Wilder's 1952 film version of the same incident, entitled Ace in the Hole (later
retitled The Big Carnival).

Funny Girl
We've had so many questions on this show (and film) that the answers rate a separate
page – click here for the true dish on Fanny Brice

George M!
The Four Cohans: George M. is lower right.

The classic 1942 film bio Yankee Doodle Dandy had to clean-up certain
details to appease Cohan, but his daughter Mary was willing to be a bit
more honest in 1969 when she worked on George M! While the plot of this
highly entertaining stage bio is bare-boned, but fairly factual. It includes Cohan's
divorce, his real wives, his vicious feud with Actor's Equity and his all-consuming
egoism. It also celebrates Cohan's extraordinary creativity and multi-faceted talents –
without which, his other qualities would hardly matter.

Goodtime Charley
The Joan of Arc story as a musical? Hey, there have been worse ideas. The brilliant
opening number has the statues of dead royals on a cathedral wall come to life,
explaining the convoluted "History" behind the show with wit and remarkable dramatic
economy. In the show that follows, the basic details of Joan of Arc's victories and her
betrayal by certain French leaders are relatively accurate. However, the chummy
relationship between Joan and Charles is fanciful – nothing in the historical record
suggests that she ever read her prince's beads the way she does in this libretto. The
casting of Joel Grey forced them to make Charles the lead, throwing the focus off in
what is really Joan's story.

The real Baby June (Havoc) and her sister Louise (a.k.a. Gypsy Rose Lee) with
two of their vaudeville "newsboys."

Arthur Laurents loosely based his marvelous libretto on the
recollections of famed burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Her sister
June Havoc (the real "Baby/Dainty June") has never been too happy
with the results, which were clearly slanted to make Gypsy look good. However, both
daughters concurred that their mother Rose was a monstrous bitch who always put her
show biz dreams ahead of everything else. The girls toured in vaudeville for years, like
it or not. Eventually, June left the act against her mother's wishes – to marry one of the
boys. The unstoppable Mama Rose kept Louise touring – and they did end up in
burlesque when vaudeville died out. With her "intellectual" strip act, Louise renamed

herself "Gypsy Rose Lee" and became the toast of Minsky's Burlesque. After June's
marriage failed, she survived the 1930s as a marathon dancer, then emerged as a
successful stage and screen actress. Her mother and sister refused her any assistance. By
the way, the idea of a "Mr. Orpheum" – is a great joke most audiences miss today. Mo
such person existed. The Orpheum vaudeville circuit was built by Martin Beck and
eventually taken over by E. F. Albee.

Harrigan 'n Hart
At left is a photo of Hart (in drag) and Harrigan in The Little Frauds.

The official participation of Edward Harrigan's daughter (Nedda Harrigan
Logan) forced librettist Michael Stewart to fumble some facts. In the
musical, Harrigan is painted as a total saint, Hart is seen as unstable, and
Hart's wife is depicted as a calculating shrew who selfishly tears the partners
apart. In truth, Harrigan's nepotistic habit of hiring relatives soured his
partnership with Hart. The show never clarifies that Hart's untimely demise was caused
by syphilis – delicately calling it an "unmentionable blood disease." What nonsense!
And what a pity – real drama was weakened thanks to diplomacy. This show was only
about 60 years too late – other than Nedda, so one was particularly interested.

The King & I
Yes, a Victorian widow became schoolmistress to the Siamese court in the 1860s.
However, the suggestion of any sort of romance between Anna Leonowens and King
Mongkut is pure fiction. Victorian notions of race and social propriety made such a
relationship unthinkable to both of them. Unlike the robust thirty-something Yul
Brynner, the real King Mongkut was short, slender and 58 when Leonowens was hired.
But Anna did challenge the King on many issues, and she frequently assisted him with
his foreign correspondence. The letter offering Abraham Lincoln elephants to fight in
the Civil War is quite real and occasionally on display at the Forbes Gallery in New
Anna pushed for the King to give her a brick residence outside the palace grounds – and
eventually got it. After five years teaching the royal family, she took a six-month leave
to tour America – during which time the King died and 15 year old Prince
Chulalongkorn assumed the throne. Anna never returned to Siam. Instead, she wrote a
series of best-selling books based on her experiences there. Some were
autobiographical, but the fictional tale of Tuptim and Lun Tha was based on fables told
by the King's wives. Anna spent her later years as a writer, educator and leading
suffragette in the U.S. and Canada. When her son Louis grew up, he returned to Siam
and prospered as a businessman and close friend of King Chulalongkorn. After Anna's
death, her stories inspired Margaret Landon to write the fictionalized Anna and the King
of Siam. This book was the basis for the 1946 film of the same name (which changed
many plot details) as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I.

Legs Diamond
Legs Diamond in one of his court appearances.

The plot of Peter Allen's musical has practically nothing to do with the real
Jack Diamond, who was a ruthless mob gunman, not an entertainer. He
worked his way up to operating several speakeasies, including New York's

Hotsy Totsy Club. No one is quite sure how many deaths Legs was responsible for, but
it was not a small number. He developed a reputation for survival by escaping several
attempts on his life, but his luck ran out when the Dutch Schultz gang killed him in
Albany in 1931.

Mack and Mabel
Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand

This show is closer to the facts than most of its critics might like to admit.
Mabel Normand was a waitress in Flatbush before her years in silent
film, and she did have a long-term affair with the tempestuous Mack
Sennett. Normand was one of several stars ruined by the mysterious
murder of director William Desmond Taylor. Normand's death in 1930
was probably drug related. Several librettists have tried to revise the book, either ending
the show before her death or ignoring it altogether – which doesn't wash, since the plot
is seen as a flashback from 1938. Jerry Herman's beloved score may never overcome
these seemingly irreparable book issues.

Patrick Dennis (whose real name was Everett Tanner) had an aunt – Marion Tanner –
who claimed that she was the inspiration for Auntie Mame. She was an eccentric who
turned her Greenwich Village townhouse into a haven for actors and artists (including
young Billie Holliday), but her life bore minimal resemblance to the novel, the play or
the musical. Patrick was actually raised by his own parents. After the fictional Auntie
Mame became an institution, Patrick was plagued by Marion's often embarrassing
attempts to publicize herself at his expense. He tried paying for her silence, but it
proved useless. She outlived Patrick, and kept grabbing for tabloid publicity right
through her final impoverished years in a nursing home.

The characters are fictional, but this musical does capture the excitement felt in the
Oklahoma territory as it prepared for full statehood in the eary 1900s. However, that
territory was home to many Native Americans – something you would never guess from
seeing the all-Caucasian line-up in this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The play it
was based on (Lynn Riggs' drama Green Grow the Lilacs) depicts some characters as
being at least partly of Native American ancestry.

Pacific Overtures
The high-level history (Japan's feudal system, the West forcing its way into Japan) is
based on historical fact. Although most of the main characters are figments of librettist
John Weidman's imagination, the show brilliantly captures the culture clash that would
reshape the world in the 20th century.

Acclaimed playwright Alfred Uhry's libretto sticks closely to the known facts in the Leo
Frank case – not surprising, since members of his family knew the Franks personally.
Some of the peripheral characters and discussions are fictional, but all serve to support
or illuminate the central story line. While most experts agree that Frank was an innocent
man, his lynching is still a sensitive issue in Atlanta

Evelyn Nesbit during her years on stage.

Coalhouse Walker, Sarah, Tateh and "The Family" are fictional, but the
period setting and many of the supporting characters are straight out of
the history books. The musical follows E.L. Doctorow's best-selling
novel closely in depicting them. For example:

Stanford White was murdered while attending a performance at one of NY's
summertime rooftop theatres – much as depicted in the show.
Harry K. Thaw was "a violent man," one of the first American murderers to
successfully avoid the death penalty by using the insanity defense.
Evelyn Nesbit was acclaimed for her beauty. After she testified for husband
Harry Thaw's defense, he divorced her – leaving her with a paltry settlement.
She headlined in vaudeville, but gradually slid into obscurity, spending her final
years in poverty.
Harry Houdini was interested in spiritualism, but he eventually moved from
belief to skepticism.
Emma Goldman's anarchist speeches and writings infuriated the authorities, who
eventually had her deported.
Booker T. Washington was a voice for peaceful progress in race relations, but
some African American leaders felt him too willing to compromise with
powerful whites.
Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan were hopelessly removed from the concerns of
working class Americans, and neither was above using murderous violence to
control their workers.
I have found no record of a black woman being arrested – let alone killed – for
attempting an attack on any Vice-President of the early 1900s.

Author Peter Stone often boasted about the historical accuracy of his 1776 libretto, and
it is accurate up to a point. The scenes and songs shared by John and Abigail Adams are
taken almost verbatim from their private correspondence, and the sharp divisions in the
colonies over rebellion and slavery are honestly depicted. The personalities of Adams,
Franklin and Jefferson are brought to delightful life, and audiences get a convincing
taste of the emotions of a distant era. Because their deliberations were considered
treasonous, Congress kept no notes on its actual debates -- but the final debates over
independence as Stone conceives them are brilliant and riveting. No wonder this show
and its handsome screen version remain effective after more than three decades.
However, Stone did take a number of (you should pardon the expression) liberties. The
most notable include -

The real congressional chamber had no daily calendar – that device was added to
make the passage of time clearer to the audience.
Those who signed the Declaration did so over a period of several weeks. To
provide a strong final image, 1776 depicts men from every colony signing at the
same time.
John Adams did write to Abigail that he was "obnoxious and disliked," but he
was actually one of the most respected figures in Congress. Happily, William
Daniels succeeded in capturing the man's singular devotion to "independency."

Martha Jefferson was seriously ill during the summer of 1776. She didn't have
the energy to write her husband letters, let alone the stamina required for the
then arduous journey to Philadelphia. So Thomas Jefferson wrote the
Declaration of Independence without the refreshment of a conjugal visit.
The surviving first draft shows that Jefferson had a relatively smooth time
writing the Declaration -- and by his own account, there were no mountains of
crumpled rejects scattered across his floor.
Richard Henry Lee was a somber Puritan noted for his oratorical skill. Other
than his height, he bore no resemblance to the effusive blowhard portrayed so
delectably by Ron Holgate.
Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island did enjoy a tot of rum, but never to excess and
only at night -- he drank nothing stronger than water during the day.
The early summer of 1776 saw Washington's army planning the defense of New
York City, so the General's dispatches during these weeks would have been filled
with optimism. It was not until August and the British victory at the Battle of
Long Island that Washington would have expressed a gloomier view.
James Wilson did not change his vote at the last moment to avoid the wrath of
posterity -- he openly switched over to the pro-independence side some time
before the final vote took place.
John Dickinson did not oppose the idea of American independence -- he just felt
it was too soon to take such a drastic step. In the end, Dickinson refused to stand
in the way of something the rest of the colonies wanted to do. He gracefully
chose not to show up for the final vote -- knowing this would guarantee
acceptance of the Declaration.

The Sound of Music
The real Captain Von Trapp was relatively easy-going, and easily old enough to be
Maria's father. Ex-postulant Maria was the strict disciplinarian. By her own admission,
she initially married the Captain because of her love for the children – the couple's
affection for each other developed over time. Most of the family fortune, which the
Captain inherited from his first wife, was wiped out in the Great Depression. In fact, the
Von Trapps had been forced to rent out most of their palatial home to lodgers long
before the Nazi's arrived. While it is true that the family left Austria when the Captain
refused a commission to command a submarine in the Nazi German navy, the Von
Trapps did not climb any mountains to escape – they simply took a train to Switzerland.

Teddy and Alice
We have no reason to believe that Theodore Roosevelt's second marriage and
relationship with his daughter Alice were plagued by the ghost of his lamented first
wife. This predictable soap opera-style approach turned what could have been a fun
musical comedy about America's most famous father-daughter tug-of-war into a weak
joke. Pity, since the enjoyable score had some entertaining songs, with several based on
melodies by John Phillip Sousa.

Isidor and Ida Strauss shortly before The Titanic sailed.

Every character in this musical was an actual passenger or crew member
of the R.M.S. Titanic. Many are depicted in a factual manner –
including Isidor Strauss and his wife Ida, who refused to leave the

sinking liner without her longtime husband. However, librettist Peter Stone changed
some life stories to enrich the atmosphere. For example, Charles Clark and Caroline
Neville (who are seen eloping in the show) were already married, and the little boy who
runs about with a model sailing ship during the opening number was actually a
strapping teenager. As far as I have been able to determine, Alice Beane's hilarious
social ambitions and Kate Murphy's unwed pregnancy are fictitious. However, all
technical information regarding the ship and it's tragic accident are depicted with
textbook accuracy, and the finale truthfully reflects who survived – and who did not. It
is not surprising that this skillful use of truth as drama came from the same librettist
responsible for 1776.

The Will Rogers Follies
This show plays freely with the facts – as its narrator freely admits. Considering what
had to be done to adapt the story to a Ziegfeld Follies revue format, we get a reasonable
outline of the great humorist's life. He supposedly had some friction with his father, but
nothing too serious. Rogers was nominated for the Presidency once, but strictly for
laughs. (Note: When I first saw this show, I had to restrain myself from belting Wily
Post every time he shrieked "Let's go flying, Will!" Like we need constant reminders
Rogers is going to die in the end?) In a business noted for its marital disasters, Rogers
was a devoted husband and father.

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