Where Have all the Musicals Gone?

Some of my favorite movies feature classic song-and-dance numbers. Studios used to put together a dream cast of their performers in Broadway revivals and themed productions. People used to flock to the theater to watch these big-budget and glamorous musicals.

So why don’t they get made anymore unless it involves a cartoon princess singing with animals?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have come up with a pretty decent theory. The first involves actors themselves. Stars like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had to be able to act, sing, and dance. You don’t need the same skillset anymore. All we ask of our actors now is that they be good looking and semi-believable. We don’t require them to be all that talented. Case in point: just about anybody with a phone or a laptop can broadcast themselves all over the internet for a few minutes of notoriety.

In that same vein, more movies are made now—and by more companies, large and small—than back in the heyday of the musical. In the early days, only huge movie studios could make films. They signed contracts with their performing talent so that they could not work for competing studios (except on loan). This created both exclusivity and the desire to make films that would cater to your performer’s talents. In other words, if you have Gene Kelly working for your studio, you’re going to want him to sing and dance. So you are going to make a musical. Before the advent of the home television, if you wanted to see a film, you had to go to the theater. Back then, there was a much smaller pool of films to choose from (many theaters showed only one film, once or twice a day, for weeks at a time), which meant people had fewer options. It is possible that musicals were not really what people wanted so much as what Hollywood was making. When you don’t have a choice, you’ll see what is available, right? If you look at the box office receipts for a film like Into the Woods vs a Star Wars movie, you’ll see where I am going. When people finally had other choices, they went other ways. And musicals cost a lot of money, all things considered. There was a huge ensemble cast, choreographers, lengthy rehearsal times, costumes, large sets, and full orchestras. If a star got injured while performing, they were difficult to replace. One thing movie studios hate is putting money into a movie and not making a profit. Fewer musicals got made and people didn’t seem to miss them. That meant even less got made. Studios had to stop owning the rights to the performers themselves, and that also had an impact on what was being produced.

And here we are. We’ll occasionally get a movie like Grease or Hairspray, but for every one of those, we’re stuck with a Momma Mia!  Here’s hoping that we get another good one soon.

Sci-Fi Before CGI

Computer generated graphics continue to get better and better. Movies that could not possibly have been made even 30 years ago can now be made on a high-quality home computer. What can now be done with a green screen and some software used to require costumes, effects makeup, special lighting, and elaborate sets. While I can appreciate the huge advances CGI has made in the way of effects and animation, I feel that they are often used as a crutch to support uninteresting movies with bad plots and even worse acting. This is especially evident in the science fiction genre. There are so many films pre-CGI that were well done and are still impressive in this computerized era. Here are some of my favorites.

This first one is quite the golden oldie, considered one of the first full-length movies in the genre. It is a  film without spoken dialog called Metropolis, and it was released in 1927. Some of the techniques used in the film were incredibly uncommon, including what became known as the Schüfftan process—named after the effects expert who worked on the film—where mirrors are used to make miniature sets look the correct size in relation to the actors. The reason most of the effects look real is because they are. In the scenewhere the city is being flooded, those people were really in water. And at the end when Maria is tied to a stake and is being burned to death,that’s not special effects; it really is fire, arranged in such a way to look like she is being burned.

The original Planet of the Apes is one of the torchbearers of the genre pre-CGI. Because it could not rely on dizzying effects or computerized characters who weren’t really there, the film actually required good production and acting. Through believable acting, skilled effects makeup and costumes, convincing sets and locations, as well as a talented director and a well-crafted musical score, they proved that you could transport an audience into a completely imaginative and alien world.

What about the creature from Alien? Would it have been as scary or impressive if it had been computer generated? I doubt they would have gone that route even if they could have: the director, Ridley Scott, was quoted by David McIntee as saying, “It’s a man in a suit, but then it would be, wouldn’t it? It takes on elements of the host—in this case, a man.” He makes a good point. Their use of models, puppets, animatronics, costumes, and camera tricks (like filming scenes in reverse) made for a highly effective combination.

I would talk about Star Wars here as well, since the saga has been ongoing and both pre- and post- dated CGI (as did the Star Trek series) but I feel like that might be another post for another time.

Do you have any favorite sci-fi movies that lack computer generated graphics?

My Favorite Classic Films

There are just some movies that I never get tired of watching. Do you have movies like that? Sometimes they feel like old friends to me. They never fail to cheer me up. I think my favorite movies are my favorites because they get even better the more I watch them. Sometimes, even after seeing them ten or fifteen times, I will see something that I never noticed before. I love looking them up and reading bits of trivia as well as interviews with the cast and director. It makes me appreciate films in a whole new way.

For me, it just doesn’t feel like the holidays unless I watch Miracle on 34th Street. It made me want to visit the Macy’s Santa when I was young and I never miss their Thanksgiving parade. My mom was the one who first sat me down to watch it with her and I always think of her when I see it, even though she has been gone for a number of years now. Other must-see holiday movies are It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas.They are also movies that I started watching when I was young. They were annual holiday events growing up and I enjoy keeping the tradition alive. It doesn’t get much better than George Bailey or Bing Crosby crooning, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.” Perfect song to decorate your tree to, in my opinion.

My favorite musical is Singin’ in the Rain.It had a great cast performing some incredibly iconic songs. They are some of my favorites. However, that scene where Kelly is performing in the rain? Probably one of the most perfect moments ever captured on film. It’s fun, it’s catchy, it’s perfectly choreographed. And it’s even more impressive considering that it was filmed in one take—the first one—and Kelly was ill the day it was shot.

But my all-time favorite movie is Grapes of Wrath. I had to read the book in school and it wasn’t all that interesting to me. I remember being angry that there was a whole chapter about a turtle crossing the road (it was something like three pages, but as a teenager, I was still outraged. The things we remember, right?) However, our teacher knew a great way to get us to care. She let us watch the movie during class and everything changed for me. The characters and their struggles came to life and I found myself really understanding what Steinbeck had been trying to say. Henry Fonda was amazing. That speech he gives when he says, “I’ll be there in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry…” when he’s talking to his mother is about as great as you can get. Nobody else could have played Tom Joad. He was perfect in the part. John Ford was an odd choice for the direction, and by all accounts, he was difficult to work for. But he really got the best out of his cast and the movie—even after all this time—holds up incredibly well.

So those are some of my all-time favorites. What are your favorite movies?