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Why We Need the Movie Musical

The musical is one of cinema’s most escapist genres, full of big scenes, big feelings, big dreams. Looking at the movie musical through the years, we can spot some defining patterns. It captures larger-than-life emotion, is often about show business itself, and makes our fantasies feel as valid as real life. Here’s our take on the musical: its purpose, its politics, and why it blurs the line between truth and illusion.

TRANSCRIPT

The musical is one of cinema’s most escapist genres, full of big scenes, big feelings, big dreams. Looking at the movie musical through the years, we can spot some defining patterns:

Here’s our take on the musical: its purpose, its politics, and why it blurs the line between truth and illusion.

  • It captures larger than life emotion. As Bob Fosse put it, “The time to sing is when your emotional level is too high to just speak any more, and the time to dance is when your emotions are just too strong to only sing about how you ‘feel.’” Because of all this emotional power, the genre is naturally suited for exploring the agony and ecstasy of love and expressing the characters’ inner lives. Musicals offer a window into what someone is thinking or imagining, showing us not just how things are, but how they’re felt and experienced.
  • This showiest of mediums is also often about show business, which can make the spontaneous song-and-dance numbers feel less jarring.
  • The genre is often associated with fantasy. The essence of the musical is that it presents an alternate version of reality — one where bright colors dominate and bursting into song is accepted. But it also reveals that the fantasy life can be just as vivid and important as the real one.

Dorothy Gale: “This was a real, truly live place. And I remember that some of it wasn’t very nice but most of it was beautiful.” - The Wizard of Oz

What’s the Point of Musicals?

In real life, spontaneously breaking into song is likely to attract some uncomfortable looks. Likewise, in a movie, it can risk breaking audiences’ suspension of disbelief and feeling artificial or cheesy. So what’s the point of adding singing and dancing to a film at all?

First, the musical number is an ideal vehicle for delivering an idea. Sometimes, this is a relatively simple idea — take the “I Want” song, a musical number that is used to quickly communicate a character’s goal.

Ariel [Singing]: “I want to be where the people are.” - The Little Mermaid

Musicals can also distill their central theme into a song, as we see in the opening number of Fiddler on the Roof. In other cases, the genre goes beyond presenting an idea to actually pushing an argument. “Concept musicals” can be seen as a descendent of dramatist Bertolt Brecht’s “epic theater,” which comments on the action and encourages the audience to adopt a critical perspective of their society. In Cabaret, when the Nazis fill-up the Kit-Kat Klub in 1930s Berlin, the movie’s final message is a warning that it can happen here — implicitly urging audiences not to be complacent. The film even begins and ends with the image of a distorted mirror, symbolizing how the story is a commentary on our world (and calling back to the original theatrical production which included a mirror on stage reflecting the audience). Other movies like Hair and Rent center the perspective of the counterculture movements of their era: Hair harshly criticizes the Vietnam War, while Rent emphasizes the urgency of the AIDs crisis.

A second purpose of the musical is to let us participate in the characters’ feelings. Grease’s songs express what the characters can’t voice to anyone else — from Rizzo revealing how secretly sensitive she is underneath her tough outer shell, to Sandy and Danny each pining for each other separately, to the usually optimistic Frenchy processing her secret anxiety that she’s not cut out to be a beautician. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, when the protagonist Rebecca privately reimagines her experiences as musical numbers, the result demonstrates how the external events of our lives often feel much more heightened internally — like when Rebecca’s experience of spending Thanksgiving trying to impress her love interest’s parents is expressed as an over-the-top, self-hyping Nicki-Minaj style rap called “I Give Good Parent.”

Rebecca Bunch [Rapping]: “End of the night, they line up to hug me. ‘Oh my gosh, this was so lovely.’” - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 1x6

Perhaps most centrally of all, the musical is the realm of fantasies. Characters use song to let their imaginations run wild, losing themselves in the dream of a better life — even if sometimes that stays just a dream. But one of the big takeaways of this genre is that the boundary between fantasy and reality isn’t as firm as we might think. In the stand-out sequence near the end of La La Land, Mia imagines how things could have been with her ex Sebastian. And the film honors how our pasts — and our ideas of the life not lived — can be just as meaningful as our actual day-to-day. In The Wizard of Oz, when Judy Garland sings the iconic ballad “Over the Rainbow” about the place where dreams “really do come true,” this isn’t a physical space that exists in reality; it’s an emotional one — yet that doesn’t make it any less needed. Dorothy’s fantastical, Technicolor dream is far more memorable and satisfying than the drab parts of the film depicting her actual life in Kansas. And her dream is connected to that life — it’s full of heightened versions of the people she knows, while its lesson is exactly what she needed to understand in order to keep going in her reality. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca’s habit of interpreting life through fantasy musical numbers is also eventually affirmed as a productive method of processing what she’s going through.

Paula Proctor: “Those songs that you imagine, when you come back, you’ve always figured something out, right?”

Rebecca Bunch: “Yeah, I guess I’ve processed something, sure.” - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 4x17

Even if a fantasy isn’t technically real, the feelings and insights it evokes are. Sometimes, it’s only in a dream or a reverie that we can access these deeper truths.

A Brief History of the Movie Musical

The beginning of the movie musical was also the beginning of sound on film: both arrived with 1927’s The Jazz Singer, which already established the movie musical’s common narrative of the hopeful, struggling performer who achieves hard-won artistic success — a premise that remains popular to this day. The Jazz Singer was a box-office sensation, paving the way for 1929’s The Broadway Melody to become the top-grossing picture of the year and the first sound film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

Despite early successes, though, Hollywood quickly became oversaturated with musicals — more than 100 were released in 1930 alone, while movie studios lost money due to the onset of the Great Depression and audience interest in the genre declined. This changed with the rise of choreographer Busby Berkeley, whom The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody calls “the genius who created the classic musical” and “built the genre on the tension between artifice and authenticity.” Berkeley helped create an arresting visual language for the onscreen musical through fluid camera work, kaleidoscopic arrangements of dancers, and interesting camera angles. Meanwhile, in 1937 Disney released Snow White, the first full-length animated film, which was punctuated by song. Snow White’s unprecedented success and creative approach directly influenced the era’s most enduring movie-musical masterpiece, 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, which exemplified the musical’s signature commitment to spectacle — from its costumes, to its special effects to the use of Technicolor, still novel at the time.

On top of all this innovation, the Depression created an urgent emotional need for musicals. Many ‘30s musicals focused on upper-class characters in glamorous settings, allowing audiences to temporarily forget their troubles. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers used dance to illustrate their characters’ blossoming love. Child musical star Shirley Temple uplifted viewers with her sweetness and innocence.

Shirley Temple [Singing]: “On The Good Ship Lollipop, it’s a sweet trip to a candy shop.” - Bright Eyes

Yet while many of these favorites provided escapism, others (especially Busby Berkeley’s groundbreaking work) spoke directly to the darkness of the times. Gold Diggers of 1933 features the haunting song “Remember My Forgotten Man,” looking at the plight of the disenfranchised — especially that of struggling WWI veterans whom the government had failed.

These musicals that openly acknowledged current events revealed that many viewers weren’t just looking to dodge their reality, but were eager for a way to confront their feelings about it and envision a way through the hardship. Martha Shearer at King’s College London explains, “It wasn’t really until 1933 musicals such as 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, where the Depression is literally part of the film’s central component, that the narrative of the musical starts to really become successful.”

1940s musicals provided a comforting reprieve from the hardships of WWII, through their wholesome values and romantic happy endings. Judy Garland’s character’s love for her hometown in Meet Me in St. Louis struck a chord with American families who couldn’t be together due to the War. This intimate, domestic movie, featuring neither show business nor over-the-top visual spectacle, proved that a musical could tell any kind of story.

‘50s movie musicals were defined by their exuberant tone, the rise of Technicolor, and the dominance of MGM — which churned out beloved movies like Gene Kelly’s and Stanley Donan’s Singin’ in the Rain, and Vincente Minelli’s An American in Paris and The Band Wagon. But the overriding optimism was occasionally undermined by more troubling themes creeping in: 1954’s A Star is Born examined the pain of addiction and self-destruction, 1956’s Carousel explored domestic violence and featured one of the genre’s first anti-heroes, and the protagonist of 1958’s South Pacific is initially horrified to learn that her love interest has fathered half-Polynesian children.

Emile De Becque: “I’m their father.”

Nellie Forbush: “And their mother was a…” - South Pacific

‘60s musicals continued to vacillate between sweet sentimentality and more complex subject matter — sometimes in the same movie! 1965’s wildly popular The Sound of Music, which replaced Gone With The Wind as the highest-grossing film ever, deals with the rise of Nazism in Austria, but it also skirts the true horrors of this time, focusing instead on the power of song and the way the free-spirited Maria gives the Von Trapps a new lease on life. In contrast, 1961’s West Side Story — which was already memorable for its sophisticated music and lyrics, creative choreography, and invigorating camera angles — stood out most of all for its uncompromising tragedy, as this New York spin on the Romeo and Juliet tale drove home the ugliness of prejudice and hatred.

Maria Nuñez: “You all killed him, and my brother, and Riff… not with bullets and guns. With hate!” - West Side Story

This decade featured creative experimentation within the musical genre — French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Demy’s works like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg combined a haunting operatic form with the vivid, joyful colors of a classic MGM style.

Daring ‘70s musicals departed completely from their sweet and wholesome predecessors to tackle darker, more risque themes. With 1972’s Cabaret, director Bob Fosse (on the heels of his 1969 box office failure Sweet Charity) was determined to make a musical that was (in the words of actor Joel Grey) “more adult — more relevant.” Unlike hyper-choreographed and polished earlier musicals, here the dancers were meant to look realistic, even rough around the edges — Fosse asked them to gain weight, not shave their legs, and pluck their eyebrows before drawing them on. And the film fully leaned into its provocative subject matter like promiscuity, abortion, and bisexuality.

1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show and 1978’s Grease also explored gender and sexuality, with Grease even ridiculing its lead Sandy for being virginal and applauding her final transformation into a sexy bombshell.

Danny Zuko [Singing]: “‘Cause the power you’re supplying… it’s electrifying!” - Grease

In 1979, Fosse’s introspective All That Jazz explored the toxic workaholism, self-destruction, and disillusionment of the musical director — an inversion of the traditional show-biz-musical about the rise to success.

In the ‘80s, the emphasis in movie musicals shifted from singing and deeper commentary to dance, while 1989’s The Little Mermaid kicked off the Disney Renaissance and the rise of animated kids’ musicals in the ‘90s. The only prominent non-animated musical film to come out this decade was 1996’s Evita, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the adult movie musical regained its footing. 2001’s Moulin Rouge was seen as a revamp of the genre, featuring covers and rock and pop mash-ups. This experimentation continued with other movies featuring different musical styles, from acoustic ballads to rap. 2002’s Chicago became the first musical to take home the Best Picture Oscar in over 30 years.

Roxie Hart [Singing]: “The name on everybody’s lips is gonna be… Roxie!” - Chicago

Many musicals that had previously only been on stage came to the screen, made for TV musicals like High School Musical increased the genre’s appeal to adolescent viewers, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s 2001 musical episode “Once More, With Feeling” established a trend that later shows have since imitated with their own musical episodes. The decade ended with the beginning of Glee, a show about a high school singing club that captured that old-school, wholesome musical energy while also featuring plenty of current cover songs.

Today, our culture has fully embraced its love of musicals — perhaps because prominent creators were influenced by the standouts of previous decades. 2016’s La La Land, which took inspiration from too many classic musicals to count, became one of the three most-nominated films in Oscar history.

With Broadway’s Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda gave the genre new modern relevance by telling the story of the Founding Fathers through hip hop music and primarily casting performers of color, and the film adaptation of Miranda’s first musical In the Heights brings this sensibility to the screen.

Usnavi de la Vega: “I am Usnavi, you’ve probably never heard my name, reports of my fame are greatly exaggerated.” - In the Heights

Television networks now regularly air live musicals. And the constant of animated movie musicals for kids is now supplemented by live-action remakes of the older Disney catalog. Meanwhile, blockbusters like The Greatest Showman, A Star is Born, and pop musician-biopics Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody have proven that musicals can be cash cows. With all this popularity, critical acclaim and awards recognition, the musical is no longer just the domain of the stereotypical “theater geek,” but has become undeniably mainstream.

The musical genre can uplift us in dark times, offer a rallying cry, or deliver a bittersweet and eternal message about the value of love and loss. Most fundamentally, it gives visible form and validity to our imaginations, letting us believe in what seems impossible, and reminding us that our dreams are just as important, authentic, and real as the world we walk around in every day.

Dorothy Gale: “But it wasn’t a dream… it was a place!” - The Wizard of Oz


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