Friday, July 04, 2014

the film musical: by the book

Sinatra, on stage, in "Pal Joey" 

More on film musicals! The previous essay - "preferable in black-&-white? - generated a response from wwolfe who brought up the idea of "the book musical."  That's a musical in which songs are carefully woven directly into the narrative, replacing dialogue to advance the film's plot.

Zita-Jones and Zellweger, fantasizing, in "Chicago"

For me, a book musical is the only authentic musical.  "Flashdance," "Footloose" and "Dirty Dancing" have all been referred to as musicals.  They aren't.  They're dancicals.  Rob Marshall's 2002 film of "Chicago" is a shrewd redefining of the book musical.  Yes, characters sing on screen, but all the musicals numbers are presented as daydreams, fantasy, a way to make all the singing and dancing palatable.  It's a musical made for people who don't like musicals - a bastardization of the book musical.

Liza, on stage, in "Cabaret"

On stage, "Cabaret" was a book musical.  But when Bob Fosse filmed it in 1972, all the songs were restricted to the stage of the Kit Kat Club.  They were performances.  The songs sung off-stage in the play were either eliminated or reconfigured for Liza Minnelli to sing at the club.

Fosse wasn't breaking any new ground.  Way back in 1957, director George Sidney and his scenarist Dorothy Kingsley turned the Rodgers and Hart musical,"Pal Joey," into "An Evening with Frank Sinatra."  Except for Rita Hayworth's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" number (which she lip-syncs in a shower), all the songs in "Joey" are performances, sung before an audience. Plus there's one dream sequence.  An iconic Broadway show, finally a film, was no longer a book musical.

So, let's get something straight - a film musical isn't a musical unless its characters burst out into song, and not on a stage or some dream.

Got that?

12 comments:

david p. said...

Joe, that’s a very spirited defence of the book musical, but I think you are waging a losing battle. It's unlikely that the film musical in its purest sense will ever come back, at least no in our lifetime.

Sheila said...

Bob Fosse! He didn't invigorate the musical as much as he damaged it. "Cabaret"? No thanks!

Arthur S. said...

You know, Cukor's "A Star Is Born" (1954)predates "Pal Joey" for restricting all of its songs to performances either in clubs or on soundstages or, in one scene, in Garland's living room where she "entertains" James Mason,reenacting a musical number that she shot that day. "A Star Is Born" may seem like a book musical but it isn't

joe baltake said...

Arthur! Excellent example. That's why, for me, "A Star Is Born" isn't a real musical, despite its abundance of songs and dances. (I guess I'm really rigid on this point.) Garland doesn't just burst into song in the film. She sings only as a performer.

Brian Lucas said...

Sheila- I also have an aversion to "Fosse movements." I assume that's what you're referring to.

Sheila said...

Right.

James K. said...

Joe- I agree with your assessment of the book musical and its importance to overall history of the movie musical in general.

And, yes, I realize that defending the book musical is indeed a lonely limb to be on.

Jim

wwolfe said...

I'm interested in how you would describe a movie like "A Hard Day's Night." It's not a book musical - with perhaps the exception of the wonderful scene set to "Can't Buy Me Love" - but it's chock full of excellent music. So how would it best be described?

joe baltake said...

I see "A Hard Day's Night" as perhaps the first jukebox musical - way ahead of its time in that respect. "Rock of Ages" and "Mamma Mia!," both still on Broadway,have been labeled jukebox musicals (often as a criticism) and I'd like to think of them as the offspring of "A Hard Day's Night." Feel free to disagree!

Bennett said...

I've always wanted to see a more faithful version of Pal Joey.

joe baltake said...

Bennett-

You and me both. In his youth, Travolta might have been able to pull it off, given that it was originally (and largely) a dancing role. Maybe Channing Tatum should tackle it!

Anita said...

PAL JOEY as originally conceived (and there is a source, the acerbic John O'Hara novel, which would be dynamite even without the terrific Rogers and Hart songs) could still make a great movie.