In the Great Depression, movies were an escape from life, and musicals gave audiences hope that things would get better. The recent release of La La Land – a contemporary twist on a classic formula – has reignited interest in the musical genre. At the Golden Globes this week, the film won Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy), Best Director (Damien Chazelle), Best Original Score, Best Screenplay, Best Original Song (City of Stars), Best Actor (Ryan Gosling) and Best Actress (Emma Stone).
I enjoyed the escapism of La La Land, and appreciated the bravery of both director and cast as they stepped into a challenging field. But there are other musicals that qualify as greats.
As a musical tragic, here is my list of the ten most memorable musicals. It’s not conclusive. It excludes silent films like The Jazz Singer (1927); the first official Hollywood musical The Broadway Melody (1929); ground-breaking films like Grease (1978) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971); cult musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! (2008). Credit should also be given to shows that reference classic music theatre, for example, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a made-for-television musical comedy-drama series.
However, the following musicals continue to influence today’s world of music theatre. Each has a unique quality that lends to its iconic status.
42nd Street (1933)
The plot of 42nd Street, based on the creation of a musical show during the Depression, launched the career of Ruby Keeler, a name synonymous with early musicals. The film showcases the visual imagery of choreographer Busby Berkeley, whose method is still unrivalled today. Berkeley was famous for his filming from above. It meant that his choreography was not only visually stunning for a seated audience, but when viewed from above, each step helped illustrate an image. For instance, a series of dancing girls might spin in a circle in flowing gowns. A dancer in the centre would spin in the other direction and the viewer would see a beautiful, spinning flower.
Top Hat (1935)
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the leading dancing duo of the 1930s, starring in 10 films. Their pairing happened by accident, when they were brought together for the first time on the set of Flying Down To Rio (1933), as support characters. The production team was stunned by the chemistry between the pair – as the saying goes, Ginger could do everything that Fred did, but backwards and in heels. This was the first film written specifically for them as leading characters, and as The Oxford History of World Cinema puts it, in a Fred & Ginger musical, “boy meets girl; boy dances with girl; boy gets girl”. In the film’s classic song and dance scene, Cheek to Cheek, Rogers wore a dress swathed in feathers, which kept floating off during filming. If you look very closely, you can see one errant feather that fell on the set and was missed in the post-production editing.
An American in Paris (1951)
This Oscar-winning film brought together dancers Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly. The tale of an American painter living in Paris who falls in love is fairly straightforward. But the dance sequences are sumptuous. One of them, An American in Paris ballet, is a 17-minute extravaganza choreographed by Kelly. It features costumes inspired by a smattering of French painters (including Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec) and a beautiful George Gershwin score.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
With the recent passing of Debbie Reynolds, this film has a new poignancy. Reynolds was just 20 when she made it, starring alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. One of the most successful musicals ever filmed, it is filled with memorable songs, lavish dance routines and of course, that scene-stealing title song. This film is a light-hearted look at Hollywood, at the time when silent films gave way to “talkies”. Amongst surveys of the greatest American films, Singin’ in the Rain inevitably ranks in the top ten. Several stage revivals have appeared in recent years. And everyone I know is able to sing (or hum) along to Good Morning.
This first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, based on Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow the Lilacs (1931), explores the love story between a cowboy (Gordon MacRae) and a farm girl (Shirley Jones). It develops the idea of the “book musical” – a musical play where the songs and dances are an integral part of the narrative, emerging from the story to evoke profound emotional responses.
There is a darker side to this story, with the secondary character Jud, a farmhand, in love with the leading lady. Some classic numbers from this production include “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and the title song.
My Fair Lady (1964)
This Lerner & Loewe adaptation of Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion is a tale of transformation. A cockney flower girl wants to “better” herself, so she can work in a flower shop. An arrogant phonetics professor wagers that he can teach her to speak “proper” English, and training ensues. Audrey Hepburn charmed as the wayward Eliza – although her singing was dubbed by another. Her partner in musical crime was Rex Harrison, who, strangely enough, doesn’t sing, but is completely convincing as Higgins. Eliza’s father was entertainer Stanley Holloway, who delighted audiences with the classic “I’m Getting Married in The Morning”, sung in a pub, his favourite place on earth. The film ends with hope, unlike the play that inspired it, and won eight Academy Awards.
The Sound of Music (1965)
Adapted from the Broadway musical of 1959, this Oscar-winning film introduced audiences to Julie Andrews. As Maria (Andrews) and the Von Trapp children sang and danced their way across the Austrian Alps, songs such as Do-Re-Mi and My Favourite Things became classics. Though not a dance musical, per se, it is still one of the most commercially successful films of all time, and has continued to enjoy revivals throughout the world.
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
This rock opera began as a concept album, before launching on Broadway in 1971. There is no spoken dialogue, hence the term “opera”. It is a loose depiction of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, with added struggles between the key protagonists. This musical was the launching pad for singers, such as the late Jon English, Marcia Hines, and more recently, in the West End, Tim Minchin. Again known for its singing rather than the dancing, the title song, and Mary Magdalene’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, were softer moments in an intense score. The film of the show was released in 1973 and is a leading work in the rock opera genre.
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
Lloyd-Webber’s composition is based on Leroux’s novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. The plot focuses on a soprano ingénue who becomes the obsession of a mysterious, disfigured musical genius. This musical is surprisingly popular, because its main hero is an anti-hero. He is unbalanced, unattractive and his only saving grace is a God-given talent for composing. Which, I must say, holds him in very good stead. If the Phantom is well cast, one sympathizes with this sad creature. The opening sequence with the chandelier suspended above the stage reduces my sister to tears each time, and is truly a spectacle to behold. And who can resist an overacting opera singer with a dodgy Italian accent and musical spectacles such as the amazing choreography of “Masquerade”, or the simplicity of Christine’s singing to her father’s grave, in “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”? The 2004 film featured Gerard Butler in his first singing role, which, as an accomplished actor, he performed very creditably, alongside Emmy Rossum as Christine. The standout however, as the obnoxious opera singer, was Minnie Driver, who put in a sterling performance, evoking much laughter.
Les Misérables (2012)
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, this Tony Award winner is another sung-through musical, having run continuously in the West End since 1985. This story of love, freedom and morality, set within the tragedy of the French revolution, evokes great emotion and composers Schönberg and Boublil manage to sustain the intensity throughout. The 2012 film was a vision of cinematic brilliance, with Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe as Valjean and Javert respectively. Jackman has sung with great artistry in other productions, but I felt that in making himself physically portray the struggles and weakness of Valjean, his vocal performance suffered. However, Crowe’s portrayal of Javert showed his moral compass swaying, and he sang with technical proficiency and artistic expression. There are so many pieces of note within this score, but “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, as the revolutionaries face their death, is perhaps for me, the most touching moment. This is a classic piece of music theatre history. It will bring you emotionally to your knees.
If I had to choose one of these as my favourite, I’d be hard pressed. However, Oklahoma stands out as a performance full of love and laughter, where something good can come out of something bad. I like hope in my musicals – as Rosie O’Donnell said to Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle: “You don’t want to be in love – you want to be in love in a movie”. Well, I want to be in love in a musical.