Defining ‘the film musical’

Ever since the birth of ‘the talkies’ at the premiere of ‘The Jazz Singer’ in 1927, the genre of film referred to as ‘the musical’ has been strongly represented in the type of material brought to the screen.

But what IS a musical?

Films developed from Broadway and West End hits are easy to classify (‘Guys and Dolls’, ‘How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying’, ‘Hello, Dolly’, ‘Sweeney Todd’).  Alongside these there may also have been concert versions of the same material (‘South Pacific’, ‘Camelot’, ‘Follies’, ‘Les Miserables’), or versions made expressly for television or video (‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’, ‘Wonderful Town’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘Cats’, ‘Into The Woods’).

Alongside these are the concert films featuring rock bands (‘The Last Waltz’, ‘Woodstock’, ‘Festival!’, ‘Message to Love’, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’), and musical versions of popular plays or films (‘Silk Stockings’ – Ninotchka, ‘High Society’ – The Philadelphia Story, ‘My Fair Lady’ – Pygmalion, ‘Legally Blonde’, ‘My Sister Eileen’).

There’s a third group which are more problematic, films which have songs included in them, but which are not generally thought of as musicals – but they could be (the 1940 ‘Thief of Bagdad’, ‘The Wicker Man’, even ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ or ‘Pillow Talk’).

Then we have the operettas (‘The Mikado’, ‘Rose Marie’, ‘The Student Prince’) and the full-blown operas (‘Tosca’, ‘La Boheme’, ‘Das Rhinegold’).  These are musicals, too, if having characters breaking into song counts – and if the argument against an opera being a musical is ‘no dialogue’ then where does that leave ‘Les Miserables’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, or ‘Phantom of the Opera’)?

Some musicals have simply been written for the screen, although in some cases, they have made it onto the stage later – ‘State Fair’, ’42nd Street’ – some have been comedies with music attached (‘The Cuckoos’, ‘Buck Privates’, ‘Way Out West’).  And if Rochester and Blanche share a duet in one of the many versions of ‘Jane Eyre’, is that a musical too?  What about Westerns with a bit of music, like ‘Rachel and the Stranger’?  (Singing Westerns of course are a genre all on their own, with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and even John Wayne and Vaughn Monroe contributing to titles often dismissed as ‘horse operas’).

For me all the above fit the definition.  You could also stretch the definition to fit the dance or ballet film, although music without words becomes something else.  But some ballet versions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ brought to film give Tiny Tim his song.

If it sings, is it then, that thing – the musical?

NaBloPoMo November 2013

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

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