Celebrating the musical on screen

I have been working on a mega-list at Letterboxd for a couple of years now, because I really love any and all forms of the film musical.

When the BFI Southbank ran their Musicals season last year, I published a list of performers on film you may want to check out. Aside from the huge names of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, there are so many performers across the globe I love to watch.

Stage or screen

For me, the stage musical and the screen musical are two halves of the same coin. Where I have seen a show in both formats, I find it fascinating to reflect on how it has been adapted to its surroundings.

South Pacific is a case in point. My first experience of this was the Joshua Logan film, which had a dubber for Emile and evocative colour filters as the songs were staged. Although I watched it many times on TV and video, it was only ten years ago that I saw it on the big screen, where it wowed me all over again.

There are four more versions on screen: a TV film with Glenn Close as a mature Nellie, a concert version with Reba McEntire, a wonderful capture of the Broadway original with Mary Martin, and a version made by Lincoln Center. The latter was the second stage South Pacific I saw, with Samantha Womack at the Barbican Centre. Prior to that, two decades ago, was the National Theatre’s version with Lauren Kennedy and Philip Quast.

All these were markedly different, yet just as valid. The same is true of stage and screen versions of My Fair Lady, Jesus Christ Superstar, Carousel, Hair and West Side Story.  You can’t have one without the other!

What is a screen musical?

For my list I cast quite a wide net. I have added traditional musicals adapted from the stage or originally created from the screen. I count singing cowboys, musical comedies, music documentaries, pastiches and parodies, horror musicals, animations, biopics, teen exploitation musicals.

I have even included films where a song has a major part to play, whether as an interlude (club singers, for example) or as a plot device (Casablanca). Dance films are in, as are rap/hip-hop and long-form musical videos (Thriller). Classic shows reimagined for television are in (Brigadoon, Carousel, Anything Goes, Company).

I consulted a wide variety of books and resources to make my choice. Starting with the Radio Times Film Guide, moving through The Hollywood Musical, The Oxford Companion to the Movie Musical, and into specialist books such as Rock ‘n’ Roll Film Encyclopedia, Psychedelic Celluloid, and DVD labels like Network, Warner Archive and Renown (particularly for British musicals).

Movie musicals

Lockdown streaming

Musicals, both recorded streams and live originals, have been central to the theatre provision during this four-month period of live performance lockdown.

From Chichester Festival’s Flowers For Mrs Harris, Bristol Old Vic’s The Grinning Man, and Southwark Playhouse’s Wasted through to short shows created on Zoom and works in progress (Cautionary Tale), there has been mucb to choose from. Concert versions, compilations, and showcases of new writing brushed against operas and operettas, old favourites, and West End jukeboxes (All or Nothing).

One big discovery for me has been the new musical shows under the banner of Signal Online, produced by Adam Lenson. These have been presented live throughout, and been essential viewing. Over in the USA, Bombshell made a comeback. Dave Malloy – who I discovered in two productions of his musicals last year – made Ghost Quartet and Beardo available.

From the Facebook Live premiere of an archive recording of Eugenius at the beginning of lockdown through to the upcoming concert of Godspell, a real treasure trove of work has been shared. On the fringe, short pieces have made an impact through a variety of routes.

Lockdown musical logos

What’s next?

I will be looking more deeply at some individual musicals I have watched during lockdown over the next month.

You can view my I Love Musicals! list over on Letterboxd.

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