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Genre Criticism: The Musical

As Exemplified by On the Town (1949),
Cabaret (1972), and Moulin Rouge (2001)


The musical is, like the western, one of the most “classic” genres. By this I mean that in the classical period of Hollywood filmmaking, musicals and westerns were produced by most every studio on a frequent basis, but both subsequently fell out of favor in the seventies and eighties and are basically dead as genres today. Unlike the western, however, the musical is trying to make a comeback with such films as Love’s Labour’s Lost, Moulin Rouge, and the upcoming Chicago.

Musicals are identified, obviously, by the fact that they contain music—specifically, the narrative flow is carried forward or augmented by singing and/or dancing. But there are some movies that contain singing and dancing that are not considered musicals—Destry Rides Again, for example, is clearly a western, but includes a couple of barroom numbers performed by Marlene Dietrich (who sings in several of her dramatic films). The Harvey Girls and Annie Get Your Gun, on the other hand, have western settings, but are clearly musicals rather than westerns. What makes the difference? For a musical to be a musical, the music has to be an integral part of the story, used either to advance the story along or tell us something about the characters. On the Town is a musical, though only one of its main characters is an entertainer—a Coney Island showgirl who wants to be a classical ballerina. But we learn most of the important things about the characters through song or dance. We learn that Ann Miller is man-crazy. We learn that both Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen are small-town kids trying to act like big-city sophisticates. We learn that Betty Garrett is even more man-crazy than Ann Miller (imagine that!). Relationships are built through song (“On the Town”), stabilized by song (“You Can Count on Me”), and reestablished in song (the finale). Plus the whole story is reviewed in Kelly’s “A Day in New York” ballet, which forms a kind of trilogy with the “American in Paris” ballet from An American in Paris, and the “Broadway Melody” ballet from Singin’ in the Rain.

On the Town concerns itself with three sailors with twenty-four hour leaves in New York City, during which time they plan to see all the sights and get themselves girls. The time constraint is drawn attention to by flashing numbers in the corner every once in a while reminding us that time is running out. Time runs out in all movies, for to us, the hero only has roughly two hours to solve whatever problem the plot has given him. In classical musicals, the problem is always how to find and get the girl. In On the Town the two hit it off instantly, though they each refuse to admit they are from the same tiny mid-western town, even had the same grade school teacher, and spend all their time trying to impress each other with their worldly attitudes. The meeting of small-town America and big-city New York is appropriate for a representative musical: for the musical, unlike the western (tied to the wild frontier) or the crime film (constrained to the city), may be set anywhere. Its conventions are not of setting. I’ve given examples of musical westerns. Chicago is a musical about crime. Rather, the musical is a genre of storyline and content (i.e., music). One of the hosts of the MGM musical retrospective film That’s Entertainment! commented that the story of every musical was “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy sings a song and gets girl.” And while that’s very banal and trite, it’s usually true. In On the Town, Kelly decides what girl he wants after seeing her on a poster, searches for her until he finds her, and wins her over. Then she runs out on him to go to her job on Coney Island, and he loses her. When he finds her again, he and his friends have to do a musical number dressed up as showgirls before he can have her back. Every musical must have a happy ending.

Though not all classical musicals are like On the Town, it is fairly typical of the big-budget MGM offerings of the 1940s and 1950s. It is a far cry from the very early Warner Bros./Busby Berkeley/Ruby Keeler 1930s show business musicals, which very often tacked a bunch of musical numbers on the end of a routine theater story. By the 1940s the musical had come of age. Gene Kelly was on his way to his greatest triumph ever, Singin’ in the Rain, and everyone else in the cast is from MGM’s top drawer of musical and comedic talent. Studios in those days tended to do what worked, and On the Town is the third in a trilogy of Kelly/Sinatra offerings (after Anchors Aweigh, in which they also played sailors, and Take Me Out the Ballgame, which also starred Betty Garrett and Jules Munshin). Vera-Ellen and Kelly had done the wonderful “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” number the previous year in the Rodgers/Hart biography Words and Music. Ann Miller had played the provocative tapper many times before, including Fred Astaire’s erstwhile partner in Easter Parade. There would be no surprises with this cast, and the combination of the cast with great music from Leonard Bernstein and the veteran lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, it’s no wonder that On the Town is a cut above the rest, while still being very characteristic of Hollywood musicals.

Neither Gene Kelly nor Stanley Donen (who co-directed) had ever directed a movie before, and they would direct together twice more--the wonderful Singin’ in the Rain, and the not so wonderful It’s Always Fair Weather. (Side-note on the latter—how can you have Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in the same movie, opposite each other, and not have them dance together?) Kelly would direct some films on his own, including Invitation to the Dance, made up entirely of dance (something most of his earlier films, including On the Town, had been leading up to), Hello Dolly, the western Cheyenne Social Club and the comedy Tunnel of Love. Even in the latter two, which are not musicals, Kelly cast musical stars—Shirley Jones and Doris Day. He just couldn’t get away from his musical roots. Donen went on to direct other pictures in many different genres: musical (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and several others), comedies (Indiscreet, Bedazzled), suspense (Charade, which is often mistaken for a Hitchcock film) and fantasy (The Little Prince). Previously, Donen had been a choreographer on many of Kelly’s films—the pair evidently worked well together, and while they made (together and individually) some very good films, I don’t think it’s appropriate to consider either one of them an auteur. Kelly’s ballet sequences are certainly a personal touch, but they appear even in films he did not direct, notably Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, but also George Sidney’s Anchors Aweigh. His influence appears to be more as dancer/choreographer than as director. Donen’s films do not seem particularly “his” either, as evidenced by the comment above concerning Charade—more than “A Stanley Donen Film,” it is a clever imitation of Hitchcock swirled up with a little bit of 1960s panache. Bedazzled plays almost completely off the interplay of the two comedians rather than anything the director adds. I had to go check my records that gave him credit for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers because it didn’t seem like a Donen film

Even though it’s difficult to believe that Hollywood turned out dozens of musicals with the same plot, the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy sings a song and gets girl” formula remained relatively intact until the 1960s. Starting with West Side Story (1961), however, the formula began to change. The hero could die. A musical could end unhappily. The original movie musical pretty much died in the ’60s as well, never to return. Virtually every musical since 1960 has been based on a pre-existing stage musical. Many earlier movie musicals had also been based on stage plays, but they were balanced by an at least equal number of original stories and scores. It is hard to choose a representative musical from the 1960s and ‘70s, because the genre was pulled in several different directions. The ‘60s mostly kept going where the ‘50s left off—more Broadway imports, wider screens, bigger production numbers, longer running times. The ‘70s essentially saw the end of the musical as an entity of its own. During that decade it was more influenced by the film scene around it than by its own previous history.

Cabaret is perhaps the most interesting 1970s musical, because it reflects the changes not only in the musical, but in the industry at large. It is a very dark and depressing movie. The boy gets the girl for a while, and he also gets the other boy for a while. Not very many movies, musical or otherwise, had dealt with bisexuality at this time, or with abortion, which also figures prominently. Setting Cabaret in Berlin in the 1930s insures that the film will be overlaid with a pervasive gloom, assuming that the filmmaker is at all true to history. The filmmaker is Bob Fosse, best known for his stage productions rather than his films. All of Cabaret’s songs are performed on the cabaret stage by Liza Minnelli and others, except for the haunting and terrifying “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” begun by a young Nazi idealist and finished by everyone within hearing distance of him. Music is a powerful unifying force, as shown by this song, which mimics the power Hitler and his followers commanded over the German people, particularly the youth. And in the cabaret itself, the music performed unites the underworld of Berlin and unites us with the performers. We feel as if we understand Minnelli when she sings “Maybe This Time,” though we may not agree with her when she is not singing. Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” recently wrote and directed a musical episode of “Buffy,” claiming that only through song would his characters be able to express the emotions that they were hiding from each other. Music is an emotional catalyst. We get the sense that characters in movies will bare their soul through music, though they wouldn’t dream of saying anything so personal with words. So it is in Cabaret. Whether we agree with Sally over her abortion or not, we must empathize with her, because she has told us through her music how desperate a person she is. She does not come across that way through her dialogue and acting—she seems self-assured, self-reliant. The songs she sings at the cabaret say something different.

This move toward the personal fits in with the overall trend of ‘70s filmmaking. For the first time, independent filmmakers and former studio directors were realizing the freedom they had after the studio system fell. They were free to explore mature themes and make depressing films if they wanted to do so. I must admit that I do not know what this meant to Bob Fosse in particular, because I haven’t seen any of the other films he directed, or (obviously!) any of his stage shows. As a choreographer, I find it interesting that Cabaret has no real dance numbers in it. There may be some cabaret, chorus-line type dancing, but there is no virtuoso dancing in the film at all—all of the music is based on singing. But again, as far as auteurism goes, I really have no idea about Fosse.

Cabaret went against everything I had come to expect from the musical genre. I had been raised on the 1940s and ‘50s fare, and was admittedly not ready for the radical ‘70s. I admired, but didn’t like, Cabaret when I first saw it. Now that I’ve seen other ‘70s films, I believe that it is more influenced by the non-musical films of its time than by the standards and conventions of the musical genre. Other notable musicals in the 1970s include the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and the ‘50s nostalgia piece Grease—and you could hardly pick two musicals more different from each other, and from Cabaret. The ‘70s filmmaking scene was truly diverse.

Not very many musicals have been made in the last 20 years, except for concert films and music videos, which lack the straightforward romantic storyline that the musical genre has traditionally embraced. The few exceptions (Woody Allen’s Everybody Says I Love You, Evita) have been coolly received. Most people today, when asked why they don’t like musicals, complain that musicals are not realistic—real people don’t break into song in the middle of the street, and everybody couldn’t know the words to songs that the characters make up on the spot. Baz Luhrmann figured out a splendid way to get around that objection in his ground-breaking and possibly musical-reviving Moulin Rouge (2001). He used songs that everyone knows—pop songs—and added them to a plot as heady and romantic as any seen in a long time. Like many musicals of the Golden Age, Moulin Rouge is set in the show-business world, and several of the numbers arise naturally out of that situation. The other songs are audio montages, if you will, of well-known older songs. My best friend’s husband (who admits that he hates musicals), liked Moulin Rouge because he “knew all the songs.” And if the audience knows all the songs, it’s easy to see why the characters all seem to know the songs—they’ve heard them before too! It only makes it better that Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman do their own singing—they’re good enough singers not to be annoying, but not good enough that they couldn’t be real people. Moulin Rouge returns to the roots of the musical genre, but includes elements that classical Hollywood could never have used: the heroine is a glorified prostitute; the conflict is that she must sleep with another man. And it breaks the happy ending rule by having Kidman die of consumption—a very classic Hollywood disease, by the way. Everybody in 1930s movies died of consumption, I’ll swear.

Moulin Rouge is the third in Baz Luhrmann’s “Red Curtain” trilogy, which began with Strictly Ballroom (1992) and continued with William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), and all three of them most definitely contain his personal touches. Strictly Ballroom is perhaps the most conventional of the three, a simple story of Australian ballroom dancers, but even here the colors are bright and vibrant and the editing is strong and fast. He manages to make ballroom dancing look like a death-sport, rather than an outdated, formal, and rigid dance style. Romeo + Juliet took an old story (and archaic dialogue) and transferred it into an unknown time of guns called “swords” and punk-styled Montague and Capulet servants. His anachronistic attempt to reconcile pop culture with Shakespeare was not entirely successful, but it was certainly bold and daring, containing the same rapid editing and vitality that appears in the other two films. Moulin Rouge is the crowning glory of Luhrmann’s work so far. If anything, its editing is even more frantic—during the can-can numbers, everything is moving so quickly and changing so often that is nearly impossible for the brain to keep track of it all. Anachronism again plays a big role, for the heyday of the Moulin Rouge was in the 1890s, and none of the songs in the movie were written before 1950. And yet, in no way does it matter. The most impressive scene to my mind is the “Roxanne” number. Both visually and aurally, Luhrmann makes the viewer feel the internal tension of Christian and Satine. Visually, Christian’s scenes are red, connoting anger and sexual heat. The scenes in the tower with Satine and her unwanted lover are blue—cold and distant. The sudden juxtaposition of the two refuses to allow our own minds and bodies to adjust to either one, creating tension. Musically, the two parts being sung, one by the Argentinian and one by Christian, are opposed to one another. I’m no musical theorist, but considering how worked up I get just listening to the soundtrack, trust me that it creates tension. The one complaint I have with Moulin Rouge is that the predominance of image and sound overwhelm the characters, who only really stand out as individuals in a few scenes—Satine’s solo (“One Day I’ll Fly Away”), the medley the two sing on top of her roof, and the few quiet times we have with them. When Satine dies, I feel let down rather than sad…I should feel Christian’s pain, but instead I just wish I had known her better so I could care more.

My expectations of Moulin Rouge were built not on my knowledge of the musical genre (I was cured of that by Cabaret, remember?), but on my knowledge of Baz Luhrmann films. Having been disappointed by Romeo + Juliet, and not having yet had the pleasure of Strictly Ballroom, I was skeptical about Moulin Rouge. It greatly exceeded my expectations, and managed to come across as both a renewal of the classic Hollywood generic traditions (in its plot structure) and as a foray into previously unmarked stylistic ground (in its visual style). By combining an old-fashioned story with modern techniques, Luhrmann tried to rejuvenate the dying musical genre, and did an impressive job. Whether it will turn into a new wave of modern musicals is yet to be seen, but a film version of the hit play Chicago comes out this fall, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera has been in the works for a while. We still haven’t broken completely from the mold of stage-inspired musical movies, but Moulin Rouge is a step in the right direction.


This paper originated as a paper for Introduction to Film Theory and Criticism, Webster University, Fall, 2002.

©2002 by Jandy Stone