The Movie Musical: On The Brink Of A Renaissance? Whitney, Woody And Madonna Films Raise The Issue.

Posted: December 26, 1996

After a decade of only cartoon genies and Parisian hunchbacks to keep the American film musical alive, it's easy to understand the optimism of those who believe the live-action musical has regained its voice.

Suddenly here's Whitney Houston belting out gospel in The Preacher's Wife. And Madonna crying Argentina in the pop-opera Evita. And Goldie Hawn crooning ``I'm Thru With Love'' in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You.

Whether we are truly on the brink of a musical renaissance sparks discord among observers, whose vehement yeses and absolutely nots nearly drown each other out. What all can agree on, though, is that the flesh-and-blood film musical gives audiences that certain something other films do not.

``Sometimes words fail,'' says James L. Brooks, producer of Jerry Maguire and maker of 1994's I'll Do Anything, a musical that tested so badly with audiences the numbers were deleted prior to release. ``Music takes us places that dialogue cannot.''

``I suppose the climate is right for musicals now,'' reflects Stanley Donen, director of Singin' in the Rain and Funny Face. So right, in fact, that Donen is now at work on a film musical with songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

``I don't buy the fact that there's a resurgence,'' counters Larry Kardish, curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art. The movie musical is not rediscovering its voice, he maintains, just clearing it.

``Evita is an aberration,'' Kardish says. ``I don't see it coming out of any tradition or establishing one. It got made into a film because producers could attach Madonna to it.''

Both Evita and The Preacher's Wife, it can be argued, feature hugely popular recording stars who can't act but can sing. On the flip side, notes Jesse Green, who has written about the history of popular music, ``we have the Woody Allen musical with actors [among them Julia Roberts and Allen himself] who can't sing.''

``These new musicals coming out now are an aberrant phenomenon,'' Green says. The Preacher's Wife - which stars Houston as the director of a gospel choir - ``is a shoehorned musical [with] songs [that] emerge in a realistic context,'' he says. In that regard, it's not unlike the recent films That Thing You Do! and Grace of My Heart, which also are about making music.

Evita - which opens in Philadelphia on New Year's Day - is less a traditional musical than an opera, says Green: It's ``all singing. The transition from dialogue to music is nonexistent.''

Besides, he adds, ``it doesn't have songs'' - meaning that Andrew Lloyd Webber's pop arias seem to be composed more for armored tanks than for orchestra. It doesn't have ``the kind of material Gene Kelly could croon and dance to.''

Allen's Everyone Says I Love You - due out nationwide on Jan. 17 - uses standards from the '30s in a contemporary setting. But, says Green, it's ``a joke about musicals rather than a real movie musical.''

So what constitutes a real one?

``The movie musical is an incomplete comedy or drama that requires transition to song to get completed,'' Green says succinctly. The great skill of movie musicals, he thinks, ``is that they made the transitions to song seem inevitable despite how preposterous they were.''

MUTATION Though there is no consensus on whether the movie musical is back, there is agreement that it has been in eclipse. And that sometime between 1945 and 1965, the infrastructure of Hollywood and the business of music mutated, creating conditions that were no longer hospitable for the creation of musicals.

Escalating movie costs, collapse of the studio system, and a generation gap in music tastes are the usual suspects when it comes to playing the game of where-have-all-the-musicals-gone.

``What caused the eclipse of musicals is a vast complex of events,'' says Donen with a sigh.

``Everything came at once: the studios forced to divest themselves of movie theaters and losing that revenue, the advent of TV . . . the spiraling cost of making musicals'' and, following World War II, the need for dialogue that would appeal to an increasingly important foreign market.

It proved cheaper and more profitable to make a quickie ``shoehorned'' musical such as the 1957 Elvis vehicle Jailhouse Rock than to choreograph, score and film a spectacle such as Donen's Funny Face, which came out the same year. After the '50s, studios no longer had divisions that employed songwriters and choreographers to create musicals for the screen. Instead, the studios merged with record companies motivated to find film vehicles for their established stars.

While Donen thinks the decline of the studio system led to the decline of the film musical, Green blames the ``balkanization'' of musical tastes.

``Thirty years ago there were basically two categories: classical and pop. Everybody from 10 to 80 listened to Cole Porter and Duke Ellington,'' Green says. ``In the '60s and '70s, though, marketing became more specialized. There were too many musical tastes.''

And with the burgeoning musical taste for rock and roll, new movie musical stars were made.

ROCK REDEFINITION ``Young people who listened to rock and roll were interested in seeing their idols perform,'' says Andrew Sarris, Columbia University film professor and movie critic, explaining how Elvis' Viva Las Vegas and the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, both released in 1964, redefined movie musicals in the rock era.

The backstage musical that featured a pop star became a film staple, from Bette Midler in The Rose (1979) to the Artist Then Known as Prince in Purple Rain (1984). Musical biographies such as Lady Sings the Blues (1972), about Billie Holiday, and La Bamba (1987), about Richie Valens, employed the playlists of popular performers, while concert films such as Woodstock (1970) and The Last Waltz (1978) were effectively rock variety shows.

Some, such as Alan Menken, composer of the scores to The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, have suggested that during the rock era the appetite for music in a theatrical setting ``was fulfilled by the live concerts of Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Prince.'' Others, such as Brooks, believe the movie musical ``has gone to MTV.''

UPBEAT AND ANTHEMIC ``Maybe rock is just inimical to the movie musical,'' suggests jazz historian Francis Davis, author of Bebop and Nothingness. This, despite the 1978 hit Grease; despite Saturday Night Fever, a 1977 dance musical in which the characters don't sing but the sound track does; and Fame, the 1980 musical that went backstage at New York's High School for the Performing Arts.

Rock lends itself to upbeat tunes and anthem songs, but not so readily to the reflective ballads key to emotional expression in the musical. More significantly, say Green and Davis, rock's means of production is inimical to the musical.

``With the Beatles, pop music changed from a professional business where songwriters provided material for many performers [and] universality was understood, to amateurs expressing their own feelings in a way that made the songs unsingable by anybody but them,'' suggests Green.

Another critical difference between classic movie musicals and those of today is that singing was once a declaration of love and the dance number was a metaphor for sex. In the modern era, when there is no prohibition to showing sex on screen, such code is unnecessary.

The relatively recent musicals that have ``worked,'' almost everybody agrees, are the Disney animations (cited by Donen and Kardish), 1983's Yentl (a favorite of both Brooks and Davis), and 1981's Pennies From Heaven. All use standards or new songs written in, for lack of a better expression, the classical pop style.

Brooks cites The Commitments (1991) and Sister Act (1992) - which, once again, are about the act of making music - as nontraditional musicals that worked. But ``I'm trying to be intelligent about something where I didn't solve the riddle,'' admits the director.

``A lot of people who want to do musicals are influenced by the classical movie musical,'' says the director. But ``maybe it will take ignorance of them to forge a new form.''

And although Kardish doesn't see a resurgence in the musical, he does note that this has been the year of Grace of My Heart and That Thing You Do!, and ``that every third American indie movie I see is about a group of kids trying to put a band together.''

The appetite for musicals exists because they give us something no other movies can. Kardish calls that something ``an intimation of the sublime.'' Davis calls it ``the acknowledgment of magic.'' Green calls it ``delight.''

Marjorie Samoff, producing director of the American Musical Theater Festival in Philadelphia, puts it most eloquently.

``At its origins, all theater is musical theater. Because music comes from rhythm and heartbeat, it unites the physical, emotional and spiritual. . . . It creates an intensity of experience that no other art form has. . . . When it's great, no art form is more powerful.''

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