The musical has existed for almost as long as cinema itself, the ultimate form of escapism that allowed people to dip into worlds where every emotion had a melody and every word had a rhythm. When in the mid-60s cinema started to take itself seriously, the musical, with its elegant whimsy and simplistic narratives, found itself cast aside for the hyper-real worlds of Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather. But with a recent glut that has climaxed with the brilliant Sweeney Todd, the musical might find itself back in vogue.
The silent movie was dominant in Hollywood up until the late 1920s, with the wordless images of these movies proving to be universally appealing. The early talkies, the first of which date back to 1907, were plagued by sound problems and weak amplification but in the mid-1920s Warner Brothers began experimenting with a system of sound amplification called Vitaphone, a method of coordinating pictures to sound, that allowed a large cinema to be filled with sound. But rather than make talkies, Warner believed that audiences wanted to hear actors sing than speak.
Early films that featured sound would use an underscore rather than dialogue, with opera and Vaudeville stars taking the lead in these pictures. One of these early pictures, Don Juan (1926), was a huge success, but the studios still believed that silent film would dominate. It wasn’t until The Jazz Singer (Warner Bros, 1927), which was the first full length picture to use recorded song and dialogue, that they where unable to ignore the impact of sound in movies.
In 1929 MGM released the movie considered to be the first musical, The Broadway Melody, a film that went onto to win the Oscar for best picture and lead to a huge rush by the studios to hire talent from the stage in an effort to cash in on Broadway’s Melody’s success. With the advent of colour and waves of sound taking over cinemas, the musical took over in Hollywood and made stars of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rodgers and director Busby Berkeley, whose kaleidoscope choreography is still a huge influence on music video directors today (and was ripped off wholesale in the Austin Powers films).
The musical continued to dominate cinema throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s, with everyone from James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy, 1942) and the Marx Brothers jumping on board. A lot of the films from this period are still enduring classics. The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Mary Poppins (1962) will forever exist within childhood memories and Singing In The Rain (1952), The Sound of Music (1965) and Oklahoma! (1955) are continually being dragged out on rainy days.
However, a new generation of filmmaker took over Hollywood that left behind the fantasy of the musical for short, sharp dashes of reality. Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), along with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), tied themselves into the values of a young, 60s audience. Of course there was a sense of fantasy to these films, but this was a fantasy that didn’t need to break out into song and dance in order to convey an emotion. Directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola created a new vocabulary for cinema, leaving the musical to dash back to the theatres.
Of course there have been a few successful musicals since, most notably Grease (1979), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1976), Moulin Rouge (2001) and Fame (1980). But with every one of these comes the hope of a revival, and then the realisation that in these days of giant robots and hopeless pirates the musical just can’t find its feet.
But maybe this time it’ll be different. 2007 saw the release of Julie Taymer’s Across the Universe – a musical based on the songs of the Beatles – which saw reasonable success, and almost-musical Once has been one of those breakout hits that we sometimes hear about.
But it’s the buzz around Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (released in America in 2007, just…) that is giving new hope to the musical. An 18-rated, horror musical really shouldn’t work but some how it has found an audience, with two Golden Globes already won and the Oscar wheel turning.
The musical, after many years in the wilderness, could be on its way back…