Sunday, February 17, 2013

Tracing the Decline of Movie Musicals

I haven’t seen Les Miserables, the musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel that is up for eight Academy Awards. If someone asked why, I would probably say I don’t like musicals, but on closer reflection I realize that isn’t entirely true.

Some of the earliest movies I saw and enjoyed were musicals, but Jailhouse Rock, Viva Las Vegas and the like are rarely considered “musicals” by those who consider such things. They starred Elvis Presley, after all, whose rise in the mid-1950s was seen as a threat to the style of music associated with Broadway. Certainly, most of the songs in an Elvis flick had little to do with the plot. They were an excuse to let Elvis sing. Since he made no personal appearances between 1960 and 1969, the musical breaks in his movies were the closest thing to a concert his fans were going to get.

The first musical that I saw that did not star the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll was one that he was offered but turned down (or had turned down for him by his manager). I was still a kid when I caught up with 1961’s West Side Story during its 1968 re-issue. I wouldn’t have admitted it to any of my so-called “peers,” but I thoroughly enjoyed this musical update of Romeo and Juliet. A street gang doing ballet leaps may be kind of silly, but so was a lot of what I saw in movies at the time (James Bond facing danger with a quip, and rotting corpses prowling about in Night of the Living Dead). It was a movie, after all. You either got into the spirit of the thing or you didn’t. At the conclusion, when Maria clasped hands with her dying lover, Tony, and sang “There’s a place for us,” I felt a lump in my throat, and the lump would have been even bigger if the lovely Natalie Wood had been shot to death instead of wimpy (and miscast) Richard Beymer. The film’s screenplay was credited to Ernest Lehman who adapted it from Arthur Laurents’ book for the Broadway show, but the story came from Shakespeare. With the right talent in place to bring the story to life, West Side Story would fail only if the music was not up to par.

The music!

If there is another Broadway score equal to the one composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, I have yet to hear it. Each song does what a song in a musical is supposed to do: advance the story. But the songs in West Side Story are strong enough that they don’t need the play. Each can stand on its own and has in dozens of cover versions, including a few that became hits for Johnny Mathis (“Maria”), Ferrante and Teicher (“Tonight”), and Barbra Streisand (“Somewhere”).

Sondheim’s lyrics for “Maria” are some of the most poetic ever set to music (“Maria, say it loud and there’s music playing, say it soft and it’s almost like praying”) and Bernstein’s melody aches with the yearning of a man in love.

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying is another musical that ranks among my favorite films. I saw it in summer 1967 when it played second fiddle to The Way West at a local drive-in. It was the latter film’s trio of macho stars (Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark) that I went to see, but How to Succeed . . . is the one I looked forward to seeing again. The satire about a window washer’s rise to the top of the Worldwide Wicket Company with the help of a guide book is actually a pretty accurate portrayal of corporate America as a world in which the con man is king, and ability takes a back seat to back stabbing. Again, the songs by Frank Loesser (“I Believe in You,” “The Brotherhood of Man”) are first rate.

I have never gotten around to watching The Sound of Music, but I’m familiar with the music because, once again, it’s memorable. The best song, “My Favorite Things,” has become a Christmas classic. I remember watching My Fair Lady during its 1973 TV premiere. The performances of Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn had more to do with my enjoyment than the songs of Lerner and Loewe, but even if “The Rain in Spain” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” are not to my taste I can recognize their quality. Lerner and Loewe were also responsible for Paint Your Wagon. A box-office dud, the 1969 film version is nonetheless entertaining in its lumbering fashion. Since it’s a western with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, it’s the rare musical that may even attract beer guzzling action fans. Again, the songs are good, particularly “They Call the Wind Maria,” sung by Harve Presnell. Then there are those animated Disney musicals – Aladdin and The Lion King – great stories, great songs, and great movies. These are all musicals, but they have something else in common: they are all good MOVIES.

Like a great novel, a great stage musical can have a bumpy ride on its way to the screen, and very few have been adapted for the movies since Bob Fosse’s brilliant Cabaret almost deprived The Godfather of the best picture Oscar in 1972. One reason may be that some of the most successful musicals in recent years have imitated Hollywood’s current blockbuster mentality, emphasizing spectacle over story and song. Since they look like movies to begin with, the actual film version becomes a non-event, hence the muted reaction that greeted film versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita and The Phantom of the Opera.

Webber may be the man to blame for this trend. His first success, Jesus Christ, Superstar, began life as a record album with a handful of good songs before its expansion into a Broadway show and a truly awful movie directed by Norman Jewison. In Webber’s hands, the greatest story ever told became something akin to Easy Rider with donkeys instead of motorcycles. Jewison got no help from the actors, especially Ted Neely whose portrayal of Jesus would have made the apostle Peter deny his master four times instead of three.

Webber followed Jesus Christ, Superstar with even greater successes - Evita, Cats, and The Phantom of the Opera - all bloated extravaganzas propped up by one or two decent songs. Good as they are, those songs - “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” (Evita), “Memory” (Cats), and “The Music of the Night” (Phantom) – have been elevated to greatness only because they stand out amid the dross. Meanwhile, the work of a master like Stephen Sondheim has had little appeal for film makers of late. Unless it’s Sweeney Todd, whose grisly subject matter makes it a natural for director Tim Burton, Sondheim's work is not ready made for the movies and, therefore, not worth the trouble for producers looking only at the box-office.

I still haven’t seen Les Miserables, but critical reaction suggests it’s a love it or hate it deal. In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers calls it “vibrant and thrilling.” On the other hand, Roger Ebert is passionate in his dislike of the film, stating that an Oscar victory “would be an insult to the other finalists.” Its success would seem to bode well for the future of film musicals, but Broadway’s continued preoccupation with the likes of Spider-Man does not.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Article first published as Tracing the Decline of Movie Musicals on Blogcritics.

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