Last month, in honor of TCM's upcoming online course called Mad About Musicals, we wanted to know your questions about the genre. Now, fifteen of your questions have been answered by the course instructor, Professor Vanessa Theme Ament. Check out the answers below and if your name is on the list, congrats! You'll be receiving a prize in the mail. And to learn more about musicals, make sure to register for the course today -- it's fun, totally free and starts on June 3!
April Vevea asks:
What were some of the technological and cinematographic advances that made musicals so popular in the 30s-50s?
Vanessa Theme Ament: What a great question. First, there were advances in sound technology. Once the camera could move around because musical numbers were pre-recorded, choreography could be far more inventive. This added a great deal of inventiveness and “play” into the musical numbers and allowed more freedom in the singing as well as the dancing. Additionally, technicolor was quite vivid. MGM was most generous in its use of technicolor in musicals, but in general, the advances in color allowed more fantasy and utopian ideology to be enhanced in all musicals. Stereophonic sound (Remember the song in Silk Stockings?) was quite an advance, and encased the theatre in singing and dancing so the musical numbers could move around the audience.
Francie Ryl asks:
Who is your favorite musical star?
VTA: I have to admit I am a huge Judy Garland fan. I grew up adoring her. She was, to my mind, the most gifted singer of all, and was able to interpret a lyric like no one before or since. Also, she was a master collaborator with her co-stars, and her gift for comedy was astounding. If you watch her closely, you will see she is always attentive and “filling the moment” with her thinking, emoting, and relating to her character, and the other characters in the scene. She was astounding.
Mark Heimback Nielsen asks:
What "lost" musical film do you hope will be found someday?
VTA: Wow... I have never thought about this. Is there one you are most interested in? I think I would like to see the outtakes from Judy Garland in Annie Get Your Gun, and Marilyn Monroe in Something’s Gotta Give (not really a musical, but I love Monroe).
Michael Santoro asks:
For my wedding, I would love to hear your input on what kind of dance we should master before the big day?
VTA: Really? What an honor. Waltzes are romantic. The tango is sexy. Tapping is great fun. I started out with ballet and then tap, and finally jazz. Hey, how about Flamenco? I think you and your partner should try several styles and consider which one feels really right. I am just thrilled that you want to dance at all. That is something we have all lost in this frenzied society. Let’s slow down a bit and have a little romance. Musicals teach us a little about enjoying relationships and each other more, right?
Peter Fey asks:
What decade is your favorite for movie musicals?
VTA: This question is really hard. I love the 1950s because that was the highest time for musicals. However, I also love the way musicals began to challenge us and our society in the 1960s and 1970s before they took a break. I think the 1930s showed an idealism that was beautiful and allowed us to pretend, which can be good for the soul when life gets to be too much. So, hmmm... I am going to say the 1950s. And, I think I will even say the era of Guys and Dolls. But remember, West Side Story is probably one of the greatest song scores of all time, and the drama is incredible. See how hard this question is?
Joan Tague asks:
What movie best exemplifies when music advances the plot line?
VTA: This is a film studies dream... advancing the plot through song. I am going to say Cabaret does an incredible job of doing this. Also, Across the Universe is a great repurposing of Beatles songs for the same reason.
Beth Grabowski asks:
I seem to remember learning that the story for the film Holiday Inn was written specifically as an opportunity to again present Irving Berlin's already existing songs. If this is correct, which path was more common, that a musical storyline was written and produced precisely because the rights to the supporting songs were already owned by the studio, or that a new idea for a musical was pitched and accepted, with the need to write the music factored into production time and costs?
VTA: Both methods happened frequently, depending on economics, who the producer was, and the era discussed. In the early days, only a few songs were used. Later, songs that were already in existence were “repurposed.” Once the story musical became the popular genre, new songs were written specifically for the film. Recall, too, that Broadway made the story musical popular, and this required new songs for the story. The more cohesive the story, the more important new songs become to progress the characters’ inner conflicts and storylines. Now the next step for you is to analyze musicals to discern which ones adapt old songs and which ones develop new tunes. (See what I did there?)
Carol Smyth asks:
After the immense success of Hollywood musicals from the 1930s to the 1950s, why did musicals suddenly fall out of favor in the late 1960s? Was it because there were no new Broadway musical stars to transfer to film? Or did the studio heads turn against making musicals?
VTA: We cover this in the class, but our society became rather cynical in the 1960s, and musicals had been a way to escape from our daily lives. Once the general public became sophisticated to the political nonsense and cultural changes, musicals needed to change as well. The transition did not happen. Also, the transition from studio films to independent filmmakers and the cost of musicals really was not copacetic. Transitions are never easy. It took some time for moviegoers to want musicals back to fill a need of music and singing. Broadway also took a hit in the 1970s, and Disney brought back the musical in both animated films and Broadway musicals.
Lila Johnson asks:
Who was an unlikely candidate chosen to perform in a musical that surprised everyone by succeeding?
VTA: I would have to say Richard Gere in Chicago. I doubt anyone thought he would make a good candidate for a singing and dancing lawyer but I believe he surprised everyone. What do you think? I loved his performance.
David Guercio asks:
Which musical would you consider to be the best musical of all time?
VTA: This is one question I just cannot answer. I will say that West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, A Star is Born (1954, Judy Garland), The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, Singin’ in the Rain, Cabaret, Gigi, An American in Paris, Across the Universe, Chicago, All That Jazz, Funny Girl, Kiss Me Kate, High Society, White Christmas, Man of La Mancha, My Fair Lady, Bye Bye Birdie, Gypsy, and 1776 are on my list for many different reasons. But there are so many that I think are excellent that I really do not have a favorite. You would be amazed at how many musical DVDs I own, and how many I watch repeatedly. I love the genre desperately.
Paul Riordan asks:
Which Broadway musical-to-film translations do you think have been the most successful, and do these have any characteristics or attributes in common?
VTA: I think the translations that work best are the ones that keep as many of the original songs and character relationships as possible. Cinematic changes are to be considered, but the reason musicals work has more to do with relationships and the depth of the songs than anything. That is my honest opinion. I think others would disagree.
Kathy Brayton asks:
Why are non-singing actors such as Jean Seberg, Lee Marvin, and Clint Eastwood featured in the musical Paint Your Wagon?
VTA: My only answer to this is an educated guess based on my experience in the industry. The era was one of transition, and studios were trying anything to keep the genre alive. These actors were popular and I imagine the thinking was to put them in the very deep and historically interesting musical with songs written by the smart team of Lerner and Loewe to capitalize on the star power. However, they underestimated how emasculating the genre is for stars whose image is based on alpha male personas. While the acting of these songs is arguably quite strong, the singing is not, and they look foolish, not because they cannot sing, but because trying to replicate Rex Harrison’s gift for talking a song was short-sighted. It was, in theory, a good idea. But one never really knows what an audience will accept. There are times when non-singers can be convincing. Then there are times when they are not. Omar Sharif did just fine in Funny Girl.
Sarah Steineke asks:
Our family has found that the song "Home on the Range," written in 1872, has appeared frequently in movies. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, The Mad Miss Manton and The Awful Truth are just a few of the movies that feature the song. Just how many movies have had this melody tucked in their soundtrack? Why do you think it was so very popular?
VTA: I am not sure how often this song appears in films. But I can guess as to why it is a familiar trope. It brings a sense of family, comfort, and security. As Americans, we instantly identify with the song culturally and know what it stands for in our identity.
Stephanie DePaula asks:
Gene Kelly "dubbed" his taps in a number of films -- how exactly does this work, and why was this deemed necessary? Is it very difficult technically to capture the taps live?
VTA: Now you are really in my wheelhouse. Kelly did indeed do his own tap “Foley” while other dancers had their dance sounds Foleyed in by someone else (like me, for instance). Why? In production, the microphone is concerned with recording and mixing the dialogue. Dancing and singing are performed to a pre-recorded playback and the sound is not recorded on the set. You may notice that the shoes the performers are wearing are often not real dance shoes. They are costume shoes. We Foley artists who dance go back in the Foley stage afterward and put in all of the sounds of the dances (sometimes enhancing and making more taps than are actually there) to perfect the performance. That way, the movement is capture cinematically, and the sound is made perfect in postproduction.