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. 


Comments's picture

I am sorry I missed this class. The Musicals I consider my favorites were not mentioned. What about “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, “The MusicMan”, “Oklahoma”, “Lilli”, “The Sound of Music”?  These are just a few of what was left out. There were so many unusual significant unmentioned shows.

Paul Riordan's picture

Thanks so much answering these questions! Very informative and illuminating.

Lisa Hawkins's picture

I had a blast reading all your responses..I'm a huge lover of musical productions.  "South Pacific" was my very first musical movie and I saw it at the Egyptian Theater when I was only 8 yrs. old.  Just to give you an idea, I'm going to be 70 in a few months.  "Oklahoma", "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "American in Paris" are more of my special favorites.  I have been a member for over a year now and only found out that there is a Chapter here in Las Vegas.  How wonderful.  I'm going to next months movie event and really looking forward to meeting others as crazy as I am about classic movies.  Thanks for all you do to make my life just that much more fun.  

David Guercio's picture

Thank you so much for answering my question Vanessa.  I really enjoyed reading your response a whole lot and all the rest of the Backlot members questions and your answers to all there's too.  I will look forward to receiving my prize in the mail soon.  I can't wait.  I am also really looking forward to the corse next month too.  I can't wait for that either.  I am all registered and ready to go.  I also have a question about that too.  Will a part of the corse take place on the TCM message boards or not?  If so.  I'm going to have to see if I could maybe reregister myself for the TCM message boards.

rita woodburn's picture

I enjoyed all the story's  very  interesting  and all the Musicals.  I also love Judy Garland i think she was the best Singer  of all times  also  Gene Kelly   Singing in the Rain Awesome  well this is just a start for me with  TCM  i love it already hope to enter many contest's  in the future

Humberto Martinez's picture

Vanessa:I enjoyed so much reading your answers to the questions posed by fellow Backlot members. I must have missed the opportunity to submit the questions, since movie musicals is my favorite film genre.Your enthusiasm for the medium and clarity of your answers is contagious. I am also a teacher, and truly appreciate what you are doing. I was actually the inaugural Backlot Guest Programmer last year, and I introduced three of my favorite movie musicals with Ben: Pal Joey, The Eddy Duchin Story, and Bye Bye Birdie. My wife and I look forward so much to taking your on-line course. We are all signed up!. Thank you so much for doing this. 

Maureen Solomon's picture

"Home on the Range" was recorded by Bing Crosby in 1933, 1938 and again in 1939.   Bing was the most popular movie and recording star for many years over several decades.  His recording of the song was played on the radio and records bought by the thousands.  His beautiful rendering of the song made it a very popular piece and that may have contributed to its use in many films.  He also sang it live on radio when Will Rogers was killed in a plane crash in 1935, an impromptu version which NBC requested he sing at a nightclub where Guy Lombardo was broadcasting.  In a solemn voice Bing paid heart-felt homage to the much-beloved Rogers even though he was shaky and worried he would not remember the words.  The song became ingrained in he American consciousness as it was heard over the years when music was a great source of comfort to people.

Beth Grabowski's picture

Thank you very much for choosing to respond to my question, and for giving me more to ponder. I am looking foward to participating in your class.

Kristen Lopez's picture

With regard to CHICAGO, the musical numbers annoyed me because the dancers' feet were not visible most of the time. Instead the audience sees close ups and lost of arm movements. I suspect this is because the stars weren't trained dancers. But the Broadway choreography for this show is by Bob Fosse! To omit it from the film was criminal in my opinion.

Kristen Lopez's picture

I did not take this class, but certainly wish I had.  So informative and fascinating to learn about this movie genre.  Maybe the class will be offered again at a later date.

Barbara Kozmik's picture

I am a former dance instructor. You answered a question in my mind ( that I wish I had submitted) about why I saw no taps on dancers shoes in the movie but heard the "taps". I now know that the tap sounds are dubbed.

Gordon Parkhurst's picture

You have probably seen these but outtakes of JG in Annie Get our Gun are on YouTube. I do believe that while some older Berlin tunes were used, most of the songs in Holiday Inn were new. Regarding, why musicals took a hit,  here is a story. We went to a reissue of West Side Story in the late sixties. Behind us was a couple who kept complaining throughout the film, "Why do they keep singing?" Besides that, by the middle of the fifties, the studios ended most of their contracts and no longer kept up the units that specialized in musicals so musicals were good only by chance. I do agree that keeping Broadway musicals intact as they make it to the screen, but there are exceptions. Deleting a few songs and including new songs certainly didn't hurt Sound of Music and Cabaret. Non singers in musicals - Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in Sweeney Todd totally destroyed that amazing musical for me. Using Home on the Range in many films? I think it is also because the rights to the song may have run out and so it is free to use. Thank you for all your information, I love it. I wish I could take it, but I am disabled, living in Palm Springs, and don't have the money to do it. I can't afford you. Break a leg in your endeavor. The class sounds like a blast!

Gordon Parkhurst's picture

I agree with you. Besides being irritating, moving the camera around doesn't really hide anything. Body movements give them away almost every time.

Gordon Parkhurst's picture

I have also loved Judy G since forever but, for me, I am no longer sure she was the best of all time. Gordon MacRae had an incredible voice and acted well, too. For me, it;s hard to keep Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand out of the equation. What about the hidden talents of Marnie Nixon? One more as well, although we don't often think of her because she wasn't allowed to be an actual part of the story, was Lena Horne. The list could go on, Jeanette McDonald, Nelson Eddie, etc.