Musical films have occupied a bright and often brassy part of the cinema equation for nine decades. To celebrate the publication of Must-See Musicals, author Richard Barrios has gone beyond the song and dance for a look at the often-strange reality behind the onscreen magic.

Must See Musicals

Must See Musicals

The Broadway Melody (1929) was truly a film of firsts: the first real movie musical, the first film with sound to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, the first “100% all-talking” picture made by MGM, the first “talkie” to use Technicolor.  Less remembered, but just as crucial, was that it was the first sound film to play in foreign-language countries with superimposed subtitles to translate the dialog and explain the action.  With dubbing not yet technically feasible, many other early sound films dealt with the foreign-language issue more drastically, and expensively: they would shoot separate versions, usually with a different cast.  Another Must-See Musical, King of Jazz (1930) was the record-holder here, with nine (!) additional versions shot for international release.

On The Town (1949) is a classic for many reasons, not the least of which is its extensive use of location shooting.  Besides its wonderful cast, songs, and dances, it treated audiences to some magnificent Technicolor views of various New York landmarks: the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, Rockefeller Center, Central Park, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Little Italy, and the roof of Loews State Theater on Broadway.  That last location posed a problem: Jules Munshin, cast alongside Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as one of the sailors on leave, was deathly afraid of heights. To get him to consent to do the scene, stagehands had to tie a rope around him, under his sailor suit, and grip it tightly offscreen.  Even with that, he got through the shot only with a great deal of anxiety--which, fortunately, isn’t too apparent in the finished film.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) is best remembered for Marilyn Monroe, dressed in a hot-pink gown, singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” to a flock of debonair chorus boys.  As originally planned by choreographer Jack Cole, “Diamonds” was intended as a much steamier number, with a different set and staging and, especially, a far more revealing costume for Ms. Monroe--a see-through body stocking and bands of strategically-placed diamonds.  Then the studio, 20th Century-Fox, began to be very alarmed.  Monroe’s famous nude calendar was then causing quite a scandal, and the studio feared that a too-sexy rendition of “Diamonds” would create an audience backlash.  Fox ordered the original concept to be scrapped in favor of a peppier staging, with the offending costume completely redesigned.  Not only was Monroe more covered up, but the dress was carefully constructed to eliminate all jiggling. Properly anchored, she went out and made the restaged sequence one of the classic moments in all musical cinema.

Now regarded as one of the crowning musical achievements of the big-studio days, Gigi (1958) did not enjoy a universally ecstatic reaction when it first opened.  Because it was written by Lerner and Lowe, fresh from their triumph with My Fair Lady, it was seen by some as a sort of French-accented knockoff of that smash hit.  One with a great deal of skill, granted, but still an imitation.  Even some of the songs were said to be too-close copies, such as “The Night They Invented Champagne” as a retread of “The Rain in Spain.”  It wasn’t so, actually, since Gigi had been in the planning stages even before My Fair Lady began its (her?) trip to Broadway, with its delay being mainly over the censors’ concerns about the racy elements of its plot.  Still, there was one definite link between the two musicals: the song “Say A Prayer For Me Tonight” had originally been written for Fair Lady and was cut during the show’s out-of-town tryout.  Lerner and Lowe then recycled it for Gigi, where it fit in perfectly well.

Big movie musicals are generally very expensive, and therefore considered financially risky.  The Sound of Music--a film which epitomizes musicals for many people--may have been less of a gamble than some musicals, but it was by no means a sure thing.  When it opened in 1965, it scored a success that no one could have envisioned, passing Gone With the Wind to be the most profitable film up to that time.  Soon enough, industry insiders were referring to it as The Sound of Money, and with an adjustment for inflation it remains the most successful musical ever.  A disproportionate amount of its huge gross came from one obviously devoted fan in Wales: Mrs. Myra Franklin of Cardiff, who entered The Guinness Book of World Records after it was verified that she had seen The Sound of Music a total of 940 times.

Casting is always a crucial factor when it comes time to transfer a musical from the stage to the screen.  Fiddler on the Roof (1971) is one of the best of all Broadway-to-film adaptations for that precise reason.  Zero Mostel had created the role of Tevye on Broadway, but the producers felt he was too broad a performer for the screen and decided to look elsewhere.  Danny Kaye was at least a plausible choice but, as the show’s lyricist Sheldon Harnick recalled, “His wife turned us down saying he was too young to have marriage-age daughters.” (Kaye was then about 57.) Thus began some of the oddest casting suggestions in movie history, including the likes of Orson Welles, Anthony Quinn, and Marlon Brando.  There was also Frank Sinatra, whose agent vainly pleaded with the producers to put his client under consideration. The final choice, Haim Topol, was far less well known--but, as everyone eventually saw and heard, just about perfect.

In 1978, a time when few movie musicals were being made and fewer still had any success, Grease scored a massive hit.  It remains both a “Must-See” and “Go-To” film for millions of people, and it’s not hard to see why.  John Travolta, fresh from Saturday Night Fever, was both hugely charismatic and a fine dancer, and Olivia Newton-John had a gigantic hit with the added song “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”  There was a great supporting cast and a brightly-colored production and, most crucially, a great deal of energy, especially in the many musical numbers.  Exhibit A of that energy is the dance-off at the gym, set to “Born to Hand Jive.”  Travolta and company perform the number with a spirit and vigor that are even more remarkable considering where and how it was all filmed: during a sweltering California summer, in a real--and non-air-conditioned--high school gym.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the school was located right next to a pork processing plant, and the strong smell of bacon permeated everything.  No wonder the dancers fainted in droves.

Not all Must-See Musicals feature live performers.  Beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937, the Walt Disney studio has produced one grand animated musical after another: Pinocchio, Fantasia, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and all the way to Frozen and beyond.  One of the very best of them was Beauty and the Beast, in 1991. With a fine musical score and an engagingly feminist update of the old tale, Beauty might have been a hit even without its show-stopper of a musical sequence, “Be Our Guest.”  But who would have wanted to be without this number, with its spectacular tribute to the choreography of 1930s director Busby Berkeley?  As most viewers will recall, “Guest” is a dazzling diversion put on for heroine Belle by the servants in the Beast’s castle.  Originally, however, Belle wasn’t the target audience for the song; it was, instead, to have been done for her father Maurice, during his ill-fated stay at the castle.  The film was well into production when a light bulb of inspiration reminded the filmmakers that the song might work much better if performed for the heroine.  The Disney people have often tweaked their animated films in this way, sometimes just before the premiere; this was one of their happiest choices. 

Upon its opening in 2002, Chicago became a Must-See Musical nearly instantaneously.  Few Broadway shows had undergone such a long (27 years) and torturous odyssey on their way to the screen, fewer still with such a triumphant result.  Part of the difficulty was the vaudeville format of the original show, which stubbornly defied translation onto film until director Rob Marshall and writer Bill Condon came up with a workable concept.  The casting, too, was a problem, even more than it usually is, and during Chicago’s long planning period there were any number of names floated: Liza Minnelli, Goldie Hawn, Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman, and scores of others.  When the show’s director, Bob Fosse, was considering doing the movie, he thought that he had perhaps come up with just the right star.  He scheduled to meet with her on September 23, 1987, to talk it over…but the meeting never happened.  IJnstead, Fosse died that day, thus depriving the world of the idea of Madonna as Roxie Hart.  Given Madonna’s uneven film career, perhaps “deprived” would not be, for everyone, the most appropriate word.

A shot from La La Land (2016) graces the cover of Must-See Musicals, and that film is also the book’s Number 50 entry.  Although a very new and “now” film in most ways, La La Land also has, for a movie musical, something of an old soul.  Its Oscar-winning director, Damien Chazelle, has long been a devotee of the entire range of musical film, from its beginnings to the present day.  Thus, La La Land is studded with any number of loving homages to musicals past, among them some major works that are also celebrated in Must-See Musicals.  Chazelle’s all-time favorite film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), was a leading inspiration, and it shares with La La Land a distinctive, bright color palette and a poignant love story.  The sensational “traffic jam” song at the beginning of La La Land, “Another Day of Sun,” has its roots in the opening sequence of a film made back in 1932: Love Me Tonight, which still ranks as one of the greatest musicals ever. And Chazelle’s love of musicals becomes most apparent just before La La Land draws to its close: its “alternate ending” is a direct and glorious tribute to the climactic ballet in An American in Paris (1951).  That film won the Academy Award as Best Picture of its year, and we all know that La La Land almost (but not quite) did the same thing.  It did, however, win entry into the hearts of audiences, and into the pantheon of Must-See Musicals.  That, surely, is a great consolation prize!

Turner Classic Movies Must-See Musicals (Running Press, £20) by Richard Barrios is available now.