Times were hard.
The stock market had crashed. The national unemployment rate hovered around 25%. Banks foreclosed on countless homes and farms. A series of large-scale environmental disasters had disrupted the economic livelihood of whole regions. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the movie fantasies Americans turned to in the 1930s represented an escapist contrast to the hardship facing much of the United States. And there was no greater embodiment of that silver-screen escapism than Fred Astaire. With his top hat, white tie, tails, and cane, Astaire waltzed into moviegoers hearts with the high thread-count, “Putting on the Ritz” charm of movies like Top Hat and Swing Time. A decade later Astaire had given way to low-key crooner Bing Crosby, who was the top box office draw every year from 1944-48 and remains the third highest movie-ticket seller of all time, behind only Clark Gable and John Wayne. The audiences that opened up their pocket books en masse to see Astaire and Crosby thought nothing of the fact that they would spontaneously “break into song” in their films. It was just a convention of the genre, and, more important, an expression of cinematic joy.
In 2012, however, the movie musical is far from its former place as the most popular of Hollywood film genres. The attention given Les Misérables, opening on Christmas Day, is the exception that proves the rule. Today, audiences even complain about the difficulty they have suspending disbelief at the very act of movie characters “breaking into song.” And if something as fundamental as breaking into song is now a dealbreaker, no wonder any given movie year features only one or two musicals, as opposed to the dozens Hollywood used to produce annually. “The reality is that people need to be coaxed toward a musical today,” says Alan Menken, eight-time Oscar winner and composer of Disney’s blockbuster animated musicals from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast to Tangled. “They need to understand why it’s a musical. ‘Do I have to hear people sing their thoughts and feelings? Oh, no!’ And then they end up loving it.”
That kind of coaxing never used to be necessary at the height of the movie musical in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Is it a cultural shift that explains this change? Ana Perlstein, a musical fan and recent dance major graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, thinks so. “We’ve become too jaded to accept the kind of escapist musicals that the ‘30s provided,” Perlstein says. “People really think, ‘No, you can’t just magically break into song and dance and everything will be okay. The world doesn’t work that way.'”
Then why do we think that when superheroes put on capes, masks, and Spandex “everything will be okay”? Why have boy wizards, hobbits, and Jedi become easier to believe in than people breaking into song? Audiences’ capacity for fantasy remains as strong as ever, but the types of fantasies for which they’re willing to suspend disbelief has changed. The respective evolutions of both the movie musical and the sci-fi/fantasy spectacle explains this phenomenon. As different as both genres are, both have been subject to the advent of “high concept” storytelling. And that pretty much explains exactly why successful movie musicals are few and far between, while sci-fi/fantasy flicks are routinely blockbusters.
There was a time when musicals, on Broadway and in movies, were only about people breaking into song. In the ‘20s, New York’s Ziegfeld Follies never had stories. They were glorified vaudeville acts with an emphasis on sex and spectacle, one-off musical showcases punctuated by two-bit comedy sketches. Early movie musicals like Best Picture Oscar winner The Broadway Melody followed a similar pattern. That all began to change with the debut in 1927 of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat, often considered the first truly story-driven musical, in which the songs advance the narrative and illuminate the characters. It also became the major template for the “integrated musicals” that Hollywood eventually found to be most conducive to its storytelling, musicals that didn’t have spectacle for spectacle’s sake but deployed their songs organically within their narratives. As much of a show-stopper as Agnes DeMille’s dream-sequence ballet is in Oklahoma! it doesn’t stop the show. It reveals fundamental truths about the central character, her thoughts, feelings, fears, and dreams. By narrativizing the musical, people embraced the genre more than ever. They suddenly had characters they could identify with, even if those characters broke out into song, not just chorus lines and showgirls. In a superstar like Fred Astaire the Depression Era audience found a perfectly-tailored embodiment of their own champagne-fizzy fantasies—and lifestyle aspirations.
This model of musical moviemaking remained more or less in place until the early 1970s, though the “meta musical,” musicals that self-consciously displayed and embraced the artifice of the genre also became popular: movies like Singin’ In the Rain and The Band Wagon that tweaked the genre’s conventions while still expressing the greatest admiration for them. Musicals would become more and more self-aware throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s until they, like sci-fi/fantasy around the same time, veered toward “high concept.” “Most successful musicals today need to attach themselves to something bigger, a concept that will make people feel immediately connected to it,” says Menken, who himself blurred the parameters of the musical and sci-fi/fantasy genres with his score for Little Shop of Horrors, an ‘80s musical based on a ‘60s Roger Corman cheapie about human-eating plants. “Years ago, Howard Ashman [Menken’s lyricist on Little Shop] believed you should be able to say about a musical that ‘This is the blank musical.’ Little Shop is ‘the monster musical.’ Dreamgirls is the ‘Motown girl-group musical.’ People like the form to be ruffled up and reinvented, to be something familiar. But with a twist. And if they understand the concept, if they really get it, the ‘breaking into song barrier’ isn’t that daunting after all. It just depends how strong your storytelling is.”