The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1
If the recent movie version of Cats proved one thing, it’s that it’s very difficult to create a musical for the screen that audiences can take seriously. The media of film is essentially at its best when it is realistic. Even a science-fiction or fantasy film is most successful when it helps us suspend disbelief and convinces its viewers that it’s all really happening before their eyes.
A movie musical has a doubly difficult problem because characters must sing and dance. How do you tell the story effectively and seriously and yet watch actors burst into song? When this works, through the artistry of the creative team, it can be amazingly uplifting and even masterfully dramatic. In the case of master musical film directors such as Vincente Minelli or
Robert Wise it can even be seamless. But if it’s even slightly off, the result will be ridiculous and insufferable. For this reason, the film of the long-running show Cats became a world-famous joke.
If you look at the best and most successful film musicals, technology has more than quite a bit to do with the success of the musicalization. For example, do you ever think for one second that Julie Andrews isn’t singing on location in The Sound of Music? The skill of the sound and editing department make it look and sound like it’s really happening then and there in Salzburg. Of course, The Sound of Music was all pre-recorded and looped in, as was most every other film musical ever made. (A famous exception is Rex Harrison’s songs in My Fair Lady, which were all filmed live—even that is a technologically fantastic feat.)
Many contemporary musicals are not as artfully sound-mixed as the film classics of the 1950s and 60s. Often too much reverb is added, and intercutting destroys the believability. This is probably a sloppy leftover from the MTV music video generation. The best musical films from the MGM musical era have actually only three editorial cuts per song. Yet films like Singin’ In the Rain never feel static in any way. Careful pre-production planning and smooth camera work serve the movement of the performing actor, and if the actor and the song are superb (as they always were at MGM), we are swept away with movement and momentum.
The technical fine art of the musical movie reached its zenith in the 1960s. Because many of these films were shot in 70mm, the screens were bigger and the pictures clearer and the sound more stereophonic than ever.
With all the money film musicals cost in the 1960s, all
It’s a fine line from the ridiculous . . .
. . . to the sublime
technicians had to do their job to perfection. The 1961 film version of West Side Story set the bar. Interestingly enough, it was co-directed by Robert Wise who was, at one point, Hollywood’s best film editor (Citizen Kane). He was determined and skilled enough to make sure it was all in the realm of dramatic realism (or one might say heightened realism) and exciting to watch.
Marni Nixon, the great singer and voice-double expert, told me that the most difficult work she ever did in film was the post-dubbing of Natalie Wood’s singing voice in West Side Story. Huge and ultra-clear closeups of Natalie made it nearly impossible to match her lips to the semi-classical Leonard Bernstein music. Of course, the precise technological aspects of West Side Story paid off handsomely at the box office and at the Academy Awards.
Other film musicals from the 1960s like Camelot and Oliver! got it precisely and beautifully right, too. The industry men at the time knew the value of precision, and those films were sprinkled with multiple Oscars as well. Of course, the financial demise of the movie musical in the second half of the 20th century also meant a loss of technological skill. There have been only a handful of successful movie musicals since 1968. The few that have done it right, like Chicago and La La Land, are well-loved for pulling it off.
Editing, pre-recording, and sound mixing are so important to musicals that there are many film musicals that might have been included among the very best, had they been assembled with more care. When I was researching a book I recently wrote on the making of one of Hollywood’s finest original film musicals, Gigi, it became clear to me that a film’s excellence was all about the final cut.
Gigi is a musical expressly written for the screen and therefore without a pre-assembled Broadway musical structure to guide the creators. Early previews showed that the movie wasn’t hitting the bullseye in terms of the audience’s response. MGM,
Arthur Freed (producer), Vincente Minnelli (director), Fredrick Loewe (composer), and Alan Jay Lerner (lyricist) had a lot at stake financially and artistically. After all, Gigi was Lerner and Loewe’s followup to their enormous stage hit My Fair Lady. They all desperately wanted to get it exactly right. They fine-tuned the editing and sound, trimming over 20 minutes, and shot retakes with better camera angles and more closeups. They even re-filmed a whole song, simply to adjust the tempo. The result was technological perfection for 1958.
Comparing Gigi to other film musicals, I began to realize that movies like Kismet, Carousel, Gypsy, Dr. Dolittle, and Star! suffer from poor or troublesome assemblage. Each of them had an excellent cast and thrilling musical moments, but in-between there is dead weight, poor editing choices, or poor soundstage sets. And, as in the case of South Pacific, misguided color cinematography.
The best film musicals, no matter what style or which decade, have state-of-the-art technology of the time. It’s their technologically superior aspects that make them work as live-action film musicals. Of course that cost extra money from the movie studios, and for many of these special properties, the studios were willing to put up the cash.
It’s difficult to come up with a list of “Best Movie Musicals” since the genre subdivides into “Original Musicals Created for the Screen,” “Broadway Stage Hits Adapted for the
Screen,” and “Fantasy Film Musicals for Family Audiences.” I didn’t include animated film musicals because of the number of beloved ones that exist. And how do you compare Coco to Cabaret? You don’t, so I won’t.
Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.