Try To Remember the Time in September When Life Was Slow and Oh So Mellow.
So a few weeks ago I talked about wicked and then about rent. And
yes, I’m a big fan of musicals. And yes, this email will be about
musicals, but movie musicals rather than theatre musicals.
Now, I love a good movie musical, but like all things in the
entertainment biz, the movie musical trends are cyclical. Sometimes
musicals are hits and one after another are produced. Sometimes it’s
impossible to get a movie musical made.
So what’s so freaking interesting about that that I felt the need to
write a whole email about it. Well, it seems to me there’s a bit more
to it. I was thinking today about the trends for when musicals are,
well…Trendy. Broadway musicals will always make money, they’ll
always be popular, but movie musicals don’t always make money. Now,
it’s my opinion that it is usually the crappy musicals that don’t make
money, but who cares about that?
The thing is there have been three major periods for movie musicals,
the 1930’s and ’40’s, the 1960’s and right now. Starting in 2002,
with the release of Moulin Rouge, the movie musical is experiencing a
bit of a revival itself. Of course, Moulin Rouge (and it’s oscar nom
for Nicole Kidman) was followed the next year by Chicago (and it’s
Best Picture oscar) and then a string of others, including The
Producers, Dreamgirls, Rent and as of Friday, Hairspray. This revival
of musicals is reminiscent, with its lavish sets and saturated colors,
of the Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930’s and ’40’s.
So, with the release of Hairspray imminent, I was doing a bit of
thinking (as I was listening to the soundtrack to the play in my car
on the way to work), and I thought that maybe my initial judgement of
the remake of Hairspray was a little rash. Now, this is not to say
that I’m not amazingly skeptical of this new version of hairspray, but
it’s saving grace will be that the original was not a musical. Even
still, I maintain, that John Travolta was probably the wrong casting
choice and will never live up to the genius that was Divine. But John
Waters (and I’ve heard rumblings, Ricky Lake) makes a cameo and so I’m
willing to give it a shot.
But I digress. Think back to the beginning of this email when I
mentioned the approximate time frame for the popularity of movie
musicals. It was the 1930’s and 40’s, the 1960’s and now. So I guess
I didn’t digress too much. Here’s my train of thought. Hairspray is
about, among other things, black/white relations. And I was thinking
about social and political unrest. Getting my thinking now, maybe?
A little bit? Isn’t it interesting that the times when movie musicals
regain popularity are when there is some sort of social upheaval? The
Depression and the War, The movements of the ’60’s, and now. I don’t
really know how to define now, in terms of social movements, and I
don’t know that any historian has properly labeled this age yet. The
age of the chimpanzee? The age of idiocy? Perhaps, the age where
people started thinking again? Because I truly believe that we’re on
the verge of a huge breakthrough in people actually being involved in
the political system. I think G.W.’s finally done it. He’s so bad,
he’s made us all wake up and take notice of what’s going on.
Interesting isn’t it? That musicals come around in times of woe.
Well, in the ’30’s and ’40’s it was actually the government that
implored the movie studios to make happy, upbeat films to try to keep
up the morale of the american public. Though the government didn’t
implore the studios in the 1960’s, the studios insistence on
continuing to make musicals, even when the times, they were a changin’
nearly bankrupted each and every one of the major motion picture
studios. Perhaps it was their way of trying to maintain some sort of
semblance of tradition, or order, in any case, those musicals gave
rise to the likes of The Graduate, Love Story, Easy Rider, and The
Godfather, which saved the studios from bankruptcy.
But even more interesting is this new influx of musicals right now.
They don’t seem to be trying to keep the status quo. In fact, they
seem to be challenging it. Think about it. Moulin Rouge is about
artists who buck social norms to live how they want to live. Chicago
is about murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery
and treachery – all those things we hold near and dear to our hearts.
The Producers is about cheating the system (and let’s not for get the
hilarious ‘springtime for hitler’ musical number), Dreamgirls deals
with backstabbing and race relations, among other things, and
Hairspray is about race relations, and seeing past image to what
people really are.
I mean, these aren’t your Fred Astaire, Gene Kelley, Ginger Rogers
type musicals. These are racy Chita Rivera musicals. They’re
subversive musicals. It seems like an oxymoron, but when you look at
the facts, that’s exactly what they are.
The general theme seems to be that the musicals support the needs (or
sometimes desires) of the times. In the 30’s we wanted to forget our
troubles, c’mon get happy. In the ’60’s we wanted to avoid the fact
that things were changing, and now, well now, we’re pushing the limits
with musicals. We’re not gonna take it, and we’re going to sing about
the fact that we’re not gonna take it anymore.
So when you go see hairspray on Friday (and I’ll promise I’ll give my
report on it soon), look past the big hair and the bright colors, look
past the fat suit and the big hair, look at the real message of the
movie…I assure you it’s not just the big hair. And think real hard
about how a musical can be a protest.
Peace, Love, and Good Morning Baltimore,
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