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WHAT IS A MUSICAL?
A musical is simply a film or play that includes two registers:
a narrative reality and a spectacle that requires audience
members to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief in
order to accept the story as credible.
The term CLASSIC REALIST NARRATION or NARRATIVE
REALITY should not be understood as meaning simple realism. It
refers to a narrative world that is consistent and coherent; that
world obeys a stated or unstated set of rules that gives it
credibility. That world may contain unrealistic elements, such as
aliens or time travel portals (as is often the case in the science
fiction and fantasy genres), but as long as the characters in these
films obey the laws of those worlds, audiences will summon the
necessary willing SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF to grant those
characters and their world a certain VERISIMILITUDE; in effect,
these films produce their own reality – a reality that is whatever
those films want that reality to be – and, by adhering to that
reality’s laws, make it credibility.
In the world of fiction you are often required to believe a premise that you would
never accept in the real world. Especially in genres such as fantasy and science
fiction, things happen in the story which you would not believe if they were
presented in a newspaper as fact. Even in more real-world genres such as action
movies, the action routinely goes beyond the boundaries of what you think could
In order to enjoy such stories, the audience engages in a phenomenon known as
SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF. This is a semi-conscious decision in which you put
aside your disbelief and accept the premise as being real for the duration of the
The genre will determine the lengths to which a film can push believability.
Audiences will be willing to believe an action hero can perform super-human feats,
but the same feats performed suddenly in a romantic drama would result in
confusion and a lack of credibility.
One important area of belief is in human actions and emotion. People must act,
react, and interact in ways which are believable. In cases where such interactions
do require suspension of disbelief, the normal rules of consistency apply.
Audiences are very unforgiving if they think a character is behaving in an
In a literary work or a film, VERISIMILITUDE is likeness to the
truth -- resemblance of a fictitious work to a real event even if it is
a far-fetched one.
Verisimilitude ensures that even a fantasy must be rooted in
reality, which means that events should be plausible to the extent
that readers and viewers consider them credible enough to be
able to relate them somehow to their experiences of real life.
Musicals, however, differ from classic realist narrations in that
they have (at least) two sets of books. They operate according to
two different sets of laws –and they alternate back and forth
between them. Musicals rupture the fabric of traditional narrative
VERISIMILITUDE by suddenly shifting from narrative to musical
spectacle –to song and dance –that the narrative fiction is unable
to naturalize. This is precisely what makes a musical different
from a film that uses music, such as Eminem playing an aspiring
rapper in 8 Mile. In a musical, there’s a shift from one level of
reality to another that involves a rupture or break; in a film with
music, the music is part of the narrative, a window that opens into
the psychology of the character.
In the musical, the shift from narrative reality to musical reality (or
spectacle) is what produces the lift or experience of ecstatic
pleasure that we associate with most musical numbers; this lift
involves a movement out of and away from the laws that govern
the mundane world of the fiction. Musical sequences interrupt the
linear flow of necessity –the narrative –and release the actors
from their duties and responsibilities as credible identification
figures for us, permitting them to perform for us, to display their
exceptional talents as singers and dancers. We suddenly shift to a
world of pure spectacle.
SHIFTS IN REGISTER
Musicals operate on two different dramatic registers –that of the
narrative and that of the spectacle. Their movement can be
charted according to the shifts they make from one register to the
other, that is, from narrative to song, and back again. It’s an
essential duality of the genre. The integration of the two registers
has become a dominant trend in the musical’s evolution. Total
integration of story and spectacle is sometimes considered a
threat to the gap that gives the musical number its affective power
to enthrall audiences. Once the distinction between narrative
reality and musical reality is erased, the energy that drives the
musical will disappear, because there will be no lift, no ecstasy, no
movement out of one mode and into another.
It is not easy to incorporate song and dance into musicals. One
way is through plot. If there is a reason intrinsic to the plot, for
characters to break into song, the shift is seamless. Other ways to
incorporate song and dance into musicals is through emotional
character development. In this case, the spectacle numbers are
not necessary for plot. The characters are instead driven to song
by a melodramatic intensification of feeling. The songs are deftly
integrated into the dramatic action and function to loosen the
characters from traditional narrative bonds. These spectacle
numbers celebrate an explosion of feeling, and it is this sort of
technique that lies at the heart of the musical.
How do films shift from narrative reality to musical register?
1. Use of Props: Incidental props that are placed merely to create a realistic
atmosphere are frequently appropriated by the performers in their numbers. Their
initial status is transformed. What was once a mere coat rack suddenly becomes a
dancing partner, for example. In these cases, the shift from narrative to music
takes place almost magically before our eyes, providing a smooth transition that
disguises the radical shift from one reality to another.
2. Stylistic Registers: Other devices often used to mark a shift in register involve
increased stylization or a change from one style to another. In a handful of films,
the shift from black and white to color changes the gears of the film’s relations with
its audience. Some films use color more subtly in that the movement is not black
and white to color, but there is use of variations of color – pale to vibrant tones,
grouping of shades of color, the use of monochromatic costuming or set design.
3. From Noise to Music: In some films, the editing imposes a rhythmic pattern
providing a musical order to the various noises occurring in the narrative reality.
For example, the sound might shift from the noise of streets in Paris to music
implied by that noise. Editing can transform the noise of the city to music. In this
case, this ‘city symphony’ leads smoothly into musical numbers.
There was a time when song and dance were integral features of our
culture’s lived experience and the presence of musical numbers in
films set in these times was motivated by that experience. Before the
invention of radio or television, people entertained themselves at
home. Films set in time periods a century ago, incorporate music in
this way. In such instances, the home is transformed momentarily
into a theater. The performers emerge through curtains, that
resemble theatrical drapes. Party guests become an audience.
Musical films set in more modern and contemporary settings also
incorporate this technique. The successful transition from a narrative
situation to a musical sequence depends on the transformation of
narrative space into performance space; ordinary settings are
rearranged into a stage, lit differently, or shot differently to suggest
this transition. Such settings are either theatricalized (made to look
like theaters) or emotionalized, producing a sentimentalization of
space that is just as transformative as the film’s other musical
Every musical exists in the tension between its narrative and its musical
numbers. This tension is most strongly felt during the moments of transition
from narrative to musical number. For the integrated musical, the musical that
tries to cohere narrative and music, musical numbers emerge as something
of a problem, which the narrative must somehow solve. Screenwriters try to
solve these problems by providing motivation for the musical numbers or by
constructing bridges from nonmusical to musical sections. The shifts can be
motivated in a variety of ways. One way to naturalize song and dance within
the realism is to incorporate song and dance into the plot. In this case, the
film’s characters are identified as professional or amateur performers whose
normal activity involves song and dance. One of the staples of the musical,
and one of the most popular sub-genres, is the BACKSTAGE MUSICAL, in
which various characters are brought together to put on a show. Thus the
song and dance has solid justification in the plot.
Even if the central action around which the plot hinges is not the putting on of
a show, the profession of the central character can often be that of a
performer, thus motivating the presence of musical numbers.
The operetta, unlike the backstage musical, makes no attempt to
motivate musical numbers realistically. Operettas tend to situation
their characters in exotic 19th century European settings. The
narratives of operettas borrow extensively from fairy tales and
romantic melodramas. Often, these stories are populated by ‘real’
or figurative royalty who live in faraway kingdoms where love
conquers all obstacles.
In the operetta, the shift from narrative to musical number is often
marked linguistically by stylization of dialogue. Characters seque
into the musical numbers by suddenly introducing a pronounced
rhythm into the delivery of their lines; or their prose may suddenly
turn into poetry.
The development of the fully integrated musical is generally
attributed to Arthur Freed, producer of a series of musicals at
MGM Studios from 1939 (The Wizard of Oz) – 1960 (The Bells
are Ringing). These films consist of musical numbers that tend
toward a fully integrated interplay between musical spectacle and
narrative. In these films, narrative space opens up to incorporate
musical space; musical space invades narrative space.
Gene Kelly’s iconic title number in Singin’ in the Rain provides a
strong example of this interplay.
In this scene, the beginning and ending of the number, characters from the narrative space
(the limo driver, a pedestrian, a policeman, and the man to whom Lockwood gives his
umbrella) pass by him and stare at him incredulously as he sings and dances in his
musical space; the two spaces acknowledge one another; yet characters in the narrative
space remain unable to understand why the hero is singing and dancing in the rain. The
number depends on this interplay for comic effect. Here, one register interacts with the
other. The number explores the boundaries between the two and ultimately takes on those
boundaries as its subject.
In this interaction, it is possible to see exactly what makes the number work. Lockwood
and those around him respond differently to the same set of conditions. The rain dampens
the spirits of the passersby, whose emotional states seem governed by the harsh weather.
As the lyrics of the song make clear, the joy that Lockwood feels in defiance of the gloomy
weather. Or, from another perspective, the stormy weather serves as a foil to magnify,
through contrast, Lockwood’s ecstatic transcendence of it. In this particular instance, the
surrounding world does not shift to another register to permit song and dance; rather, the
hero transforms that world through his responses to it. Puddles become a source of
childlike pleasure. Torrents of water cascading down a drainpipe drench his head, but the
water only broadens the enormous smile on his face. His spirit is reborn in the baptismal
font of musical rejuvenation, leaving him no alternative but to express his joy.
IDEOLOGY AND THE
The musical is considered an exemplary instance of
entertainment that creates a UTOPIAN SPACE in which the
problems we regularly encounter in our lived experience in the
world no longer exist. Instead of poverty, there is abundance;
work-related exhaustion is replaced by limitless energy; the
dreariness of everyday routine is exchanged for excitement and
intensity; our actual isolation and alienation within mass culture is
transformed into a heightened sense of our uniqueness as
individuals within a close-knit community of unique individuals.
The purpose of such entertainment is to manage the basic
contradictions generated by the gaps and inadequacies of
capitalism by creating a UTOPIAN VERSION of a capitalist
society. In this world, energy and initiative is recognized and
rewarded. Men find, fall in love with, and win the women of their
dreams, and women find their dream lovers in a similar fashion.
IDEOLOGY AND THE
Conservative musicals (like Grease, for example) effectively manage the contradictions inherent in
capitalism, producing a utopian escape from an imperfect society. In the final sequence of Grease,
Rydell High School is transformed into an amusement park where formerly alienated individuals
become part of a community of carnival celebrants. And the final number, “We Go Together,” the two
main characters – Danny and Sandy –ride a souped-up hot rod into heaven, leaving the trials and
tribulations of typical teenage angst behind them.
IDEOLOGY AND THE
Progressive musicals tend to expose or undercut the utopian nature
of the musical number. Pennies from Heaven (1981) is an adaptation
of a BBC miniseries about Depression-era characters trapped in
unfulfilling lives who escape through the fantasy of song. But the film
consistently qualifies the escapism of the musical numbers by
making it quite clear that the performers, including Steve Martin, are
lip-synching to popular songs originally recorded by Bing Crosby,
Fred Astaire, and others popular in early days of musical film. The
obvious lip-synching severely limits the extend of the hero’s flight into
another world; he can only escape his oppressive existence through
the popular recordings of his era. The resolution comes at the end of
the film, when Steve Martin sings the title song in his own voice. But
this resolution, in which his voice replaces the false, is undercut by
the quality of the performance; Steve Martin’s real voice is just not as
good. Instead of transporting us into the never-never land of musical
fantasy, the final number forces us to acknowledge our own kingship
with Martin’s unexceptional ordinariness.
The musical was very popular in the 1950’s – the mid-1960’s. During this
time, people were in need of an escape from their own reality. America was
coming out of two world wars, and the Great Depression; it was entering a
time of widespread fear regarding future warfare. Poverty struck many. There
was a clash between the American Dream, as it was presented to Americans,
and its reality. People embraced escape. They were looking for a utopian
vision to remove them from the fears of contemporary times, the existential
angst many were experiencing in modernist America, and the contradictions
between expectation and reality. The shift from American film noir to
American musical film was drastic and quick.
After the 1960’s, the big Hollywood musical era came to an end. As values
changed, and American interests changed, so did the film industry. People no
longer wanted to escape reality, but to face it. More recently, however, there
is a bit of a comeback in musical film. Many contemporary films pay homage
to the traditions of the musical genre, evoking its most celebrated forms and
dedicating themselves to its original social mission. Films such as Moulin
Rouge, attempt to construct utopian solutions to real needs created by real
social inadequacies within contemporary society. Such films’ musical
numbers lifts us into a world of abundance, energy, intensity, and community.
They satisfy our needs by managing our desires. In short, they entertain us.
A. Please view the following clips (1) from the film 500 Days of
Summer and (2) from the music video for Bjork’s song “Oh
So Quiet.” The clips are on the following slides
A. For each, please identify various terms, techniques, and
concepts outlined in this powerpoint and discuss how they
are present in the clips. Do so by using a three column chart
(column #1 = description of portion of the clip, column #2 =
term/technique/concept, column #3 = effect, message
conveyed, etc.). NOTE: You should also identify past terms
and techniques employed in these scenes that you think are
B. NOTE: You may complete this assignment individually or
with a partner. It is due at the end of class on Wednesday