The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear

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I Love Musicals But I Hate Musicals

In the wonderful meta-musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, a man simply called ‘Man In Chair’ is playing one of his favorite LPs for the audience, the original cast album of the (fictitious) 1927 musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. As he narrates the action, the musical comes to life in his dreary New York apartment with characters making all kinds of surprising entrances, like from his refrigerator or up through the floor.

After the intermission, he informs us that he has to go to the bathroom. He puts on the second side of the LP, which begins with the entr’acte,  and leaves. The stage fills with characters that look like a nutty cross between The King and I and the opera Turandot. While the audience is trying to figure out just what is going on, the Man in Chair rushes back onstage in a panic.  Apparently his cleaning lady mixed up his LPs and instead of the second act of The Drowsy Chaperone, we are hearing/watching a number from a musical of the same era called A Message from a Nightingale.  Man in Chair gives us a mocking precis of its plot which hits every White Man’s Burden cliché, with an American Lady coming to China to civilize the emperor and eventually help him build The Great Wall.  Man in Chair groans and rolls his eyes.  But then, he flips over the LP, scans the song list and then says, “But you know, there are really great tunes in this show!”

This perfectly encapsulates my feeling about most musicals.  When I was a kid, I listened incessantly to Original Cast Albums of classics like Oklahoma and Carousel, as well contemporary (at the time) shows like Pippin and Company.  I loved musicals, even though I had seen very few live.  I had seen a lot of movie musicals, but they were on TV, riddled with commercials and I was just waiting for the next song.  But I loved those LPs.

As I got older and saw many musicals live, I got the sinking feeling that there was something wrong.  The experience in the theater was never as great as listening to the LP at home. I blamed myself for not concentrating enough on the show while in the theater.  When I would go home and listen the albums again, I was back in heaven.

This was especially true of the Sondheim musicals.

What was the problem? It was not that people suddenly burst into song.  I liked the artificiality of that, and it is part of the deal.

It came down to one thing: the book.

Most of the time the book weighed down what was so transcendent in the score.  This was particularly true of the ‘serious’ musicals, like West Side StorySouth Pacific and the rest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon.

What did seem to work were the ‘musical comedies’, the shows with the farcical plots.  Guys and Dolls is perfection, and you can tell it is because you love the linking dialogue as much as when the numbers are performed.  Other examples of this are She Loves Me, Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady (mostly thanks to GBS), How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Bye Bye Birdie.

I think any of these shows would work pretty well if they were just mounted with the dialogue and none of the music.  It is because the books are light and fast-moving, and most importantly, they don’t take themselves so seriously.

But imagine having to sit through South Pacific without “Some Enchanted Evening”.  Yikes.

Since the majority of musical lovers only know the objects of their love through Original Cast Albums, they have a skewed view of the enterprise in question.

I worship the scores of Stephen Sondheim.  I play them all the time. But sitting through them in the theater is often a nihilistic experience.  There is so much bile being spilled, even in the comedies, that the songs become earthbound.

Unfortunately, movie musicals highlight this problem.  The ones made by MGM in the 1950s that everyone lauds are so elephantine that every element of joy is crushed.  Compare the ghastly On The Town film to the OCR. Show Boat is so overinflated that it sinks.

Just as on stage, the musical comedies are what seem to fare best on the screen. Kiss Me Kate is mostly a joy (thank you Ann Miller). Also, it seems that musicals created for the screen work much better than those lugubrious adaptations of original stage hits.  Singin’ in the Rain is always a pleasure.  Meet Me In St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, the Astaire/Rodgers musicals are all original and all delightful.

So, you’re off the hook next time a friend asks if you want to go to see A Little Night Music, but you must listen to the cast recording as much as you can. As the man says, “But you know, there are really great tunes in this show!”



The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. The Cabinet of Dr. Calegari (Robert Wiene)
  2. Nashville (Robert Altman)
  3. The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
  4. La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
  5. The Best Worst Thing That Ever Happened (Lonny Price)
  6. Mifune: The Last Samurai (Steven Okazaki)
  7. The 400 Blows (François Truffaut)
  8. La Regle du Jeu (Jean Renoir)
  9. Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro)
  10. Gojira (Godzilla) (Ishiro Honda)


1- Director Amy Heckerling was the Guest Programmer on TCM this month, and one of her picks was The Cabinet of Dr. Calegari. While introducing it, she said one of the funniest things I’ve heard in a long time: ‘It seems there was a shortage of right angles in Germany after World War I.’  I now officially love this woman.

2- It is interesting to have seen Nashville and La La Land so close together.  Nashville is certainly not a musical in the general sense, but it is emblematic of how songs arise in movies since the end of the great era of musicals (roughly 1932 through 1965).  These songs are performances of the characters.  Some are deliciously terrible and some are very moving.  But in no case, does a character break into song in a dramatic situation, with a song which highlights his or her emotion.  That was the trope of the classic age of musicals.  The plot would hit a dramatic point (or a comic point) and suddenly the character or characters would be singing, as if the music could elevate the dialogue to a level that mere speaking couldn’t.   La La Land is a throwback to this style of song.  Much has been said about how the success of this film will usher in a flood of such musicals. I am dubious.  It has been too long since this sort of musical was common fare.  Audiences are too used to either the way Nashville introduces songs or they are used to the Cabaret style where the songs are isolated moments which are outside of the narrative reality of the film – often the depiction of a performance.  I hope that someone talented enough to be able to convince modern audiences that burst-into-song musicals are not ridiculous, but we’ll see……

3- The more I see of the French New Wave, the more I love Ingmar Bergman.  I don’t have much use for this exuberant, youth-oriented genre.  I find it very sloppy and tiresome.  It does not age well. I always had it in my mind that The 400 Blows was an exception.  I just found it tedious to get through, although Antoine Doinel is fun to spend time with.

4- Crimson Peak is a terrible movie that, as you are watching it, you think is a great movie. It has fantastic production values, super actors and a somewhat intriguing script….at least in the beginning. It soon peters out.  I felt the same way about Pan’s Labyrinth.  Heresy, I know

5- Look for a post about Gojira shortly

6- I guess it is still problematic to revere a pantheon of great films, but it is my experience that there are films that on repeated viewing become even more dazzling.  Surely this is a mark of greatness.   La Regle du Jeu and The Magnificent Ambersons are so stuffed with genius that I watch them drop-jawed


Show Boat – the musical that changed everything


The Importance of Show Boat
When Show Boat was presented in 1927 by Florenz Ziegfeld, it was unlike anything the great showman had yet produced . His legendary Follies were really just vaudeville shows on a grand scale, featuring popular headliners of the day in unrelated scenes. Legendary performers such as Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields and Sophie Tucker did their acts along side huge production numbers featuring scantily clad young women. Ziegfeld was ‘Glorifying the American Girl’, he claimed. He also presented light musical comedies such as Sally and Sunny with music by Jerome Kern. These were shows with wispy plots that were usually just vehicles for the star in question.
In the early part of the century, musical theater consisted of vaudeville shows, operettas imported from Europe or minstrel shows. In the 1910s a new type of musical that was purely American began to be seen. Jerome Kern, along with lyricist P.G. Wodehouse, created a string of this light, American style comedies about young people on Long Island estates and their love troubles. Once again, wispy plots that featured amusing tunes for the stars to sing.
Kern approached Ziegfeld with the idea of adapting Edna Ferber’s epic novel Show Boat with a book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Amazingly, Ziegfeld agreed to gamble on a musical concerned with miscegenation, segregation, wife abuse and alcoholism. It was not only the subject matter that was revolutionary. The style was revolutionary as well. Songs grew out of the dramatic situation. True, the operetta roots of Show Boat are evident in songs such as You Are Love. However, the way that Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man grows out of the action in the kitchen scene, and how it comments sadly on Julie’s situation and foreshadows what lies ahead for Magnolia, reveals a new depth for the musical. The light revue had been given a death-blow. The ‘book musical’ would assume prominence from that time forward.
The Pedigree of the 1936 film of Show Boat
There had been a 1929 film version of Show Boat that was largely silent, with some songs tacked on. It is a curiosity at best. The story differs greatly from the story of the musical, and the majority of the film features actors that had nothing to do with the musical’s creation on Broadway.
MGM mounted a lavishly produced, Technicolor version of the musical in 1951, starring Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia and Howard Keel as Ravenal. These two leads sing beautifully, but there is not much chemistry between them. Ava Gardner is miscast as Julie. The fact that Lena Horne was available for the role and had sung a spectacular version of Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man in the Jerome Kern biopic Till The Clouds Roll By, gives a tantalizing indication of what might have been. The whole production suffers from what many feel are the great assets of the MGM musicals of the 1950s: lavish production numbers and big-name stars. The whole thing feels bloated.
The 1936 production produced by Universal is the great film version of this musical. At the time, Universal was known as the Horror Film studio. Show Boat’s director James Whale already had tremendous success with a string of straight-forward horror films such as Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man as well as the great satire of the genre, The Old Dark House. These films are all notable for an eerie, Gothic atmosphere which can be traced back to the German Expressionism which exerted such a huge influence on early ‘serious’ film. The atmospherics are there in Show Boat as well. Here, however, they are employed to highlight emotional scenes. A good example of this is the montage during Old Man River. First, we hear Joe singing the song in a naturalistic setting: on a dock surrounded by other workers. As the song reaches its climax, we get a series of abstract images of toil and punishment which could have come straight out of an UFA production of the time.
The cast is fascinating in that many are associated with the original Broadway production. Charles Winninger reprises his Captain Andy from 1927. Irene Dunne (Magnolia) and Paul Robeson (Joe) were not in the original, but were part of the tour and are forever associated with the roles. Alas, we don’t get to see Edna May Oliver’s Parthy, which she created on Broadway, but it is not hard to imagine how perfect she would have been in the role. The great treasure of the film is the preservation of Helen Morgan’s performance as Julie. Morgan, a sensation of the 1920’s, is a little old for the role now, her voice a little creaky, but her fragility in the delivery of the torch song Bill is magnificent. She was only to live five more years, dying in 1941 at the age of 41.
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein wrote two new numbers for the movie, I Have The Room Above Her and I Still Suits Me. They are minor songs, but it is exciting to know that the creators of the show were still working on it as the movie was being filmed. Thus, it is both a reflection of the original, as well as a work in progress.
As Magnolia’s performing career on the Cotton Blossom itself blossoms, we get to see many of her performances. The scene between the school teacher and her beloved Hamilton is an affectionate depiction of what types of melodramas were being performed in the days of the Cotton Blossom. The histrionic acting and overheated dialogue seem right. The audience’s reaction confirms this. The humor of the scene comes not from the film’s condescension to the play, but to the woodsmen’s reaction – their belief that reality is happening on stage. The play itself is performed almost in documentary fashion.
The same sort of care is given to reflect authenticity in the musical numbers that are performed within the movie. This does not refer to the songs that grow out of the action, like You Are Love, I Have The Room Above Her and Old Man River. Instead, it applies to the scenes that are showing performances, such as Magnolia’s New Year’s Eve premiere in Chicago. Instead of composing an original song for this scene, Jerome Kern decided to interpolate After the Ball. This song was composed in 1891 and was a sensation. It sold millions of copies of sheet music, the first song to have such success. It defined the era musically, and for Show Boat’s 1927 audience, it would have been an efficient evocation of the era.
The cakewalk performed by Ellie and Frank is also danced to an authenic song of the period, Goodbye, Ma Lady Love. The dancing is staged in such a way as to recall the style of the minstrel shows that would have been current at the time the movie is depicting.
There is no question that Black musical and theatrical performance styles were the pre-eminent entertainment forces in the era being shown in the early parts of Show Boat. True, there was a strong tradition of operetta and opera at the time, but the home-grown entertainment was predominantly derived from Black styles.
Understanding the way the creators of Show Boat were striving to portray authentic musical numbers of the time, should help us to see Magnolia’s Gallivanting Around with something subtler than a knee-jerk condemnation of the scene as racist and offensive. Yes, Magnolia is in black-face, yes, she is plucking on a banjo and yes, she is mugging in a bug-eyed fashion throughout. However,
this was a convention of the time being shown. The exaggerated cartoonish depiction of the characters in blackface had little to do with real Black people, just as the characters played by drag performers have little to do with real women. The caricatures of blackface are as irrelevant to our contemporary entertainment sensibility as commedia dell’arte is. The point that needs to be made here is that including a blackface scene in Show Boat is as appropriate as using the N-word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both are absolutely appropriate because the intentions behind both are not racist and do not intend to demean. Both intend to portray.
The critic John Lahr has summed this up beautifully, saying, “..describing racism doesn’t make Show Boat racist. The production is meticulous in honoring the influence of black culture not just in the making of the nation’s wealth but, through music, in the making of its modern spirit.”
As further proof, Queenie and Joe, though secondary characters, are not stereotypes. Joe, in fact, moves through the proceedings in the role of Greek chorus, wisely commenting on what is happening. He gets the most famous song of the show, Old Man River. This song also has Black roots in that it is as close to a spiritual as a white man has ever written. The song defines the whole show – time floods on, regardless of people. The fact that this profound observation is put in the mouth of a Black man goes a long way to refute any charge of racism to which the mere depiction of a blackface number might give rise.