Musicals Classic and Contemporary

In which I show American Idol more love than Dreamgirls

Every few years a Hollywood musical attracts unusual fanfare and some enthusiasts hope it might mark the genre's return to significance. In 2001 there was Moulin Rouge! and in 2002 Chicago. This year it's Dreamgirls. But a real return to the way it was seems like awfully wishful thinking, and none of these big films really aims to revive the style of the classic musical which was, in its day, the equivalent of our summer blockbusters, raking it in at the box office by offering spectacle, melodrama, and the biggest stars in the stratosphere.

The problem with making Hollywood musicals today is the audience. The core ticket-buying group for American movies, young males, does not just dislike musicals but is apparently made uncomfortable by them. Some spectators titter at the moment characters break into song. One guy in the front row at the Dreamgirls screening I saw last week in Toronto got up and wandered out of the auditorium a few times when characters began to sing. When I used to screen Meet Me in St. Louis on the first day of a film history class, some of my male students would exhale loudly and shift uncomfortably in their seats as the numbers were beginning. I asked one group of students why people had that response, and some earnestly answered that it's just not realistic for characters to sing. Not realistic for characters to sing! This from a generation that has grown up on South Park, Star Wars prequels and first-person shooters!

What's really going on, I surmise, is that musicals have become a challenge to heteronormative masculinity. Over the past few decades, gay male culture has made showtunes into a signal of gayness, and as gay culture has gained visibility so has the musical as its emblem. According to a widespread cultural cliché, there is no better evidence that a man is in the closet than a stack of Sondheim cast recordings. As a generation has grown up more aware than in the past about "alternative lifestyles," it has protected itself from seeming gay by disavowing its comfort with the genre. Some high schools apparently now can mount a musical production only if all the parts, male and female, are played by girls. And let's give gay culture some credit: among the things gay men like about the muscial are its overwrought theatricality, its heightened mode of performance, its intensity of emotion. These qualities are the opposite of those associated with straight masculinity in contemporary western societies (and probably in many others too).

Many new musicals seek to defuse the problem audiences have with the genre by tinkering with the way that the numbers are worked into the story. This is a clear case of an aesthetic program being dictated by a social constraint, a sense filmmakers have that audiences prefer certain kinds of representations. As Bill Condon says in his interview with Michael Sragow, the spectator has to be eased in. In the process of easing us in, the makers of many new musicals are giving up the distinctive character that gives musicals their appeal. In particular, they are sacrificing the convention of characters breaking into song, singing rather than speaking their thoughts and words. These new musicals are compromising some of the pleasures of the genre.

The musical has always exploited a tension between its two modes of performance, drama and song-and-dance. When one shifts into the other, the audience is supposed to experience a kind of lift, an emotional charge. The moment when a number begins can be transformative. The challenge for filmmakers is to manage the transitions from one mode to the other, from narrative to number. How do you combine the two? Many early musicals had a revue format in which the songs were not well connected through an overarching narrative, but the genre coalesced around movies in the 1930s that departed from that convention and integrated song and story together, much as forms of musical theater (opera, operetta, singspiel) had done for many years. The point was not to subordinate the song to the drama but to achieve a balance between them and ideally to make them mutually reinforcing by having numbers that arise organically out of narrative demands and that also reward the drama by developing plot, character, or theme through music and dance. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers's RKO pictures are often thought to be the epitome of the "integrated" musical, and in their numbers they often continued to tell their movies' stories about boy-girl romance through flirtatious, competitive, quarreling, or making-up songs like "I Won't Dance," "Pick Yourself Up," "The Way You Look Tonight," "A Fine Romance," "Never Gonna Dance," "I'll Be Hard to Handle," "They All Laughed," and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." Even Busby Berkeley films--often thought to put spectacle way ahead of narrative--have narrative integration, as Patrick Keating argues in a recent article in The Velvet Light Trap (no. 58, pp. 4-15), "Emotional Curves and Linear Narratives."

In various ways, recent film and television musicals have found alternatives to having characters who feel a song coming on. Chicago has numbers as Roxie Hart's subjective fantasy sequences, which makes clear that in the narrative world of the film, characters do not break into song. There are many precedents for these psycho-numbers. Fosse himself also used them in All That Jazz. There is a dream sequence number in Oklahoma! Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective is full of fantasy numbers, too. Another option is that of Moulin Rouge!, which makes the narrative seem so outlandish and fantastic that having characters sing doesn't seem like a "break" into a different register of experience. In Moulin Rouge!, characters singing and dancing doesn't come off as a departure from dramatic realism.

There are still other novel devices that can ease the audience's negative feelings about characters breaking into song. "Once More, With Feeling," the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has the characters sing only because they are under the spell of a demon. They would prefer not to find themselves stuck, as Willow says, in a "wacky Broadway nightmare":

Another TV example, High School Musical, bases its plot around a character who is reluctant to sing and dance because those things aren't considered cool. By making him gradually warm to the idea, and eventually even be comfortable for his friends to know about it too, the audience is also encouraged to accept the form of the musical and be tempted by its charms (though this audience seems to be predominantly female, so perhaps it is really being encouraged by a fantasy that cute boys might be so tempted). In sum, many recent musicals make their integration of musical numbers an issue; they are not comfortable to adopt the classic musical's basic convention of integration.

The solution Bill Condon has found in Dreamgirls is in some ways the least satisfying of all. For about half of the movie's numbers, he adopts what seems to me to be an original alternative: he cuts away from the singer(s) to montages, some flashing forward and others showing contemporaneous events, that link the ideas from a song to events in the plot. In Dreamgirls, as the characters sing we see images of their rise to stardom. This helps the audience feel that the numbers aren't putting storytelling on pause, Condon says . Unfortunately, it also has the effect of taking the audience's attention away from the music and performance. The signature appeal of the genre, watching virtuosic performances of song and dance, is missing for much of the movie. I kept saying as I was watching: this film has no numbers!

How strange to think that the audience's attention would wander during the songs. This is the exact reverse, presumably, of what many audiences experienced during the musical's heyday, when the plot was often seen as a vehicle for motivating the numbers. I remember being taken to stage musical productions as a kid (My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls) and being bored during the dramatic portions. Anyhow, in a well made muscial, every few minutes of performance are hardly pauses in the narrative. Narratives are constructed so that the numbers will have significance not only as something to command our attention, but as a way of presenting characters and their interrelations, as when Esther sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in Meet Me in St. Louis, expressing her feelings--and ours--about her family's imminent separation. Numbers introduce and develop characters and settings (e.g., "Jet Song" in West Side Story), clarify conflict ("America," "Gee, Officer Krupke"), deepen emotional expressions and effects ("Maria," "Tonight"), and resonate with a film's themes ("Somewhere"). If the songs are good and appropriate, there is no earthly reason why a director should need to add additional narrative appeals. Taking the camera away from the character singing takes us away from our connection with their story. The characters in Dreamgirls seem flat for various reasons, but not least because their intense expressive moments, during their songs, are often offscreen while Condon flashes his montages. It also doesn't help that Dreamgirls itself, source material and execution, is mediocre: forgettable music (especially compared with real Motown), clumsy exposition, weak performances (especially Beyonce's but also Jamie Foxx's unvarying sourness), and a plot that consistently neglects its main character, Jennifer Hudson's Effie.


The cast credits at the end of Dreamgirls give Hudson a certain pride of place, putting her last and giving her a title that reads, "And Introducing Jennifer Hudson." This is ironic considering that not that long ago, Hudson was seen on TV by millions more viewers every week than will pay to see Dreamgirls in theaters. Her apparently slam-dunk Oscar performance as a big black girl who gets passed over for the pretty, skinny one is the happy ending to a story of rise and fall on American Idol, from which she was eliminated unexpectedly early. Hudson has earned the film's loudest raves and it is intensely satisfying to see her "introduced" even as she needs no introduction. Her performance of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" is the opposite of Condon's montage numbers--engrossing as a solo performance, full of rage and yearning, and full of close-ups that betray no reluctance to stay with the singer and song. And her acting is of a different kind than the other women in Dreamgirls. It invites empathy. Hudson makes us root for Effie. Indeed, if she is being promoted in the supporting category for Oscar consideration, the film's producers are repeating the slight done to the character, making Hudson seem like a second-fiddle performer in the movie in which she is undeniably the main attraction, the brightest light, the biggest voice, the most magnetic performer. (This injustice was duplicated when Hudson was left off the D'girls Vanity Fair cover.)

But the ultimate irony is that this role, this Hollywood debut, is supposed to mark Hudson's proper arrival when it should be plain to anyone who likes to be entertained, has a populist-egalitarian sensibility, and watches television that American Idol is in almost every way a more satisfying musical experience than Dreamgirls. Idol isn't a musical in any strict sense, but it does offer many of the genre's pleasures. And despite its obscene product placement and thick layers of musical cheese, Idol is often the most compelling show on television. We get to know the kids trying to make it, cheer them on or love to hate them, and worry as we wait to learn their fates. When a favorite Idol contestant sings well, the audience can feel proud of them. Musicals might be out, but American Idol is the most popular culture in America (with the possible exception of the Left Behind novels). And the central appeal of American Idol is the performances, the singing. Unlike Dreamgirls (and for that matter, MTV), Idol has faith that the audience wants nothing more than to give its full attention to music. You can now tell what parts of a TV show people really like by looking at what they upload to YouTube. Like this clip from the season just past, of Elliott Yamin (just a kid from Richmond, VA, diabetic, deaf in one ear, crooked teeth, worked in a pharmacy, loves his mom...) singing Donny Hathaway's "A Song for You":


nanassetta said...

Very nice take! I loved Elliott Yamin at the end. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your statement. Elliott was certainly the most talented. I'm still not sure he didn't win. I have many questions as to the validity of that show. Will not watch anymore.

zoe p. said...

"The theater - strange coincidence! - was one of Dads' big passions; he and Mums went to see all the touring companies in Salt Lake City and had tickets every night, nearly, when they came to New York for medical meetings. Not leg shows, either; Dads' favorite playwright, after Shakespeare, was Bernard Shaw."

This is from The Group, what else is new? Musical as leg show as old-fashioned heterosexual pleasure . . . but old-fashioned heterosexual pleasure that is beneath "Dads" . . . ?

Brian Darr said...

My audience for Dreamgirls (a sparsely attended late evening multiplex showing in downtown San Francisco) included a group of young adults who absolutely COULD NOT keep from loudly expressing their disapproval whenever a character "broke into song". They were fine with the numbers clearly delineated as "performances" in keeping with a backstage musical like those of Berkeley's day. But any singing not justified by a plot turn was accompanied by sustained vocal protest. That includes "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going".

Anonymous said...

Just weighing in on the last part of your blog.... Yep, Elliott was clearly THE highlight of the last season. And thank goodness for Youtube - AI tried their darndest to hide him during the early part of the show! That voice is just amazing - and he's got such a great voice and heart to go with it!