As a society, people have used entertainment for centuries to help break up the monotony of their day to day lives. People have done so through congregation for nearly as long. In fact, in the larger context of culture, few items are as shared amongst societal groups than entertainment. In fact, a major component of entertainment has been music. This presentation goes into depth on music’s role in the modernization of film the the genre of the musical. The specific lens of musicals in their film adaptations is examined in this work.
First examining the larger genre of the musical in a holistic sense, we see the genre get its roots in a timeframe BC. Historians have noted that since primitive times, communication of thoughts, ideas and feelings have occurred through music. There is documentation supporting that cavemen had been singing chanted lines from 5th century BC. This has progressed all the way through Rome with pantomimes and medieval Europe with wandering performers sharing their craft across the continent.
Musicals, in the theater sense, were largely intended for those at high socio-economic status. Musicals were expensive to produce and very difficult to hit the economies of scale necessary to generate a sizeable profit. When film came to town, it was no wonder that musicals were quickly adapted. Timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as well. We the great depression just beginning in earnest, traditional Broadway acts needed ways to get their craft shared with the masses. Film was the perfect genre. This lends itself into the emergence of the classical era.
The classical era is considered to be the high point of musical film, during the 1930s to the 1950s musical films saw its highest popularity in the Western world. The wizard of Oz is a broadway to theater classic. When this film musical was first released in 1939, it became a cinematic phenomenon. Not only was it one of the first films in color, but it brought an effect of opening with sepia while Dorothy was still in Kansas, to progressing towards technicolor when she is swept into the world of Oz. The songs that are featured in this film and both memorable, catchy, and have a lot of meaning. The first musical classic was “Somewhere over the rainbow” The dreams that Dorothy sings about and the adventure that follows seem to mirror our yearnings as children. She imagines a bigger place where her problems don’t linger and she is free to explore them. She imagines a place where there isn’t any trouble and people actually listen to what she has to say. She sees the rainbow as her golden gate to a better place because in her drab Kansas world, the rainbow is the only source of color that she knows. She dreams of a bigger place and imagines a world where troubles melt like lemondrops. We can relate. How many of us as kids sat in our room or in our yards and played, imagining a place to go and characters to interact with, a colorful world bigger than our small, confined worlds. The mise-en-scene added a very dramatic effect to each scene as well, the film’s costume and makeup define each character very well. For example, Dorothy is dressed in a blue plaid dress and pigtails. She is being perceived as a young innocent child, that just wants a change from the same old Kansas lifestyle. The lion is also costumed as a fluffy cat more than the king of the jungle. He has rosey cheeks and and warm smile, helping us achieve that hope of courage that he wants so badly. High key lighting was used a lot to show the bright fantasy effect.Technicolor was a big process back then, it was a three strip process and the cameras were gigantic. Intense lighting on the sound stage would cause intense heat and even made some of the cast to faint!
In the post-classical era the genre of musicals became less mainstream and more specialized. In the 1960s musical tastes were being influenced by rock and roll. Most of the musicals during this time were straight adaptations of successful stage productions. In the 1970s, emphasis was put on gritty realism due to changing taste among the audience. Grease was one of the major hits of this era. Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret were more traditional musicals closely adapted from the stage versions. Fantasy musical films such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Bedknobs and Broomsticks were also released in the 1970s.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory directed by Mel Stuart, starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, is an adaption of the 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The film tells a story about Charlie Bucket, a kid who receives a golden ticket to visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory with four other kids from around the world. The film was shot in Munich, Germany, and released by Paramount Pictures. The film received an Academy Award nomination, and Wilder was nominated for his role in the film. The film was selected for preservation in the U.S National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Unlike earlier musicals, modern 21st century musicals took on a much darker tone, ending the film in a much more gruesome fashion. This more so mirrors the way traditional operas would end, often featuring the main characters dying tragically. For example, in the movie Moulin Rouge, Satine dies, in the arms of her lover Christian, of tuberculosis just as she is freed from the controlling Duke and reaffirms her love for Christian. The death of choice for operas was usually tuberculosis since it was a common way to die at the time. However, there was also another trend occurring that had to do more with Broadway musicals.
Instead of writing music, lyrics and storylines from scratch, sometimes writers would instead create tribute pieces featuring the works of an artist or group. Also known as jukebox musicals, these types of musicals use the works of a group or artist to create their show. Basically, they create a storyline based on the music. For example, Mamma Mia! was created using the music from the pop band ABBA and Moulin Rouge was also a mashup of various artists and original songs (e.g. the Beatles, Elton John, The Police, etc.).
Mamma Mia! in particular features the music of ABBA and has a storyline crafted to match the period. ABBA was popular in the late 60’s to early 70’s or the time of the hippies, where free love and peace was the trend. Because of the free love trend, multiple partners were not frowned upon at this time. However, when a child is fathered, it brings up the issue of who is the father (the plot of the movie). This particular musical resolves in a classic Hollywood ending unlike the darker endings more common in this time period (i.e. like that of Moulin Rouge).