Old Musicals: The Loves and Hates

Last night, my wife and I watched “Fiddler on the Roof” for the first time in forever (it’s a 3-hour movie; you have to schedule it in). This is not only my favorite musical, but easily my favorite movie of all time. The songs are pitch-perfect and the story is well told and beautifully presented, and leaves a lasting memory like no other film.

Musicals have a very odd appeal, and they usually split people into love and hate camps. After all, a musical done well can be utterly amazing, but one that stumbles quickly turns into an abject failure. It’s like comedy: if it’s actually funny, it’s phenomenal. If it’s not funny when it’s trying to be, it’s worse than horrible.

I’m generally a fan of musicals and I’ve watched several of them. One thing you’ll notice is a pretty strong stylistic difference of old musicals and new ones. By old ones, I mean musicals from about the 60’s and 70’s, such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Sound of Music,” “The King and I,” and “Hello, Dolly!” By new ones, I mean the more modern stuff like “Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Moulin Rouge, and Wicked.”

Generally, I’m more of a fan of modern musicals, but there’s something about those older ones that holds serious appeal to me, so I thought I’d share a few loves and hates of the old styles and see what you guys think, too.

LOVE: The Fun

Older musicals were just plain fun for at least 2/3 of every story. The energy is high and the actors are having a ball of a time. Nowadays, there’s less fun. There are exceptions, of course, but many of them start with the problem and even the more upbeat songs can still be limited in their energy. I’m thinking of Rent and Phantom, and even the very beginning of Moulin Rouge.

In the old musicals, everything was bombastic. It was really more like a play, and while the subtleties can be lost in translation to celluloid, the high energy of every scene makes each one enjoyable. I’m not really a fan of “The King and I,” but I love Yul Brynner as the King. The man clearly had a ton of fun with that role, and he was the reason I kept watching that movie.

HATE: The Third Act

What was it with old musicals and drastically changing the third act? Even some modern ones do that, make the tone darker or add in more trouble, like any movie that reaches the climax. But the modern ones generally get a better sense of the trouble that awaits. In Rent, you see throughout the story that many characters have AIDS, and they’re slowly fading away. In Phantom, the phantom is always present and commanding. In Moulin Rouge, you always knew the Duke would be trouble, so when he finally was, it wasn’t jarring, but effectively chilling.

In old musicals, it’s like they get caught up in the fun and forget there’s a dark plot waiting in the corner. Fiddler is the one that does it very well. Early on, they fortell the danger and they bring it to life before the intermission, so it only gets worse, but doesn’t come out of nowhere. The King and I, however, has this one little problem in the background, but only touches on it and then lightly. Then suddenly the King is not only looking in danger of losing his power, but is suddenly and randomly sick/dying. Uh, okay?

The worst offender I’ve seen is The Sound of Music. I don’t like this movie. I’m sorry. The third act kills it for me. If the movie had stopped after Act 2, I may not have complained, but it didn’t. With almost no warning, it explodes into a Nazi occupation story. The character development is done, the love story they’ve set up has been completed, and even the songs are basically done. Yet the movie drags on as a completely different film than it started, and ends on a randomly ambiguous note that just plain left a bad taste in my mouth.

LOVE: The Talent Show

This is part of the fun I mentioned earlier. It seemed the way of old movies in general to have some kind of talent show within the movie. How many old black-and-white movies had someone singing at some point in a bar or wherever? That’s right, ALL of them. Even the Marx Brothers would start plinking away on the piano or the harp in every movie they made. Musicals were no different. Though already lined with talent, they usually brought in a great dance number or some incredible instrumental talent. Fiddler had two cool dance scenes and some awesome fiddle playing. 7 Brides for 7 Brothers is famous for its dance numbers.

Modern musicals don’t have that so much. Yes, there is great singing, but that’s it. Rarely do you find what I call “Standout Talent,” where the movie seems to almost stop for this one part. In Moulin Rouge they kind of joke about it in the beginning when everyone is arguing over song lyrics and Christian suddenly bursts out with “The Hills are Alive” so powerfully that the whole room shuts up.

However…

HATE: The Talent Show

Like I said, most old movies had this, but only about 10% needed it. In many cases, the sudden display of talent was just that: sudden. It comes out of almost nowhere sometimes, and then it just drags, not adding anything to the story, but rather halting it altogether to show off something totally unrelated.

In The Sound of Music, it was the “So Long, Farewell” song when the kids go to bed. After the second kid sang his way to sleep, I groaned and said, “We’re going to do this for all seven of them, aren’t we?” And then the literal talent show at the end, which seems like a good excuse, but actually just rehashes some of the old stuff and ends tepidly.

The worst example I know of rests in the late-middle of The King and I. I’m talking about the play scene. The King invites many people over and his servants put on a play of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s a very interesting Oriental rendition and again, the talent is there, but I felt like the entire cast of Monty Python: GET ON WITH IT!! They show the entire play, which lasts a good 20 minutes, I swear! They literally stop the movie to show you a different one! There’s almost no bearing on the story except for one very forced line from the narrator confronting the king, but the scene afterwards where she’s caught with another man gets the exact same point across while actually continuing the plot! So why is it there?!

LOVE: The Singing

There’s talent in both the new musicals and the old ones, but there they’re different styles. I was raised in choir to sing classically, which was more the style of the old school musicals. Like I said, these were more like plays than movies, so the singers had to enunciate, project, and hit the hard, professional notes. Modern singers are, again, great, but the subltleties allow for weaker singing in some cases. I’m thinking of Sweeny Todd here, with no real standout singing talent except perhaps for (oddly), Sasha Baren Cohen, or the kid he carries along, both able to hit some high notes with professional finesse. Phantom of the Opera carried the old classical style, too, and resonates for it.

Plus, there was more of an emphasis on bass singers back then. The tradmark manly voice was the deep, burly fellow, like Tevye and the other fathers in the opening Fiddler song, “Tradition.” Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was full of burly mountain men hitting those low notes. Modern songs seem to aim for higher male singers, more tenors. This is fine and some higher male singers are great and it shows some impressive range, but I, being a baritone, love the deep, rumbling bass sound.

Finally, there was more emphasis on choruses. How many modern movies have a chorus? There is a much larger focus on characters these days, so there’s more individual singing, which is great, but we lose that great background sound, which blends together a multitude of voices. A great modern example is in Moulin Rouge, the very last musical piece when they’re on the stage, and the whole crew is singing their hearts out in beautiful fashion with multiple songs weaving as one, which is one of my favorite music tricks. But it wasn’t in the soundtrack. EITHER of them. Poop.

HATE: The Music

While the talent was great in the performers, the writers lacked something serious. Maybe it’s a stylistic choice, but I seriously do not like many of the songs in old musicals. The biggest bombs in my opinion are the Rogers and Hammerstein ones: The Sound of Music and The King and I. These are great classics, but the songs are dreadfully dull and they all have the same style.

With newer musicals, you get more variety, in general. Rent has a protest song (Rent), a conversation song (Light my Candle), drum-heavy song (Today for You), a bass-heavy song (Santa Fe), a Tango (Tango Maureen), some romance songs, a round (Will I?) and some just plain good rock anthems and ballads. A lot of the older songs just plain sound the same (Fiddler being a rare exception, and even then some are similar).

And it isn’t just he songs I don’t like, it’s how they use them. In so many of the old songs, the movie flat out STOPS when the songs start. The King and I was the worst. All action of any sort stops as the characters sit down to listen to somebody sing. Nothing happens during that time except maybe a little pacing. And often, the songs are just that: songs. Not musical numbers. What’s the difference, you ask?

A musical should be a BLEND of music and film. A musical number tells a story, a conversation, or a though process, but it’s set to music so you can do so in new and creative ways. A good musical number furthers the story, character, or the movie in general. A song stands alone. This is great for CD sales and replayability, but the movie suffers because it actually hinders the plot.

For example, in The King and I, the first song talks about how Anna whistles whenever she feels nervous or scared. THIS NEVER HAPPENS IN THE MOVIE! Not only does she never whistle, she’s never even scared! This song makes it seem like a young woman trying to be brave in a foreign world. In reality, she is bold and forthright, marching right up to a King, who can kill her in an instant, and demanding this or that! So ten minutes have been wasted on this pointless song.

Or again, that ridiculous “So Long, Farewell” song when the kids are going to bed in The Sound of Music. The kids are saying goodnight to the party, which I’ve never seen happen in real life, but it’s a musical, so hey. They go through each child’s goodnight. That’s it. A rather long song about the kids singing goodnight. The entire plot is on hold while these kids say something completely unnecessary in song.

Shoot, even Moulin Rouge told a better story with its music, and it ripped off 98% of its music from songs that already existed!

So, yes, I hate some classics like The Sound of Music and the King and I. Again, it may be a stylistic choice, but when music and film collide, rather than connect, I think the whole thing falls flat.

What’s your opinion on musicals? Any favorites?

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