Musicals 101: Analyze the Dance.
Part 2: The Spectacle.
The backstage musical is a beautiful thing. While it is true that all musical numbers are ripe for spectacle, it is in the backstage musical where spectacle reigns supreme. The marriage of storyline to the musical number typified by the integrated musical is innately limiting to spectacle (in order to favor plot and character progression). In the integrated musical – when, where, and how the musical number takes place is dependent on how the the rest of the film will unfold. In short, the musical number must take place in the same world created by the plot. If “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” all of a sudden took place on the Brooklyn Bridge, it wouldn’t make much sense because New York City is not the world created by plot – Oz is.
The backstage musical, on the other hand, has no responsibly to the plotted world of character and story development. Absent is the need to recall and incorporate previous numbers, for the backstage musical number exists in its own bubble of time. Isolated from the rules that dictate the rest of the film, the backstage musical number can transport the audience, well, anywhere it pleases. Let’s look at two numbers from Gold Diggers of 1933. “We’re in the Money” and “Remember My Forgotten Man.”
Both songs were choreographed by Busby Berkeley and share a similar theme to the film as a whole: Life during the depression. “We’re in the Money” takes place on the fantasy world of a stage. In this fantasy realm Ginger Rogers sings directly to the audience, informing them their troubles are over because, well, she is quite literally in the money. Rogers, along with her fellow dancers, is outfitted in a costume made almost entirely of coins, of money. Giant 30-foot coins act as background décor and the only props used by the dancers are, you guessed it, more coins. There are no subtleties here, only spectacle and since money is the theme of this song, it is money is you will get. This is the fantasy, the dream: a life outside of the poverty stricken depression the performers and its audience must live. A place where you can let go of your troubles and surround yourself with gold. “Remember my Forgotten Man”, however, is just the opposite.
“Remember My Forgotten Man” is the antithesis of “We’re in the Money.” The lyrics tell the tale of a war veteran who, upon returning home from war, is thrust into economic depression. The number begins on the streets, as a woman sings to the audience about her forgotten man, her wartime veteran. We then see the man, slumped on the ground, looking world weary and defeated. He’s almost arrested for loitering, his military metal acting as his only savior, the only proof of his personal sacrifice. Then, we’re whisked away to the past, watching lines of soldiers march in time, gleaming with pride as they parade down the street, saying goodbye to their wives and lovers. They continue to march as they are transported to the rainy aftermath of a wartime battle, forced to carry the wounded and the dying. And we follow them as they march to their final destination, the breadlines, as rows and rows of veterans are now forced to live in poverty for the country they sacrificed so much for. Below is a link to the number.
If you were to follow the logic set forth by the plot, the musical number is literally impossible. The set changes, the time jumps and the sheer number of people could never happen in what I shall call “the real world.” But that doesn’t matter because the backstage musical number isn’t about “the real world.” It’s about creating spectacle, and if the musical number just happens to make a comment on the real world in the process, well that’s just a big ol’ plus.
Minoo Allen for Classic Move Hub