Musicals 101: Busby Berkeley, King of the Backstage Musical
It’s only a slight exaggeration when I say that Busby Berkley invented the backstage musical. Sure, the genre existed before he entered the moving picture scene, but it was Berkeley who took the genre to new creative heights. And it’s Berkeley’s creation we picture when the term “backstage musical” is used. You see, as a choreographer first, director second, Berkeley had a deep understanding of the spectacle, favoring it over story-telling. This is why the backstage musical was such a perfect fit for Berkeley – it gave him the freedom to create spectacular musical numbers completely divorced from the time-space reality created by the films’ narrative. Berkeley had the freedom to bend the creative form to his will and, well, that is exactly what he did.
His most celebrated innovation was his use of the chorus line. By using massive amounts of female chorus line dancers know as “Berkeley Girls,” he was able to create perfect geometric forms composed of the human body, creating the illusion of a human kaleidoscope. The point was not to demonstrate the talents of one star, but to create a spectacle out of a collectivized group of women. Many film scholars commented on how his use of the female body, such as sectioning off legs to create triangular geometric shapes or the matching costumes each dancer wore, demonstrated the loss of female agency for the sake of spectacle.
If we look at Berkeley through a more historic lens, his work also takes on the added depth of political engagement. Where American once prided itself on its rugged individualism, a little thing called Black Tuesday, aks the day the stock market crashed and burned, called into question the validity of that public mind-set. Soon, the newly elected FDR would put in effect his New Deal policies and Berkeley’s work could be seen as a direct response to depression-era politics. Because the spectacle of Berkeley’s films is reliant on the illusion of the “kaleidoscope effect,” created by the synchronized movement of aesthetically identical dancers, his work is often seen as physical depiction of the collectivist-spirit of the New Deal, even though Berkeley himself would deny any such significant meaning to his work.
Moreover than his accidental political overtures, Berkeley gave the genre a sense of limitlessness, taking full advantage of backstage musical formula. Because the numbers took place on a stage, a venue born of fantasy, Berkeley refused to follow the logic of the narrative world created by plot. He realized when the narrative world stops, anything is possible. This is the ultimate contribution of Busby Berkeley.
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub