Musical Interlude: What is a Musical? A New Answer Comes with Each Decade

What is a musical? A New Answer Comes with Each Decade.

When you can’t express how you feel in words … belt out a song or break out into a lively dance number.

That is typically how musicals have been defined: Singing or dancing when the emotion builds up too high to express feelings with speech, and the songs sometimes help move along the plot.

While this is true for most musicals, it isn’t so for all.

The Sound of MusicThe Sound of Music (1965).

In contemporary society, if you ask a person on the street between ages 18 and 50, “What is your favorite movie musical?” I have a strong hunch The Sound of Music (1965) would be widely cited with perhaps Singin’ in the Rain (1951), Mary Poppins (1964) or Grease (1978) not far behind.

These musicals are great and while they follow the definition, these aren’t the “rule.”

I started thinking about this while reading La La Land criticism on social media after it was released in 2016. I was struck by one post in particular: La La Land wasn’t a musical (in the Broadway sense) and they need to watch more musical theater.

This comment made me pause. As someone who has seen a lot of movie musicals (589 to be exact), La La Land fits the bill. Movie musicals are not limited to musical theater or Broadway adaptations, as film history shows.

Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Oliver!, or The Sound of Music are Broadway film adaptations that are remembered by contemporary audiences. But these robust musicals weren’t always what graced the screen. In fact, most of these were released when the musical genre was packing its bags and starting to head out the door — leaving audiences without the steady diet of musical releases that they had from 1929 to the late 1950s.

From MGM’s first musical (and first talkie) The Broadway Melody (1929) to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), there were technical advancements in films and storytelling. Each decade had its own musical style.

Take Footlight Parade (1933) — this is a movie musical about putting on musical shows. The music and dancing are performances of the show in this film. None of these are performed out of romance or emotion, but purely to entertain the audiences within the film (and the audiences watching the film).

The 1930s musicals, such as the Warner Brothers musicals with elaborate Busby Berkeley choreographed numbers or RKO’s sophisticated Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, were used to entertain audiences during the Great Depression. Most of these were original for the screen, rather than stage adaptations.

Bathing Beauty Movie Poster (1944)Bathing Beauty Movie Poster (1944).

The social media comment particularly made me think of 1940s musicals like Bathing Beauty (1944) or Eve Knew Her Apples (1945), musical comedies that couldn’t be further from the idea of “musical theater.”

Bathing Beauty (1944) introduced the world to champion swimmer Esther Williams and her choreographed under-water numbers. These were all set to music, but the singing corresponded with popular performers of the time. These bands performed in nightclubs or poolside. The only true breakout into song is during a classroom scene when a version of “I’ll Take the High Road” is performed by Red Skelton, Jean Porter, Janis Paige, Carlos Ramírez, Helen Forrest, Harry James and Buddy Moreno with Harry James and His Orchestra and Ethel Smith on an organ.

And as for Eve Knew Her Apples (1945), Ann Miller is a radio performer in the film and her songs are tied to performances. The songs further the plot. This film was more the rule than the exception during this time.

Eve Knew Her Apples 1940s

Eve Knew Her Apples (1945).

The musicals that provided the “musical theater” vibe didn’t become status quo until the 1950s when everything was bigger, more vibrant and successful. With that came films like Annie Get Your Gun or the flood of musical remakes like High Society. Studios like MGM churned out more musicals.

However, by the mid-to-late-1950s, MGM, for example, known for their musicals, was making more serious films, thanks to new studio head Dore Schary.

By the 1960s, the high-dollar, widely cited favorite musicals like The Sound of Music (1965) killed the Hollywood musical genre. The Sound of Music was a disaster to make and went over budget, however, it was successful with audiences. Because of this, Hollywood went on to make even more expensive musicals like Camelot (1967) and Star! (1968), and they failed and lost money, according to Matthew Kennedy’s book, Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s.

By the 1970s, musicals were dead and couldn’t be resuscitated over the next few decades by releases like Annie (1982), Moulin Rouge (2001), Chicago (2002), or Mamma Mia (2008).

So is it really all that bad for a musical not to follow the “musical theater” guidelines? It seems like the movie musical flourished before these rules were followed.

– Jessica Pickens for Classic Movie Hub

Jessica can be found at and on twitter at @HollywoodComet. In addition to her overall love of classic movies, she has ongoing series on her site including “Watching 1939” and “Musical Monday.”

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3 Responses to Musical Interlude: What is a Musical? A New Answer Comes with Each Decade

  1. Mark Brown says:

    I guess maybe the “rules” of musical theater has changed a bit.

  2. Gloria Elizabeth says:

    I’ve heard (and read) these that’s-not-a-musical comments before and been puzzled by them. This brief history nicely rebuts that idea, highlighting the shifting shape of movie musicals over time. It’s not a static genre but one constantly adapting to new technologies, tastes, and themes. Thanks for the post!

  3. David Hollingsworth says:

    This wonderful post brings to life that almost every decade had its fair share of notable musicals; some good, others not-so-good. The musical may not the easiest genre that transitions well because there is so much change in technology in each decade.

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