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Another musical movie crescendo?

Score of new Broadway films brings to mind Hollywood's Golden Era.

Phil Bray

The hits are moving from stage to screen: Tracie Thoms and Anthony Rapp star in Columbia Pictures' 'Rent.'


Friday, November 25, 2005

And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to . . . "The Producers."

Stop the band! What year is this? 2006? Surely that's a mistake.

Before the sassy "Chicago" took home the glinting statuette in 2002, the last musical to win Best Picture was "Oliver!" in 1968 — more than a generation beforehand. The last one to seriously contend was "Cabaret" in 1972. (It was ice-picked by "The Godfather.")

Except for some hybrids, the movie musical has been deader than the Wicked Witch of the East for the past 30 years.

And yet, there was "Chicago," like a Hollywood fairy tale, besting an admittedly weak field, snaring extra Oscars for stage veteran Catherine Zeta-Jones, as well as for sound, art direction, film editing and costume design.

That victory helped roll out the carpet for a host of new movie musicals — last year's "De-Lovely" and "The Phantom of the Opera," this year's "Rent" and "The Producers" — and it summoned up glowing memories of Hollywood in its Golden Era.

During the '30s and '40s, and well into the '50s and '60s, musicals were among Hollywood's most appealing achievements. Musicals won more than nine Best Picture Oscars between 1928 and 1968.

The singing started with "The Jazz Singer," rarely exhibited nowadays, in part because Al Jolson in blackface looks more like 1827 than 1927. Early movie musicals simply slapped a camera in front of loosely structured, proscenium-style stage shows, rarely using the medium's capacity for taut narrative, location shoots or deeper focus.

It took Busby Berkeley to translate the language of musicals — irresistible emotion expressed in song and dance, wedded to nimble dialogue — to that of movies, including the close-up and extended sound-stage fantasies. (Expert editing would come later.)

By midcentury, Hollywood had become adept at the art, producing such classics as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Singin' in the Rain." The biggest innovation came from back East, with the unprecedented melding of songs and spoken word in Broadway musicals such as "Oklahoma!" That improvement only boosted the postwar movie musical, and the New York-to-California hit parade marched well into the 1960s, with "West Side Story" and "My Fair Lady."

Yet the pinnacle achievement in film history proved to be Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain," a 1952 masterpiece without a stage past — and no stage future, if the flop 1985 Broadway version is any indication. It not only plied the emotional, visual and musical dialects of both media fluently, it poked fun at early, awkward movie musicals.

Despite the popularity of sometimes swollen hits such as "The Sound of Music" (1965) and "Funny Girl" (1968), the 1960s marked the end of the golden era of movie musicals. Most observers point to Kelly's "Hello, Dolly!" (1969) as the last of its overblown kind, which vastly "opened up" a show that worked neatly on stage, but not so well in the bloated vocabulary of late Hollywood. It was outdated before it even opened.

Rock music, the cult of coolness and the cultural revolutions of the '60s also punched holes in the traditional musical. "Hair" aside, guitar-heavy, lyrics-starved rock 'n' roll worked hardly at all on Broadway, and only passingly in genre films. The same was true of pop-rock and blues, although the lively movie versions of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "The Blues Brothers" argued otherwise. The sexual and political tumults of the age made the offspring of "Oklahoma!" seem pastel and passé. Who really bursts into song with a full orchestra in support, the younger generation asked.

After "Cabaret," which tellingly placed all the songs in a nightclub or other natural singing setting (a wine arbor for the chilling "Tomorrow Belongs to Me"), directors lost the ability to translate between the media. Big hits that worked beautifully in darkened theaters with nonrealistic sets ("Man of La Mancha," "The Fantasticks," etc.) looked grotesque naturalized on the big screen. Even unkillable material, such as "A Chorus Line," suddenly made no sense under directors such as Richard Attenborough, who just could not make them sing.

Yes, "Grease" and "Saturday Night Fever" scored high on the pop-culture meter, but the first depended on campy '50s nostalgia, the second on the ephemeral disco craze, and both on the charms of John Travolta. "Dirty Dancing" and "Footloose" used music seductively to showcase social dancing, but they don't count as musicals. Biographies of charismatic musicians, such as "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Ray" resembled musicals, but only superficially. Cult hits such as "Rocky Horror Picture Show" and, more quietly, "Starstruck" fed new pods of musical fanatics, but tellingly failed during their mainstream runs.

A nod must be made to the Madonna "Evita" (1996), a subject of acrimony among musical lovers, but a reasonably honorable transfer of the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber winner.

Tellingly, nothing by this age's greatest Broadway composer, Stephen Sondheim, has made a viable movie. In fact, "A Little Night Music" went from gossamer magic to a resounding dud. (Yes, Sondheim wrote the lyrics for "West Side Story" and "Gypsy," but those don't count in the post-movie-musical era.)

The show that resuscitated the movie musical, with help from Disney's latter-day animated hits, did so because director Baz Luhrmann adapted the language of the small screen, not the big. The slurry, then sped-up action, the zippy edits and the pop-sounding pleasantries of "Moulin Rouge" (2001) owe as much to music videos as they do to Richard Lester's Beatles movies that preceded MTV. Like "Singin' in the Rain," "Moulin Rouge" could only really succeed in the movie format, and will resist the inevitable urge to adapt it for Broadway.

Which brings us back to "Chicago." It's not beside the point that the songs for "Cabaret" and "Chicago" were written by Fred Ebb and John Kander, whose fluid style not only recalls the '20s, '30s and '40s, but sounds somewhat contemporary as well. Both shows have been re-interpreted radically onstage, confirming their potential durability, and both preserve the showbiz genius of director/choreographer Bob Fosse. (Rob Marshall directed the latter movie, but it all flows from the mind of the late Fosse.)

Marshall and gang extended the lessons of "Moulin Rouge." Consider the last sequence, as Zeta-Jones and the mutable Renée Zellweger sing and dance in front of a bank of bursting light bulbs. Recall anything? A Madonna video perhaps? And notice how the slurring/speeding effect makes the performers appear to be almost inhumanly talented dancers.

"Chicago," with its harder-than-nail-polish cynicism, won over some skeptical audience members who've never made the leap of faith that singing is speaking, only with more intensity.

So, visually and emotionally, musicals and movies are speaking to each other again. It remains to be seen if the conversation will endure (from the point of view of this non-fan, the "Phantom" movie improved on the stage version, for instance, and so does "Rent"). But nobody expects musical movies to sweep the box office anytime soon, as they did during MGM's heyday.

Yet Jolson's exclamation still rings fractionally true: "You ain't heard nothing yet!"; 445-3647

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