Movie musicals: Stuck in Renée Zellweger’s head for a decade

Pardon her, but she’s about to sing

The re-mainstreaming of the musical could be said to be a decade old this year. It was in 2002 that the movie version of Chicago was released and subsequently snatched up the Oscar for Best Picture.

Ever since, pop culture has been chasing the genre again. Sometimes it’s a wild cross-cultural and financial success (Glee, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), and sometimes a miserable flop of torturously inept proportions (the 2005 adaptation of The Producers).

Although the musical departed the pop culture mainstream along with jukeboxes and crooners, there’s still enough money in them — if they’re done correctly — to have been a constant lure for the past decade. What was once a pet genre, invoked only in private or in some kind of pastiche such as Pennies from Heaven, is now being taken seriously again on its own terms, for its own unique language.

Much of the thanks go to Howard Ashman, the genius wordsmith who returned Disney to its groove, and to its black bottom line, with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. He died at the peak of the AIDS holocaust before he could rightfully claim the credit that Michael Eisner greedily usurped as his own. But where Ashman laid the groundwork for pop culture re-acceptance of the musical with modern idioms, his work, whether it was for Disney Animation or for Little Shop of Horrors, seemed to always spring from an awareness that musicals work best in a candy-colored, backlot-imagined, hyper reality.

After all, modern audiences’ brittle, Vietnam-fired sensibilities are troubled by the musical’s annoying tendency to feature characters who unnervingly break into song. Problematic, that, and the clearest way around that intellectual short circuit, as the syrupy-sweet set designers at MGM’s Freed Unit knew, is to bathe productions in a surreality that excuses the transgression of song. Ashman’s greatest triumph was knowing that, and knowing the one medium — animation — could support song best.

‘An American in Paris’, 1951: It works because it’s fake

Many of our most beloved musicals, from The Wizard of Oz to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, enter our brains and set our feet tapping by riding in on a Trojan Horse of surreality — and true to that, the musical’s death, or at least its hibernation, was hastened in the late ’60 and early ’70s, when directors insisted on succumbing to the Sondheimian temptation toward reality and started shooting movies such as Paint Your Wagon and Fiddler on the Roof in gritty, real-world locations and not in paint-washed back lots that invoked the alternative universe that musicals inhabit. The topics of a Sondheim musical are realistic, but they are nonetheless presented in the artificial world of a theatre, but translated to the screen realistically, they’re lethal.

So when the live action musical came back to us with Chicago, America’s play state, at least, was prepared in part for song thanks to Howard Ashman’s sassy Disney triumphs.

But something happened at the very start of Chicago that marked a pivot in musical theatre. In fact, what happened in the first five minutes of Chicago could be said to have set the filmed musical on a new course forever, and few people even noticed it had happened.

It was simply this: Roxie Hart watched Velma Kelly sing at a nightclub, began to fantasize about singing too, and began to sing inside her mind. We followed her there.

And like that, songs, if they were going to be sung at all, needed an excuse to happen. Film scholars might call that diegetic, meaning sounds that come from something you see happening in the film’s world, and not out of left field.

It made perfect sense for Velma to be singing. She worked at a club. Her song was diegetic. And once Roxie, played by Renée Zellweger, invited us into her moment of fantasy, or maybe her insanity, for the rest of the movie there would be a reasonable cause for any character to burst into song without it feeling weird to the audience as long as no one disturbed reality with a tune. Sets were never realistic. Instead, to maintain that out-of-reality reality, songs were sung in the limbo of a black void or in a tea-smoked, Hollywoodized, obviously fake set. If a set is clearly the figment of some designer’s imagination, modern audiences accept that singing is, too. That was the way MGM did it: by making things so plainly unreal that accepting the ludicrous rules of musicals became easier to do.

Once Roxie went into her own head, that uncomfortable rift that occurs between a singing character and the audience didn’t happen. No “moon in June” for us. The modern moment, unknown to our musical-loving forebears, in which the suspension of disbelief smashes into the brick wall of cynicism, the one that makes husbands shift in their seats at 8:02 and wish their wives hadn’t insisted on dragging them to another goddamn musical with jazz hands and show boys — it was squashed by director Rob Marshall the moment Roxie Hart went a little nuts during “All That Jazz.”

Even Fred Astaire looks ridiculous when he’s not on a set (‘Finian’s Rainbow’, 1968)

And non-diegetic singing has been squashed ever since. In Fox’s Glee, characters only indulge in song when it makes some sense for them to, which boils down to either practice in the chorus rehearsal room or, more sparingly, in their fantasies. Ideally, numbers veer between the two with a cue of blue lighting after the first verse. In NBC’s Smash, someone has to be in rehearsal or at karaoke or singing along to Guitar Hero should a melody dare surface. No one just up and sings. Not even in Once, the most-Tony nominated Broadway musical this year, whose songs all happen to be the songs written by its songwriter characters. Earnestness must be deflected at all costs.

The way to get someone who hates musicals to like one, at least a little, is by coming up with an apology for the songs so it doesn’t seem like characters have gone insane. Either there’s an organic reason for the song that arises from the action, or the character’s whole world is insane. Roxie Hart killed everything in between.

Never again will you hear Sir Lancelot sing Guinevere a song as sincere and unironic as “If Ever I Would Leave” you unless he happens to be rehearsing it for the local talent show. Musicals can no longer support an expressive statement without a scientific explanation for the lapse.

To the modern musical’s irony-fed audience, falseness sells earnestness. The target audience of High School Musical knew all too well that it was witnessing an idealized fabrication of perfect prettiness, Polyanna concerns, and Hallmark card team spirit that bore no resemblance to their own daily lives of metal detectors, bullying, and overcrowded classrooms. The fantasy was the vehicle.

Besides a diegetic cue for a song, there is only one other way you’re allowed to sing in a modern musical, and it, too, is a rule that satisfies modern audience’s tastes for realism and irony. That second way: If the rules of your particular movie involve a hopped-up, exaggerated setting or style, as with the clownish Hairspray or Tim Burton’s CGI Gothic Sweeney Todd, we will let you sing. We’re not too far off from MGM’s candy land in this regard. In the modern musical’s world, falseness sells earnestness, and the target audience of High School Musical wistfully knew it was witnessing an idealized fabrication of perfect prettiness, Polyanna concerns, and Hallmark card team spirit that bore no resemblance to their own daily lives of metal detectors, bullying, and overcrowded classrooms. The fantasy was the vehicle.

Tunes are either commentary or straight out of the action; after Chicago, we cannot look raw emotion in the face.

In a way, the modern era of film musical has taken place inside Renée Zellweger’s head. For that, the musical apologizes.

Megan Hilty in Smash on NBC

NBC’s ‘Smash’: relentlessly searching for a reason to sing

8 Responses to “Movie musicals: Stuck in Renée Zellweger’s head for a decade”

  1. EstherK

    Hey, this post isn’t about travel! But wait, it is…about travel into the fabulous world of musicals. I had been long pondering a post about the resurgence of the musical in popular culture, attributing some of it to Joss Whedon for his “Dr. Horrible” as well as his “Once More With Feeling” episode of Buffy (in which spontaneous singing was caused by a demon), and even extending back to “Cop Rock.” But I never wrote it, which is why I was glad to see that you did. 🙂

    When the songs come organically, I’m all for singing in priimetime. Or anytime. Or at the office, where I’m trying to find collaborators in what I’m tentatively calling “Musical Wednesdays.” Fun post, Jason. Thanks.

  2. John Strangi

    I found Jason Cochrans about “movie musical’s” excellent. I’d also hoped that “Chicago” would have brought us back to the era when Julie Andrews was Queen. Thank God we at least had those years. In my book Miss Andrews is still Queen but, sadly, most MM’s, these days, just don’t seem to make it.

  3. Tom Benton

    I believe Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark was very much responsible for Chicago’s success. He used Bjork’s musical numbers in much the same way, as she escaped into her own internal world to deal with the harshness of the world around her.

    • Jason Cochran

      Songs that occur inside the characters’ fantasies are nothing new — you can go even back to Kurt Weill’s psychoanalysis musical Lady in the Dark (1941) for taking that that innovation to a major level. Dancer in the Dark could be considered the wrist-slitting descendant of that one. But what’s new is that so many musicals occur in either Fantasyland or Realityland now. So few songs simply arise from a character’s impulse to sing their emotions to another character. It’s as if the only way jaded audiences can accept singing is if it’s monologue, and not dialogue. The concept musical has become the only acceptable mode.

      • Jason Cochran

        Although the trend was bubbling for years, it seemed to require the mad success of ‘Chicago’, combined with Hollywood copycat-ism, to cement it into the dominant mode of musical storytelling.

  4. Ken Kleiber

    Well-articulated! I’ve always believed that if the world of a piece (musical or otherwise) is established in the first two minutes, then that piece pretty much has free-reign to stylistically go where it needs to go. One of my biggest gripes about the RENT film is that rather than sing the opening lines (“December 24th…”, etc.) as written, the director opted to have it spoken, thus establishing the film as a non-musical…so when several minutes later the characters break into song, it offended the senses (“Hey! Why are these people running around singing all of a sudden! Cut it out!”).
    Great job!