Soprano12

Definition of a "musical"

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We have been challenged to define the term "musical.' I would like to begin with what it is not.

The definition of a musical cannot include "any film in which music is used. All films use a musical theme in the introduction and credits and a musical score in the background throughout to enhance the drama. The music is integral and serves the film but is not the focus. Similarly, neither does a film that includes popular songs from the setting's times. There, the music sets a mood and gives authenticity to setting. It is part of the setting in the same manner as costumes and props. Again, it is integral and serves the effort to tell the story but is not the focus. We live in a world full of sound. Music is endemic, part of our everyday existence. However, our lives are not musicals.

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Every movie has a soundtrack or a score, which, of course, doesn't make every movie a musical.

A musical is one in which song and/or choreography enables the progression of the plot.  In essence, it's a substitute for dialogue, which could do the same.  But the musical interlude provides it in a more nuanced, hopefully, memorable & entertaining manner. 

Animated films, using the same criteria as above mentioned for musicals, are not IMO to be considered musicals. They are animated films. True musicals contain real live people.

Movies with one persistent song either throughout the film or performed once or twice do not a musical make either. 

The only sub-category in musicals would be the biographies of performers ("The Joker Is Wild"); composers ("Rhapsody In Blue") musicians ("The Glenn Miller Story"). Here, the the musical interjections serve as an adjunct to the character's life and career and are necessary to showcase their contribution to the entertainment world through their body of work.  

 

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I would like to define “musicals” as broadly as possible, but I agree that it cannot simply be a film that uses music to help tell the story. As already observed, most films have background music in some form. So I would define a musical as a film that has music sung by the characters. This does not specify how much, or whether it’s diegetic, or whether it forwards the plot or explains the characters. It would therefore include animation (and I do regret that we didn’t look more seriously at that sub-genre) and would include filmed version of operas.  So, upon reflection, that seems perhaps overly broad, and I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they talk about musicals. Choreographed dance movement is another element that we commonly associate with musicals (although every song doesn’t have to be and sometimes is not a dance routine).  And even if the definition is broad, we can still talk about subgenres and evaluation criteria. For me, the BEST musicals are ones in which there is a significant amount of singing by more than one character, with dance movement included, where the songs move the story line forward and reveal or develop character.

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2 hours ago, Zea said:

Animated films, using the same criteria as above mentioned for musicals, are not IMO to be considered musicals. They are animated films. True musicals contain real live people.

 

 

Years ago my sister commented on how different the Disney animated movies of our childhood were from those throughout my son's childhood. The songs of old were "cute" and "sweet" but not necessarily the stuff hits are made of, although a few became icons in and of themselves (When You Wish Upon a Star). But In the 80s or early 90s the musical became more elaborate and lush (think of "Be Our Guest"). 

It seems to me that at some point the music written for animated movies was written with transitioning the movie to Broadway in mind, which is exactly what's been happening for the last 20-ish years. The only Disney movie I can think of that used the old-style music and then was reincarnated on Broadway is Mary Poppins. Most of the rest sound as if they were written expressly for the Broadway stage.

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1 hour ago, BlueMoods said:

It seems to me that at some point the music written for animated movies was written with transitioning the movie to Broadway in mind, which is exactly what's been happening for the last 20-ish years.

It's interesting that you bring this up, since the music for Disney's Beauty and the Beast was expressly written in a more theatrical style, which is why the music and even the structure of the story changed so little when it was adapted for Broadway in 1994.

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3 hours ago, Suzy-Q said:

 

I'll bet there are films out there with no music at all. Anybody know?

 

One of my favorite movies is Executive Suite—which has no music.

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Here’s a tough one, and maybe a movie that can help us define musicals. Is Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? a musical?

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7 minutes ago, KayeA said:

Here’s a tough one, and maybe a movie that can help us define musicals. Is Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? a musical?

I would say yes.  Here's my definition:

1.  The characters of the story should appear to be singing the songs themselves.

2.  Many or most of the songs should be complete, or substantially complete.

3.  The songs should take up a significant amount of screen time.

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" would fit those.  Also "Inside Llewyn Davis."  But not "Hail Caesar," though it contains song-length parodies of Esther Williams and Gene Kelly musical numbers.

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48 minutes ago, Joshua Goodstein said:

It's interesting that you bring this up, since the music for Disney's Beauty and the Beast was expressly written in a more theatrical style, which is why the music and even the structure of the story changed so little when it was adapted for Broadway in 1994.

As is most or all of their subsequent animated movies. I don't know if the Broadway style music of Beauty and the Beast was deliberate but I think they realized what a gold mine they had and used the same formula going forward.

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3 hours ago, ameliajc said:

Choreographed dance movement is another element that we commonly associate with musicals (although every song doesn’t have to be and sometimes is not a dance routine).

"O Brother Where Art Thou?" has this, but not "Inside Llewyn Davis."

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It seems to me that it is next to impossible to define film musicals because most every rule we can think of will have exceptions.  Some musicals use song and dance to advance the plot, and some use them for their own sake (Sun Valley Serenade, Words and Music, A Hard Day's Night).  Some use original scores or substantially original scores, others use songs that were already popular (Easter Parade, Jersey Boys, An American in Paris, Rose of Washington Square).  Some will have people break out in song or dance in an unrealistic place, and others will keep the song and dance more realistic (Cabaret, Broadway Melody of 1929, Yankee Doodle Dandy).  

There might be a list of criteria that help to identify movie musicals, though it would be difficult to create a list that includes every musical and excludes those that aren't without exception.  Some musicals are easily identified as musicals because they tick enough of the criteria.  But there still are some that fall into a grey area.  Evidently TCM considers Lili to be a musical though it has only one song and one major dance.  Many people think of The Red Shoes as a musical though it has only one dance (albeit a very long one).  If I were to make a list of criteria for a musical, I would start with these, acknowledging that it is incomplete and that a film that I think of as a musical may not fit any of the criteria -- no film will meet all of these criteria.

It is probably a musical:

  1. IF there is a complete original score
  2. If it is an adaptation of a stage musical that keeps much of the songs and dances
  3. If there are a bulk of songs and/or dance, or some form of choreographed movement
  4. If music is used more than background music or a single song or dance
  5. If someone spontaneously breaks into song
  6. If the major characters sing or dance

But when all is said and done, I think I may not be able to define a musical, but I know one when I see one.  And because this is an individual definition, there will be disagreements.

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56 minutes ago, KayeA said:

Here’s a tough one, and maybe a movie that can help us define musicals. Is Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? a musical?

I say yes.

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38 minutes ago, nohojim said:

I would say yes.  Here's my definition:

1.  The characters of the story should appear to be singing the songs themselves.

2.  Many or most of the songs should be complete, or substantially complete.

3.  The songs should take up a significant amount of screen time.

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" would fit those.  Also "Inside Llewyn Davis."  But not "Hail Caesar," though it contains song-length parodies of Esther Williams and Gene Kelly musical numbers.

Thanks for mentioning Llewyn Davis.

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My definition of a musical is any movie that uses music (be it songs or dance) to tell part or all of the story and/or uses music to entertain the audience.

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I tend to be purist in my definition of musicals and prefer my song and dance to be integrated into the story and to contribute to the plot.  If the songs and dances can be removed and nothing of consequence is lost, then I'd hesitate to call whatever it is a musical -- it might be a story with songs, or a story with dance, or a story with song and dance.  But my favourite musicals are not stories at all without the songs - they need the songs (and in some cases the dances) in order to be complete entertainments.

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It's funny, but I woke up thinking about this question just this morning: What makes a movie a musical? Where does the soundtrack end and the musical begin--or vice versa? I was thinking in particular about Guardians of the Galaxy. I heard an interview with Chris Pratt where he said that the music for the movie was determined before the movie was written, so the action and dialog was built around the soundtrack, unlike most movies where the musical soundtrack is added to the movie to enhance scenes and/or evoke certain emotions. Forest Gump is another example where the soundtrack is virtually another character in the movie.

Do characters in the movie have to sing to make it a musical? That seems to me to be the main difference between the two types of movies where music plays a significant part.

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I would like to add one more aspect to the definition of musical: its lasting emotional power. When we watch a musical, the melodies touch our innermost soul, creating empathy for the character. The lyrics articulate the love/hate, frustration/victory, sadness/glee so that we identify with him or her. The character's feelings become our own. Many songs are lyrical or repetitive enough so that at the very least, we walk out of the theater humming a few tunes. At least one of the songs becomes an earworm that plays in our heads for a while. Maybe we learn it. If the song has enough emotional depth, we recall it when we are in a similar situation and it heartens us. Whenever we watch a musical, we sing along with the characters. Wouldn't it be fun to have a sing-along showing of TCM films in theaters? Bollywood capitalizes on the commercial aspects of its musicals. We should, too.

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