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Last month I had pause to discuss this topic with several guests at an art gallery exhibition of classic film musical posters. One guest was a critic for a big city mag' who made the claim that 'construction' in film is everything - meaning that narrative and plot must be the focus and driving force for audience satisfaction.


This, he deemed, is why so many musicals fail to live up to expectations - because without their music they simply cannot sustain an audience's interest.


I happen to disagree with this statement but then again, what do I know? He is the big city critic earning big bucks for an opinion that seems to be embraced by enough of his readership.


However, it did leave me with a rather interesting experiment. I recently watched the Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse musical Silk Stockings (itself, a remake of the non-musical Ninotchka 1939) and was rather quite amused to discover that even without Astaire and Charisse's illustrious dance routines, there was indeed enough by way of scripted wit and chemistry between these two to 'hold' the film together.


Then again, who the hell would want to see an Astaire dance movie without any Astaire dancing in it?!?


So here is the challenge. Anyone who wants to take me up on it can.


Take your favorite musical and cut out, fast forward, side step or omit all the songs and dances.


Does it still hold up for quality and performance, or does everything seem to rely on those precious few moments when dialogue becomes quite unnecessary and everyone instead breaks into a time step and high notes?


It doesn't reall matter what film you chose. If you dare, try the experiment and report back here. Let's see if "Mr. Big City Critic" is right or wrong.

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Great topic, NZ. I am of the opinion that musicals are bashed too much for their light-weight plots. Just how much more depth has A Midsummer Night's Dream or Twelfth Night than Top Hat or My Sister Eileen, really? Or Wuthering Heights than Oklahoma? And if a musical features personalities beloved because you enjoy their comic timing or their appearance or their delivery of dialogue, don't you still enjoy those elements, even without the music?

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I don't agree with the critic's premise. Who says so many musicals fail to live up to expectations? There aren't many musicals around now, but that has more to do with popular tastes for music that itself isn't very musical, and a general preference for the real over the fanciful.


I would also point out to him that the musical is its own form and I would suggest that a musical that works development into its numbers is to be praised, not placed second to a strictly narrative movie.


Hey, some guys just don't dig musical comedy. Maybe he's one of them. I had to acquire a taste for musicals myself. When I was a kid, I thought it was silly when everybody suddenly broke out in song and prearranged dance steps.


Regarding your experiment, I do it often. I don't like every song and dance number in every musical. Last week, I sped through my Berekely collection, just watching the finales or more appealing numbers, and enjoying the acting - especially of Cagney and Blondell in Footlight Parade in between. They made perfect dramatic sense. In fact, I found things in Parade I hadn't noticed before.

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"Just how much more depth has A Midsummer Night's Dream or Twelfth Night than Top Hat or My Sister Eileen, really? Or Wuthering Heights than Oklahoma?"


Interesting choices, Ms. Ayres. Apparently some thought that the mere plot was lacking to some of the examples you gave, and needed the additional dimensions that music can bring to a story. With a musical, one can marry the literal with the figurative. A character can say one thing at the same time the musical motif can let us know what the person is really thinking. So My Sister Eileen became Wonderful Town, and Bernard Herrmann wrote an operatic version of Wuthering Heights. This, of course, brings up the counter to NZ's op: bringing music to a non-musical.


In my mind I removed the music from A Star Is Born and the story still worked; but Judy Garland looked and sounded strangely like Janet Gaynor...



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I think that the best musicals won't hold up to the challenge. The integrated musical depends on many of the musical numbers being integral (hence the integrated part) to the advancement of the plot. The first one that came to my mind, was

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944). The musical numbers The Boy Next Door and The Trolley Song comment on the action and further our understanding of Esther. Certainly, we understand what is going on without those songs, but they enhance the narrative and the atmosphere of the film. Even Under the Bamboo Tree has a narrative purpose. Esther is able to hide John's hat and have an excuse to keep him waiting after the others have gone. She could've done this anyway, but it makes more sense this way. I feel that this film, while it could have been made without the music, would have been deadly boring without it.

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