This week sees the release of Anna and the Apocalypse, a Christmas zombie musical comedy set in small town Scotland. There is a lot to unpack in that description. Today, let’s celebrate the fact that the original movie musical seems to be on the rise, after a glamorous start in Old Hollywood was followed by decades of stagnation and obsolescence.
Musical films have sung and danced their way onto cinema screens rather consistently since the 1930s; however, the majority seems to be provided by adaptations of stage hits, from Guys and Dolls in 1955 to Tom Hooper’s exceptionally marmite Les Miserables in 2013. Original content is largely relegated to the to the 1930s-1960s and the last three years due to a some catastrophic box office flops in the latter half of the 1960s (blogger Lindsay Ellis provides some great historical context in her video essay). Thankfully, productions like the musical television show Crazy Ex Girlfriend (the CW/Netflix, 2015-current) and La La Land’s festival prestige (despite its rudimentary choreography and unremarkable singing) have pushed the genre back into the spotlight and proved it has a wider audience than just musical theatre fans.
For the purposes of this article, an original movie musical has been defined as human actors portraying characters who sing in universe in a story that is in no way connected to a previously staged piece – books and quasi-historical narratives, however, are fair game. This has eliminated much of the Disney animated canon (save the penguins of Mary Poppins) and heavily revised adaptations such as On The Town. While the following vary quite drastically in age and style, each one highlights the strengths and joys of the genre.
Top Hat (1935)
The Golden Age of Hollywood is a treasure trove of original musicals as these were the perfect vehicles to showcase the recent addition of sound. Top Hat, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ most commercially successful collaboration, is a definitively excellent one. The mistaken identity romantic comedy plot is timeless, the Irving Berlin songs are classics, and – unsurprisingly – the dancing is superb. Notably, Astaire, who was given creative control over the on-screen dances during his time at RKO Radio Pictures, revolutionised musicals on film in two ways. Firstly, he insisted that all songs and dances be integrated into the plots instead of separate spectacles, and secondly, he pioneered the use of a closely tracking dolly camera film to minimise the cuts in a number. The latter allowed audiences to track the complete choreography and Astaire and Rogers to display the full range of their skills.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The titular Wizard might be a fraud, but there is plenty of real wizardry on display in this gorgeous Technicolor revision of L. Frank Baum’s darker narrative., starting with the colour of the slippers to better demonstrate the new technology. The MGM sets and backdrops still look gorgeous, and has there ever been a leading lady as vocally talented and charismatic as Judy Garland? According to a study issued by Northwestern University, it is the most culturally significant film ever made; the fact that everyone can hum at least a few bars of the songs might count as overexposure but almost eighty years later everything on screen still holds up.
An American in Paris (1951)
This musical lacks a strong plot structure, but its score (including Gershwin classics ‘I Got Rhythm’ and ‘S’Wonderful’), choreography, and gorgeous sets sustain the dragging pace and narrative leaps. The final dance scene, seventeen minutes long and costing half a million dollars to shoot, perfectly summarises and exemplifies the film’s strengths and weaknesses; while completely losing narrative momentum, is a tour de force demonstration of Gene Kelly and company’s skills and a gorgeous stylistic medley, only one section of which appears in the video below.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Gene Kelly’s second entry on this list is arguably the greatest film musical of all time: a zippy showbiz plot, charismatic performances, and not a single wasted or underutilised number makes it very hard to critique. The meticulousness with which each song is choreographed is a gold standard for musicals on film; there are no placeholder steps or sloppy transitions to be found here. Knowing that stars Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds poured their sweat, blood, and tears into this work only heightens their artistic achievement – ‘Good Morning’ (below) looks effortless.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the sexual politics of this film have not aged terribly well, and the fact that the catchiest tune is ‘The Sabine Women’ does not aid matters. The screwball romantic comedy, however, is far-fetched and ridiculous enough that the questionable elements can mostly be put aside. The songs, dances, and acrobatics (notably in the number below) aid a well-paced plot and well-timed comedy, and while it does not feature the most three-dimensional characters the good humour of all on screen makes it thoroughly charming.
White Christmas (1954)
While Anna and the Apocalypse appears to share only its holiday setting with the Bing Crosby classic, they might make a delightfully odd, yet tuneful, Boxing Day double bill. Crosby’s crooning was no doubt a major box office draw – after all, the title song needs no introduction – but it is not just a star vehicle. The three other leads (Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, whose dancing is particularly sublime) get equal weight to their stories and time to show off their talents, thankfully hiding Crosby’s lack of dance ability. Additionally, the dance ensemble is chock full of talent, including Fred Astaire’s dance partner Barrie Chase, Frank Sinatra’s frequent opener John Brascia, and future Oscar winner George Chakiris.
Mary Poppins (1964)
Disney’s only entry onto this list is pure musical movie magic: Walt Disney’s 20 year effort to score the rights to P.L. Travers’ book paid off with a bastardised yet heartwarming adaptation. Julie Andrews’ garnered a well-deserved Golden Globe and Oscar for her film debut, and she carries the film with a grace, warmth, and (rare for the time) her own imitable singing voice. Musically, like The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain, all musical numbers are instantly recognisable. Interestingly, a host of songs were written and then not used in the final version, indicating that the production team workshopped and cherry picked their favourite bits for a very strong finished product. The sequel out this Christmas has much to live up to, though at least Lin-Manuel Miranda will likely continue the legacy of Dick Van Dyke’s charmingly bad Cockney accent.
Grease 2 (1982)
Hear me out: the plot is a cheap rehash of the original and therefore suffers massively in comparison, but the campy performances are a delight, the songs are absolute bangers (Michelle Pfeiffer’s singing talent has been wasted since), and, from a feminist perspective, it is far less problematic than the beloved original. Also, the choreography is heads and tails above that of the stage adaptation. This list’s only entry from the musical dark ages is directed by Patricia Birch, the choreographer of Grease; she proves that she was woefully underused in the first one by elevating the poor script with dance extravaganzas.
The Greatest Showman (2017)
It is a shame that this film so explicitly references P.T. Barnum, as it is a crowd-pleasing piece filled with some killer tunes that is unfortunately hampered by distracting historical inaccuracy. All that aside, however, it is cheesy, predictable, and utterly wonderful. The joy, bombast, and spectacle is a celebration of showbusiness and humanity; it is no heavy-hitting analysis but it is the purest escapism. In contrast to the previous Oscars season’s hot new musical, casting people who can sing and shamelessly enjoy themselves as well as extravagant cinematographic choreography prove the key ingredient to making this a fine example of the genre.
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (2018)
Yes, the songs are classics and the plot is almost described in full in the preceding stage-show-turned-film, but the sequel that nobody asked for is pretty near perfect. It elevates a score of ABBA deep cuts into a shockingly good musical through entire commitment to pure, cheesy fun. This film and all who perform in it completely sell the joy and ridiculousness, bringing only enough self-awareness to heighten the comedy and warmth. The cast, save Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, and of course Cher, are notably unskilled singers but the heart behind the songs carries the simple, silly plot. While the shoehorning it took to get ‘Fernando’ into the narrative is impressive (only Cher can pull off this god-tier camp), the top number has to be a ‘Waterloo’ that redefines chaotic good.