A notion constantly contested is the idea that the purity of an art form directly correlates to its merit. Pushing the limits or reaching beyond the boundaries of genre and form is sometimes rewarded however experimental works are subject to disdain. Sure, the rules were made to be broken, but when the rules are followed, in all their difficulty, we congratulate the individual who works within their confines utilising its structure with virtuosity. Of course those confines can be used to insult as much as they celebrate. The debate between whether theatre is superior to film, if television is a better medium than cinema and the ceaseless discourse that pits tradition against modernity, relies upon their distinct differences. For the project or story that does not fit neatly into one particular category, its credibility is under threat. It becomes difficult to place a body of work into the nebulous hierarchy of artistic excellence when it blurs the static definitions that allow such rankings to exist.
In the case of musicals, their celebration frequently originates and remains in that particular industry, with limited overlap into other cultural domains. One of the chief attributes of a musical, the singing, is used to disparage the form. This distinction is weaponised, the opinion being that the acting involve in musical theatre falls short, and is superseded by the singing. Or that the musical composition overtakes the playwriting. Indeed, these criticism are not completely undeniable but they are sweeping generalisation. Musical films from West Side Story to Chicago have received various wins and nominations at the Academy Awards, including wins in Best Picture for both, alongside accolades for acting and directing. Or take the movie Once, what the director John Carney describes as a “naturalistic musical”. This film eschews the fantasy of showtunes, opting rather for a score that is candid and sincere.
“The select inclusion of just one musical number in those movies is the precise amount; any more and it would be saccharine”
I can understand the fatigue that is felt for musicals; perhaps it may be because our main source of consumption tends to be by way of Disney. But let’s not allow prejudice to narrow our minds to the point where a piece of art fails at something it was never trying to achieve success for. Let’s not allow the fault of bad storytelling to fall solely onto the shoulder of musicals, or let it be a defining feature of the craft. Musical scenes in what are generally perceived as existing outside the musical genre have greatly benefited movies of critical and popular acclaim. Who could forget Audrey Hepburn’s charming performance of “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hepburn’s limited vocal range, paired with the understated melody, carries an ineffable vulnerability in the wistful notes of her voice. Alternatively, the dance number in (500) Days of Summer whilst surprising is coincidentally fitting; the fantasy rooted in Tom’s feelings for Summer couples nicely with the surrealism of the scene. The select inclusion of just one musical number in those movies is the precise amount; any more and it would be saccharine, any less and we would be denied important character revelations.
The music should serve the scene, as it is with any creative decision in film-making.The structure of a musical or any genre, when left distinct or otherwise seized in an novel amalgam, have the potential for critical acclaim. And some do not. But we do not need permission from anyone to watch and listen to the stories that brings us joy. Musicals should be allowed to followed their own canon and indulge in their rules–from the highest of brows to the jazziest of hands.