Two of this year’s most anticipated movies are musicals. Steven Spielberg’s new “West Side Story” is coming for Christmas, and a film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other show “In the Heights” should hit theaters before then. It’s a reminder that musicals take different forms, but they’re never out of fashion.
We may not see them regain the dominance they had in the 1960s, when four of the 10 best-picture Oscars went to musicals. But even when they seem to be missing at the cineplex, they sneak in sideways — in animation, for instance (“Beauty and the Beast” single-handedly reinvigorated the form), or in dramas with music (Robert Altman’s “Nashville” is an all-timer for me, but is it a musical?).
Trying to figure out why I love musicals so much, I watched a random bunch of scenes online (Best. Research. Ever.) and found myself fascinated by a song from “The Pajama Game,” a movie I’ve never seen in its entirety. “There Once Was a Man” is an OK version of the number where the main couple admits they’re in love.
The best part comes about halfway through. Doris Day is executing some athletic Bob Fosse choreography, wearing a cropped shirt we’re supposed to believe her character feels comfortable in but that Day obviously hated (I mean, who wants their stomach hanging out, even if you’re clearly wearing an undershirt that’s supposed to look nude?). At one point, the shirt rides up and Day, annoyed, yanks it down so that it meets her pants again.
It’s a bit of reality that creeps into the fantasy of “Pajama Game,” which takes place in a garment factory where every worker is a Broadway-caliber singer/actor. For the rest of the number, you’re aware that Day is singing and dancing her head off, but also that she’s uncomfortable.
To me, it’s a reminder that all movies — but, maybe, especially musicals — build wondrous worlds for us to get lost in, but real people, on and off screen, have created every second of those wondrous worlds. Even that shirt tug, which director Stanley Donen kept in instead of making Day redo the scene. To me, the best musicals don’t show us a pie-in-the-sky vision of what our world could be; they show us what’s already amazing or painful or hilarious about the world we live in now.
It’s often said that characters in musicals sing when their emotions get too big for dialogue, but honestly, I’d say production numbers are some of the times when movies capture how big real emotions can feel. Everything in “Grease” is fake, but “Hopelessly Devoted to You”? Those feelings are the truth.
Yes, Busby Berkeley musicals and “The Sound of Music” (which I love) show us that there’s a better world somewhere, but my admittedly idiosyncratic favorites say that world has been inside us all the time.
‘All That Jazz’ (1979)
It’s about the life of its creator, Bob Fosse, the filmmaker who best understood how stage musicals could work as movies (“Sweet Charity” is great, too). “All That Jazz” is an original creation. Make that a wildly original creation that uses existing songs (“Who’s Sorry Now?,” the thrilling “On Broadway”) to show how life is a musical and musicals are life. Fun fact: “All That Jazz” took inspiration from Federico Fellini’s “8½,” which also is about a filmmaker reckoning with his life choices. And “8½” was musicalized as “Nine.” It’s god awful.
Fosse again, this time winning an Oscar for best director. The movie, set in and around a seedy nightclub during Nazi-era Germany, isn’t much like the stage version because Fosse understood that movie musicals are best when they rethink everything.
‘Funny Girl’ (1968)
This would make my list even if all it had were Barbra Streisand, giving the greatest performance in the history of movie musicals. Her off-kilter humor, powerful voice and fresh performance are especially amazing when you consider that she already had done the show on stage in New York and London about 800 times. The movie is basically all Streisand, but she gets help from the winningest director in Oscar history, William Wyler, who hits the beats of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” perfectly and probably won Streisand her Oscar by making “My Man” all about his star’s (nearly) single-take performance.
‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952)
It holds up better than any other musical from the golden age because Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s script is so witty and Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s direction and choreography are so nimble. That’s especially true of the title number and “Make ’Em Laugh.” They’re impressive not only on a technical level but because they help us understand the characters, all of whom work in the movie biz as it switches from silent to talkie.
‘New York, New York’ (1977)
I love the Judy Garland “A Star Is Born,” but my favorite version of the oft-told tale of showbiz lovers, one on the way up and one on the way down, is not called “A Star Is Born.” It’s Martin Scorsese’s midcentury musical, in which the dialogue is often improvised and the musical numbers — both Liza Minnelli’s stage performances and Robert DeNiro’s jazz sax solos — are stylized. Minnelli’s title song is a highlight, but the showstopper is when she sings the heck out of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “But the World Goes ’Round,” and Scorsese reveals he learned some tricks from “Funny Girl.” (It does not appear to be on streaming services, but it is available on Xfinity On Demand.)
‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (2001)
Like Streisand, John Cameron Mitchell earned the rare chance to immortalize his own all-time-great stage performance on film. It’s difficult to define the gender identity of the title character (played by Mitchell, who also wrote the show) because Hedwig spends the whole movie trying to figure that out. The rock/Broadway songs are terrific and the low-fi production values suit the punkish material.
‘The Wiz’ (1978)
Yes, it bombed, and yes, a lot of people think it’s awful. They’re wrong, although the between-songs stuff isn’t as good as the too-much-is-not-enough production numbers. There’s a crazy number of catchy songs, the cast is excellent (including Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow) and the spectacular build of the last four songs — “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News”/“A Brand New Day”/“Believe in Yourself”/“Home” — demands the biggest screen you can find.