The Hollywood Musical

The history of Musicals, both on stage and on screen, has encompassed a range of forms including operettas, musical comedies, musical drama and rock musicals. The Hollywood Musical is generally regarded as a product that combined the advent of sound and the theatrical musical. Since the production of the first feature-length musical, The Jazz Singer, in 1927, Hollywood Musicals have been established as a pivotal form of modern mass entertainment.

A prime example of this evolutionary time in Hollywood musical history is Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s, Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Set in the late 1920s, when Hollywood began to adapt to new sound technologies, this film follows the difficulties faced by a silent film company as it succumbs to audience demands for sound films.

Singin’ in the Rain also represents the conflicting social perceptions regarding film performance. Film performance was initially seen as a degraded form of theatre performance. This is evident in one scene where Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) aims to win-over Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) with his screen fame.

In this clip, Selden expresses the cynical view of screen performers at the time by asserting, “Movies are entertaining enough for the masses but the personalities on the screen just don’t impress me. I mean they don’t talk, they don’t act, they just make a lot of dumb show.”

Despite this character’s view, Gene Kelly portrays a highly creditable, energetic performance. Incorporating his singing, dancing and acting skills in the one role, Kelly creates a charismatic, engaging character. During the 1930s and 40s, the Hollywood studio style of acting became most prominent. This style related to the Broadway repertory style where performers appeared to present a character rather than act as themselves. The animated performances from the stars in Singin’ in the Rain, along with the staging, choreography and simplistic but effective sets, position the audience to feel as though they are watching a live musical production.

While screen performance was compared unfavorably to stage performance, the area of film studies initially developed in a way that disregarded screen performance, focusing more on cinematographic elements. Screen performers were also seen as second-rate due to the overriding power of editing transitions and montage sequences. Film theorist, Lev Kuleshov, demonstrated the power of montage by showing how spectators construct the meaning of a performance by the presumed relationship between two shots in a sequence.

The technological aspects involved in film were seen as a barrier to the actor-audience interaction. In the theatre, the reactions of the audience could influence the power of the performer, whereas in film the director was seen to have more creative control. The range of camera angles however, for example close-ups and extreme close-ups, allow for a greater sense of actor-audience intimacy. The musical involves a more direct mode of address between the performer and the audience and follows a segmented structure with song and dance segments immersed throughout. The use of additional cinematographic elements can strengthen the audience’s engagement with a character.

As a brief example, this clip from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) demonstrates the power of Nicole Kidman’s piercing gaze and the longing expressions on the faces of the men. The detailed impact of the actors’ facial expressions could not have been as pronounced in a theatre production.


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