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An 80-Year Backstage Pass

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By R. Emmet Sweeney

IFC News

[Photo: “Dreamgirls,” DreamWorks, 2006]

The advent of sound in cinema made the movie musical possible, but also created a vexing question: how to have characters burst into song without causing the audience to burst into laughter? What was fine on stage became an unexpected problem on screen — some degree of realism was needed to keep the viewer focused on the plot instead of on the incongruity of an off-screen orchestral swell (audiences quickly tired of revue-style films which, like a vaudeville show, ran act after act with no connective narrative tissue). The simplest answer was to film the lives of Broadway performers, so that stage numbers could be folded in as an organic part of the story. The template for the backstage musical crystallized in “The Broadway Melody of 1929,” which told the story of a sister vaudeville act that hits it big and then breaks up because of a love triangle. The film was a massive hit that spawned countless imitations. The backstage musical has gone through plenty of mutations since then, but it’s really the only remnant of a once dominant genre to survive the demise of the studio system. The latest iteration is the early Oscar favorite “Dreamgirls,” which follows a strikingly similar story arc to the “Broadway Melody” of 77 years earlier.

Instead of a vaudeville act, “Dreamgirls” is focused on a Motown girl group whose rupture also comes about because of a man and his fickle heart (and thirst for power) — the manager played by Jaime Foxx. It’s not just the tried and true story formula that “Dreamgirls” has inherited from its forebears, but a whole history of technical and directorial innovation. According to Richard Barrios in his loving history of early musicals “A Song in the Dark,” “Broadway Melody” was the first musical to use pre-recorded sound and playback. Producer Irving Thalberg demanded a re-take of the big musical number, “The Wedding of the Painted Doll,” the only scene shot in Technicolor (the rest of the film is in black and white). Thalberg, wary of the costs in hiring the orchestra again, decided to re-use the recording of the first shoot and play it back over the re-take. Before this, orchestras played live into microphones right next to the stage. This created far more freedom for the director in terms of camera angles and movement, and saved a hunk on the budget.

By early 1930, theaters were saturated with backstagers, and audiences were tiring of the device. In March 1930, as Barrios notes, a headline at Billboard magazine proclaimed “Back-Stage Stories Bane to Exhibitors.” Studios scrambled to cut out musical sequences from completed films in order to avoid the backlash. The cycle seemed to have run its course in a remarkably short amount of time.

The genre didn’t bounce back until 1933, with the success of “42nd Street” and “Gold Diggers of 1933,” a remake of “Gold Diggers of Broadway” (1929) made by Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley (who directed the numbers). The major difference in these films is the increasingly artificial (and spectacular) musical sequences that strained the realism of the stage setting to the breaking point. Berkeley’s use of bird’s eye views, for example, was a perspective impossible for the filmed audience to see. The injection of frank depictions of sexuality (until the Hays Code buttoned up everyone’s brassieres) didn’t hurt either.

That year the groundwork was also being laid to move the musical sequences off the stage and into the world of the performers, the baby steps of which were taken in “Flying Down to Rio,” where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were first teamed up in a minor role. Their subsequent decade-long box office dominance altered the landscape, with films now gaining boldness about where to insert the spectacle. Musical numbers were still firmly integrated into the plot, usually spurred on by the flirtatious one-upsmanship of Astaire-Rogers, but no longer confined by the absolute verisimilitude to which “Broadway Melody” had clung, and at which Berkeley had slowly chipped away.

Enter MGM. The studio responsible for “Broadway Melody” in ’29 went on to exemplify the genre through the 40s and 50s, with their vaunted “Freed Unit”, manned by the producer (and former lyricist) Arthur Freed and a roll call of talented collaborators including directors Vincente Minneli and Stanley Donen, and the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Their lavish productions attempted every kind of musical, from folk (“Meet Me In St. Louis,” 1944) to historical pastiches (“The Pirate,” 1948). Their biggest successes, though, were of the backstage variety with “Singin’ In the Rain” (1952) and “The Band Wagon” (1953). The genre had evolved to the point of self-referentiality and self-parody, those early attempts at filmed song and dance now looked at with nostalgia and humor. No more needs to be said about the former, but “The Band Wagon,” which takes Broadway as its setting, looks back even further than the advent of the sound film, pining for the days of unpretentious vaudeville performance, where star Fred Astaire got his start.

With the fading of the studio system in the 60s, the musical was doomed. Its lifeblood was in the trained hands of backstage artisans working with factory-like precision. With the breakup of vertically integrated studios, it was impossible to muster all the manpower needed and make it affordable. The days of the musical as a popular art form were numbered. Adaptations of big Broadway hits were trotted out once in a while to modest returns — but original material was hard to come by. Dramas with musical elements returned to prominence, with the success of films like “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and “Flashdance” (1983). The full-fledged musical survived only in a variety of animated features.

With the success of “Moulin Rouge” (2001) and the film adaptations of “Chicago” (2002) and now “Dreamgirls” (2006), there’s been a mini-resurgence of the backstage form financially, if not artistically. The hyper-stylized “Moulin Rouge” runs with the self-reflexive form of backstage musical initiated by “Singin’ In the Rain.” The latter two works are more aligned with the “Broadway Melody” school, stage-bound works content to ape their original Broadway productions. But with the massive success of Disney’s TV movie and album “High School Musical,” along with the musical-inflected spectacles of “Drumline,” “You Got Served,” “Stick It” and “Step Up,” it’s the teen dance genre that seems the place to look for a “42nd Street”-style resurgence.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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