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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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