Is 2021 the new golden age of cinema musicals?
“I’m going to walk down the alley
With a happy chorus
I sing, I sing in the rain “
So a costumed Gene Kelly hums in the middle of a downpour in the 1952 film Sing in the rain. His umbrella, proving useless to repel water, becomes an accessory for his tap dancing and puddle jumps. It is one of the most memorable film scenes (musical or not). As a kid, it made me want to tap dance, which I did for years before realizing I wasn’t Kelly. Despite his exuberance, Sing in the rain created against the dark backdrop of the Red Fear and the Korean War. It takes place in 1927, the years before the Great Depression, and is aimed at an audience that has lived through a dark period. Optimism arises when it is needed most.
At their best, movie musicals evoke pure emotion, a heart or undeniable energy. They are the perfect antidote for a cruel and unusual world event. Like, say, a pandemic. This summer and fall, a host of new releases promise to use song and dance to transport us elsewhere, away from this world of social distancing, face masks and political polarization. Granted, 2021 wasn’t meant to be the year of movie musicals, but movie delays ensured that this confluence came at the right time. And this is not the first time they have come to the rescue.
Advances in technology in the early decades of filmmaking allowed the musical to thrive when it needed it most. In the 1920s and 1930s sound was introduced to cinema in the form of talkies, Technicolor created dazzling screens, and the studio system became the way movies were made. Production values rose, stars were born, and in just a few decades Hollywood completely reinvented what movies could do by combining song and dance onscreen in the most spectacular way. During this same period, America witnessed depression and a brutal world war. For a penny, you could spend hours watching a cartoon, a newsreel, and a feature film or two. Viewers were thirsty for escape and the movies, turning away from classic dramas, gave it to them.
It was the time of Top hat (1935), a wacky comedy starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that wowed audiences with his costumes and tap dancing duets, and Stormy weather (1943), who, with the soft voice of Lena Horne, is known for showcasing some of the greatest African American talent of the era, including great jazz Cab Calloway and tap legends Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers. Men prefer blondes(1953), starring Marilyn Monroe in an unforgettable pink strapless silk gown while singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, catapulted the actress to stardom, and Sing in the rainThe musical numbers of were akin to the definition of a utopia. The main thing was the same: entertain through catchy voices and dizzying choreography.
The 2021 musicals, however, offer something more. In their own way, they tell poignant stories from specific and contemporary points of view. The instinct, always, is to go big and communicate through the song, which is arguably what we need now. They are a powerful reminder of the power of a good musical to unite us, around the eventful relationship between a comedian and an opera singer (Annette), a celebration of identity and community in New York (In the heights), acute feelings of anxiety and isolation in high school (Dear Evan Hansen), struggles to make a name for himself (tick, tick … Boom!), and dreams of becoming a drag queen (Everybody’s talking about Jamie). These are musicals for the time, and no two are alike, or even remotely. Yet, they all bring together music, dance, and color in a way that is reminiscent of other times in American history. Tickets might not cost a dime apiece anymore, but it helps to share a dark space with strangers to be transported – and just entertained – together, even if you can’t sing out loud.
As we stumble into a new ‘normal’ and return to the movies, I take comfort in the idea of Ben Platt’s Tony Award-worthy voice in Dear Evan Hansen and Camila Cabello breathing new light into Cinderella. I’m ready for the Jets and Sharks to go head to head in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake and for Jennifer Hudson to hit the high notes as Aretha Franklin in Respect. Give me songs and dances; give me high value production design and intricate costumes. After more than a year that we’ve all been through, it’s time to succumb to the musical genre and let it take us to other worlds as the best movies always have.
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