Growing up I was a big fan of musicals. I’m not sure if I saw many at the cinema or just on TV, but they brought a lot of joy with singing, colour and dance. Looking at some of them now the dance routines and stories can seem quite bizarre – witness Seven Brides for Seven Brothers! Yet many were meant to be big and brassy, larger than life but with a story to tell and fun to be had.
Reflecting on some of my favourites I realise many were comical, but had tragic elements; among them was Carousel. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is still a song that makes me cry and it’s such a beautiful and enduring song, whether sung at a memorial, a graduation or echoing around the football ground at Anfield. Rodgers and Hammerstein were huge with other popular shows like South Pacific, The King and I and Oklahoma! I didn’t realise how much historical and general knowledge I was picking up while I was enjoying these great musicals. Some modern features have done well with the presentation, but I don’t know that any have resonated with any kind of educational aspect – but then I don’t get so see as many movies as I used to. La La Land is still on my ‘must see’ list!
Another tale with a tragic twist against social commentary is West Side Story. One couldn’t help but be moved by that modern take on star-crossed lovers, though the ending was not quite the same as Romeo & Juliet. The up tempo and jazzy songs were great and the dance routines fun and interesting against the west side streetscapes. The film showed the highs and lows of a multi-ethnic community. Another more enclosed-style story like this, and also Shakespeare based, is Kiss Me Kate. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to see The Taming of the Shrew but watching Kiss Me Kate has helped me answer many a crossword clue or trivia night question on the subject. (Side note: 10 Things I Hate About You with Heath Ledger, though not a musical, also provides a good slant on the play!)
One of my all-time favourites has to be High Society, a musical based on a play The Philadelphia Story. Grace Kelly is gorgeous as Samantha Lord, a socialite about to re-marry while her ex-husband (Bing Crosby) is right next door organising a jazz festival and she must also endure the presence of the press (Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm) to cover the wedding. Though she only has a minor singing role her performance is very entertaining. However, it’s the songs by Crosby and Sinatra and the wonderful Louis Armstrong that make this musical a stand out.
You can’t think about the golden age of musicals without a nod to Singin’ in the Rain. Gene Kelly was at his peak as a dancer and anchored this funny love story set in the 1920s against the background of the transition of movies from silent to talkies. There are a number of memorable songs, but none quite like ‘Good Morning’ (sung by Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly) that has a dance sequence that features regularly on TV. There is also ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ and of course ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, which everybody knows regardless of whether they’ve ever seen the film.
As musicals transitioned to the mid-’60s it seems there was more variety in the type of presentation; less about dance and more about music. Of course there are a whole genre of musicals at this stage involving pop stars like Elvis, Cliff Richard and The Beatles, but to me they’re not in the same class for they were films created to showcase popular singing talent rather than a story presented by musical actors.
Great classics were still produced and include – in my opinion at least – My Fair Lady (not Julie Andrews, but I always enjoyed Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle), Hello Dolly and Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews for sure this time!) There was diversity with The Sound of Music giving an insight to aspects of wartime, Oliver! providing some very memorable songs like ‘Consider Yourself At Home’ and ‘You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two’ in the midst of this telling of Charles Dickens’s classic tale. Who hasn’t hummed these tunes through the years?
These are some of the many musicals that gladden the heart and the songs have stayed with me through the years. not to mention the slapstick Hope and Crosby road films and children’s classics like The Jungle Book and The Wizard of Oz. Great memories — I’m ready to dig back into my DVD collection and settle back on the couch this Saturday night.