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Classical musical

The expression ’musical’ arrived from theatrical circles. In American theatres, where this genre first developed (around 1900 on Broadway) and those of Great Britain (around 1930s) the term ’musical comedy’ represented... ’a light, entertaining show with singing and dancing’ (Hornby, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, Oxford, 1986). Evidently, sound film did not take over only the name; it took the basics of the formula too — the important and a significant presence of singing, music and dancing. Nevertheless, film soon transformed the theatrical formula in accordance with its specific expressive repertoire. It created its own poetics of genre that developed, for as long as 30 years, almost as long as the viewers showed inclination towards such films.

What were then, the basic features of that genre, of the classical musical, and what constructed its poetics? Beside the passing affection for all forms of ’sounding’ in sound movies, musicals incorporated a particularly hedonistic urge, an expectation of pleasure in the escapist potentials of singing, dancing and music, an aspiration towards temporary freedom from a number of problems. Having this in mind, the genre was evidently marked by an art-for-art’s-sake dimension: film musical was, more than any other genre, intended to be an artwork marked by its pure aesthetic quality unencumbered by the tiresome aspects of the context outside the film. The story and its aesthetic were both oriented towards producing pleasure. Such receptive goal presented particular problems.

At first glance, it seemed that in order to achieve this, one had just to transfer the music, singing and dancing into the movie itself. According to the oldest and an almost infallible receipt, the musical numbers had to be incorporated into the story (taken from a theatrical musical). A problem appeared how to incorporate singing and dancing, keeping in mind the realistic motivation that dominated American movies of that period, and how to avoid making it completely unbelievable. The most appropriate solution was to construct a hybrid connection with comedy, either comedy of situation, or comedy of character. Comedy included a factor of differentiation between film and real events and people’s behaviour so that, in this manner, one stylistic component served as support to another.

Furthermore, in order to make this world of singing and dancing believable, its environment had to be believable too. During the first period of the development of the genre — far more frequently than in theatrical musicals — the action took place in theatrical circles, most often on the stage or any other place where one would encounter singing and dancing even outside the movies (for example, luxury hotels, as in several movies with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire). The heroes, had to be performers, authors, producers, promoters, or any sort of theatre personnel striving to make the show successful. After various trials and tribulations threatening the success of the show, the story had to come to a happy ending. Success in business had to be paired up with success in love, while success itself typically evoked pleasure.

The next step in the appropriation of genre by the film industry was purely aesthetic and artistic: musical numbers acquired a new ’hyper dimension’; they were played out with especially constructed equipment, and set. More importantly, the movies began using specific visual possibilities of film: film-makers started carefully choosing the distance at which camera was placed, the shooting angle, while film’s structure was constructed in the editing room — this eventually made musical numbers visually and artistically extremely spectacular.

This induced Busby Berkeley to use bodies of performers to ’build’ pyramids and rosettes, or group formations that thrilled with their artistic form as if they were some unusual architectural creations. The musical aspect, thus, produced a possibility of constructing a new rhetoric, new means of communication. In other words, musical’s formula was defined, on one hand, by the elements that were as convincing as the film context in the USA needed them to be, and on the other hand, by elements connected to beauty, art, and joy — serving to achieve pleasure. All the elements that contributed to this aim (highly skilled performances of dancers and singers; rhythmical, as well as visual and stylistic elaboration of numbers; introduction of colour) were introduced gradually following the hedonistic and art-for-art’s-sake principles.

Finally canonized in the 1950s, the genre began to expand: it broke out into the nature in search for the elements of pastorals, and here it encountered stronger competition; the Western (in the 1930s singing and dancing were integral parts of westerns). Western offered to the viewers a much more believable pastoral, while the detective movies of the 1940s and the 1950s introduced a contrasting urban setting. The opening up of musicals was a signal that it was losing its receptive appeal. It is interesting, however, that a systematic, detailed and scientifically based researches have not started until the 1970s — when classical musical was already at its last gasp.

Ante Peterlić

Artificial inputs: Croatian film and literary generic criticism
Genres in film postmodernism
Mannerist westerns of Sergio Leone

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