When Musicals Broke Free

A new book, Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960′s, by Matthew Kennedy, is one I anxiously await reading.  It documents the roadshow movie musicals and how they brought the musical to its knees.  For the curious, a roadshow movie musical is the kind made popular in the sixties, a musical of epic length, complete with overture and intermission.  Think West Side Story or The Sound of Music.   When they worked, as with those two, they were spectacular successes but when they failed, they wiped out the bank.  They’re given the blame for the death of the musical in the late sixties and early seventies, after flops like Paint Your Wagon and Lost Horizon pounded the final nails into the coffin of Hollywood musicals where they lay dead until The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and, later, the Oscar winning Chicago brought them back.  Except, I don’t think they ever died.  In fact, I think the seventies is when they finally, really took off.

Sound of Music 01

I know, I know, it’s crazy, but, really, it’s not.  The musical genre has always had two basic forms:  Diegetic musicals and non-diegetic musicals.  Diegetic is where the music is intended to be heard as music within the film.  In Cabaret, for instance, every song that is performed is heard by the characters in the movie as a song, performed on a stage.  Non-diegetic is music that the characters in the movie can’t hear, like a musical score (we can assume that neither Marion nor Norman is hearing the strident strings shrieking in the background as he stabs her to death in Psycho).  For the sake of musicals, it means that when Russ Tamblyn starts singing about being a Jet, the audience hears it as a song while the characters in the movie hear it as Russ Tamblyn talking about being a Jet.   In other words, characters go spontaneously into song, with full musical accompaniment despite there being no orchestra present.

Now while the big, over-budgeted roadshow musicals definitely put the non-diagetic on life support, briefly, the diegetic musical really took off.   The aforementioned Cabaret being one of the biggest and the best of the early seventies.   There was a great story in Cabaret and great numbers but separate from each other in a way few musicals had experimented with before.  The musical numbers in Cabaret are of a different world than the rest of the story of Cabaret and yet they comment on the action.  The numbers act as a kind of chorus for the dramatic story playing before the audience’s eyes.   This was the first sign, and a strong one at that, that musicals weren’t dead.  They were, in fact, moving in completely new directions.

Another significant movement in music on film came with documentaries like Woodstock, Let it Be, and Gimme Shelter, documentaries that introduced the concept of the concert film.  Sure, there had been revues before, but no one had put together a film of nothing but, say, a Duke Ellington concert in Paris, complete with backstage action.  This was something new and would soon produce some strong entries including one of the finest of the seventies, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz.

Also, you may have noticed the music featured in concert films tended towards rock music.  Rock music, now fully intertwined into mainstream culture by the seventies, produced another new turn on the genre, the rock opera.  Tommy was, is, and will probably always remain, the most famous of these and a personal favorite.  Few movie musicals before the seventies had the nerve to sing from start to finish.  Musicals like Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar sang every word of every sentence.  There simply weren’t any dialogue scenes or breaks in the action.  Like an opera, it was all music, all the time.


And music biographies took off in new ways, as well.  No one could accuse Lisztomania of being formulaic biography of a great composer but the subjects of musical biographies now included more recent figures, like Buddy Holly.  The Buddy Holly Story, released in 1978, told the story of the great rock singer/songwriter with great musical performances punctuating the drama.

Musicals even began to celebrate their own past with compilation documentaries like That’s Entertainment! and nostalgic, old fashioned style musicals like Grease.  And then there were things like Phantom of the Paradise, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Bugsy Malone, that took some of these standard, nostalgic forms and spun them in off-beat ways (and, no, Bugsy Malone wasn’t a slip up on my part, I think it’s actually pretty good, and weird).

By the end of the decade, my favorite movie musical of the decade finally came around.  All That Jazz put them all together; standards, jazz, rock, dance, the influence on music videos, that all added up to a celebration and denigration of show biz, musicals, biopics, and self-reflection.  Bob Fosse combined his own experiences on the stage with his experiences directing film (here he directly references his stewardship of Lenny), used diagetic, non-diagetic, life, afterlife, real, and surreal music and put all of it to work telling the story both as commentary and direct progression of plot.  Personally, its glitziness and seventies excess make it even better for me.  Had the same type of story been made in 69 or 89, instead of 79, it wouldn’t have been as good.

All That Jazz 01

So I’m looking forward to reading Roadshow very much because the era of big bloated musicals in the sixties and early seventies does fascinate me and I’d love to read what Kennedy has to say.  But don’t let anyone tell you that film musicals died after the sixties because they didn’t.  They not only survived, they experienced more innovation and progression than they had since the Kelly/Donan era.  In the 1970′s, movie musicals didn’t die, they broke free.

40 Responses When Musicals Broke Free
Posted By Andrew : May 7, 2014 3:10 pm

I think that a part of the transition you are documenting is that the older musicals were thought of movie versions of stage musicals. The movie version gives us an actual a field of corn that is as high as an elephant’s eye or a riverboat on the Mississippi and of course the close ups and multiple camera angles but the staging and choreography still feel like adaptations of stage techniques.(Not meant to be an insult.) I think the seventies musicals you reference are truly movies to the core of their DNA. Personally I think they trace their roots back to an American in Paris.(It just took a while for the rest of the world to catch up to Gene Kelly.)

Posted By robbushblog : May 7, 2014 3:57 pm

I watched Oliver! the other night and it was kind of a chore. I had trouble staying awake. I am not a big fan of the musicals made after the Rodgers and Hammerstein and MGM era. I’m sure the aesthetics are part of it, but I guess the music is another thing I don’t care much for, along with the lack of the classic musical stars.

Posted By swac44 : May 7, 2014 4:33 pm

No need to apologize for liking Bugsy Malone, I’ve always loved the film, but then I first saw it as a kid so I guess it just stayed with me. Plus I’m a Paul Williams fan to boot, so the songs have managed to stay with me, just like his involvement in the aforementioned Phantom of the Paradise which also remains a strong favourite. Amazingly, Bugsy Malone has never been issued on DVD in North America, which just seems odd to me, thank heaven for UK imports and multi-region/format players.

Posted By swac44 : May 7, 2014 4:38 pm

20th Century Fox seems to be the biggest victim of the death of the megamusical, with expensive flops Doctor Doolittle, Star! and Hello Dolly coming in fast succession. I guess the latter title (which I still haven’t seen) made it into the top ten earners for that year, but still lost $10 million for its backers. Star! is something of a guilty pleasure, but I rewatched Doolittle earlier this year and it was definitely a chore to get through. I must have been bored out of my childhood mind when I saw it as a kid.

Posted By Jenni : May 7, 2014 4:57 pm

My memory fails me but when I was teaching 7th graders back in the late 80s, I decided to show them West Side Story. I had one class of badly behaved students, poorer grades, etc. and they were getting into the story but then when Biff began the “When Your’re a Jet” song, and the gang members began their dance moves, I heard nothing but groans from my students! Aw,man this is a musical! After shushing them to stop their whining, they did, after it was all done, did say they liked it. :) Paint your Wagon-there’s a funny snippet from The Simpsons where Homer has rented it thinking it’s going to be shoot ‘em up western and he’s sooooo sad when Clint and Lee begin singing! Hilarious!

Posted By Jonathan Barnett : May 7, 2014 5:05 pm

I love the post. It is a challenge, a wonderful case for Musicals breaking free. Yet, I don’t entirely agree. Yes, those movies sited broke convention in a good way. I wrote a post on another board about bad movies from the 70s and how I thought the Musical (along with the Western and Gothic Horror) didn’t make it alive out of that decade. After reading the Greg’s writing, he makes a convincing case. I could be mistaken in my point of view. If anything changed the Musical, I think it was Rock music. I’m not referring to Rock-n-Roll. I find the Elvis musicals to kind of fun. Rock music (like After the Beatles) as a genera was just too divisive for the rest of century. There is just too much personal taste to be factored in. In short, Musicals lost their mass appeal. To compound it, Musicals became more of an adult or mature form of entertainment. The only way my mother could share those musicals was to play the records but she wouldn’t take me to those R rated musical in the theater. I remember her telling me about ALL THAT JAZZ. However some excellent musicals are highlighted. I would include NEW YORK, NEW YORK. I can only think of three musicals that really lived and flourished outside of that decade. That would be WILLA WONKA, ROCKY HORROR, and GREASE. One thing is for sure, I need to catch up with ALL THAT JAZZ again. It has been years since I heard that music. My Mom didn’t like CHICAGO, “I’d rather watch ALL THAT JAZZ”.

Posted By tdraicer : May 7, 2014 9:23 pm

One reason so many of the Broadway to screen musicals failed (apart from the cultural timing in an era of change) is that studios insisted on putting movie stars who couldn’t sing into the lead roles. At least in West Side Story and My Fair Lady they were dubbed, but much as I love Peter O’Toole, choosing him over Richard Kiley for Man of La Mancha, or casting 3 non-singing leads in Paint Your Wagon, was nuts. (As for Camelot, I would point to Josh Logan’s massive overuse of the close-up, along with cutting several great numbers so there was surprisingly little music in its 3 hour length.) Otoh, two musicals that avoided those mistakes, Oliver (I think I may have mentioned once or twice or many times in the past that I love Oliver) and Fiddler on the Roof both did well at the box office.

Btw, did I mention I love Oliver? :)

Posted By Doug : May 7, 2014 10:35 pm

I would put Grease and Rocky Horror at the top of the list for ‘fun’ musicals and I even kinda sorta liked “Xanadu”.
I’m not familiar with the term ‘Non-diagetic’-shows what I don’t know-but I recognize from Greg’s description that that is the type of musical the Marx Brothers mocked in Duck Soup.
Barbra Streisand was a force in musicals in the 1970′s (plus “Yentl” in 1983). She did some great work, and I can’t think of a performer since who has such an effect on musicals.
Watched a local theater performance of “Fiddler On The Roof” a few weeks ago, and it was a great production. Musicals are alive and well in the 21st century.

Posted By Richard Brandt : May 8, 2014 12:58 am

OLIVER! would, oddly enough, seem to be the last of the big stage-to-screen musicals to be a big success, win a bunch of Oscars including Best Picture, etc. I rather liked Oona White’s choreography for the “Consider Yourself” number, which incorporated the motions of street laborers into a dance routine, not unlike, hey, Jets. And of course Carol Reed was lucky enough to have his nephew Oliver available to play Bill Sykes.

The very same year OLIVER! was released, Robert Wise and Julie Andrews re-teamed for STAR!, which, to put it charitably, did not repeat their success with SOUND OF MUSIC, and of course the very next year HELLO, DOLLY! drew the lid across the decade.

Posted By Jane : May 8, 2014 3:11 am

I never heard the term “diagetic” before so thank you for something new. With non-diagetic musicals I would think it must be of supreme importance to have the right cast, who can really generate your involvement, because some viewers need that extra emotional connection to the character, to help them over the hump of believability. I felt that DOOLITTLE, DOLLY, LA MANCHA, WAGON and CAMELOT all felt a little, oh I don’t know, distant. Each had someone (or more than one) I thought was badly cast.

Posted By johnnytoobad : May 8, 2014 6:29 am

I like the later musicals also but they have to be appreciated on different levels from the earlier “eternal” entries in the field I think

Some, like “Xanadu”, attain to the “so bad they’re good” standard — but in what seems in retrospect a charmingly campy fashion … Like Maltin or somebody says about Xanadu — “an experience so vacuous it’s almost frightening!”

To say nothing of films like “The Apple”, “Thank God It’s Friday” etc. which are almost at a whole other level of silliness indeed

Some like “Hair” and “Godspell” have reputations suffering from being “dated” instead of eternal — emblems of a particular moment in the counterculture … “Tommy” here also in its own way of course … But they’re at a genius level I think though

Probably many people would say the legitimate musical height of seventies musicals was in point of fact “The Harder They Come” — but of course there too some musical fans don’t like that kind of music — or the violent content of the story

And does one include the Beatles films or the fascinating and bizarre “Head” or that sort of thing in this category? The list goes on I guess

Posted By James : May 8, 2014 11:07 am

I read Roadshow!, and enjoyed it very much. Kennedy doesn’t exactly argue that the musical died in the 70s, but that this specific type of musical (inspired by the mega-success of The Sound of Music) did, at a time when the Hollywood film industry went through significant changes. He does delve into the topic of actors of little to no singing ability being cast as leads in these films, which provides some funny stories. Reading about, say, The Song of Norway (which sounds absolutely dreadful), I get an idea of how awful the state of “roadshow” musicals had become by 1973. Kennedy discusses Cabaret (and Fiddler on the Roof) as positive alternatives to the bloated musicals, but doesn’t cover Ken Russell’s films.

Mean Streets is another film that significantly changed the way music worked in American films. No, it’s not a musical, of course, but it introduced the idea of using pre-existing pop songs, in a non-diagetic form, to underline themes, mental states of characters, situations, etc. in non-musical films.

Posted By gregferrara : May 8, 2014 12:24 pm

I think THE GRADUATE beat MEAN STREETS to the punch there but MEAN STREETS expanded it beyond one performer or group (Simon and Garfunkel) into a playlist, so to speak. Another movie instrumental in that was AMERICAN GRAFFITI, also in 1973. Soundtracks to movies that featured various artists of pre-released material suddenly became a thing.

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : May 8, 2014 1:05 pm

Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy, walking into Tony´s Bar, with the
two Girls, to the sound of Jumping Jack Flash is movie music

Posted By swac44 : May 8, 2014 2:07 pm

Thanks for pointing out the contribution of my fellow Nova Scotian Oona White to Oliver!, Richard. I watched the film on blu-ray a few months back, and I think it holds up remarkably well, thanks in large part to her efforts. But I also have high praise for its leads (young and old), the set design, the cinematography and on and on.

Posted By robbushblog : May 8, 2014 2:19 pm

I guess I’m in the minority on Oliver! Between The Sound of Music and Grease though, the only musical I like is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Posted By swac44 : May 8, 2014 2:21 pm

Oops, that should be Onna White, not Oona (I just had Chaplin’s last wife as a crossword puzzle answer). She actually got a special achievement Academy Award for her work in Oliver!, which I think is the only one that went to a choreographer for a specific film (the ones for Kelly, Astaire, Michael Kidd, Jerome Robbins and Stanley Donen were for lifetime achievement or “body of work”.)

Posted By robbushblog : May 8, 2014 2:24 pm

Actually, Gene Kelly got one for “his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film” for An American in Paris. That was in 1951.

Posted By gregferrara : May 8, 2014 3:35 pm

Rob, how about 1776? Or Cabaret? Or Abba: The Movie? What about Abba: The Movie?!?!!

Posted By swac44 : May 8, 2014 4:01 pm

Well, if anyone’s going to get one of those, it should have been Gene Kelly.

Posted By gregferrara : May 8, 2014 4:31 pm


Posted By kingrat : May 8, 2014 5:00 pm

I think the use of pre-existing pop song soundtracks is one of the worst legacies of the 1970s films. Composers of film music would probably agree. At least this made perfect sense in AMERICAN GRAFFITI.

Greg, thanks for a thought-provoking article, especially for those of us who have never thought of the 70s as a great period for the musical.

Posted By robbushblog : May 8, 2014 5:46 pm

Okay, I did like 1776. That one slipped my mind. I also like Pete’s Dragon. :)

Posted By tdraicer : May 8, 2014 5:53 pm

>Okay, I did like 1776.

So we have that in common!

Posted By george : May 8, 2014 6:26 pm

Glad you mentioned PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and BUGSY MALONE, maybe the last great original movie musicals. Thank you, Paul Williams!

Posted By Doug : May 8, 2014 8:36 pm

I liked Xanadu because Olivia N. John was charming and it was a mellow curtain call for Gene Kelly.
I also very much like the bad/good factor of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” starring the Bee Gees and Pete Frampton as “NOT THE BEATLES”. Steve Martin, Donald Pleasence (singing!)
and Arrowsmith make it much more fun that it had any right to be.
Any love out there for “Walk Hard”?

Posted By robbushblog : May 8, 2014 8:40 pm

I like Walk Hard. The music is surprisingly really good in it.

Posted By Doug : May 9, 2014 1:21 am

Just rewatched “Pitch Perfect” tonight-a great show with a lot of energy and some surprisingly good comic bits. My favorite recent musical, and one that I’ll probably pull down off the shelf often.

Posted By James : May 9, 2014 11:17 am

Another Walk Hard fan, here. It’s a pitch-perfect send up of a certain kind of rock’n’roll music biopic, the songs are on point, and the parody of 70s television variety shows is practically the real thing. I love it, which I can’t say for Walk the Line.

And it has some quotable lines that always crack me up: “It’s not addictive!” “The wrong son died.” “Fifty thousand digeridoos!” “I can’t build your candy house! It will fall apart, the sun will melt the candy, it won’t work!”

Posted By gregferrara : May 9, 2014 5:20 pm

Okay, I did like 1776. That one slipped my mind

See? I’m just trying to help.

I also like Pete’s Dragon.

[spits coffee all over computer screen]

Oh… well… how about this weather we’re having, huh?

Posted By robbushblog : May 9, 2014 5:31 pm

I don’t like Pete’s Dragon because it’s good. I like it because of nostalgia mostly. I was born in ’74. It came out in ’77. I saw it when I was a small child and still like it despite my better judgment. If it didn’t have a big, cartoon dragon in it I wouldn’t like it. I also like those cheesy 70′s Disney movies, regardless of how bad they are. “Oh, Candleshoe’s on? Let’s watch that.” “Aw man! It’s The North Avenue Irregulars!” My butt would be planted right there in front of that mess.

Posted By swac44 : May 9, 2014 9:50 pm

Hey, I watched Candleshoe about a month ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, although I did also see it when it was released theatrically, and thanks to Jodie Foster I’ve had a thing for tomboys ever since.

Posted By gregferrara : May 10, 2014 3:51 am

I got a bill of sale right here and it says swac likes everything.

I saw PETE’S DRAGON and CANDLESHOE in the theater upon their release so I’m just blowing smoke here… like Pete!

Posted By swac44 : May 10, 2014 1:00 pm

Note of contention: I don’t actually like Pete’s Dragon, which I saw when it came out. Too long, and I found Helen Reddy annoying. Come to think of it, I’m not that hot on The Sound of Music either. It’s the one disc in my Rodgers & Hammerstein set that remains unplayed.

Posted By gregferrara : May 11, 2014 2:06 pm

As Rob said, I don’t think anyone really likes PETE’S DRAGON outside of nostalgia sake. That’s why Rob’s so wise. Although you and he would definitely disagree on THE SOUND OF MUSIC and I have to watch it again to decide because it’s been too many years since I last saw it to honestly assess it one way or the other.

Posted By robbushblog : May 12, 2014 1:42 pm

Yes, I seem to be the only commenter on this page that likes The Sound of Music, and I like it a lot.

SWAC- You like the Pat Boone State Fair more than The Sound of Music? I have found that to clearly be my least favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein movie, and that’s despite Ann-Margret and Bobby Darin, both of whom I love.

Posted By swac44 : May 12, 2014 2:05 pm

I don’t like Pat Boone’s State Fair more, but I have actually watched that disc, while SoM remains unspun (I’ve seen SoM a bunch of times in the past, just don’t have the urge to ever watch it again.) And you’re right, even Ann-Margret can’t save it.

Posted By robbushblog : May 12, 2014 2:52 pm


Posted By MondoMusicals : June 13, 2014 2:25 pm

Wow, no love at all for Pete’s Dragon? I adored this when I was a kid and many years later my little nephews liked it a lot too.

So no love for Shelley Winters? Jim Dale? Mickey Rooney? No fondness for “Happiest Home In These Hills” or “Passamashloddy” or “I Swear I Saw A Dragon” or “Bill of Sale” or “Every Little Piece” even “Candle on the Water”?

Posted By robbushblog : June 13, 2014 3:58 pm

I like Pete’s Dragon. It does feel long though.

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