Raquel Stecher: Some people love musicals and other people hate them. It always seems to be one extreme or the other. Why do film lovers have such a love-hate relationship with this film genre?
Richard Barrios: It’s been that way since the dawn of the movie musical, back in the late 1920s, and it’s still that way. There are lots of reasons, of course, and one large one has to do with the connection of songs with script—for some people, those two things need to be kept completely separate. It could be said, too, that even the most cynical of recent musicals can seem too innocent and out-of-place in a time as jaded and seen-it-all as our current one seems to be. For some, too, rock music has become so dominant that the music traditionally thought of as “show tunes” isn’t felt to be appealing; for a few, unfortunately, any kind of musical will still seem “too gay,” whatever that is. And then there’s also the notion about people bursting into song, which is so crucial that you wisely gave it its own question.
Stecher: You make a great point about how some viewers are turned off by the idea of actors “bursting into song” in musicals. Why does this turn off some people?
Barrios: I write, in the book, about the notion of “suspension of disbelief.” And no matter how unrealistic some films can get, with their explosions and fights and whatnot, there will always be a particular resistance to the idea of a character singing to another character. It’s felt, by some, as being just too unreal for film—a stage convention that doesn’t work when it’s on a big screen in a big closeup. That’s why, since the dawn of musical cinema (The Broadway Melody) to now (Jersey Boys), so many musicals have been backstage stories, where the characters are seen performing onstage, instead of “in ‘real’ life.”
Stecher: I love this sentence from your book “Falseness and honesty: what is a musical if not a phony way to tell the truth?” This is a really interesting dichotomy. What is about musicals that make them both honest and phony?
Barrios: In many ways, musicals are inherently artificial, aren’t they? People in the real world don’t just get up and sing or dance, either alone or with each other. (I tried singing to someone once, and it didn’t really turn out too well!) But the great thing about that artifice is that under it can be some kind of true and genuine feeling—expressions of love or loneliness or joy, or even things more complex. Maybe a little girl in Kansas wouldn’t have really walked through a barnyard singing about a land over the rainbow, but for sure the thoughts and dreams of that song would have occurred to her—likely in a less beautiful and eloquent way.
Stecher: While you talk about a lot of the big name musicals such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Sound of Music (1965), you also discuss at length obscurities such as Whoopee! (1930), Sunnyside Up (1929), Madam Satan (1930) and The King of Jazz (1930). Should the reader of your book have a broad understanding of musicals both popular and rare?
Barrios: You know, it’s the nature of history to recall the milestones and, eventually, leave the “also-rans” behind. It’s true in movies and in politics and sports and everywhere else. But the history wasn’t made simply by the ones we recall; sometimes it’s simply a trick of fate that some films end up getting neglected. (Some, of course, deserve the neglect—but the real stinkers deserve recall, just as we won’t forget, say, the Titanic.) I write about the revered and beloved classics and also the ones that may have been adored when they were new and subsequently forgotten. Both types were important to the musical’s evolution…and if reading about, say, Madam Satan in Dangerous Rhythm, a reader is led to seek it out, then I’ve really done my job.
|Madam Satan (1930)|
Stecher: Early musicals were very experimental and with time good ideas were “recycled and regurgitated.” Why do you think that is?
Barrios: When a product or an idea scores big, there are usually a host of imitations. We see that now with things as diverse as reality TV and vampire fiction and, well, you name it. There are only going to ever be a finite number of “new ideas.” When musicals broke big in 1929, a few of them truly were innovative, both with their technique and subject matter, while far more looked back to a few models and imitated them. The first big backstage musical, The Broadway Melody, spawned dozens of imitations, and so did the Al Jolson films The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool. Audiences soon became saturated with all the copies, and that plus the onset of the Great Depression put an end to musicals for several years.
|The March of Time - Source|
Barrios: The most arresting aspect of The March of Time was that it wasn’t really “never to be”—it did actually happen! Here is the film industry’s most powerful studio, MGM, embarking on a huge plotless musical revue, and doing so without much in the way of planning for an overall structure. At the end of it, they had a massive pile of footage, songs and sketches that didn’t really seem to mean anything—so they tinkered some more, and kept tinkering, to give it some kind of point. Meanwhile, musicals were taking a nosedive. Finally, in the fall of 1930, MGM did something no other studio would have had the nerve to have done: it announced that The March of Time was shelved. Imagine that today—a hugely expensive film going completely unreleased. (The cost of March was about $800,000—an extremely high budget for 1930, and roughly equivalent to, say, $100 million today.) A tiny bit of the cost was recouped by putting some of the numbers into a comedy released in Germany, then farming out several sequences, including some in early Technicolor, in short subjects. (A couple of these featured The Three Stooges.) Then, in 1933, they put a few minutes of it into a backstage story called Broadway to Hollywood and were finally able to write off the whole mess on the company’s books. I don’t think ever, in all of film history, has such a major production been so completely aborted after it was shot. (I detail the whole saga in my book A Song in the Dark.) Fortunately, some of the numbers survive—and, seeing them, you can understand why the studio took the drastic step it did. That’s the take-away lesson of The March of Time: musicals need to be planned well, they don’t just happen spontaneously.
Stecher: What do you think is the biggest misconception about musicals?
Barrios: To refer to the subtitle of my book, that they don’t matter. That they’re just empty or mindless confections that should divert and then be forgotten in a few minutes. And of course that misconception is held not only by people who don’t like musicals, but also by some of the people who make them. Alas, too many musicals do seem empty and mindless—and really, they’re capable of so much more. The truly great ones have shown us this, over and over.
Stecher: In your book you discuss certain figures of musicals past including Bing Crosby and Judy Garland. Who do you find the most fascinating and whose work reveals a lot about the genre?
Barrios: So often, musicals are about the people, aren’t they? The ones who really delivered, like Astaire, the ones who moved away from them, like Ginger Rogers or Doris Day or Barbra Streisand, the ones like Gene Kelly who achieved miracles but sometimes made poor decisions, or the ones like Crosby who did a lot, but perhaps wasn’t totally committed to it. Then there are people like Garland and Betty Hutton, where personal or health issues sometimes kept them from achieving everything they could have. Though in Garland’s case especially, what she was able to achieve is pretty miraculous. Then there are the Jimmy Cagneys, who one wishes had made more musicals, and the Liza Minnellis and Bette Midlers, whose main stardom came at a time when few musicals were happening. These careers, and others like them, are one major way to chart a great deal of the history of the genre. Recently I did a presentation when I showed how some aspects of musicals keep on happening. In this case, it was showing film clips of a female star who stunned audiences with her musical talent, since up to then her fame in movies hadn’t been built on it. From the late 20s and early 30s, I showed Gloria Swanson, and from the early 2000s, Catherine Zeta Jones. And maybe that illustrates what I find the most fascinating with these people—that they have careers that enable history to keep repeating itself.
|Love in the Rough (1930)|
Stecher: What’s in store for musicals in the future? And when will there be another golf musical like Love in the Rough (1930)?
Barrios: You know, Love in the Rough was actually sort of a knock-off, like I discussed earlier, of another golf musical: Follow Thru. I wouldn’t hold my breath for too many, or any, more golf musicals—golf is traditionally one of those subjects that does not tend to make successful movies. (Remember The Legend of Bagger Vance?)
As for what lies ahead for musicals, I think it’s safe to say that there won’t be too many of them—nor will they be extinct. 2014, for example, is seeing the release of at least five major musicals: Jersey Boys, Begin Again, Get On Up (the James Brown bio), the Annie remake, and Into the Woods. And I think that the range of this quintet is probably indicative of what we’ll continue to have for a while: musical biopics, comedies with music (at least that’s what Begin Again looks like in its trailer), and Broadway adaptations, either remakes or first-timers. Obviously, if any of these are successful, that will mean more of that specific kind. Maybe it’s not the best of times just now, but at least it seems that there’s some interesting work awaiting us. I hope so—and, in any case, there’s a wonderful and available musical heritage that we can always enjoy when the new ones aren’t there.
Stecher: What are you working on next?
Barrios: Book-wise, I’m still dealing with Dangerous Rhythm, very happily doing presentations and lectures and interviews. If anyone asks me to do further things pertaining to musicals, I’ll be more than happy. Otherwise, I recently moved from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, so my life is quite occupied with homeowner-type duties. As far as future writing projects, I do have one current notion that I intend to expand: I grew up in South Louisiana, literally just out of the swamps, and never particularly felt that I fit in there all that well. As a kid and adolescent, I was able to find a great deal of my identity from going to the local movie theater, and also from all the film I watched on TV. So I’m thinking about the movies I saw growing up, and how they influenced me and were a reflection of who I thought I was—and often seemed more real to me than things happening in my life “off the screen.” And yes, musicals figured very prominently in that equation; I guess I’m living proof of my thesis that musicals do matter! Thanks for asking me such great questions—it’s been a treat.
Stecher: Thank you Richard Barrios for taking the time to do this interview!