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The film musical? A proposal for a genre definition


Marida Rizzuti


IULM - Libera Università di Lingue e Comunicazione

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The passage of the musical from the theatre to the cinema saw a transformation in its language; it entered a no man’s land (Iser 2000) be­tween what was ‘no longer’ theatrical and ‘not yet’ cinematographic. Musicals on the silver screen are generally referred to as ‘film musicals’ (Alt­man 1989; Altman 2004), to differentiate them from those staged in the theatre. However this definition is problematic because it can suggest that the musical component, which is an integral part of the art form, is subor­dinate in the narrative project. In this essay I argue that there was a change in the attitude to the music in the film musical over the years 1943 – 1964, a period in which the conventional Broadway musical underwent a radical transformation. In the late 1940s new productions tailed off significantly and producers focused on mounting revivals of the hits of the 1930s and early 1940s. At the same time the Broadway production system changed radically and the onus moved from Broadway to the Hollywood film in­dustry (La Polla – Monteleone 2002; La Polla 2004).

Rather than taking a rigidly classificatory approach or arriving at a de­finition of a genre – the musical – whose salient character has been its ongoing transformism, this essay hopes to contribute to a clearer vision of the film musical, based on the role music played in the passage from theatrical to cinematographic language.

One Touch of Venus and My Fair Lady [1] are two significant works in the history of the musical because they span the chosen period and represent the interchange that took place between Broadway and Hollywood. Kurt Weill’s musical can be seen as a prototype: in the forties it was one of the first exam­ples of the transformation from theatre to cinema, carried out under the composer’s supervision. While My Fair Lady stands as a ‘classic’ musical because by the mid-1950s the golden age of the musical was coming to an end, with the first experiments that were to characterise the 1960s and 1970s (Hair, Cabaret, Jesus Christ Superstar).

[1] Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus debuted in Broadway in 1943; its filmic transposition directed by W. Seiter dates back to 1948 (Universal). My Fair Lady, by A. J. Lerner e F. Loewe, debuted in Broadway in 1956 and become a Warner film in 1964.