The Oxford Handbook of the Hollywood Musical

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  1. Dominic Broomfield-McHugh
The Oxford Handbook of the Hollywood Musical


This book is clearly a collaborative work that could never have happened without the cooperation, support, and expertise of a large group of scholars. I am hugely grateful to all the contributors who have offered a chapter here, as well as to the anonymous reviewers whose comments helped to improve the text enormously. As always, I am indebted to Norm Hirschy of Oxford University Press for his patience and enthusiasm for the project, without which it would never have happened. Thanks, too, to the production team including Sean Decker, copyeditor Timothy J. DeWerff and production manager Phillippa Clubbs, who have brought the final manuscript to an efficient and elegant conclusion. Finally, thanks to my husband Lawrence and my parents Gilly and Larry McHugh for their support.

Dominic Broomfield-McHugh Sheffield September 2021

An Introduction

Dominic Broomfield-McHugh

It is a curiosity of the study of the Hollywood musical that while film scholars have long seen it as a rewarding site of discovery, musicologists have mostly not. This is even more striking given the exponential growth of musicological scholarship on the North American stage musical and the interdependence of the stage and screen models. In turn, it is also noticeable that while “musical theater studies” has now emerged as a kind of independent area of study—almost a discipline in itself, with numerous degree programs and a dedicated journal, Studies in Musical Theatre—there is no equivalent ring-fenced area of activity for the film equivalent. It is true that papers and articles on the Hollywood musical appear at a range of conferences and in various journals, and one could hardly claim that the genre has been neglected. But given that the film musical is currently at its most prolific and popular point in over fifty years, it is strange that it has not enjoyed the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary attention given to the Broadway musical since the new millennium.

As a musicologist who has worked extensively on the stage musical, I’m struck by how—with some distinguished exceptions—musicology has been relatively slow to embrace almost a century of English-language musical film when our discipline was so cru- cial to the birth of the study of the Broadway musical in the academy. That impressive work was largely done by film scholars such as Jane Feuer (The Hollywood Musical), Rick Altman (The American Film Musical), and Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans (Blue Skies and Silver Linings) in the 1980s, and followed up by many others in the years since, though there have been relatively few general studies of the genre since those days. When I started to teach an undergraduate module on the Hollywood musical in 2011, it was incredibly liberating in many ways to have to set readings from a different, rich disciplinary perspective, recognizing a similar lack of sustained commentary that musicologists such as Geoffrey Block, Kim Kowalke, Stephen Banfield, and Joseph P. Swain encountered when they first contributed the musicology of the Broadway musical back in the 1980s and early 1990s.

A further strand of reading also informed my initial foray into teaching film musicals to “Music” students, namely the non-academic trade books that provided useful production and biographical information about some of the films I wanted to teach. I was particularly struck, for example, by how well Hugh Fordin’s The World of Entertainment! (originally published in the 1970s) brought to life the atmosphere of the Arthur Freed unit at MGM, an indispensable place to start when understanding where films such as Meet Me in St. Louis and Singin’ in the Rain might have been coming from. Unlike some of the more theoretical writings from film studies that focused mainly on “reading” the movies, Fordin’s book also benefited from both archival research and interviews that illuminated the behind-the-scenes process in ways that were familiar from musicological approaches to the stage musical. However, the lack of scholarly apparatus of any kind—citations, footnotes, even an index—means that the book raises as many questions as it answers, because it can be difficult to cross-reference or check some of the facts.

In editing The Oxford Handbook of the Hollywood Musical (which I conceived as a companion volume to my earlier Oxford Handbook of Musical Theatre Screen Adaptations), I wanted to bring together useful elements from all these perspectives in order to try to summarize where we are and where we might go with studying this culturally ubiquitous genre together. Having different disciplinary approaches means that we can all learn from one another rather than territorially endorsing only one, and in these pages the reader will find a range of theoretical and historical frames for this beloved but sometimes controversial group of films. To do so, it addresses many aspects of the how, when, and why of the Hollywood musical, ranging in date from enduring early sound films such as 42nd Street (1933) through to more recent contributions like The Greatest Showman (2017). It is a handbook rather than an encyclopedia so it aims to provide and provoke ideas rather than providing a comprehensive history, but the volume addresses major figures from the classical Hollywood period such as Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Lena Horne; examines family favorites like Mary Poppins (1964); and finds rich discussion in renaissance-era musicals such as La La Land (2016).

The book is organized into sections that explore themes, ideas, or problems. Part I addresses the conventions of breaking into song and dance, the eccentric dimension that defines the musical either positively or negatively depending on whether it thrills or alienates the individual viewer. Lloyd Whitesell examines the thresholds between song and non-song in a wide range of films, while Dominic Symonds offers a reading of how a particular performer (Judy Garland) uses musicality as an expressive tool beyond the songs themselves. Chapters by Kara Gardner and Todd Decker, on dreams and wide- screen technology, offer complementary analyses of how dance and dancers work with cameras and audiences in the Hollywood musical. These chapters help to lay out some of the peculiarities of the genre—the questions that continue to amuse, confuse, and fascinate.

For a genre often associated with joy, the musical has also been the cause of considerable violence for some audiences by reinforcing discriminatory tropes that have reinforced hierarchies or pejorative tropes through racism and/or xenophobia. Just as Singin’ in the Rain evokes naive joy, it also invokes the world of blackface in its references to The Jazz Singer, and Donald O’Connor briefly performs a parody of a Jolsonesque “mammy” song. The Handbook’s second part addresses this topic through case studies of individuals like Lena Horne (Hannah Robbins), through analyses of specific communities (Desirée J. Garcia on Latin performers; William Everett on portrayals of immigrants), or through particular elements of production (gender and voice in Disney—Colleen Montgomery; European translations of Hollywood musicals—Olaf Jubin). While such a section can never be comprehensive, it serves as a reminder that some communities struggle to access the pleasure that others receive from watching certain musicals, or experience them in particular ways.

In Part III, five scholars offer case studies of the production of specific films. Tim Carter and Geoffrey Block each approach a celebrated movie from the 1930s, 42nd Street (1933) and A Damsel in Distress (1937), respectively, while Andrew Buchman uses archival sources to shine new light on the writing of Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Megan Woller’s chapter looks at how casting affected the making of Mary Poppins, and Cliff Eisen offers a contrasting reading of Night and Day, the Cole Porter biopic, to show the conflicting priorities when putting “real” lives on the musical screen.

Part IV of the book shifts more explicitly to the theme of stars and how they shape the material as we experience it on film. Nathan Platte’s insightful chapter on Oscar Levant offers a compelling reading of this unusual performer’s contributions to the film musical, with contrasting accounts by Raymond Knapp and Steven Cohan of how MGM’s creative teams handled aspects of the careers of Judy Garland and Esther Williams. Julie Lobalzo Wright looks at the mythology of stardom itself in the A Star Is Born films, while my own chapter uses archival sources to show how The Barkleys of Broadway was originally written in a particular way to accommodate Garland, causing problems when it was only partly revised after Ginger Rogers took over her role. Most of those chapters are focused on the studio system and the classical period of Hollywood history. Part V looks at what happened next. Martha Shearer’s chapter on Xanadu and Katy Jayasuriya’s on The Little Prince examine how a change in era and production modes left the musical all at sea after forty years of near-continuous success, while Paul R. Laird offers insights into the unusual Barbra Streisand musical Yentl.

If the Hollywood musical never exactly left us, there was certainly a period in the 1980s and 1990s when studios and producers showed limited faith in it as a viable commercial genre; it is a striking example of how times have changed that Steven Spielberg, whose sci-fi action movies and dramas dominated that period, turned only in 2021 to the musical with a late-career remake of West Side Story (2021). In the final section of the book, four scholars examine the musical’s return to grace in a different production environment with films such as Moulin Rouge! (Robynn J. Stilwell), La La Land (Hannah Lewis), and The Greatest Showman (James Leve), plus a chapter on the relationship be- tween the Broadway, Hollywood, and television musical by Jane Feuer. Feuer’s death during the latter stages of producing this book robbed us of both a supportive colleague and one of the founders of scholarship on the musical film. It is an honor to dedicate this book to her.
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