Broadway Rhythm’s Got Me, Ev’rybody Dance

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Why all the cool kids are in love with movie musicals.

It’s weird to think that the first musical I ever acted in was The King and I. At the time, my most pressing concern was losing weight for the show – by my junior year of High School, I had rounded the corner of ‘heavy’ and was hurdling unchecked towards ‘fat,’ and nothing makes you reevaluate your body image faster than being cast in a play where your character never puts on a shirt. Looking back, of course, I find myself thinking of that performance in a whole new light. Since I based almost the entirety of my mannerisms on Yul Brynner’s performance from the 1956 film adaptation – himself a Russian actor pretending to be of Asian descent – my performance as King Mongkut of Siam was actually whitewashing twice over. Still, at the time, I was just thrilled to discover that I loved musicals and they seemed to love me back.

Between high school and college, I would star in three full-length musical productions – The King and I, Kiss Me Kate, and She Loves Me — and memorize countless other songs from countless other shows. It was all part of a dalliance with musical theater as a career option that lasted exactly as far as my first undergraduate film class. And although my interest in singing waned, my interest in musicals never did. I’m just as excited to see La La Land in theaters as I was to see Once or dig up a copy of the latest Disney movie on VHS. A good musical is the gift that keeps on giving, a movie that, once enjoyed, can slip into your headphones and keep you company throughout the day. It’s a song that gets stuck in your head and can only be exorcised by singing (preferably loudly) when you’re sure no one is listening. And most importantly, it’s a diverse musical landscape for all types of tastes. There’s just as much room within the genre for movies like The Last Five Years as there is for something like Repo! The Genetic Opera.

Why do I love musicals? If I want to put an academic spin on it, I can say that my love of musicals is part of my unconscious preference for “pure cinema,” the French philosophy that emphasizes the elements unique to film as being more valuable than the simple text. When a character bursts into song onscreen, lyrics themselves are rarely the most important element; more often than not, we take our emotional cues from the images on the screen – what they contain and how they are spliced together – as well as the music that makes up the film’s score. It’s the combination of sound (music), movement, and editing that gives musical their “pure cinema” power. This would also explain my deep love of the horror genre, another mode of filmmaking that concerns itself more with the audio-visual language of cinema than the textual language of books and theater. Feel free to steal this the next time someone catches you enjoying Rent; you’re not a musical theater nerd, you’re studying the construction of post-modern “pure cinema.”

Then again, I don’t really need an intellectual smokescreen to admit that I’m a sucker for a catchy tune and a heartfelt moment. It’s hard to be reserved in a musical, hard to adopt a position of detached irony from the rest of the world. Singing is often a silly, unfiltered expression of your inner monologue, and as many movies and television specials have shown, what seems sill on the outside might actually offer characters some of their most genuine moments. As part of the commentary track for “Once More With Feeling” – the long-anticipated musical episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series – Whedon explained that musicals gave their characters the opportunity to sing things to each other that they could never vocalize otherwise. Here’s the full quote:

Musical is a chance for people to express things they couldn’t otherwise express… When you stop talking you start communicating. And so many TV shows do what I refer to as variety shows disguised as musicals, where they don’t… they just do a scene, and then sing an oldie that has to do with it vaguely. But this is different. This has to have the power of what (Spike’s) feeling, expressed at that time. It has to be something he couldn’t express otherwise.

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That speaks to a kind of simplicity to musicals that I love, an opportunity for characters to truly express themselves without being bound by their relationships or even the natural laws. You want to sit someone down and tell them that you love them, only to have the late wiped clean moments after? You got. You want to embrace complete strangers for a convoluted dance routine where everyone knows every step? Hey, that’s fine, too. Not every musical ends with a happily ever after or the bad guy getting punished, but there’s a sense of order to the way these movies unfurl. Time, distance, and even the fabric of reality itself are malleable in the face of someone who just can’t help but burst into song. Maybe that seems juvenile or basic to some, but I’ll argue ’til I’m blue in the face that the cinema is big enough to encompass both the serious and the saccharine.

So here’s to the Hollywood musical, a tradition has persisted since the moment film and sound first combined. Whether your jam is Singing in the Rain or Hedwig and the Angry Inch, take the release of La La Land this weekend as an excuse to dig up an old favorite and bring a little bit of song and dance back into your life. If you need me, I’ll be over here, listening to Phantom of the Paradise and Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical and having a grand old time. And, uh, maybe retweeting articles about Asian representation to make up for that whole The King and I thing. Yeah.

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.