Spring 2020

The Musical's Transporting Powers

Directors past and present tackle the genre's suspension of disbelief in varying ways, making the internal external and lifting our spirits in the process

By Robert Abele

Dexter Fletcher used Elton John's music to tell his life story in Rocketman, but wanted moviegoers to know early on that this would be an edgier, darker kind of musical biopic—part fantasy, with songs not always chronologically presented. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

As genre statements go, movie musicals stand alone, transporting the world of make-believe to their own distinctively tuneful realm. They've always posed a tricky proposition to filmmakers, even dating back to their heyday from the 1930s to the 1960s. Since then, musicals have been pronounced dead so many times that their ongoing resilience is all the more remarkable.

The success of Disney's song-studded animation resurgence, along with that of the dance-driven Step Up movies, have helped fuel a steady stream of big-screen song-and-dance projects as of late. This year alone, anticipation is sky high for Jon M. Chu's adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning In the Heights, not to mention Steven Spielberg's first-ever musical, a new version of the classic West Side Story, which is in post. Marshall's live-action version of Disney's The Little Mermaid just began shooting in London. Among the many musicals in the works are Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Wicked, Adam Shankman's Enchanted sequel; and Richard Linklater's Merrily We Roll Along.

The musical's balance—between reality and fantasy, heartbreak and whimsy, underscore and songbook—is so delicate that to dissect it risks breaking its spell entirely. And yet a half dozen practitioners of the form offered to share their thoughts with the Quarterly, explaining that when the elements come together seamlessly, there's no denying the musical's impact.

"Music is so powerful because it can excite and inspire us, or it can calm and console us," says actor/director Barbra Streisand, whose big-screen debut in the title role of the musical Funny Girl (1968) could not have been more conspicuous. "It goes straight to the heart and satisfies the soul. Music is the soundtrack of our lives."

Almost 40 years later, Streisand's directorial debut, the award-winning Yentl (1983), still stands as a prime example of when personal vision can meld successfully with commercial considerations. A longtime passion project of Streisand's, Yentl had morphed from straight drama to musical mainly because its funding was contingent on her singing onscreen.

When Streisand examined how music could deepen the story of a Jewish woman pretending to be a male yeshiva student to further herself, the format made perfect sense. "She was hiding a secret and had this interior life that she couldn't share with anybody," says Streisand, recalling her thought process. "So what if we had her express those thoughts in voiceover—not in speech, but in song? The music would tell you what was going on inside her head, like a stream of consciousness. Only when Yentl was alone could she sing out loud, and at the end, when she feels liberated on the boat to a new world."

(Top) Barbra Streisand directs Amy Irving and Mandy Patinkin on location for Yentl; (Middle) From left, Dreamgirls stars Anika Noni Rose, Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson; (Bottom) Director Bill Condon, left, with Hudson. (Photos: (Top & Bottom) Everett; (Middle) Photofest)

Establishing a Contract with the Audience

Even at the time he was making Dreamgirls, director Bill Condon says, the concern was real that "the contract had been broken with the audience" about characters breaking into song as a way of expressing their feelings. "The burden was how to get the audience to accept this convention of people living in a musical world."

For Dreamgirls, about a Supremes-like trio navigating fame, Condon chose to ease moviegoers into non-diegetic numbers by filming his showbiz characters doing what they naturally do on stage, then switching things up at the halfway mark when Effie (Jennifer Hudson) belts out her private plea, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."

"My approach was, let the performance stuff get us singing, put everything on a stage, so there's a sense of people performing all around before people start singing to each other," says Condon. "There's some leading by the hands in Dreamgirls, but I think it worked. Since then, there's been two or three musicals a year, including television musicals, so the contract has been re-established. Now we can accept people singing, people dancing—as long as you do it confidently and clearly at the beginning."

Establishing that conceit can be a daunting task, however. Damien Chazelle wasn't always sure his elaborately planned traffic jam that opens La La Land would work. The director went so far as to excise it during postproduction, making the first number 10 minutes in with Emma Stone at home with her girlfriends. But after a lot of trial and error—overture/no overture? Ryan Gosling and Stone in their cars before the number or after the number?—he bought into the theory that "the longer you take establishing the world of the movie, the more dangerous the ground you're treading is." That meant canning a planned overture and beginning with motorists singing and dancing, then introducing his leads. Besides, he wryly notes, "The transition out of a song is much easier."

With Rocketman, which used Elton John's songs to tell his life story, director Dexter Fletcher wanted moviegoers to know early on that this would be an edgier, darker kind of musical biopic—part fantasy, with songs not always chronologically presented. In this regard, he took John's late-career hit "I Want Love"—a middle-aged man's weary plea—and divided its searching lyrics among childhood Elton's dissatisfied family members. "I was looking for dramatic truth that maybe some of those '50s musicals didn't reach for so deeply," says Fletcher. "That's why 'I Want Love' was important; it exposed and opened up the audience to the inner workings of those characters, their wants and needs and desires, through a simple but open-hearted song. I could have had a huge dramatic scene there in this domestic world, but I wanted to cut through it with them sitting around singing. And the musical, by its nature, allows for that."

Because hip-hop and rap grew out of an urban landscape of lyrical street expression not terribly different from the break-into-song aesthetic of musicals, Chu could kick off In the Heights with a nearly organic combination of the fantastic and the authentic in setting up its "rules." The film is framed as a story about New York neighborhood Washington Heights told by charismatic lead character Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), to a group of kids on a beach. "He says, 'The streets were made of music.' He starts with this clave beat, and then we cut to the street, and everything is moving to that heartbeat," says Chu. The director fashioned the opening number so that its rhythm is reflected in everyday urban sounds, and made sure throughout to spotlight how much of Lin-Manuel Miranda's lyrical raps could be integrated with dialogue. "We tested the movie, and somebody said, 'This wasn't a musical. This is the way we speak to each other in the community. We play music all the time. It's constantly happening.'"

Of course, having source material from the genre's hottest talent helps, but Chu says Miranda, an acknowledged movie fan, grasped how a different medium meant the chance to do different things. "We were able to bring that to the big screen in a way that even the show couldn't," says Chu. "You could be two inches away from [the cast], or we could be 10,000 feet away, and that's exactly how his music feels."

(Top) Director Adam Shankman saw thousands of girls before casting Nikki Blonsky for the lead in Hairspray; (Middle) Queen Latifah takes center stage in the film; (Bottom) Across the Universe director Julie Taymor hails from the theater, and featured wall-to-wall Beatles songs in her film. (Photos: (Bottom) Revolution Studios)

Adopting the Method to the Medium

With Hairspray (2007), Adam Shankman was also dealing with a popular stage property, itself adapted from John Waters' 1988 indie comedy. Shankman knew he'd need to make changes, and was nervous about satisfying fans of the previous incarnations, which included himself. Meeting Waters assuaged his fears. "He looked me dead in the eye and said, 'Do what you do. Don't pay any attention to what I did, don't pay any attention to what Broadway did. You do you. That's the legacy of Hairspray.'"

Emboldened, Shankman found ways to take advantage of cinema's go-anywhere ability in opening up Hairspray—from the location-dense "Good Morning Baltimore" number at the onset to a setting change for the Queen Latifah-sung gospel-style anthem "I Know Where I've Been," which went from reflective number inside Maybelle's record store to an outdoor civil rights protest. "For me, that was a call to arms," Shankman says of the song. "It was about moving things forward. So watching people move forward felt like the natural thing to do cinematically."

For her wall-to-wall Beatles musical Across the Universe—which traverses a turbulent '60s through the lives of a handful of young idealists experiencing innocence, loss and reconciliation—director Julie Taymor wanted to visualize and even contextualize the Lennon/McCartney songbook in new ways. "I don't start with the visual, I start with the story," says Taymor, "so I listened very closely to the music and lyrics of every Beatles song, and selected 33 that would be able to tell a story."

That's how "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was slowed down to become a secret wish from a closeted high school cheerleader, while John Lennon's ode to Yoko Ono, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," was reconceived as a hellish portrait of drafting young men into fighting in Vietnam.

Says Taymor, "I thought, what's so 'heavy'? Liberty, that's heavy, when America pretends it's carrying liberty to other countries. So why not have these men trampling through miniature palm trees in Vietnam carrying the Statue of Liberty?"

For In the Heights, one spectacular musical number was inspired during a location scout when a popular community pool was pointed out. After making the requisite Esther Williams/Busby Berkeley jokes, everyone realized they should leap at the challenge and stage a pool extravaganza, but Washington Heights style—one that eventually utilized more than 100 dancers and more than 600 extras. The sheer number of people needed to accurately reflect a busy summer hotspot was one filming issue. But there was also the way they'd look if this was going to be an homage to those synchronized water ballets. "We thought, are they all going to dress similarly, like in an Esther Williams number?" recalls Chu. "'Do they all match?' Then we thought, 'No, the whole point is, they have tattoos, they have dark skin, they have mismatching shorts because everyone's from every damn place, the towels are all different, and we're going to be just as beautiful and sharp as any Broadway or movie musical.'"

(Top) Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgrss as young lovers in Across the Universe; (Middle & Bottom) Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera dance to the rhythm of the streets in the upcoming In the Heights. The film's director, Jon M. Chu (in baseball cap) says he wanted to emphasize the everyday urban sounds in Lin-Manuel Miranda's score in the movie's look and feel. (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Middle & Bottom) Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Getting in the Groove

Back in the studio system days, of course, entire departments—like Arthur Freed's storied unit at MGM—could be counted on to churn out choreographers, singers and dancers to meet the precise needs of a musical and give it a necessary pizzazz. There's nothing like that anymore, so today's musical directors have to put a premium on preparation.

When it came to getting the Across the Universe numbers on their feet, Julie Taymor—who first rose to prominence directing for the stage (Broadway's The Lion King)—set up a space at a 42nd Street studio in New York. "We rehearsed it just like I rehearse a theater musical," notes the director, "with our six young [actors], a small band of about four or five musicians, and 15 dancers to do 500 dance roles, and it made everybody bond." Also, composer Elliot Goldenthal—tasked with rearranging the chosen Beatles songs to fit Taymor's '60s-spanning vision of youth, war and identity—could get a clearer view of how the music would fit. "It made Elliot and the other music producers really understand the whole performance ahead of time, so that they could really fill out the orchestrations," Taymor says.

Chazelle, whose knowledge of classic Hollywood is deep, even tried to set up preproduction on La La Land in a way that recreated that bygone studio process, with rented spaces clustered together. "All the traditional office space was right next to the dance studio, which was right next to wardrobe. So if Ryan (Gosling) and Emma (Stone) were in dance rehearsals, I'd go see where stuff was going, then talk choreography with Mandy Moore, then visit Mary (Zophres, the costume designer) to see if the dance is going in this direction, what outfit will best suit that. Then Linus (Sandgren, the cinematographer) and I would shoot stuff on our iPhones, look at it, and then go to the parking lot and practice the traffic number there. It wasn't at all like the old MGM backlot, but it was our approximation of what might have been, specific to our movie, and it was the only way to pull it off."

Rehearsal on location proved necessary, too, for Chazelle, especially when it came to the freeway ramp number. "We had one rehearsal day on the ramp, and it was an utter disaster," remembers Chazelle. "But it taught us everything. The crane we thought would work doesn't work, the ramp slants more than we thought, this kind of car doesn't work, this kind of dance move doesn't work. So everyone came back from that rehearsal with a whole list of things that had to be done, so by the time we went back two weeks later [to shoot], we were dialed in. Otherwise, I don't think that number would have made it into the movie."

Streisand remembers the tricky scheduling for Yentl, which gave her only nine days of rehearsal in London but didn't stop her from prepping the way she needed. "That's why I had to block out all the musical numbers in Los Angeles, with friends and family playing the characters," she recalls. "I dressed in my costume and had an assistant videotape these run-throughs, so I could show (camera operator) Peter (MacDonald) and (cinematographer) David (Watkin) exactly what I had in mind."

Sometimes, that rehearsal period is crucial for actors who may have musical talent, but need time to get into performing-on-camera shape. On Rocketman, says Fletcher, "it was getting Taron Egerton into the (recording) studio as much as we could, working his voice, building up that confidence, and getting him to the point where he could walk onto set and say to me, 'I want to sing this live,' and have the capacity to do that. Leading from the front is a vulnerable place to be, and it's my job to let him know he can really fly. Elton's an extreme character, but that's the beauty of musicals, and you can get away with extraordinary things."

Condon didn't have to worry about Jennifer Hudson's singing chops on Dreamgirls, but because it was the American Idol alumna's first movie, Condon had to ensure the showstopper, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," would be knocked out of the park. "We could do everything right, and if that number didn't land, it doesn't matter, right?" says Condon. "Well, she felt the same thing. So we rehearsed, we pre-recorded it, then she kept improving on that. And because she'd never been on a movie set before, I made the decision to shoot that at the end, so she was comfortable with filming, and knew Effie down to her bones. And I think the tension of waiting for that really paid off."

Though Shankman cast plenty of stars with musical experience in Hairspray—John Travolta, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken, even Michelle Pfeiffer (Grease 2)—he deliberately sought a high school-aged newcomer to play lead Tracy Turnblad. "In tight close-ups they needed to look the age they were playing," says Shankman.

After seeing thousands of girls, he landed on 17-year-old Nikki Blonsky, who proved to be a natural. "What makes a movie star is not necessarily the acting," Shankman explains, "it's how they reach through the camera to connect with someone. And she just had that undefinable quality that was very radiant." But because dance was Blonsky's weakest area, Shankman assigned her one of his assistants as a personal choreographer. "She was drilled every day, and she never stopped, and never complained," says Shankman. "In fact, she was dancing so much she lost too much weight, and then we had to find a way to put weight back on her in a healthy way. But she worked really, really hard."

On La La Land, because it was an original musical fashioned after the extraordinary-in-the-ordinary style of Jacques Demy's shimmering confection The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Damien Chazelle said he and choreographer Mandy Moore had some wait-and-see luxury with dance—they didn't want to just impose routines on newbie musical stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. "We were going to see what their bodies naturally do and create the dances out of those movements," says Chazelle. "You start with the nondance version of a scene, and then you grow the dance out of their characters' body language. It's character-focused choreography. The idea isn't without precedent. Gene Kelly did his version of that. But here you're doing it with untrained dancers, where you know it's going to be grounded, sort of imperfect, and that was the Jacques Demy thing, to preserve the rough edges."

(Top) Dexter Fletcher with Rocketman star Taron Egerton, who portrayed Elton John in the film; (Middle & Bottom) Damien Chazelle, with actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, tried to set up pre-production on La La Land in a way that recreated the bygone studio process, with rented spaces clustered together. (Photos: (Top) Paramount Pictures; (Middle) Photofest; (Bottom) Lionsgate)

The Past Looms Over the Present

Sometimes, the fun is in direct shout-outs to the past masters. Chazelle included an umbrella shop on the studio lot as a Demy tip of the hat in La La Land. Shankman deliberately opened Hairspray with a shot descending from the clouds into Baltimore as an homage to how Robert Wise began both West Side Story and The Sound of Music. And in the first number, he had Tracy perched on a garbage truck á la Streisand on the tugboat in Funny Girl. "I was very open about the fact that I was going to lay giant Easter egg-y winks at what had come before me," says Shankman.

Condon had his own legendary musical director on his mind when making Beauty and the Beast: Vincente Minnelli, the man behind beloved classics Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon and Gigi. "He was able to get everything you'd want out of a musical," says Condon of Minnelli, "the heightened sense of emotion and conflict that can only be expressed through music and dance. He brings that to composition, to camera movement; it's all integrated with him in a way that I don't think has been matched."

For the essential moment when Belle and the Beast enter into the centerpiece waltz sequence, Condon's process of devising and revising shots as the choreographer worked with Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, then pinpointing the story beats and emotions, and blocking camera moves with pre-viz due to all the CGI involved, was all about remembering why he responds so deeply to Minnelli's musicals. "It's that crucial Minnelli element," Condon elaborates, "which is the camera working completely in tandem with the dancer, and the camera being an equal participant in making movement come to life."

Barbra Streisand approached Yentl's musical scenes with the theater mindset from which she hailed—preserving the moment as a fully performed segment. "The music doesn't stop, so why should the shot?" she says. "I want things to flow. I want the camera to dance with the actors because in a way they're partners. So then the challenge becomes, 'How can I do this scene in as few shots as possible?' Unless, by the way, it calls for the camera to cut and cut, or be still while the actors move. You want to vary the rhythm in a film. It's like staccato versus legato in music, quick cuts versus long sweeping camera movements. And the most important consideration for me always is, 'How can I use the camera to serve the actor's performance, rather than the other way around?'"

When imagining the flow of La La Land, Chazelle wanted to honor the way musicals used to be made while taking advantage of what technology could offer him today—"a little bit of old meets new," he says. It's what led to the opening number on the freeway ramp, and the leads' magic-hour duet on the hillside being envisioned as one-shot dazzlers, albeit with the tools of the modern director: the Steadicam and, in the case of the traffic scene, VFX stitching that made three shots look like a single.

"The long take was the aesthetic of the traditional musical, the bread and butter of how Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly musicals were done," says Chazelle, referring to the head-to-toe framing that respected the hoofer's total body performing a routine. "Why would you cut? It defeats the purpose of dance. Then when Bob Fosse came along, it was editing to music, and so that approach to musicals became the modern go-to—shoot with 16 cameras and then just cut it in the editing room. But when we made La La Land, thanks to people like Alfonso Cuarón, the one-take had been reintroduced into the grammar of Hollywood filmmaking as an exciting thing to do. So the irony is, by actually returning to the roots of the musical and shooting it pretty traditionally, you were also making it feel weirdly modern."

Chu, whose directing credits are dance-packed (two Step Up movies, the rival-dancers web series The LXD), is always influenced in his camera choices by what a dancer is doing. "You have to understand the effect being given in order to help deliver that, or enhance it, or contrast it," says Chu. "If I'm working with a b-boy who's doing a flip, I can just show that, which is equally impressive because you see the human body doing it, or I can counter him on a dolly low to the ground, and bring more energy to that move. It's not just a flip, or pointing a toe, or a straight leg. It's 'What are they saying? What do we want the audience to feel?' Then you custom-build it that way."

That emphasis on feeling, on characters expressing who they are intensified through song and dance, is what makes directors like Chu excited about the renewed thirst for musicals. But there's also a newness in the air about the genre today, whether it's in the types of music and choreography featured, what the technology allows, the themes explored, or whose story is being told. A musical like In the Heights—a melting pot entertainment forged in the energy of its immigrants' dreams—turns out to be as grounded and truthful as any other kind of movie, says Chu.

"Musicals are usually seen as fantasies," he says. "And yes, this one has big spectacles for numbers. But the timing could not have been better for a musical to show a community of joy, love, support and sacrifice—a story of America when the story of America is being questioned."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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