Film & TV

Behind The Lens: Musicals

Original artwork by Amelia Field/@daisyfieldsdesign

by  Abi Edwards

It’s no secret that musical theatre has played a paramount role within the arts industry, being a popular form of entertainment for many generations. My earliest memory of experiencing a musical was watching the Disney film Mary Poppins as a toddler, and I played it so much that I eventually wore the video out. Most of us are familiar with musicals, and many of us have grown up watching them. There’s a mesmerizing element to the musical which we have come to recognize, know and love, and with the invention of streaming services such as Netflix and Disney Plus, we can enjoy the magic of them in the comfort of our own homes (and sing along and dance to them, of course). 

The  musical theatre genre can be easily recognized, even if you are unfamiliar with musicals. It typically incorporates songs, spoken dialogue, dance and an engaging plot which is used to heighten the atmosphere for the purpose of the audience’s excitement. Musical numbers consist of emotional duets, show-stopping solos and ensemble numbers usually accompanied by an orchestra, which expresses the development of each character. The binary opposition of good vs. evil is also usually explored with one or more protagonists and antagonists. The first musical films introduced the era of sound, whereas films such as the Wizard of Oz (1939) introduced Technicolor, creating a magical, new experience akin to Dorothy witnessing colourful Oz for the first time.

Musical films can represent a certain point in history, for example the June 1832 Paris Rebellion being portrayed in Les Misérables, and the story of the American founding father Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton, a musical which ingeniously combines both singing and rapping. There is also usually a love story which becomes the  focal point of a musical’s plot, such as that of Anita and Bernardo in West Side Story, a musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Their relationship not only mimics that of Shakespeare’s titular characters, but represents the power struggle and rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, similar to that of the Capulets and Montagues.

Like many other film genres,  musical film has adapted over time. For example, Disney is famous for both their animated and live-action musical films, and they have even adapted some of their musical films to become well-loved stage musicals, such as Aladdin, The Lion King and Frozen. Musicals can be a lot more comical too, as seen in the ABBA-based musical film Mamma Mia, where Sophie reunites three of her mother’s ex-lovers to her wedding, not knowing which one of them is her father.  

Also, musicals today address topics which would usually have been seen as taboo, such as mental health. The upcoming film Dear Evan Hansen, based on the Broadway musical of the same name, focuses on Evan’s experiences of social anxiety disorder, as well as addressing suicide. In addition, the 2018 film The Greatest Showman reminds us that it’s okay to be who you are, regardless of what you look like. 

The introduction of the biopic can also be seen as an element of musical theatre, where the genre combines the life story of a famous artist with their most-loved songs. Films such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman have created a whole new musical experience for both fans of these artists and musical theatre, while also exploring homosexuality.

Audiences view musicals with a lot more hindsight today, and certain musical films have aged better than others. A recent television showing of Grease came under fire for being misogynistic, homophobic and sexist. John Travolta’s Danny is seen to behave in a vulgar way towards Sandy, and the cast are white-dominated, representing the lack of diversity within the 1950s- at a time where the Civil Rights Movement was taking place. 

Even my favourite film as a toddler had underlying social issues, such as that of equal rights. For example, you had the strong, no-nonsense titular protagonist Mary Poppins, yet Mrs. Banks was seen advocating as a suffragette not only for women’s voting rights, but for her own voice to be heard as a woman living in Edwardian Britain. If you look beyond the musical’s intention to entertain audiences, it is clear that social struggles were apparent for both the characters and for many people during the time these musicals were set, something which is easy to forget. 

However, it is also worth mentioning that you cannot always replicate the excitement of seeing the red curtains open, and watching the magic  unfold before your eyes, on a TV screen. For example, The Lion King is a very emotion-provoking musical film, however witnessing it on the West End and watching the animals parade past me from my seat during “Circle of Life” was a different experience altogether – one which brought me to tears. 

Musical theatre, like any other genre, has undoubtedly evolved over time. However, each musical film reflects the same kind of magical, timeless element which has kept us enchanted for so many years, and can make you smile nostalgically, no matter how old you are. Recent musicals are a lot more socially inclusive, and we can learn from them and relate to them on so many levels.

The musical theatre industry has suffered terribly during the pandemic; let’s hope we can witness the magic of musicals on both stage and screen very soon.