Become A Musicals Expert In Ten Easy Steps

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Set hands to “jazz” people, it’s time to put on the Ritz. The latest in our series that will enable you to convincingly bluff a masterful command of any genre focuses on the musical, a form that bloomed the instant that sound was added to moving pictures and has flourished, to some degree or another, ever since. Waltz with us from the golden age of the 1930s to the 1950s and ‘60s second coming; play the piccolino as we pass the 2000s biopics – Ray, Walk The Line – in our quest for the most essential and most representative of the bunch. Raise the red curtain, ladies and gentlemen. The show must go on!

Director: George Cukor
Cast: Judy Garland, James Mason

Like a Capra flick with a belting hangover, this musical originally rolled off David O. Selznick’s chorus line in 1937 with a mic in one hand and a slug of Scotch in the other. A film about the sacrifices required to achieve stardom – love, sobriety, sanity, even surnames – its relevance to Hollywood life might explain why it’s been revisited time and again, most recently in The Artist (albeit, obviously, not a musical). This second version, directed by George Cukor, is still the best, thanks to a commanding performance by Judy Garland as ingénue Esther Blodgett. Her mix of steel and satin so dazzles fading svengali Norman Maine (Mason) that he propels her to stardom before falling back into the nearest bottle. Garland’s performance was juiced up with authenticity: the one-time Frances Ethel Gumm, a star with addiction problems of her own, must have looked at the script and seen her own life writ large. The story’s next rendition sees Clint Eastwood giving Beyoncé the chance to flaunt her not-insubstantial talents in the role – she’ll be going some to better Garland’s version.

What to sing: Ira Gershwin’s ‘The Man Who Got Away’, preferably in a smoky jazz club.

Pub trivia: Despite her character winning an Oscar in the film, Garland was famously pipped to the Academy Award by Grace Kelly and A Country Girl.

Further reading… A Star Is Born (1937), A Star Is Born (1976), The Artist (2012)

Director: Jacques Demi
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo

Like a cinematic cupcake, Jacques Demi’s enchanting musical will leave you giddy from the sugar rush. Entirely sung – Michel Legrand’s big musical numbers blend almost seamlessly into the dialogue – it takes some getting used to, but rewards the effort with a bittersweet love story that unfolds as delicately as a flower. Yes, there’s a soldier in it, but there’s no violence, physical or emotional, in the Technicolored world Demy creates from ‘50s Cherbourg; just a couple in love and wrenched apart by cruel circumstance. The boy, garage mechanic Guy (Castelnuovo), wants nothing more than to settle down with the beautiful daughter of an umbrella shop owner (Deneuve). Alas, instead he’s sent away to fight in Algeria. It’s a cruel life, Demy is telling us, but there are moments of beauty that make it all worthwhile.

What to sing: The whole bally lot. If your larynx isn’t up to that, try the heartbreaking ‘I Will Wait For You’, Oscar-nominated for Best Song.

Pub trivia: While Deneuve has a fair set of pipes herself, Geneviève’s words were sung by French chanteuse Danielle Licari and dubbed over.

Further reading… Lola (1960), The Young Girls Of Rochefort (1967), Love Songs (2007)

Director: Mark Sandrich
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Edward Everett Horton

No musical miscellany worth its salt could fail to feature at least one helping of Fred and Ginger. The RKO pair were so magical together that they’ve even been enshrined forever in building form – Frank Gehry and Czech architect Vlado Milunic’s Dancing House in Prague was originally dubbed 'Fred And Ginger'. They even share a Wikipedia page, which is more than you can say for Harry and Aliona. With a meet-cute that involved Astaire’s American dancer Jerry Travers almost tapdancing his way into a police cell, Top Hat is big on screwball farce, but it’s the pair’s musical moments that have best withstood the ravages of time. In less charming hands, Jerry’s pursuit of Dale (Rogers) across London would be perilously close to stalking, but the song-and-dance numbers still take the breath away and make it seem charming instead of obsessive. Astaire and Rogers co-starred in nine other musicals, but this set the bar sky high.

What to sing: Irving Berlin’s classic ‘Cheek To Cheek’ is the obvious choice, but for sheer spontaneity and wit, ‘Isn’t It A Lovely Day?’ takes some beating.

Pub trivia: Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose Of Cairo not only recreated the world of Top Hat as the on-screen city Mia Farrow stumbles into, but it also features ‘Cheek To Cheek’ in nearly its entirety.

Further reading… The Gay Divorcee (1934), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald

Not to be confused with the trance festival of the same name, Lubitsch’s first talkie is short on pilled-up ravers but still long on sex and general naughtiness. The great German émigré took to musicals like an unusually elegant duck to water, discovering a new starlet in Jeanette MacDonald and pairing her with the Jean Dujardin of his day, French cabaret star Maurice Chevalier. The result was the kind of alchemy only musicals seem to create. MacDonald is the queen of Duck Soup-style Euro enclave Sylvania and, due to some arcane royal laws you’d need to be a Hollywood scriptwriter to understand, must find herself a husband or face some ill-defined consequences. Step forward Chevalier, who woos her in a whirlwind of Frenchness before opening a giant can of slap and tickle on proceedings. The ‘Lubitsch touch’ is there in every stylish shot and narrative flourish while, for the first time in a musical, the songs were an integral part of the story rather than show stoppers. If that’s not enough, this movie contains 174% more lingerie than Fiddler On The Roof.

What to sing: ‘Dream Lover’.

Pub trivia: Lubitsch insisted that MacDonald gain weight for the part. She was handed milkshakes between takes for added curvaceousness. Best. Job. Ever.

Further reading… The Jazz Singer (1927), The Broadway Melody (1929), Monte Carlo (1930),

Director: Vincente Minnelli
Cast: Judy Garland, Leon Ames, Mary Astor, Margaret O’Brien

If living in an MGM movie seems like it might be kind of amazing, consider this bleak story of four girls traumatised by their father’s plans to uproot them from their home in St Louis and thrust them into a terrifying metropolis. It’s peppered with great tunes, of which ‘The Trolley Song’ and ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ are the most enduring, and gripping moments of drama as the girls struggle with the idea of a new life. One of them, hot-tempered tween Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), goes on snowman-killing rampage that would earn her an ASBO in Lapland; while her older sister Esther (Judy Garland) is left utterly bereft at the prospect of parting from her true love. It’s Mike Leigh with songs, right? And yet, not. Somehow it’s one of the most uplifting musicals in the canon. Unless you’re a snowman.

What to sing: ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’. It’s possibly the saddest Christmas song this side of Slade, but it’s still kinda magical.

Pub trivia: The song’s original lyric – “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, it may be your last” – was deemed too depressing and changed. Strange that.

Further reading… 42nd Street (1933), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Easter Parade (1948), An American In Paris (1951), The Band Wagon (1953), High Society (1956), Gigi (1958)

Director: Bob Fosse
Cast: Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Michael York

When you’ve pipped Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather to a Best Director Oscar, you can be pretty sure you’ve made a decent movie. So it was for Bob Fosse, whose Weimar-set masterpiece ended up with eight of the little golden men. If it’s still astonishing today, it must have had cinemagoers choking on their pretzels back in the early ‘70s, what with its love triangles, sexual permissiveness, booze, pills and face-painted MCs, all set under the gathering cloud of Nazism. Fosse reintroduced Kander and Ebb’s Broadway score to Christopher Isherwood’s satirical source novel, added visual references to Otto Dix and German Expressionism, lobbed Joel Grey the mic and let Liza Minnelli take it away as the dazzling-but-troubled star of Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub (those three ‘k’s look a lot less like a coincidence as the club’s crowd swells with brownshirts). The result is arguably the boldest, most risqué musical ever made.

What to sing: ‘Cabaret’. Because when you think about it, Life really is a cabaret, old chum. Just don’t sing 'Tomorrow Belongs To Me'.

Pub trivia: The interiors were shot on a Munich soundstage that had recently been used for Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. Insert Oompa Loompa Nazi gags here.

Further reading… Sweet Charity (1969), All That Jazz (1979), Moulin Rouge! (2001), Chicago (2002)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Cast: Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine

The biggest names and most talented crews together doesn’t always gel into movie gold – look at Cowboys & Aliens – but Sam Goldwyn certainly hit paydirt with the stellar line-up he assembled for Guys And Dolls. Joe Mankiewicz, best known for razor-toothed melodramas like All About Eve and No Way Out, proved that he had the knack not only for musicals, but for managing the giant egos of an A-list cast too. Sure, he had to boost Frank Sinatra’s role as crap-shooter Nathan Detroit to keep his main singing talent happy, and Marlon Brando first musical turn needed editing miracles to save the eardrums of neighbouring pooches, but the pair were charisma embodied and their female leads, Jean Simmons and Vivian Blaine, cut the sexy mustard too. The helter skelter Cuban dance-off between Brando’s card sharp Sky Masterson and starchy Salvation Army type Sarah Brown (Simmons) is a highpoint, while ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat’ is another gem – not to mention sensible seafaring advice.

What to sing: ‘Luck Be A Lady Tonight’, Brando’s big musical moment and later his co-star’s signature tune.

Pub trivia: Marilyn Monroe avidly pursued the Miss Adelaide role that Vivian Blaine eventually won. Sadly for Monroe, after exasperating Mankiewicz on All About Eve she was brutally dismissed by the director.

Further reading… Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), Carmen Jones (1954), Porgy And Bess (1959), West Side Story (1961)

Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Cast: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse

The greatest of all musicals? Possibly. The most memorable of all dance routines? Heck yes. Gene Kelly’s sploshtacular, recorded on a Culver City soundstage with milk used to make the puddles most visible, is an impossibly charming moment in cinema, a glorious sequence that took weeks of planning to look so spontaneous. Kelly’s abrasive on-set style made life occasionally painful for co-stars Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor and co-director Stanley Donen – “Would you like somebody sitting behind you saying, ‘Don’t say that - try it this way!’?” Donen recalled of his friend’s promptings – but the perfectionism is right up there on the screen in every graceful move. So good are the songs that it’s easy to forget that there’s a terrific movie about the movies here too – one that preempts Sunset Boulevard and The Artist in tackling Hollywood’s painful transition from silent films to talkies. Arthur Freed, the producer behind MGM’s golden age, take a bow.

What to sing: What else could it be? Altogether now: “What a glorious feeling…”

Pub trivia: So gruelling was the ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ wall flip sequence, the chain-smoking O’Connor spent a week in bed recovering from filming the scene.

Further reading… Anchors Aweigh (1945), On The Town (1949), It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), Funny Face (1957), Oklahoma! (1955)

Directors: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Voicecast: Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson

The first animation to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and the only one to get the nod back when there were only five nominees, Beauty And The Beast still dazzles even in era of Pixar. That’s thanks to its Busby Berkeley-style choreography, magical Alan Menken/Howard Asham score, and the tender romance between the enchanting Belle and rug-faced castle dweller Beast. Deep down, of course, he’s really a handsome prince, but the villainous attentions of the scheming Gaston (Richard White) may keep the lovely pair apart forever. And there’s the small matter of an enchantress’s curse and an army of angry villagers who want to turn Beast into a wall-hanging to negotiate too. Menken and Ashman were an established musical team – they’d written Little Shop Of Horrors a decade before and smashed it already with Disney on The Little Mermaid – but they knocked it out of the park here, despite Ashman facing the end of his long battle with AIDS; tragically, he never saw the fully completed film in all its glory. With the drama and romance playing out against to tunes like ‘Belle’, ‘Be Our Guest’ and the Best Song-winning ‘Beauty And The Beast’, there are singalong classics to take your mind off the deadly peril and talking candlesticks to keep you company along the way. It’s a magical tribute to a songwriting legend.

What to sing: Nothing can hold candle to ‘Be Our Guest”, the standout tune on Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Oscar-winning score.

Pub trivia: In the Chinese version of the film Beast is voiced by Jackie Chan.

Further reading… The Jungle Book (1967), Mary Poppins (1964), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), The Lion King (1994), The Princess And The Frog (2009)

Director: John Carney
Cast: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova

A sleeper hit that proves musicals don’t need to come with thousands of extras, elaborate sets and high-kicking routines to capture the imagination of moviegoers. Made for loose change and a couple of conkers (okay, 130,000 euros) this paired Glen Hansard, leader singer of Irish band The Frames, with Czech actress/singer Marketa Irglova (his then girlfriend), and set them up as a can-kicking musician and immigrant flower-seller who meet, fall in love and then part company, possibly forever. The meet-cute – possibly the only in cinema history to feature a busted household appliance - leads to a chaste romance punctuated by songs, both silly (‘Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy’) and profound (‘Falling Slowly’; ‘Gold’), blended seamlessly into the story. It’s the kind of diagetic music choice that fizzled badly in Rob Marshall’s Fellini homage Nine, but here the simple story is beautifully told and – perhaps unusually for the musical genre – never overblown. This is a true underdog story; no wonder the crowd went wild when Irglova was played offstage at the Oscars, and cheered when Jon Stewart brought her back to finish her speech.

What to sing: The Cat Stevens tinged, Oscar-winning ballad ‘Falling Slowly’.

Pub trivia: They’re not going out anymore but Hansard and Irglova still perform together as The Swell Season.

Further reading… Jailhouse Rock (1957), A Hard Day's Night (1964), Yellow Submarine (1968), Nashville (1975), Tommy (1975), Grease (1975)