That Was Entertainment
Question: Where are the musical comedy shows? Answer: There are no musical comedy shows. New musical shows are pretty much dead, at least the kind of musicals we think of as the mainstay of Broadway Theater and movies of the 20th Century. You know, the Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin stuff. The occasional revival pops up every now and again, and once in a blue moon someone attempts to put on a brand new musical show (albeit with today’s politically correct sensibilities and attitude) but really for all intents and purposes, the musical as an ongoing genre is dead, and that goes for the movie musical too.
So if the genre is dead, where are all the musical comedy performers? There are no musical comedy performers anymore. Not to say that there are no singers or dancers, they exist, but they exist independently. There are singers and there are other people who are dancers. What we don’t have are well-rounded performers who can so it all; sing, dance, and act in musical comedy. The real old-timers learned that stuff in vaudeville, later performers learned it while under contract at the studios.
There are no Bob Hopes, Fred Astaires, Mickey Rooneys, or Donald O’Connors anymore. There are no Ginger Rogers, Judy Garlands, Betty Grables, or Debbie Reynolds anymore. There’s no reason for talented people to learn to carry a tune, do a time step, and learn comedy timing because there’s no place to use it. You can’t make a living being a musical comedy performer.
Why did the musical disappear? One possible reason might be that the musical just got bigger and bigger until it simply outgrew itself. It got so large and ponderous and took itself so seriously, that it stopped being fun. Once the musical became preachy and serious, people turned away from it. Rogers and Hammerstein did a lot of those huge big budget shows loaded with messages, shows like Carousel, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music. Heavy stuff.
A review in The Wall Street Journal of the book “Roadshow!” by Matthew Kennedy told how the roadshow movie musicals were bigger than life spectaculars that almost destroyed Hollywood. Roadshow musical films were presented in reserved-seating, high-priced movie theaters in large cities. Competing studios caused budget costs to soar with ever more elaborate location shooting and production details.
Each succeeding picture had to get bigger and more expensive in order to outdo the last. Beginning in the ‘50s and throughout the ‘60s these blockbusters were turned out like clockwork: Oklahoma, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Camelot, Hello Dolly, Man of La Mancha, and Paint Your Wagon, to name a few.
But those roadshow musicals were just the last nail in the coffin for the musical, the final blow. The real beginning of the end, I believe, came years before, when musicals on stage started to take themselves too damn seriously. Remember, musical comedy was, after all, spawned from the English music hall and American vaudeville stages. Lowbrow entertainment, yes, but great fun.
Some might claim that musical theater is an extension of classical opera, and in the cases of the more serious shows such as Carousel, and South Pacific it is undoubtedly true. But for pure entertainment, I contend that the best American musicals were the fluffy musicals that were closer in spirit to vaudeville, the lighter, more upbeat, and yes, sillier shows such as No, No Nanette, Good News, On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, Anything Goes, Girl Crazy, Top Hat, and Annie Get Your Gun.
Want to feel good? Watch any of the old movie musicals, the ones without the messages. Watch The Gay Divorcee or The Road to Morocco and you suddenly feel happier. I defy you to be in a sour mood after seeing Singin’ in the Rain, High Society, State Fair, or Calamity Jane. It can’t be done. One Gold Diggers movie can do more for your well-being than all the Green Tea, Echinacea, and ginger root at the health food store.
In the 1930s people had to have an escape from the Depression. The best of the movie musicals of that time helped Americans forget their problems and escape into a carefree world where nice looking people sang, danced, were witty, and had a hell of a lot of fun. Sometimes we just have to get away from it all, go into another place, if only for a couple of hours. Musicals did that for people. It lifted them up and filled their hearts with song. We still need that escapism today. Maybe even more so in 2014 than back in the 1930s.
In 1974 MGM released “That’s Entertainment,” a compilation of production numbers from their movie musicals. The tagline in the ads read, “That’s Entertainment. Boy, do we need it now!”
No kidding. We still need it. Now more than ever.