The Hollywood Musical in the Seventies in Ten Numbers

Ladies Who Lunch

The Hollywood Musical in the Seventies in Ten Numbers

For many lovers of musicals, the genre reaches its apex in between the mid 40s and the late 50s: after all, this is the period when some of the most beloved movie musicals were made: Meet Me In St Louis, The Harvey Girls, On the TownAn American In ParisSingin' In the RainThe Band WagonA Star is BornSeven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny FaceOklahoma!, South Pacific, starring legendary names like Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Leslie Caron, Debbie Reynolds, Kay Thompson, Howard Keel or Shirley Jones. Indeed, all those titles are great, and they deliver their promise of utopian worlds, romance, ecstasy, and dance. They are also very classical and they often build on the effectiveness of the Rodgers and Hammerstein model that became popular in the early 1940s, by achieving consistency among the elements: plot, lyrics, music, performances, set, and dances. Still, what musicals can do, their juggling the demands of music, plot, emotion and logic, can be found in other periods, often in films that are harder to love because they do not deliver on any classical promises.  If we leave aside the expectations created by the golden age, the 1970s stand as the most innovative age for the movie musical. There were fewer of them, but they approached genre conventions from many different perspectives. 


On Broadway, the decade started with Company which was followed up by Jesus Christ Superstar, Follies, A Little Night Music, On the Twentieth Century, Rocky Horror ShowThe Wiz, Chicago, A Chorus Line, Mack and Mabel, Pacific Overtures, Evita, and Sweeney Todd.  Yes, the genre as a whole was in decline and many of these did not even return their investment, but it was precisely the fact that musicals were less central that forced a generation of risk-takers and egomaniacs to push the boundaries of the genre and come up with new approaches, new themes, new perspectives. On Broadway, the 1970s are a final flowering before the Brit invasion and the reign of the jukebox show. And one could argue a similar point about Hollywood musicals of that period. 

Although very few musical lovers look back to this decade with any kind of nostalgia, it was a decade of innovation and daring. It is true most titles got bad reviews and nobody seemed to be paying any attention: in the decade of Vietnam, Watergate, with the oil crisis and conspiracy theories everywhere, it was all about corruption, gangsters, action, and war and nobody had any time for musicals. However, looking back at the achievements in the genre during the years that included Fiddler on the RoofCabaretJesus Christ SuperstarAt Long Last LoveNashvilleThe Rocky Horror Picture ShowBound for GlorySaturday Night Fever, New York New YorkGreaseThe RoseAll That Jazz or Hair actually show how much the genre was trying to expand its boundaries and become relevant and in sync with the decade's mood.


How much, in fact, was being done to reflect the innovations in other Hollywood genres. One could argue about individual merit, and some of those are not really very good. What cannot be denied is the variety of approaches in this list, and the fact that there is an attempt to try new ways of using song and dance in the movies, of making sense of popular music, of setting up a dialogue between plots and musical numbers: rock, country, Cole Porter, doo-wop, soul, disco, counter-culture, jazz, nudity, old fashioned show business, sex, death, politics, nazis, horror, Vietnam: no other decade encouraged such an ambitious range of themes and aesthetic proposals, such combination between revisionism and sheer spectacle.

Unconvinced? The following ten numbers show the vitality of the genre in the years between 1970 and 1980. The numbers have been chosen for different reasons: sometimes because they represent the values of classical musicals, sometimes because the push conventions forward, or break with them altogether. Some of the films considered have more than one great number (Cabaret, Hair and All That Jazz, for instance) but in order to have a wider range of titles I have limited my choices to one per film. 

Elaine Stritch in D.A. Pennebaker's Company


1970: "Ladies Who Lunch", from Company 


OK, technically not a "Hollywood musical", but D.A. Pennebaker's documentary on the recording of the original cast album for the Sondheim's groundbreaking Company is an excellent insight on where the Broadway musical was heading in the 70s and a great start for the decade.

In 1970 people still thought about movie musicals in terms of Star! or Doctor Dolittle, and one of the few innovative film musicals of the 1960s, Sweet Charity had just been dismissed by critics and audiences. On Broadway, it was a different matter and a brief golden age was taking place riding on an exciting generation of directors, composers, choreographers, and set designers. Company, with a libretto by George Furth and a score by Stephen Sondheim, opened a world of thematic and dramatic possibilities for the genre. This is the decade that proves that the musical could go anywhere.

Pennebaker's fly-on-the-wall documentary shows a completely different view of what a show is about, a different set of concerns, and presents a wider thematic range than the established Hollywood formula of romance. In this film, the spectacle lies not in choreography, costumes, lighting, or acting, but in the faces of very tired performers trying very hard to get it right. And there's Sondheim being Sondheim: beaming and huffing, trying to keep calm as a storm rages inside.

And the climax of the film is Elaine Stritch's brave, neurotic attempt at getting her tricky song just right. The song, a monologue for a jaded, boozy woman, is dramatic enough, but Stritch, never one to shy away from chaos, adds her own brand of angst and neurosis. Never had there been a song like "Ladies Who Lunch" on screen: bitter, witty, gutsy, a profound statement examining unexamined lives.

Elaine Stritch emotes and agonizes through the number, showing off and putting so much passion, energy and rage into it. We're not in Hollywood and this is not Debbie Reynolds. The number is a document and a statement on how the musical in the seventies was obsessively looking beneath the carpet and revealing the inner workings of the genre, what was at stake in it rather than just accepting it uncritically. In Pennebaker's take on the musical, we are beyond Utopia into something else, something complicated, something very Sondheim.

Topol and Paul Mann in "To Life"


1971: "To Life", from Fiddler on the Roof 


And, in sharp contrast, this is one of the great adaptations from Broadway. The show opened in 1964, the staging was conceived by Jerome Robbins and it was the summit of his career. He had been taking the genre very seriously since his work with Leonard Bernstein in On the Town; here he wanted to tell a story that really mattered, about a community in Ukraine holding on to tradition as history rages on and engulfs them, using forms and modes from Jewish culture. 

Here he had produced a masterpiece in which every single element denoted seriousness. Very much in the Rodgers and Hammerstein style of integration, the show also introduced elements of fantasy in the choreography and the sets.

When it transferred to Hollywood it did so with absolute respect for the libretto and choreography, although director Norman Jewison's vision was more grittily realistic than Robbins' in the Broadway original. "To Life" is in this list because it preserves all the values of the original and thus engages with the summit of the classical tradition: Robbins' choreography, integration, realism.

This number became a classic and shows how a small number of musicals in the 1970s were building on the legacy of great artists. From its title, it affirms life, and it becomes a delightfully joyous moment before the storm hits in the film's second half. It is also an example of the drive towards realism in Hollywood films of the 70s. Interestingly enough, Jewison followed this up with his adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar, which was as faithful to the original's spirit but freer in its use of sets and location.

Joel Grey in "Wilkommen"


1972: Wilkommen from Cabaret 


Cabaret is one of the most innovative Broadway shows of the 60s, and certainly, the one whose innovations had more impact in the history of the genre, by abandoning Rodgers and Hammerstein's "integration" and moving into Brechtian "irony". Credit is due to director and producer Harold Prince, who pushed what might have been an ordinary show set in Berlin during the rise of Nazism into something darker and theatrically exciting, with his emphasis on the cabaret numbers and the master of ceremonies.

Since its opening on Broadway in 1967, the show kept evolving, and Bob Fosse's version is an example of the original's potential. Prince may have hated it, but Fosse was doing something really radical: all of his numbers but one ("Tomorrow Belongs To Me") take place in the cabaret as floor shows that reflect the mood in the street. He jettisoned most of Kander and Ebb's great character songs and added three new numbers that now have become part of some stage productions. Although characters who sing in this film would conceivably also sing and dance in real life, by abandoning the convention of characters bursting into song to express feelings Fosse is pushing the premises even further than Prince did.

Every number in the film is top-notch, and choosing one has proved particularly hard. How to decide between the searing solos by Liza Minnelli ("Maybe This Time", "Cabaret") the clever satire in "If you Could See Her" or "Money", the dazzling choreography in "Mein Herr". "Wilkommen" is the presentation of the film, and it introduces characters, location, mood, and also the film's method. It makes the cabaret number reflect something about Berlin, and it makes it look like it is the decadent world of the MC that beckons poor Brian into its atmosphere.

The impact of Joel Grey as the MC was huge (and he received an Oscar for his efforts). Although basically reprising his stage role, the close-ups, makeup and compositions made his presence eery, the inspiration of so much to come.    

Barbara Harris leads the cast into "It Don't Worry Me"


1975: "It Don´t Worry Me", from Nashville


Yes, Nashville is a musical. Not only did it feature about fifteen songs, it actually dealt with music and musicians, and it engages with the impact of music on character and society.

The film is about a country music festival held in Nashville, which coincides with the political campaign of a nontraditional party and it features singing stars, aspiring singers, journalists, politicians, businessmen, and the city's prominent personalities. Musical numbers comment on the mythologies that give meanings to these people's lives, the clichés they believe in. Having said that, Nashville is not Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Robert Altman hated country music but understood well its mechanisms and its role in rural America and he wanted to convey his ideas on centennial America. In this film he kind of has it both ways: the numbers can be emotional and at the same time they are so obvious that the irony shows. One of the great numbers in the film, the Oscar-winning "I'm Easy" uses dynamics never seen in a musical number before. Elsewhere, Altman's camera is quietly ironic, subtly mocking of a certain kind of mentality. 

Nowhere more so than in the finale. A beloved, mentally unstable country singer (a great performance by Ronee Blakley) has been shot dead unexpectedly by someone whose motivations we don't quite learn. There is a moment of confusion and somehow the mic falls in the hands of a plainly incompetent performer (Broadway star Barbara Harris) who has arrived in Nashville seeking an opportunity.

The song, "It Don't Worry Me" galvanizes people at a moment of confusion, and works ironically: of course, there are reasons to be worried about as a gun can fire against an artist, no matter how bland or sentimental she can be, but somehow we aren't concerned. It is about the role of show business in comforting people, but also about how it anesthetizes them. So relevant today.

Tim Curry, Peter Hinwood, Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon and Nell Campbell encourage us to join the orgy


1975: Don't Dream It, Be It, from Rocky Horror Picture Show 


Some musicals push boundaries aesthetically, others thematically. The Rocky Horror Show started very modestly in a small theatre in Sloane Square, a cheeky joke dipped in counter-culture and cinephilia, a mere side effect of swingin' London, and the film version was unreleased for months as nobody knew how to make of it, another sign that in the Seventies people were not really paying attention to the musical as a genre that engaged with ideas. And suddenly it happened: people in cinemas started to sing along the outrageous lyrics and The Rocky Horror Picture Show became one of the most popular musicals ever.

A pop-rock score and a punk worldview show how relevant this must have felt, and it still feels like that today. "Don't Dream It, Be It" expresses the libertarian feel of the rest of the show and engages with a plethora of movie references: King Kong, RKO, MGM, and Esther Williams.

The omnisexual antics in the swimming pool must be one of the most liberating moments in the history of the genre, and if you were gay, trans, or any shade of queer, this was your kind of show. You could indeed appropriate The Sound of Music, but this was the real thing. Few films as unambitious as this work so damn well.

Liza Minnelli and the passing of time


1977: But the World Goes 'Round, from New York, New York


Martin Scorsese had a soft spot for weepies and Hollywood musicals, but he could never just give us the simple pleasures they supplied. He remains very proud of this film, and the restored version is faithful to his vision: he wanted to show the darker aspects of the genre, just as Bob Fosse would but with half the razzle-dazzle and with a brilliant take on the history of jazz in post-war America.

The film is original, a masterpiece in its balance between escapism and realism, and it engages with tradition both aurally and visually. It also has some standout numbers, and they are exciting in different ways: "Happy Endings", "You Are My Lucky Star" and the title number, with its several incarnations throughout the film (indeed it is as if the film was about writing that song) are all very well crafted. Few films even in the 70s were as self-aware and as conversant with the genre's past. The plot about two talented musicians who fall in love but need to pursue different career paths will be familiar to La La Land fans and show that Chazelle did not do something very new: plot point by plot point it's the same story.

Actually, "But the World Goes Round" is this film's equivalent to La La Land's "Audition": it is a quiet number that helps the time go by and shows somehow what's going on in the character's mind. Liza Minnelli has never been better on screen, and it is always amazing to see how Scorsese and her manage to do so much emotionally with so little: one shot, one set. For me this is Minnelli's finest hour on screen, and the song gives the film a sense of perspective.

Frankie Avalon back from the 1960s to deliver a message: "Beauty School Drop Out"


1978: Beauty School Drop Out, from Grease 


Among all the grit, somehow glowing among the shattered pieces of our past, some old-fashioned triviality. That is, after all, what the musical should be about. 

Grease is one of the biggest hits in the genre and one of the biggest hits in the decade. It may seem unlikely now, but just as Jaws and Star Wars were redefining expectations halfway through a gloomy decade, this became the equivalent of musical popcorn. There was nothing dark about it: Bill Butler's high-key lighting and bright colors ensured this was set in fantasyland. Its take of the 50s was as superficial as it was fun, and its lack of ambition produced one of the most genuine entertainments of the decade. Under the supervision of Allan Carr, a recording produced by the great Robert Stigwood and as directed by Randal Kleiser and with a script by Bronte Woodward, it is also one of the gayest musicals of the decade. 

The choreography by Patricia Birch, the sense of humor, and the one-note performances are still great fun. A handful of numbers in Grease work very well, but I have chosen "Beauty School Drop Out" because it does the opposite to most of the numbers in this list and I wanted to show how the musical in the 70s did not ignore traditions.

It is a typical dream sequence, with a campy chorus and angels, in which Frankie Avalon, one of the earliest teen idols, comes to sing a ballad and help an undecided school dropout to make up her mind. Musical heaven.

Treat Williams in a moment of realness: "I Got Life"


1979: I Got Life, from Hair


Yet another exercise in 1970s realism. I like using this number in my lectures as an example of how, even beyond realistic motivation (not even hippies danced on the table in high society parties) musical numbers can have a realistic mise en scene. I love the combination between the fancy, the wish-fulfilling emotions in the number, and the more down-to-earth waiters removing candelabra. Yes, Hair was very much of its time, but the truth is that the adaptation acknowledged this and turned a slight, revue-like show into a loose but strong statement on lifestyle, America, and the waste of the Vietnam War.

It was as if the sensibility that gave rise to it had toughened in a decade but still claimed its relevance. There were lots of great things in the movie, but nothing as innovative as Twyla Tharp's numbers, moving away from Broadway tidiness and predictability.Another great clever, counter-cultural film that very few people embraced at the time, but seems to be gaining respect as the years pass.

So in "I Got Life" a bunch of hippies gatecrash a party and they need to have their say. The moment is almost plausible (some of us may have felt like dancing on a table during a high society party) and the camera behaves as if this was a documentary. Treat Williams is delightful, the editing is full of energy, and the statement is made loud and clear.

Roy Scheider and Ben Vereen live it up: "Bye Bye Life"


1979: Bye Bye Life from All That Jazz 


Talk about going out in style: never was death more joyful. All That Jazz is among my personal favorites, certainly the most unsettling, among the most substantial, profound, and artistically accomplished musicals. Its finale is one of the most amazing numbers ever shot.

Sure, the film is self-conscious and seems to be too centered on his director's ego. Some of its best ideas come from Fellini's 8 1/2. But look at those textures, the sweat, the costumes, the mascara, look at the choreography, look at the cinematography, Roy Scheider's performance, Ann Reinking and Leland Palmer's dancing (or just being there) and, most of all, marvel at what Fosse was doing with the genre. It is a musical about ego surviving death.

The film also works as an insider's look into the creative and economic aspects of Broadway and has immense respect for dancers and performers and deep mistrust for the money people. It is one of the few musicals set on Broadway that actually cares for Broadway. And it had all the razzle-dazzle of the genre's past and all the grit of the seventies.

Each number is wonderful, but the ending is spectacular: the protagonist Joe Gideon dies during open-heart surgery; they say that in your last seconds, your whole life passes before your eyes, and in the case of Gideon this takes the shape of the most dazzling musical number, a celebration of life at the moment of death with the sharp moves of Fosse as performed by Ben Vereen. Roy Scheider carries the number doing very little dancing, leave that to the seasoned Fosse dancers.

The number is strangely emotional, there is one split-second, when Leland Palmer sticks out her tongue at Scheider as some kind of ironic, cute farewell, that really gets us. Every camera position, every finger-snapping, every shaft of light seems to know what this number, and by extension show business, is all about.

The cast hope for a brighter future: "I Sing The Body Electric"


1980: I Sing the Body Electric, from Fame


Not unlike the 1970s, Fame was a bit of a mess: choppy, fragmentary, full of gaps and contradictions. Fame broke every rule, bypassed every convention, even if notionally critics invoked the influence of the Judy and Mickey movies at MGM.

If the decade opened with the actual documentary on a recording, Alan Parker aimed to a documentary look shooting at a real academy of music in New York over a year, with nonprofessional performers. He then went on to do more musicals (The WallThe CommitmentsEvita), but they were a different breed, uninterested in the past. Even Evita looks more like a music video than an adaptation of a stage show. Actually, the old qualities of the genre as established in the 1950s (beauty, order, structure, elegance) were nowhere to be found and some people wondered if the obsession with grit had not gone too far.

Irene Cara was the only presence resembling a star, she got the great song "Out Here On My Own" and the moralistic closure, but the rest of the cast were unknowns. Yet it was extremely influential (it spawned a TV series and it may have got people thinking about talent shows and wearing legwarmers) so it must have done something right. The eighties were already here and it's interesting to see how the seeds planted by the bunch of films in this post would largely go to waste, some of the insights of Fosse or Parkers would be betrayed. 

The finale, "I Sing the Body Electric" is a statement on the genre's potential, probably the most precise thing to come out of that movie: it encourages diversity, self-expression, and individuality, while at the same time bringing people together; the characters come back from the depths of the plot, and, just as in life, nothing is really resolved.

The fragmentary nature of the number was a sign of things to come, but seen today it has certain greatness: it engages with talent, potential, with the future, with life. It was certainly the beginning of something. And the end of an era.

"I Sing the Body Electric" from Fame.

Read next: