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The Hollywood Musical in the Seventies in Ten Numbers

For many lovers of the Hollywood or the Broadway musicals the 50s constitute some kind of summit, a golden age: after all this is the decade when some of the most beloved movie musicals were made: An American In Paris, Singin’ In the Rain, The Band Wagon, A Star is Born, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, starring legendary names like Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Leslie Caron, Debbie Reynolds, Kay Thompson, Howard Keel or Shirley Jones.

Or is it? 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, they are so great they are responsible for creating a formula from which it was hard to escape. Consider now the 1970s. On Broadway the decade started with Company which was followed up by Follies, Chicago, Pacific Overtures,  Jesus Christ Superstar, EvitaA Chorus Line, Mack and Mabel, The Wiz and Sweeney Todd. Yes, the genre was in decline, 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 say something similar 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 achivements in the genre during the years that included Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Jesus Christ Superstar, At Long Last LoveNashville, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Bound for GlorySaturday Night Fever, New York New YorkGrease, The RoseAll That Jazz or Hair actually shows 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 a attempt to try new way 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.

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 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. 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. A great document and a great musical.

And the climax of the film is Elaine Stritch brave, neurotic attempt at getting her tricky song just right. 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 agonises through the number, showing off and putting so much passion, energy and rage in 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.

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, using traditions from Jewish culture. Here he had finally 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 show how a small number of musicals in the 1970s were building on the legacy of great artists. 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.

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” amd moving into brechtian “irony”. Credit is due to 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 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. 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.

“Wilkommen” is the presentation of the film, and it introduces characters, mood and method. It makes the cabaret number to 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, make up and compositions made his presence eery, the inspiration of so much to come.

1975: It Don´t Worry Me, from Nashville

Yes, Nashville is a musical. Not only it has about fifteen songs, it actually deals 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 non traditional 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.

Nowhere more so than in the finale. A country singer 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 singer (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, but somehow we aren’t. It is about the role of show business in comforting people, but also about how it anesthesizes them. So relevant today.

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 shows 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.

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

Tough Martin Scorsese had a soft spot for weepies and Hollywood musicals, but he could never just give us the simple pleasures they contained. He is 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. The film 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. 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 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.

1978: Beauty School Drop Out, from Grease

Among old the grit, 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 re-defining expectations half way through a gloomy decade, this became the equivalent of musical pop corn. 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. The choreography by Patricia Birch, the sense of humour 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 sequences, with 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.

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, beyond realistic motivation, musical numbers can have a realistic mise en scene. 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 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 tried to dance on a table during a high society party) and the camera behaves as if this was a documentary. Treat Williams is delightful, the editing full of energy and the statement is made loud and clear.

1979: Bye Bye Life from All That Jazz

For me, All That Jazz is among the best musicals ever, certainly the most unsettling, among the most substantial, profound and artistically accomplished and 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. But look at those textures, the sweats, the costumes, the mascara, look at the choreography, look at the cinematography, Roy Scheider’s performance, Ann Reinking and Leland Palmer’s dancing 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 an 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 sasoned Fosse dancers. The number is strangely emotional, there is one instant, 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.

1980: I Sing the Body Electric, from Fame

As a musical, Fame was a bit of a mess: choppy, fragmentary. 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 non professional performers. He then went on to do more musicals (The Wall, The Commitments, Evita), 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 casts were unknowns. Yet it was extremely influential (it spawned a TV series and it may have got people thinking about talent shows) and it did certain things very well.

The finale, “I Sing the Body Electric” is an 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.