Musicals: Innocent Until Proven Guilty!

I love musicals. Now I’ve said it, you’re probably thinking that I also love unicorns, the colour pink and that I am not the brightest bulb in the box. I don’t judge you- I often have the same reaction to other musical lovers. There’s just something about a musical which is camp and over the top, which leads you to believe that the people who watch them are similar. This makes no sense based on my attraction to them- I’m not camp or over the top. (I write this wearing a pink feather boa.) But maybe there is some sense in this stereotypical expectation. Herein lies the double edged sword of the musical.

Musicals can be extremely well written, acted and produced and thus a legitimate pleasure to watch. On the other side of the spectrum, they can be so excessively cheesy and terribly performed, leading to their reputation as ‘guilty pleasures’. My housemate has happily shared her opinion of disgust towards musicals with me, claiming she finds the singing boring, and thus the entire film. However, unlike me, she has never experienced the musical in its original form- on the stage.

I believe the stereotyped idea of the stage musical is what colours people’s negatives attitudes towards film musicals. I will explain this further. These theatre productions are camp, cheesy and excessive, yet they have to be to create a sustained level of enjoyment for the audience. Those actors need to earn their rounds of applause. To go to a musical is to assume that you will have a mostly positive viewing experience, as opposed to perhaps the opera, which involves much higher levels of tragedy. (Puccini’s Tosca vs Chicago for example) Another aspect of the stage musical experience is the classic embarrassing activity of singing along to well-known songs- how dare people express their pleasure in such an outward way. We’re British; we don’t even make a sound when a stranger stamps on our foot. Yet, the West End is an exceedingly popular entertainment location and new musicals open every year. This industry is so popular, film makers have cashed in by creating their own adaptations. Therefore, if musicals are so cheesy and embarrassing to watch, why have 9 of them won Best Picture Oscars?

West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965) are my favourites among these musicals that have achieved such critical acclaim. In winning Best Picture Academy Awards, there lies the suggestion that musicals were not originally seen as ‘guilty pleasures’. Yet this is because of the high calibre quality of these earlier musicals. These particular films are adaptations themselves: Romeo and Juliet for West Side Story and Pygmalion for My Fair Lady. With such brilliant influences at their core, it’s no wonder they are now perceived as classics. Similarly, The Sound of Music was created by musical making legends Rogers and Hammerstein, known for their wonderful song writing. These three films could never be guilty pleasures, because they are just so fantastic for audience and critic alike. I really think we, in our contemporary society, have created terrible musicals, which have typecast the whole genre as a ‘guilty pleasure’ for this generation.

With reference to the biggest musical event in recent years, and at the centre of the guilty pleasure debate, we have Les Miserables (2012). Now, I don’t think that you can call Les Mis a guilty pleasure, as firstly (like West Side Story and My Fair Lady) it has been adapted from an acclaimed literary source and an ever-popular stage musical, which is still running in its 28th year. Secondly, Tom Hooper’s film was nominated for Best Picture and therefore follows the pattern of earlier musicals; its critical acclaim makes it difficult to be considered a guilty pleasure. However, because it didn’t win Best Picture, perhaps we can argue that it still remains a guilty pleasure?

I think I’ve managed to show just how subjective this musicals-as-guilty-pleasures business is, as I end on another well-known musical – Grease! (1978). It is ridiculously cool with its T-Birds, yet has elements of camp with its Pink Ladies, and unlike my other ‘prestigious’ musicals, it won no academy awards and was not adapted from a literary source. It involves a flying car for goodness sake! Yet it is still universally loved and I would argue, does not count as a guilty pleasure. It’s just a fun film in which people happen to break out into song every so often. Based on this we see that we cannot classify the whole genre of musicals as a guilty pleasure, this label only applies to some films within it. Here is my list of the innocent and guilty parties.

The Innocent:
• West Side Story
• High Society
• The Sound of Music
• My Fair Lady
• Guys and Dolls
• South Pacific
• Rocky Horror Picture Show
• Grease
• The Wizard of Oz
• Sweeney Todd

The Guilty
• Hairspray
• Grease 2
• High School Musicals 1,2,3
• Mamma Mia!
• Rock of Ages
• Dreamgirls

Alice Elliot


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