Magic in the Making

I love reading musical theatre behind-the-scenes books and biographies. I'm in the middle of two really good books right now, Show Boat, Performing Race in an American Musical and Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City. I also love reading the novels that musicals are based on, to see how the adapters responded to the source material. I always want to better understand the great (even the merely good) works of our art form and also the influences that shape the artists whose work I love, how they work, what they value, because I think it gives me invaluable insight into their work.

Not long ago, I wrote a blog post listing ten really cool movie musicals I think everyone should see. I also wrote a post about how the movie musical has changed in recent years, in parallel to changes in the stage musical. Even though my first love is stage musicals, we can learn a lot -- and have a great time -- watching film musicals too.

So a fun idea occurred to me, to ask a few of the musical theatre artists I know what their favorite movie musicals are -- really with no idea if those picks would reveal anything of interest or just be fun to read. But even if only on a gut level, I figured I could learn something. And if nothing else, I'd have a great list of movies to watch for the next several weeks...

So anyway, here's what my quickie research turned up...

Damon Intrabartolo -- Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, West Side Story, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Little Shop of Horrors

Jason Robert Brown -- Singin' in the Rain, Silk Stockings, Top Hat, Swing Time, and Easter Parade

Andrew Lippa -- West Side Story, The Wizard of Oz, The Government Inspector, Chicago, and Beauty and the Beast

John McDaniel -- Chicago, Funny Girl, Moulin Rouge, The Sound of Music, and Little Shop of Horrors

Stephen Gregory Smith -- All That Jazz, Chicago, Reefer Madness, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Sweeney Todd

Jeff Calhoun -- Top Hat, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, A Star Is Born, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Moulin Rouge

Michael Friedman -- Swing Time, Meet Me in St Louis, Nashville, French CanCan, and 8 Mile, with honorable mentions for the classics Love Me Tonight, The Bandwagon, The Merry Widow, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Kyle Jarrow -- The Sound of Music, Hole, Dancer in the Dark, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and Moulin Rouge

Read into all this what you will. I notice a lot more older movies than I expected. I also notice there's only one film that gets more than two votes from this group, which is Hedwig. I guess if I had to pick my own Top Five, they'd be Absolute Beginners, 1776, Grease, Rocky Horror, and Moulin Rouge, with honorable mentions for The Music Man, All That Jazz, Nine, and Robin and the 7 Hoods.

If you're a longtime reader of this blog, you already know that I'm incapable of making a Top Five list that includes only five items. If it were a Top Ten list, no doubt I'd list twelve.

Is there a point to all this? I think so. Long ago, I read an interview with Michael Bennett, and he was talking about how much he borrows from film techniques in his staging. That really struck me, and I've learned over time how to create effective stage versions of pans, close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, dissolves, split-screens, focus-pulls, dolly zooms, etc. The stage is different from film in that the audience chooses where to look. But if the staging is good (and the lighting!), it will almost force the audience to look at a particular spot -- almost like film.

Once I learned that film techniques can be translated to the stage, I really started studying how my favorite filmmakers work, directors like Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, Robert Altman, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and more and more lately, David Lynch. I've learned so much from their work. And now I often find myself using cinematic terms when I'm blocking a show, telling the actors that we're doing a split-screen or a slow pan or a two shot.

There's so much I can learn as a director of stage musicals from films, from non-musical plays, and pretty much every other form of artistic expression. I'm in favor of musical theatre artists learning everything they can about our art form, about all the great works, about all the great artists, but we should never forget to explore outside our art form too. There's lots of treasure out there that will make our work better.

And though I do finally feel comfortable now as a stage director, I will never stop learning more. I hope.

Long Live the (Movie) Musical!