- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

With 13 Academy Award nominations, "Chicago," Rob Marshall's brilliant adaptation of Bob Fosse's misanthropic Broadway show, is the odds-on favorite to emerge as the big winner on Oscar night. But can one marvelous throwback to the golden age of the Hollywood musical be expected to spark a revival of the entire lost tradition?
Don't get your hopes up.
The musical has been in near total eclipse for more than 30 years, and its decline probably began as much as 50 years ago, when American teenagers embraced rock 'n' roll while Hollywood remained loyal to the traditional song-and-dance musicals of the Tin Pan Alley period.
Were the contradictions resolved in a pastiche as vulgar as "Grease"? Hardly, although its box-office returns might argue otherwise. It remains the top-grossing musical in Hollywood annals and an enduring insult to the classics with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly that could never aspire to the grosses of the late 1970s.
Elvis Presley and Hollywood tried to exploit each other, but neither seemed to speak the other's pop lingo, and eventually they gave it up as a bad bargain. The most flattering Presley showcase turned out to be the television special. The movies and the Beatles seemed made for each other in "A Hard Day's Night," but the relationship never matured. As rock grew in commercial dominance and self-importance, it became increasingly difficult for the idioms and skills associated with the show tune and wisecracking musical comedy to coexist with rock's ethos of personal authenticity and expression.
Realistically, we can expect a successful musical every now and then but the genre itself? It's unlikely to recover the vitality it enjoyed for about two generations after the advent of talking pictures, when a confluence of circumstances made the musical a genre staple rich in both aesthetic and commercial rewards.
Many of Hollywood's greatest musicals were the work of Broadway transplants who created original shows expressly for the screen, such as "Meet Me in St. Louis" or "Singin' in the Rain." Both were contrived at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, within the fabulous specialty shop supervised by producer (and former songwriter) Arthur Freed, who assembled the deepest talent pool ever devoted to musical comedy.
From this distance, one imagines it as a heavenly collaborative setting. Obviously, it was too human to be that, but similarly privileged arrangements once the norm are now practical only for the duration of a particular project, such as "Moulin Rouge" or "Chicago."
The first musical to win an Academy Award was MGM's "The Broadway Melody," which also launched talking pictures at the studio and boasted a memorable song score by the team of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. "Melody" was the best-picture winner for 1928-29, the year when talking pictures first became eligible. (The Oscars didn't get aligned with a calendar year until 1934.) One of the immediate consequences of its popularity was a tidal wave of musical films in the transitional years of 1929 and 1930.
The initial saturation proved too much of a swell thing, and there was a fleeting audience backlash. The musical slump of 1931-32 was ended, however, by the popularity of a Warner Bros. gamble, "42nd Street," in 1933. Its success was reinforced promptly by a stablemate, "Gold Diggers of 1933." Both were choreographed by a Broadway specialist in mobilizing chorus lines, Busby Berkeley.
The most amusing of the gold diggers class of '33, Ginger Rogers, was paired the same year with a former Broadway and London favorite, Fred Astaire, in a musical at RKO, "Flying Down to Rio." The partnership looked a bit iffy at first, but it endured magnificently for the remainder of the Depression decade. Astaire and Rogers became the greatest romantic dance team in the history of the movies.
Although unsurpassed as dance partners, the duo had plenty of song-and-dance company for many years: the established radio and recording favorite Bing Crosby; the operetta match of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy; the demon hoofer Eleanor Powell; the demon juvenile Mickey Rooney and his cherubic sidekick, Judy Garland, whose voice seemed to reconcile brassy and heartbreaking registers; the torcher Alice Faye, leavened at 20th Century Fox by a zany brother act, the Ritzes; a World War II crooner named Frank Sinatra; and an athletic hoofer named Gene Kelly.
The roster is familiar to everyone who loves vintage musicals, and the momentum didn't let up. The Depression and then the war conventionally are credited with stimulating the public's taste for fantasy and escapism, but much of the appetite is innate: The impulse to sing and dance is compelling and nearly universal, and when these impulses are expressed by performers with extraordinary skills, resistance seems futile and life-denying.
Popular songwriting had entered a golden age as the new talking pictures added musicals to their reliable set of genres. A list of the songs that failed to make the finals for the Academy Awards in 1937, for example, includes "A Foggy Day" by George and Ira Gershwin, "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, "Hooray for Hollywood" by Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer, "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" by Irving Berlin, and "In the Still of the Night" by Cole Porter.
The success of "Oklahoma!" on Broadway during World War II influenced a generation of so-called "integrated" concepts for the musical theater, in which song, dance and plot were meant to reinforce each other as closely as possible. We're still witnessing that tradition in "Chicago." Because there was always a time lag between Broadway hits and their Hollywood reproductions, the popular shows of the 1940s and 1950s kept Hollywood adequately stocked with prestige properties during the 1950s and 1960s.
Movie musicals enjoyed their hottest run at the Oscars between 1958 and 1968; during that decade, the best-movie prize was won by "Gigi," "West Side Story," "My Fair Lady," "The Sound of Music" and the last musical to win the award, "Oliver!" which probably had its closest competition from "Funny Girl." Although the major studios had begun to dismantle their musical specialty shops in the '50s, it looked in the '60s as if the genre could survive on the talent of independent contractors who used to be under long-term contract.
Optimism remained feasible in the early 1970s. "Fiddler on the Roof" was a major Oscar contender in 1971. In the 1972 Oscar race, Bob Fosse's film version of "Cabaret" threw a major scare into the favorite, Francis Ford Coppola's great gangster saga, "The Godfather." "Cabaret" dominated the evening with seven awards, including statuettes for Mr. Fosse and cast members Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. "Godfather" rallied at the wire with best actor for the famously absent Marlon Brando and then won the best-movie award. Under the circumstances, it seemed like a consolation prize.
Then disappointments for the traditional musical began mounting. Barbra Streisand's wonderful debut as Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" failed to carry over to "Funny Lady," not to mention her hard-rock misadventure, "A Star Is Born." Liza Minnelli's appeal in "Cabaret" failed to survive the obstacle course of Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York," the most conspicuous musical letdown of the 1970s. (Peter Bogdanovich's homage to Cole Porter, "At Long Last Love," was too laughable to qualify as a letdown.) Diana Ross' promising start as Billie Holiday in "Lady Sings the Blues" seemed a distant tease by the time of "The Wiz," a disastrous reinterpretation of Hollywood's first classic musical, "The Wizard of Oz."
There were such promising variants of the traditional form as song-influenced dramas and comedies ("McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "American Graffiti") and dramatic musicals about country and Western performers, notably Robert Altman's "Nashville" and Michael Apted's "Coal Miner's Daughter," which won Sissy Spacek an Oscar for impersonating Loretta Lynn.
However, Sissy Spacek's Oscar provides a clue to what is wrong: When did she get a comparable singing role in the movies? Never. Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters and Christopher Walken were spellbinders in Herbert Ross' stunning movie version of the Dennis Potter teleplay "Pennies From Heaven" (1981). Miss Peters became a Broadway diva, but she was a prominent presence in only one other film musical, "Annie" (1982), an adapted Broadway show. Mr. Martin and Mr. Walken never tap danced again on the large screen. The lesson? Don't count on follow-throughs. Every musical is likely to be an ad hoc and exceptional case.
The Disney studio revitalized its animation studio at the end of the 1980s by engaging Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to score "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin." This step echoed the tradition that once sustained systematic musical production. If Howard Ashman had survived, he might have had a salubrious effect beyond rejuvenating operetta in a cartoon format.
The success of the Disney movies attracted composers from the rock world, notably Elton John, whose collaboration with Tim Rice for the song score of "The Lion King" brought them the best-song Oscar, a category monopolized for a while by Mr. Menken and Mr. Ashman. Perhaps there is a realm of make-believe in which older and newer pop idioms can be reconciled blithely, after all.
But does the success of "Chicago" mean that Catherine Zeta-Jones or Renee Zellweger will try another musical? Maybe, but Nicole Kidman hasn't attempted another since her successful gamble in "Moulin Rouge."
In "Chicago," director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon ascribed the musical numbers to the fevered imagination of a principal character, Miss Zellweger's starstruck Roxie Hart. This solved two problems at once. It internally unified a genre that all too often disintegrates into mere musical revue. And it grounded all that brassy Broadway razzmatazz in psychological truth.
And maybe, just maybe, the collaborators found the elusive formula for reconciling the high-kicking showmanship of the musical's heyday with a later generation's demands for emotional honesty and psychological realism.

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