Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Top 5 musicals

Jesus Christ Superstar: A kind of flower power Jesus in the age of Vietnam with Woodstock music and a message of trouble and sacrifice. The Israel locations don't hurt either. Also, my sister had the film soundtrack double LP of this the liner notes of which introduced me to the word juxtaposition. They were referring to the blend of elements like US army helmets and homespun robes. So in closing it's worth pointing out that this film is shit hot on juxtaposition.

Fiddler on the Roof: Even though it is Jewish before it is Russian and there is a whole sequence of a dance off between the Russians and the Jews my anti-semitic-on-Sundays Russian nana loved this musical. I loved the music with its more minor keys and flattened sixths than in the entire middle east (or lower east side, more accurately). Then when I saw the movie (our LP was the cast of the stage version) everything fell into place in great style. Still love this one with its big complex 70s pallett and epic sweep. Director Norman Jewison went on to make the first of this list, using even more of his invention. I suppose if Nana had known his surname we would have had another tirade about the Choose. If she did she was being quiet about it or just too wrapped up in this great story with great music in a great movie to care. (Maybe she just found comfort in the fact that Paul Michael Glaser who went on to become tv's Starsky - Choose! Choose! - was one of those foul Bolsheviks.)

The Band Wagon: Very loopy fun as Fred Astaire joins Cyd Charisse and the dry as an Autumn leaf Oscar Levant on the road in a musical within the musical. They pitch it as being about a guy and a gal etc to a self-styled genuis director who imposes his own pet project on it, calling the idea a modern realisation of FAUST! .... in which he'll play the devil. What results is some of the most durably enjoyable song 'n' dance routines on film. My favourite when I first saw this as a kid is the proto-Ken Russell vision of the Faust sequence. Aptly, That's Entertainment was written for this one.

Cabaret: This lies more in the margin of musicals as almost all the songs are performed digetically, on stage in the cabaret itself. Every song is a stunner and there is a powerful early 70s gravity flowing and swelling beneath the story of the guy 'n' gal lost in another town. The gravity is there because the guy and gal are foreigners and the town is Berlin and the time half past Weimar.

I said almost all the songs are depicted as stage numbers but there is one exception. When two of the characters take time out for a stein in a country beirgarten the camera hones in on a beautiful young boy who begins singing something from the Sound of Music. As he approaches the middle eight the camera tracks back to reveal what kind of looks like a boy scout uniform until you see the swasitka on his arm. The song is Tomorrow Belongs to Me and even though it was written for the Broadway musical many people thought they were hearing an authentic Nazi anthem.

They can be forgiven for the thought as the song has a creepy effect. As the middle eight progresses with the boy's natural soprano we hear an undercurrent of bass voices joining him until the chorus explodes across the entire assembly and carries everyone who watches it along. It's a kind of implosion of the La Marsellaise scene in Casablanca or the end of Paths of Glory but its power, though reversed, is irresistable. We are stirred before we know why, exactly like everyone joining in on screen. Only the two friends decline to join, and one saddened old man who keeps his seat amid the hysteria while he recalls the last time his fellow Germans got this excited ended in mass death and the humilation of Versailles. Well, here they are again and everyone humming and shouting along will in a very few years be losing children, neighbours, lovers, their own lives and/or get involved in much much much worse.

This is the strongest scene I've known from any musical. I'm even getting chills recalling it here. And that's just one scene from this film of powerful scenes and showstoppers. Michael York could not have been better cast as the stand-in Christopher Isherwood. Liza Minelli who had already started a decent screen career which would continue for decades provides a surprising centre of gravity while reamaining lighter than a flapper.

Gigi: A great big musical explosion of Collette, Hollywood style. Leslie Caron, a kind of Audrey Hepburn imagined by Jacques Brel, lights up the screen as the young beauty in bloom about to enter high society. Louis Jourdain has a great time shooting down everyone of his uncle's pleas for the joie de printemps by singing, "it's a bore!" His uncle, the ocean-liner elegant Maurice Chevalier, sings Thank 'eaven for Little Girls, a song of such inflammable criminality that the attempt to redeem it at the eleventh hour with a twisty final line fails to erase what we've just borne witness to. I say high society but Gigi is not a debutante as such. She's, in fact, much more of ... a ... Oh, courtesan, the word is courtesan. Gigi is a big lavish Hollywood musical about a courtesan. You'd be forgiven for thinking she's headed for a rom-com-in-fancy-dress marriage but really she's going to be kept (in high style, sure, but kept all the same). Despite all that my favourite bit is when she's shown how to eat quail and talk with her mouth full.

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