Archive for musicals

Smashed and Gleeful: some notes on a tiny genre

US show-about-a-show Smash starts on Sky Atlantic this weekend. Like Glee, to which it is constantly being compared, it’s a TV series with musical numbers. But that’s the same as saying that Agatha Christie’s Poirot and 24 are both cop shows. In a world with as many musical TV shows as there are detective series or thrillers – a beautiful, shiny world that sadly only exists in my head – it would be obvious that Smash and Glee are quite distinct examples of their genre.

This shot, for example, could only have come from a Busby Berkeley show.

Film musicals don’t necessarily have clearly delineated subgenres. Instead they tend to be categorised by their star or director or choreographer: Vincente Minnelli musicals, Bob Fosse musicals, Busby Berkeley musicals. But you could also categorise them in other ways, for example:

- By degree of realism: do people just burst into song (e.g. Grease) or are they always on stage performing (e.g. 42nd Street)?

- By level of comedy vs tragedy: can you be certain that everything will work out in the end, as in all the Astaire-Rogers films; or will the climax be sad or ambiguous, as in Dancer in the Dark or Hedwig and the Angry Inch?

- By family-friendliness: Mary Poppins and Annie are at one end of this sliding scale, Rocky Horror and Cabaret at the other. You can roughly calculate this by counting up the number of children in major roles.

- By old versus new, which often makes a major difference in tone. The tropes of classic 1930s musicals and 1950s musicals are well known; more recently, there’s less homogeneity except for a tendency – like all other film genres – towards more sex and swearing.

Smash and Glee are far from polar opposites, but they occupy quite different positions in the musical oeuvre. With this in mind, I shall therefore attempt to weigh Smash and Glee against each other using my own personal totally-not-made-up-on-the-spot categorisations.

Grown-Upness: Glee is a high school show. Smash is an adult drama, albeit one set in the not-terribly-adult world of making a Broadway musical. This is the basic and important difference between them. Smash has exactly one teenage character and he’s minor and annoying; Glee, of course, is primarily made up of teens. Themes such as coming to terms with sexuality and deciding what you want to do in life, so central to Glee, are mainly absent in Smash. Smash’s characters mostly know who they are and what they want (fame, success, sex, money, everyone else losing); it’s how to get it that frustrates them.

Having said this, I should note that the family-friendliness of the shows is roughly equal, in that both have sex and sexual themes in them. (Although not swearing. One of the quirks of American TV networks, I think?)

Gayness: Glee is definitely gayer than Smash. The number of LGB characters is about the same, but Glee’s queer characters feel queerer. Possibly because they’re teenagers in a small town rather than adults on Broadway, so their sexuality stands out more.

Note: Smash contains a major character, Derek (Jack Davenport) who expresses some mildly homophobic views. I think this is probably quite realistic even for Broadway, so I’m happy that they’ve done this. I don’t get the impression that he actually dislikes gay men, for what it’s worth, more that he clashes with one specific one and likes shocking people. I admit that this may because I am blinded by Jack Davenport’s stubbly, irritable, butch handsomeness.

I mean, look.


Eye Candy, or some less shallow term that basically means the same thing: It depends on taste, and maybe I’m biased by the relative novelty of Smash, but Jack Davenport and Megan Hilty (playing Ivy) win for me. Though Glee has a bigger and younger cast, of course, and I wouldn’t want to do down any ensemble that has Mark Salling (Puck) and Naya Rivera (Santana) in it. And obviously, Heather Morris dancing is the best thing ever. So on the whole, it’s a tie.

Most Musical Numbers: Glee wins outright here, though I may be in a minority for thinking that more is better. I have been bemused to discover that there are people who watch Glee but don’t like the musical numbers, which is like watching The West Wing but tuning out all the politics. Personally, I am a musicals geek and I want as much singing as possible: an entirely sung-through TV show would suit me fine. So for me, Smash doesn’t have enough songs in it. It does have more original songs, which again you may or may not see as a plus. And is more showtune-oriented. But there’s still too much talking for my taste.

Realism: A quick rant here. If you think that people suddenly bursting into song in hallways is silly and offputting, that’s fine, but you must understand – and I can’t believe I’m having to say this at all - that’s what musicals do. It’s like maverick cops or slow-moving zombies: some tropes are intrinsically part of the genre and bitching about them is pointless, not to mention annoying. (Affectionate mocking or subversion of them is absolutely fine, of course.)

All of which is to say that I love it when people burst into musical numbers, especially when they feature an invisible orchestra and a large cast of synchronised background dancers, and I think real life should be more like that, frankly. Glee and Smash both run the gamut from this to practically-realistic numbers sung on stage, and that suits me fine.

Plot and consistency: I’ve read a lot of reviews of both shows, and critics tend to complain that both lack focus, consistency, coherent plot strands that make sense etc. I don’t deny it. But go watch Top Hat, one of the most beloved musicals of all time, and then talk to me*. Musicals have never particularly tried to make sense. That’s not what they’re for. They’re for the moment, and if the moment works, then the show works.

Moreover, how much sense does Castle or House or, I don’t know, Heroes really make? (I don’t know the answer to this. I’m a bit vague on shows that don’t have songs in them, unless they’re True Blood. But I’m going to assume that none of them achieve 100% sensibleness, and that they’d be less fun if they did.)

Finally, a recommendation: if you like adult TV shows with musical numbers, and especially if you actually do want a plot as well, you’re going to want to watch Blackpool. It’s a six-part British show from 2004, it’s got David Tennant dancing in it, and it’s so good I think I might need to go and watch it right now.


*The plot of Top Hat rests on Ginger Rogers believing that Fred Astaire is the husband of her best friend and thus romantically unavailable, despite the fact that she spends several days with him, the best friend, and the best friend’s actual husband, who is himself Fred Astaire’s best friend. So she impulsively marries her narcissistic cod-Italian tailor, but it’s OK because the vicar who married them was actually the butler of Fred Astaire’s best friend and not a vicar at all. I adore Top Hat, but I have never watched it without shouting at the screen “JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER!” 


Seven Morally Ambiguous Authority Figures in Musicals

The internet is not, in fact, for porn. (Or at least my internet isn’t, thanks to my medium-strength safe search function which is designed to stop me encountering anything that might give me nightmares.)

No, it’s for lists. Everywhere you turn, or at least everywhere I turn, there is another article judging the best, worst or most medium things, people or vaguely defined concepts in any given pop culture phenomenon. This feels like a bandwagon that I can jump on. (Partly because it’s a very large and slow-moving one.)

So here I present, direct from the inside of my head, seven morally ambiguous authority figures who feature in musicals. Not the best, not the worst, just a collection of seven of them. At the very least, this should ensure that if anyone urgently needs to know some details about a handful of characters who feature in musicals and contain moral ambiguity within their personalities, I should be their number one google hit. If there’s any justice.

My Personal List of Seven Morally Ambiguous Authority Figures in Musicals


Professor Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady

Played on stage and screen by Rex Harrison. A beloved and major character from an incredibly popular musical – but really, he has very few redeeming features. About all Henry Higgins has going for him is that most of the show’s mostly-good characters seem to like him, or at least respect him, and the heroine comes to like/love him, and he comes to respect (maybe) and like/love her. On the debit side, he’s rude, pompous, self-obsessed and treats people like objects. Not all people, despite his own protestations: women in general and working-class women specifically. Eliza comes off worst, but I don’t feel that great about his attitude towards his female staff or any of the upper-class women he encounters. His misogyny is comical, but it’s also genuine and appalling and never really confronted.

On top of that, his teaching style appears to consist of shouting at Eliza and making her repeat the same phrase over and over again without explaining what he’s doing or why. The fact that she happens to get it right eventually is not an indication that his methods work; it’s more akin to the way that if you torture someone for long enough they’ll tell you anything.

Morality Rating: 1/5.

Aha, a flower girl I can patronise. Excellent!

mama morton

Mama Morton from Chicago

Played on screen by Queen Latifah and on stage by all kinds of people including Alison Moyet, Anita Dobson and Kelly Osborne. She’s unscrupulous and mercenary, but on the other hand, she may actually be the least amoral major character in the show, given that it’s otherwise populated by murderers, idiot judges, and lawyers with the moral depth of a teaspoon. Mama Morton shows some signs of caring about her charges – she takes it seriously when one of them is executed – and treats them perfectly well provided they keep paying her. Plus, Queen Latifah exudes a basic goodness. It’s something in the eyes.

Morality Rating: 3/5. Not ideal, but hasn’t actually killed anyone.


Albus Dumbledore (who sort of counts as being from a musical)

I quite like the Harry Potter stories in some ways, but one thing that always annoys me is how bad a head teacher Dumbledore is. I’ve had this discussion with a number of people and nobody agrees with me, so I’m going to say it here instead: he is utterly unprofessional, and yes, it does matter. He appears to run the school mainly through indirect messages and gifts to favourite pupils. He allows Snape to hand out arbitrary and unfair punishments to pupils he dislikes (and I could do another rant about how bad a teacher Snape is but I just can’t be bothered). His ability to appoint new teachers who aren’t either evil or incompetent is… flawed, to say the least. And does he pay any attention at all to the actual content of his teachers’ lessons, and specifically to the degree of life-threatening danger his pupils routinely encounter? Most irritatingly, nobody ever comments on any of this and everyone thinks he’s a genius. OK, I’m done. Don’t hurt me.

Morality Rating: 3/5. I guess he means well. Maybe he’s just incompetent.

Nick Murder in Romance and Cigarettes

kate winslet

This should be a picture of James Gandolfini, I know. But ooh.

If humanity was properly constructed, Romance and Cigarettes would have been the top grossing film of 2005. As it is, hardly anybody saw it and many of those who did disliked it (although everyone I showed it to has loved it). This is a shame, because it’s wonderful – poetic and coarse and racy and beautiful and full of gorgeous musical numbers. The protaganist is a husband and father played by The Sopranos‘ James Gandolfini, who cheats on his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) with fiery harlot Tula (Kate Winslet). The film shows brilliantly how much damage he causes to Kitty and his daughters in the process, while also making you realise just how hard it would be to say no to Kate Winslet. About anything. I’d probably jump off a tall building if she told me to. Or just asked me to. Or just didn’t ask me not to. Anyway.

Morality Rating: 2.5/5

Chester Kent in Footlight Parade

Footlight Parade (which I’m assuming people won’t necessarily be that familiar with) is a 1933 black and white musical starring the fabulous James Cagney as a man who puts together brief live musical shows for movie houses (which is a thing they used to have, apparently). The moral ambiguity here is based on two things neither of which are really the character’s fault: firstly, he’s played by James Cagney, who is mostly known for playing gangsters and never quite loses that sense of slight menace; and secondly, his character is from a 1930s film and therefore gets to do things like keep a group of showgirls prisoner for several days (which they are perfectly ok with, but still).

Morality Rating: 4/5

(See also, the way Fred Astaire’s various characters blatantly stalk Ginger Rogers’ various characters through the series of films they did together, culminating in the film Carefree which features a use of hypnosis that would get you locked up these days. And probably would have then, to be honest.)

Incidentally, Footlight Parade is well worth watching if you have any interest in old musicals at all. It features fast talking, secretaries secretly crushing on their bosses, and Busby Berkeley routines that will make you go “… what just happened?”

busby berkeley routine

I mean, look.

Nathan/Repo Man  in Repo! The Genetic Opera

Nathan, aka Repo Man, takes the Jekyll and Hyde trope to fascinatingly demented new extremes: by day he’s a mild-mannered doctor who cares for his severely ill daughter, by night he’s a hitman repossessing debtors’ organs with leather-clad bloodlust – and then it turns out even the above-stairs version has his dark secrets. Anthony Stewart Head hams this up in a style you will find either wildly enjoyable (as I did) or appalling (as lots of reviewers did). Nathan is actually one of the more moral characters in the film, disturbingly.

Morality Rating: 2/5, in the context of how awful almost everyone else is


You can't get this kind of service on the NHS

Mary Poppins, from Mary Poppins (I’m not even going to bother to link)

Oh ok, I’m being unfair. Mary Poppins, though a somewhat morally complex character in the original PL Travers book, is in the musical version a perfectly lovely super-governess who uses her magical powers only to help children and entertain chimney sweeps. The reason she’s in here is purely because of the Childcare Action Project.

If you haven’t heard of it, CAP is a US fundamentalist Christian website that reviews films based on their adherence to the Bible, as interpreted by the reviewers. It’s quite fascinating, at least if you’re me. And one of the most interesting things about it is that 99% of its reviews condemn the use of magic in films. They have a scoring section called Offense to God where they list all the examples of a film showing anyone doing anything supernatural and take points away from the film’s final score. For example, this is their list for the 1986 film Labyrinth:

Offense to God:
• calling for help from the unholy, repeatedly
• goblins, repeatedly
• incantation to take a baby away, repeatedly
• unholy abduction of a baby
• shape-shifting, repeatedly
• materialization/dematerialization, repeatedly
• magic to, e.g., close doors, repeatedly
• magic to make changes to impede, confuse, entice, manipulate or harm, repeatedly
• two uses God’s name in vain without the four letter word vocabulary, once by an adolescent
• crystal ball gazing, repeatedly
• rocks doing the will of a living creature
• “Look what I’m offering you – everything you want”
• the use of evil (magic) to do good [Isa. 5:20]

Isa. 5.20 is quoted again in their review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

…now comes Harry Potter presenting evil as something to admire and emulate; something to use against evil. Using evil for good? Do you hear what that is saying? As God said in Isa. 5:20, you cannot make something light with darkness and something sweet with bitterness. I guess Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a logical extension of I Dream of Genie, Bewitched and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, all benevolent on the surface and all since we kicked God out of our schools.

This all seems quite unambiguous to me: magic=evil and anything resulting from magic can’t be good.

But wait. This is the review of Mary Poppins:

Mary Poppins was a delightful romp for children and the young at heart through a make-believe world of frolic and fantasy. There were no instances of offensive material throughout the movie. While there were several occurrences of “magic,” there was nothing evil or sinister about any of the “magic.” Mary could have been angelic.

The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Mary Poppins is in fact an enchantress of great powers who has managed to reach into our reality and tweak the minds of these God-fearing folk so that they became convinced that she is the only character in films whose magic comes from Jesus and is therefore a good thing, whereas Gandalf and Dumbledore are emissaries of Satan himself. And frankly, this scares me.

Morality Rating: either 0/5 or 5/5

Other characters in this list could include The Host from Cabaret, The Phantom from Phantom of the Opera, Fagin from Oliver!, Miss Hannigan from Annie, and Javert from Les Miserables, but anyone who recognises those names surely isn’t going to need a rundown from me on why they’re morally ambiguous. I could also go on about Will Shuester, the show choir coach from Glee (of which I am a huge and slightly defensive fan) but I have other things I want to write about Glee, of which more later.

Bonus: A Character Who You Might Think Is A Bit Dodgy, But I Don’t Think He Is (And Obviously I’m The One Whose Opinion Counts Here As This Is My Blog)

Honoré Lachaille from Gigi.

Better known as Maurice Chevalier singing Thank Heaven For Little Girls, a moment which many have carelessly interpreted as some kind of admission of paedophilia or hymn to its practice. In fact, although Gigi‘s plot is admittedly morally ambiguous in its own right – revolving as it does around high-class prostitution – both the song and the film are very specifically concerned with adult women. The song is about how great it is that little girls grow up to be women, at which point – but not before – they become sexually interesting. The film is about broadly the same thing. Or, ok, it’s sort of about how little girls sometimes grow up to be kept by rich men in exchange for sex; but again, they have grown up before this occurs, so the discussion to be had here is about paying for sexual companionship rather than potential child abuse.


Honestly, the scariest thing about him is his shiny teeth.