Saturday, March 13, 2010


The predictably terrible reviews greeting Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber's incredibly unnecessary sequel to his last major commercial hit, The Phantom Of The Opera, serve as a reminder that there's nothing quite like a bad musical. No form of entertainment demands more from its creators--if they can't build a convincing artifice, if they can't make us believe in a world in which people burst into song, the whole enterprise falls apart and becomes impossible to salvage.

Love Never Dies, of course, is a stage musical, so theoretically it needn't try so hard--the audience is aware it is sitting in a theater, watching performers on a stage, who will most likely react to applause and cheers. We understand going in that they are artificial constructs; they can be well done or poorly done, but we accept what they are. Movies, on the other hand, are (or at least seem) more realistic by nature, so to convince us of the heightened reality the musical form demands, they have to work harder. When the elements gel, you get Love Me Tonight or Meet Me In St. Louis or Singin' In The Rain. When they don't...well, let's take a look.

We'll begin with the gold standard for terrible musicals, 1980's Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton-John, the withered remains of Gene Kelly and the charisma vacuum Michael Beck. This is a movie that fails to convince from the very first frame, when it tries to convince us that Beck is some kind of brooding artistic type. The plot--involving ancient mythology and a plan to open a roller disco!--is unbelievably stupid, but this scene is the point where the movie goes completely off the rails. It's a basic rule of movie-making: Never turn your leads into cartoon fish. Sure, the only movies dumb enough to do such a thing were this and The Incredible Mr. Limpett, but isn't that enough?

Incidentally, to give you an idea of how misguided Xanadu is, how utterly unaware of the basic mechanics of moviemaking: Why did anyone involved think that a moody, downbeat Jeff Lynne ballad was the perfect accompaniment to scenes of its protagonists cavorting as, you know, cartoon characters? Maybe something lighter and more, I dunno, romantic?

Just because characters can start singing doesn't mean they should. This is the lesson to be learned from the first wave of musicals of the sound era. The thinking was, if audiences were still impressed by a technology that allowed them to hear characters speak on screen, they'd be even more impressed to hear people burst into song. So studios cranked out a lot of movies with gratuitous musical numbers grafted onto stories that were already grotesque hybrids.

Like, say, science fiction comedies starring refugees from the vaudeville stage. Just Imagine, a 1930 vehicle for jaw-droppingly unfunny comedian El Brendel, is elaborately-produced piffle that probably didn't play well at the time, and is utterly unwatchable today. I'll spare you Brendel's big number--you're welcome--and bring you instead Frank Albertson and Margaret White performing that timeless ditty Never Swat A Fly.

Two big problems with this number. First off, even in the context of a largely plotless variety show like Just Imagine, this song comes out of nowhere and has nothing to do with anything. It's a cute enough song--if this movie had been made at Warner Brothers, it probably would have become a favorite of Carl Stalling's--but it just goes on and on. And then they start dancing!

Which brings us to the other problem, with this song and the whole movie: Director David Butler pretty much nails down the camera and has the performers do their thing in front of it, showing no imagination or understanding of how to stage and film a production number. Admittedly, this is partly to do with the crudity of early sound recording techniques, but Butler made a number of early musicals at Fox--Sunny Side Up, Delicious--and they're all equally painful. He became a little more proficient later on--his Betty Grable vehicles were indistinguishable from Walter Lang's, and his Doris Day vehicles were about equal to what a declining Michael Curtiz was then cranking out--but he never showed any flair, or even any real talent.

In that sense, he was kind of like Charles Jarrot, the hapless functionary in nominal charge of Ross Hunter's allegedly expensive (but incredibly cheap looking) Lost Horizon. Here are Sally Kellerman and Olivia Hussey, singin' and dancin' to arguably the worst song Burt Bacharach ever wrote.

Finally, the trailer for by far the worst musical of the twenty-first century, which had after all already seen the release of From Justin To Kelly and Joel Schumacher's overripe adaptation of The Phantom Of The Opera.

How to make a musical the Rob Marshall way: Keep paying tribute to Bob Fosse, even when it makes no sense to do so, and edit, edit, edit. That way, nobody can even tell that you have no idea what to do with a camera, or how uninspired your choreography is.