Communication and Culture | Media Genres: The Musical
C392 | 1170 | Katrina Boyd


A staple of U.S. cinema from the earliest days of sound, the musical
is not only one of the most popular genres of the classical Hollywood
period, but is also intertwined with that cinema's mode of self-
promotion, with selling "entertainment" itself. This class will
examine the Hollywood musical as a genre that, while positioned as "
escapist entertainment," still remains a product of distinct cultural
and institutional forces. For example, the birth of the Hollywood
musical coincides with the Depression and is exemplified by RKO's
Astaire-Rogers musicals of grace, high-class elegance and art-deco
design, as well as by the gritty Warner brothers pictures in which the
poverty and desperation of backstage struggles give way to the
geometric precision of Busby Berkeley's production numbers. The
Hollywood musical (drawing on minstrel shows, vaudeville, and
Broadway) helped define what "entertainment" means in America. We will
study the film musical's intersection with various theatrical forms
and its creation of distinct conventions. For example, in the absence
of the immediacy of a stage performance, the Hollywood musical works
hard to make numbers seem spontaneous and natural (with prop dances,
for example). Because the Hollywood musical is so intimately tied to
the notion of "popular entertainment," it often struggles when those
forms change, as with the shift away from Tin Pan Alley songwriting
and towards rock and roll.

This class will not proceed chronologically but will cover a wide
range of American musicals, from Depression-era musicals (Astaire-
Rogers, Busby Berkeley), to MGM's Freed Unit extravaganzas (Astaire,
Kelly, Garland), to "folk musicals" (such as Fiddler on the Roof), to
rock and roll musicals (like the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night) to the
dark musicals that question/critique entertainment itself (such as
Cabaret), to postmodern revivals of the musical (such as Moulin Rouge
). We will also be interested in how the musical, whose popularity
declined sharply in the 1960s, resurges in particular ways in
children's films and in unexpected song sequences in non-musical
films/television series. Contemporary handling of the musical often
ties into a "camp appreciation" of the genre evident in classical
Hollywood musicals, such as The Pirate, as well as in the extreme
genre hybrid, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Because of their overt
foregrounding of notions of performance and gender, these "camp" films
remind us that this genre as a whole is not only about musical
performance but also about the performance of other social roles
related to gender, class, and race. We will be interested in the
ideological implications of the musical film as well as in how they
function as entertainment.