A Brief History of the


The year was 1927 and the world of the cinema was ready for something new: sound. The movie was THE JAZZ SINGER and, after its successful opening, Hollywood would never be the same. For the first time a movie was all-talking and all-singing and, while many big stars careers would end in a few years, an exciting new genre began, the Movie Musical.

It’s true that the genre wasn’t exclusively American, but no other cinematography matched the magic of Hollywood ’s Golden Age. It may be the hardest genre to achieve perfection, but it’s also the most enjoyable to watch and for me the Hollywood Musical is cinema in its highest art form!

THE 30s

It was in the 30s that it became a Hollywood genre. During that decade Warner Bros produced the fabulous Busby Berkeley’s musical extravaganzas, while at RKO Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers became the undisputable kings of the genre. Other famous stars of the time were Al Jolson, Alice Faye, Eddie Cantor, Eleanor Powell, Ruby Keeler, Maurice Chevalier and Deanna Durbin. At the MGM studios the team of Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy were a big hit in a series of operettas and in 1939 that studio would let Judy Garland lead us to the wonderful world of Oz. The big hits of the decade were WHOOPEE!, TOP HAT, BABES IN ARMS, ROMAN SCANDALS, ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND, THE KID FROM SPAIN, SUNNY SIDE UP, ROSE MARIE, 42ND STREET and SWING TIME.

THE 40s

In the 40s the MGM studios became the lead producer of musicals. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney would team for a series of what they called “the backyard musicals” with choreography by Busby Berkeley. Fred Astaire continued dancing on the screens and soon was part of the galaxy of stars at MGM that also included Gene Kelly, Eleanor Powell, Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams, June Allyson, Lena Horne, Ann Miller and many others, while Vincente Minnelli was the big director of the genre. At Columbia the big genre star was Rita Hayworth and at Fox Alice Faye was joined by Betty Grable, Dan Dailey and Carmen Miranda. Among the big hits were COVER GILR, EASTER PARADE, BLUE SKIES, JOLSON SINGS AGAIN, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, MY GAL SAL and THIS IS THE ARMY.

THE 50s

The 50s definitely belong to MGM, with titles like SINGIN’IN THE RAIN, THE BAND WAGON, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, GIGI and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. Warner Bros had a popular success with the movies starring Doris Day, while at Fox a new star was born, Marilyn Monroe. Other trend of the decade was the constant adaptation of Broadway musicals like OKLAHOMA ! and GUYS AND DOLLS. This was also the decade where “rock and roll” and Elvis Presley started to invade the screens and with it the future “death” of the genre. Besides some of the mentioned titles the public made big hits of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, WHITE CHRISTMAS, SHOW BOAT, A STAR IS BORN, THE KING AND I, LOVE ME TENDER, PAL JOEY and SOUTH PACIFIC.

THE 60s

Movie adaptations of Broadway shows were, almost exclusively, the norm of the genre in the 60s and some of them, like MY FAIR LADY and specially THE SOUND OF MUSIC, were very successful, while others like CAMELOT became big flops. The big problem was that many of the actors chosen to star in those adaptations had their voices dubbed and the general public started to turn their backs to the genre; but the big threads to the genre were the escalating production prices and the pop/rock music. Even so, Julie Andrews was the new queen of the genre and Barbra Streisand’s star also shone bright. The big hits were THE SOUND OF MUSIC, WEST SIDE STORY, MARY POPPINS, THE MUSIC MAN, FUNNY GIRL, OLIVER!, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, MY FAIR LADY, BYE BYE BIRDIE and THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN.

THE 70s

While the disco-sound invaded cinemas everywhere, the 70s saw more movie adaptations of stage musicals like ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER and GREASE. There’s also the occasional original musical like ALL THAT JAZZ and NEW YORK , NEW YORK . Two new stars, Liza Minnelli and John Travolta, joined Barbra Streisand as the big names of the genre. At the box-office GREASE was the big winner, but titles like CABARET, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, FUNNY LADY, A STAR IS BORN (Streisand) and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR also did very well. Curiously one movie about the old MGM classics, THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT, was a big hit, but titles like TOMMY, THANK GOD IT’S FRIDAY and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER were the norm. By the end of the decade the genre was almost dead.

THE 80s

In the 80s there a few titles (FAME, FLASHDANCE, BEAT STREET ) but they were, with rare exceptions (ANNIE), very different in style and sound from the Golden Age of the Genre (30s to 50s). Jewels like PENNIES FROM HEAVEN were lost among the modern rhythms of XANADU, STAYING ALIVE, BREAKIN’ and PURPLE RAIN. The movie adaptation of A CHORUS LINE failed and, although titles like FLASHDANCE, DIRTY DANCING, FOOTLOOSE, ANNIE and THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS did well at the box-office, Hollywood didn’t seem to care much for the genre in is classic form. But by the end of the decade a small animated musical THE LITTLE MERMAID show there was still life in the genre.

THE 90s

Thanks to the success of THE LITTLE MERMAID and other animated musicals lile THE NIGTHMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST the genre was kind of resurrected in the 90s. Even so, although Madonna became the cinematographic EVITA, the movie studios didn’t take big chances outside the animation genre, NEWSIES was one of them. Meanwhile, it was on the American television that several new titles were produced, among them a new adaptation of GYPSY starring Bette Midler and the original MRS. SANTA CLAUS starring Angela Lansbury. At the box-office only Disney’s ALADDIN and, I guess I can call it a musical, SISTER ACT appeared at the top ten.


What this new century and millennium will bring to the genre remains to be seen. But thanks to the huge hit of the movie version of CHICAGO there’s reason for hope and we also shouldn’t forget that the Hollywood Academy was always fond of musicals. Broadway Musicals like THE PRODUCERS and RENT are expected to open before the end of this year and titles like DREAMGIRLS, BAT BOY and SUSNET BOULEVARD are promised for the near future. There are also a couple of originals in the works, ASPHALT BEACH (with a score by Andrew Lippa) and ENCHANTED (a new animated movie with songs by Alan Menken), so it seems that the Musical is making a comeback.

Although I believe this genre will never return to its golden days, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for it to become once again a common presence in cinemas all over the world. We all need the joy and magic that only this wonderful genre can provide.

By Jorge T. Santos – September 2005