One of the worst moments in musical film—or at least the one that comes to mind for the sake of illustration—is in the bad adaptation of Kiss Me, Kate, when the two gangsters, out of nowhere, turn to the camera and start singing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
It’s a movie. There is no audience to whom you have to cheat front.
The musical numbers of a movie musical must be filmed as if there is no Broadway audience, which means that the performers cannot randomly turn to an audience. An entire movie can’t exist within four walls, then for short bursts acknowledge the fourth wall. For modern moviegoers, that changes the rules created by the conventions of film and is awkward. That's when people say musicals are not sophisticated enough for modern audiences.
You see this handled well in many of the recent musicals. When Jack Kelly sings “Sante Fe” in Newsies, he’s not singing it to the audience. It is a reflection of his own state in life, and it is sung back to himself. It is photographed from a variety of directions, so that he is not always facing the camera. When he is filmed facing forward, his expression reverts his attention to his own contemplations. When he dances, he is not performing a number for the audience; it is the physical expression of his emotions. Because of this, “Sante Fe” is not awkward at all.
You see this done beautifully and often by Adam Shankman in Hairspray. During “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful,” the dancing is photographed facing toward Maybelle and Edna. The audience still experiences that wonderful choreography, but it is given an audience within the movie. It feels natural, rather than having it all faced out, acknowledging the existence of a fourth wall audience.
Even when Shankman uses the traditional forward-facing style, as he does in the ending of “Welcome to the 60’s,” he places the camera at an angle, so that the characters aren’t performing to the fourth wall. This gives the choreography a sense that these characters all happen to be dancing in the same direction, as opposed to performing for an audience.
A good example of how this might have changed classic musicals is “I’m Going Back” in Bells are Ringing. In the show (and movie), it is the moment when Ella has finally exhausted herself with all of her own antics and secret identities. She feels she has lost the man she loves because of her antics, and she’s ready to give up being an operator. In the movie, as in the stage show, Ella sings the song facing the fourth wall, doing her choreography, including the Jolson bit, to the audience.
To give Ella an audience within the movie, a modern director might have Ella perform the song to her switchboard. It would be a natural outlet, since all of her problems stemmed from her job at the switchboard. In essence, she would be letting out her frustration on herself because of the people whom she tried to help, represented in her mind by the switchboard where she met them all. Ella might turn away, singing to herself in a manner similar to Jack in Newsies, but the focus is still on something within the movie—herself.
Modern audiences don’t buy musicals when they push the boundaries of reality too far. We know audiences have a high tolerance for creativity and artificiality in movies—the plethora of horror, torture, action, super-hero, and romantic comedies more than proves this. But it’s the random performance to a fourth-wall audience that pops up out of nowhere that creates awkward moments in movie musicals. To resolve this, be it in singing or choreography, it is key to give the performer an audience within the movie, be it himself or herself, another character, or another object. This keeps a consistent tone and focus throughout the whole piece, just as is done in every other movie genre.
the Broadway Mouth
October 2, 2008