On stage, performances must be big enough to fill a theatre. Acting for the stage is a very different experience than acting for a movie. If acting for a stage is somewhat exaggerated, acting for the screen is minimized. If you watch a movie and really consider how the actors are acting, it can almost be hilarious because it is so reserved. When you watch the snippets of acting performances on the Academy Awards, you can get a good feel for how unrealistic acting really is (the goal of which, just as it is with writing, is to create the illusion of reality and not to actually recreate reality).
In many classic stage movie musicals, the filmic style gets tossed out the door when choreography or musical staging is brought into the picture. For example, according to choreographer Michael Kidd, the opening street scene of the Guys and Dolls movie was taken directly from the stage. If you watch that scene, it’s so stylized, it’s doesn’t feel like it fits in a movie. Actions are exaggerated, movement almost pantomimed, and for modern audiences, that simply doesn’t work because it breaks the reality of the world created elsewhere in the movie. Because movies require a reserved performing style, histrionic choreography or movement feels painfully out of place. It looks corny, and breaks the bridge between the dialogue and the music. When people complain that in musicals people just break out into song, my theory is that they are thinking of the classic musicals where there was one style of acting for the book scenes and another for the song and dance numbers.
In Mamma Mia!, there was an unintentionally hilarious moment because of this. I think it is during “Mamma Mia” that Streep leans against the wall and bumps her hips back and forth to the music. She is given a huge motion that doesn’t fit with the preceding scenes. It was a classic movie musical moment which announced THIS IS NOW A MUSICAL!!!!!!!. It was just one of such scenes that earned a chuckle from audience members at a packed screening I attended.
The greatest film musicals got this—Meet Me in St. Louis, Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music are just a few that pop into my mind—and they survive today among a wide audience because they got the mixture right. Some modern movie musicals have had directors who understood this—Dreamgirls and Hairspray are two key examples. For modern musicals to continue to find wide audiences (and earn big profit margins), directors and choreographers will need to continue to find the bridge between Broadway and film.
the Broadway Mouth
October 8, 2008