The idea of song in storytelling is a fundamental absurdity. That’s not intended as an insult, to be sure – a life without that sort of extravagant absurdity would be a life scarcely worth living – but it does point us toward a fundamental challenge of musical theater writing: making the absurd feel palpably true.
It helps that this is just the sort of deception that people dearly want to buy into. We want our feelings to have the grand sweep of a song, and that want can – under the right circumstances – persuade our knowledge to stand slightly aside for a while.
But how can we, as artists, deliberately induce this? Here, fortunately, we have an indispensable ally in the form of the theatre format. We can talk endlessly about how much more visceral and present live theatre feels, but maybe its greatest creative asset is precisely the distance it creates as its initial affordance.
There’s no mistaking a stage set for a real location, and we’re all keenly aware that we’re watching a performance rather than a window into a solid reality, but accepting and embracing that distance is the buy-in for enjoying theatre. We make a mental and emotional concession to the inherent unreality of the stage, and in return we are given art.
And, more to the point, the art is enhanced by that distance as well. An expectation of one-to-one realism is extremely limiting, and forcing the audience to hand in that expectation at the door frees the theatre to indulge in all sorts of indirect representation, abstract conveyance, and bald absurdity.
And there it is: absurdity. Beautiful absurdity. The musical is a magical realist conceit that the stage feels almost tailor-made to exploit.
And then…there’s film. Descending (or perhaps ascending) as it does from the photograph, film is fundamentally a realist format. It offers a window into something that looks like it could actually exist. Film tends to ask far less of us as viewers in terms of the initial affordance described above, tending to strive for a level of plausibility that the stage is not as beholden to.
This is why film has traditionally struggled with magical realism. It’s far from impossible to do, but it requires so much more care to pull off in cinema than in other formats. When film does get away with flights of fancy, it usually does so by hyper-stylizing to the point that it achieves something approaching the happy distance that theatre gets effectively for free.
Effectively juxtaposing the mundane and the absurd such that both are effective is a meaty challenge in film. One movie that manages to effectively execute on this is Beasts of the Southern Wild, but even there it’s impossible to ignore how gingerly it handles its magical realist element, the eponymous Beasts; it keeps them separate from the kitchen-sink drama of the film for as long as possible, sustaining them as a separate thread that only rejoins the main one at the end once the audience is sufficiently acclimated to it.
How such a balance can be achieved is relevant to musicals because, by their nature, they straddle the line between the magical and the real. Here we have to use a pair of terms that will come up quite a bit going forward and that you may or may not already have some familiarity with: diegetic and non-diegetic.
To define them, let’s look at Star Wars. Remember the famous cantina scene in A New Hope with the alien band playing oddly-instrumented jazz in the background? Well, that music is a great example of diegetic music; it’s being played in-universe and is audible to the characters. It’s literally happening in their world.
But what about the lonesome french horn giving way to sweeping strings that play as Luke watches the twin suns of his home planet set in the evening? That’s non-diegetic music; it’s piped in from our world, and the characters can’t hear it. In a real sense, it’s for our ears only.
So are musical numbers diegetic or non-diegetic? Well, it’s complicated. Let’s look at The Sound of Music. Though it’s never confirmed one way or another, a song like the title number or “I Have Confidence” could easily just be taking place in Maria’s head as she relishes the mountains or psychs herself up for her first day at a new job. Likewise, “So Long, Farewell” and “Edelweiss” are explicitly performances in-universe, and so are entirely diegetic.
But then how do you solve a problem like “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria”? The nuns are singing and, crucially, responding to each other, so clearly they can hear the song, but then how do they all know the tune? Where is the orchestral accompaniment coming from?
These are questions that haunt nearly all musical theater songs, for the simple reason that most such songs live in the same peculiar liminal space between the diegetic and the non-diegetic.
But here’s the thing: when a musical is well-done, those questions don’t matter. They don’t matter any more than complaints that there should be no sound in space in Star Wars matter. It’s beautiful, and moreover it’s the buy-in, so if you aren’t willing to take the leap then you can just about jog on.
But, as with any of the improbabilities we routinely accept in our fiction, it is very possible to do it so badly that you lose even the most willing viewer. And, as mentioned above, this is even more tenuous in film because of its comparatively greater verisimilitude; we’ve all seen terrible special effects that ruined an action scene for us, and clumsy execution can ruin a musical number in roughly the same way.
Therefore, we can discern that when mounting a movie musical it is crucial to both a) create a heightened reality that can sustain the conceit of quasi-diegetic song, and b) carefully maintain the total aesthetic environment of that song such that it doesn’t violate the tacit heightened-reality contract with the audience.
You have to do all that, and also make the musical exciting and moving. No wonder so few people want to attempt it. And no wonder that of those who do, the overwhelming majority understandably don’t bother to grapple with these questions.
But we will, because as fans of musical theater we are fundamentally masochists at heart.
Case in point, having now buried the lede so deeply so as to be almost undiscoverable, I will at last announce the point of all this: The Movie Musical Project essay series.
Once every fortnight I will write at frankly distressing length about a single movie musical, and I hope that getting the theoretical groundwork out of the way in this introduction will allow the essays that follow to be that much more breezy, accessible, and intermittently bitchy.
I will be looking at each musical as a total work with an eye to how every element – both musical and not – contributes to the overall execution, but I will be asking three questions of every movie musical we look at:
- How does the film negotiate the diegetic and non-diegetic musical elements?
- How does the film work toward creating a heightened reality?
- How well does the film execute on its moment-to-moment musical staging?
Because I unabashedly want for there to be a renaissance in movie musicals. Such a renaissance has been predicted at many points in the past, including by me, but it will never materialize until we develop a better grasp on how best to create movie musicals in a film landscape that, if anything, has doubled down on its pretensions to realism.
The cinematic landscape has changed, but with a set of tools culled from the very best that the history of the medium has to offer, the movie musical can start to reshape that landscape in its own image.
If all goes well, we’ll find out how together.
Come join us. We brought wine.