Singin’ (and Doing the Robot) in the Rain
Most people in New York will tell you that the jukebox musical is killing Broadway. Ok, that’s not totally true, only a tiny percentage of people will say that, and they will all work in the musical theatre industry and more than likely not currently have a job in it. And the great majority of those people will be composers or lyricists hoping that the general theatre-going public will still embrace original musicals one day, and pay us to write them. Like me.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that some of my favorite musicals are jukebox musicals. An American in Paris (1951) starring Gene Kelly was essentially a vehicle for Gershwin tunes. Fifty years later, Moulin Rouge! (2001) cleverly milked 80’s pop hits on its way to an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. And what most people don’t know is that my all-time favorite movie musical, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) boasted a grand total of only 1 original song (and it wasn’t the title tune). Subtract for 1 transparent plagiarism (“Make ’em Laugh” is shamelessly Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown”), and the total sum original creativity should be bubkiss. Yes, Gene Kelly’s most famous film was a great ancestor to spectacular Broadway flops like Lennon (John Lennon), Good Vibrations (the Beach Boys), and the freshest roadkill on the Great White Way, The Times They Are A’Changin’ (Bob Dylan). So why didn’t Singin’ share the same fate as its unfortunate offspring? Three words: Comden and Green.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green were the writing team behind Singin’s sharp as a tack screenplay, and its one original number, “Moses Supposes”, as well as a ton of Broadway hit shows. Who today would (or could!) write a lyric like this:
“Moses supposes his toeses are roses
But Moses supposes erroneously
For Moses, he knowses his toeses aren’t roses
As Moses supposes his toeses to be”
As if that weren’t enough, toss in an allusion to Gertrude Stein to spice up the mix:
“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose is
A rose is what Moses supposes his toes is…”
Their mission was given to them by producer and lyricist Arthur Freed at MGM, who asked for a movie to showcase his songwriting catalog. The famous title song, with music by Nacio Herb Brown, was actually first seen on screen 23 years earlier in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Arguably the most iconic dance number in film history, Gene Kelly’s performance was recently used as the basis for an alarmingly surreal Volkswagen Golf commercial:
So even though I groan everytime I hear of another jukebox musical in the works (John Cougar Mellencamp anyone?), the fact is that it’s not fair to judge a poorly executed concept for killing an artform. If the writing is there, some jukebox musicals can actually be… well… good (see Jersey Boys)! I wish we were still writing musicals like Singin’ in the Rain though, smart, happy shows where normal, everyday people danced out of sheer joy rather than ironic self-awareness. What was so great about Kelly’s characters were that they were usually Average Joes who just happened to be electric dancers, which lent them an extra air of earnestness and made them easy to identify with – we could all move like that, if we were so moved to, dontcha see?! is what we’re thinking when watching him softshoe in those puddles. Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Gene Kelly… I guess it’s true what they say, about both the people and the shows that they created: they just don’t make ’em like they used to.
And for those of you interested in the genuine article, I dare you to watch this and not smile…