Co-stars Anika Noni Rose, Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce Knowles in Dreamgirls.
Musicals aren’t always happy-go-lucky escapist affairs. Sure, characters break out into song and dance amidst completely normal (or abnormal) settings, but many times the drama behind the music is as captivating as the production numbers.
Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls (opening in select markets on December 15 and wide on Christmas) is the quintessential example of the backstage musical genre, in which the highs and lows of stardom are revealed with poignancy, pain and lots of soul. The story follows a Supremes-like girl group from the Detroit projects to international fame.
So in anticipation of the release of Dreamgirls, we’re counting down ten of our favorite musicals about all the backstage dramas in that business of show.
10. Viva Las Vegas (1964)
Alright, so Elvis actually plays a race-car driver. And Ann-Margret is a swim instructor. But Presley’s Lucky Jackson has to make ends meet so he becomes a singing waiter in Sin City and well, the rest is hip-swiveling, go-go dancing, Viva-licious history. As Elvis and Ann fall for each other, they sizzle as only one of the sexiest screen duos can and the songs are instantly memorable, especially the title tune. The real backstage legend has it that Ann-Margret was so sexy that Elvis’ shady manager Col. Tom Parker became concerned she was stealing the show. She wasn’t, but it was the first time Elvis’ on-screen love interest was as equally charismatic.
9. Moulin Rouge (2001)
A year before Chicago became an Oscar-winning worldwide sensation, Baz Luhrmann crafted this modern movie musical sensation that usually splits viewers into two camps—pro-Moulin or anti-Moulin. And that’s a good thing, as you just can’t have a lukewarm reception to a movie. Audacity seeps into every frame, from anachronistic song choices ("Like A Virgin," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Heroes") to its surreal, eye-popping colors to its psychedelic, sped-up energy that leaves some viewers feeling spent. I was entranced by this rather simple though dizzying and indulgent story of the star-crossed love affair between a Parisian poet (Ewan McGregor) and turn-of-the-century Moulin Rouge courtesan Nicole Kidman (who gets another chance to show off her luscious singing voice in the animated hit Happy Feet). Easy on the eyes and in the end, soul-stirring, you’ll never forget Moulin Rouge.
8. Cabaret (1972)
Oh Liza. Liza back in the day. When she was not only one hot momma, but an immensely talented one as well— the true progeny of her famous mother Judy Garland. And nowhere did Liza show it better than in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, where as the American entertainer Sally Bowles, she danced and sang at that pre-war Berlin hotspot, the Kit Kat Club. Though she’s the ultimate party girl, she does become involved in a complicated threesome between her schoolteacher friend Brian (Michael York), and the wealthy baron Maximilian (Helmut Griem). Meanwhile, the bizarre, somewhat demonic Kit Kat “Master of Ceremonies,” Joel Grey wilkommens patrons into a scintillating escape, while Liza memorably sings "Cabaret" astride a chair on a lonely stage clad in garter and bowler. Oh Liza…
7. Swing Time (1936)
How could a musical list be complete without Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? Swing Time, directed by George Stevens, is one of the elegant duo’s ultimate pairings. It’s also a backstage lark as Astaire plays a dancer who has to cough up a chunk of change to marry a certain woman—a woman who, in the end...well I won’t tell you but, please, she’s not Ginger. Anyway, he ventures to New York where he meets Rogers, a dance instructor who (of course) enters into a fabulously successful professional relationship with him. But will they ever get together? And…ah, it doesn’t much matter as the song and dance numbers are so superb.
6. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Does Spinal Tap really count as a movie musical? I mean, there’s no hoofing or dancing girls or tap shoes but there are dancing…midgets. And there’s certainly a lot of music both on stage on and off. Directed by Rob Reiner and co-written by the great Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, the ultimate heavy metal mockumentary chronicles the fall and fall legendary British rock group Spinal Tap as they attempt a comeback tour. Hilarious and now legendary, you’ll never think of Stonehenge the same way.
5. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
There’s so much to adore about Mervyn LeRoy’s giddy and sexy Gold Diggers of 1933 that you almost forgot just how serious the picture really is. Taking place during the depression, Gold Diggers manages the tricky task of being shiny and fluffy and poignant and socially relevant. Centering on a group of chorus girls who lose their meal ticket after their show folds (unpaid bills), they get a second chance with a new show, a new backer and a new composer. It’s all a bunch of wacky, romantic fun with genius sequences choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley. Who doesn’t love “We’re in the Money?”, especially when it's sung in both English and Pig Latin by the gorgeous Ginger Rogers? But when Joan Blondell ends the film with the haunting "Remember My Forgotten Man," during which World War I soldiers stand in bread lines, you'll see there’s more to this movie than songs about money. Remember, musicals, from every era, were not all about escapism.
4. A Star is Born (1954)
A Star is Born has been made three times and defying the old saying, the second was the charm. The 1937 original starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March was a powerful morality tale - and the 1976 version, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson had its campy charms – but they both pale in comparison to George Cukor’s gloriously ambitious 1954 take on the dark side of fame. Judy Garland, who always revealed a tragic tenderness to her roles even before we knew much about her truly tragic life, offered more edge to the sad tale of an emerging star married to a troubled, severely alcoholic has-been (James Mason). Garland's gave a comeback performance (at this point she had a few troubles of her own) was raw, real and intensely powerful. And dear lord, when she belts out "Someone at Last," you’re immediately teary—Garland fan or not. Showing that many silver linings have, well, clouds, it’s a heart wrenching dissection of the rise and slippery slope of stardom.
3. All That Jazz (1979)
“It’s Show Time!” So says famed director/choreographer Bob Fosse’s alter-ego Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), after his daily ritual of showering, popping pills and greeting his now grizzled image in the mirror every morning. And indeed, Gideon’s life is all about the show, something that blends into his waking life with such a blur that he even dreams of his own death as a musical number (or is it a dream?). Bob Fosse directed this autobiographical tale of a womanizing movie maker and choreographer who’s balancing the tasks of making a motion picture, auditioning dancers for a show and juggling girlfriends. And then there’s his actual health. Incredibly revealing and brilliantly directed, you won’t know whether to smile or cry at the end number of “Bye Bye Life.” Fosse wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
2. The Band Wagon (1953)
In terms of backstage dramatics, pretensions and downright nuttiness, Vincent Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, scores on all counts. Minnelli’s got some fine people backing him up. The magnificent elegance of Fred Astaire, the leggy, mysterious beauty of Cyd Charisse and the seen-it-all musical cynicism of ace wit Oscar Levant. The story is romantic and wonderfully funny. Astaire plays a famed, though beginning to get washed-up song-and-dance man who agrees to do a strange little Broadway production at the behest of his good friends. When pretentious “artistic” director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) climbs on board, the show gets a little top-heavy, especially when he not only insists on making the show a modern day rendition of “Faust” but hiring a snooty prima ballerina (Charisse) to co-star. You think the aging tapper and the pristine ballet dancer will get along? Not a chance. But, as it goes in Hollywood movies, tensions ease as the group finally learns how to really put on a show. And what a show. The famous Mickey Spillane-inspired Astaire-Charisse production number at the end is one of movie history’s sexiest.
1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
It’s not only one of the greatest musicals ever made it’s also one of the greatest backstage stories ever filmed. Because beyond all the glorious singing and dancing, directed by that hoofing genius and star Gene Kelly alongside musical auteur Stanley Donen, was a satirical send-up of picture-making, specifically, talking picture making. Set in the tumultuous year of 1927, during which the revolutionary new talking picture The Jazz Singer wowed audiences everywhere, the film recalls the very funny and rough transitions many studios and stars had to endure. Here, we have silent matinee idol Don Lockwood (a winking, charming Gene Kelly) and his on-screen romantic mate Lina Lamont (a hilarious Jean Hagen) who try to turn their once-silent period epic The Dueling Cavalier into a musical entitled The Dancing Cavalier. With the help Don’s new love interest (played by cute-as-a-button Debbie Reynolds) and longtime collaborator and best friend Cosmo (played by Donald O’Connor, who knocks us for a loop with the brilliant “Make ‘Em Laugh”), Don’s got a sure thing except for one problem—Lina. Not only can’t she sing or dance, she can’t talk either! In one of the film’s most amusing moments, Lina attempts her elocution lessons by repeating the very grand sounding “And I can’t stand him” with her “An I cyyant stan em!” Touching, packed with the most iconic musical numbers of all time, and one terrific behind-the-scenes glimpse at early Hollywood, Singin’ in the Rain leaves you with, as the song goes, “a glorious feeling.”
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