And the Oscar does NOT go to a Musical

With the musical La La Land being the “winter book favorite” to win Best Picture this year the musical geek in me thought I would spend a few paragraphs on how the genre has fared on Hollywood’s biggest night.

Over the years eight musicals have won Best Picture including the first “talkie” to be so honored, The Broadway Melody in 1928-29. The movie became a template for movie musicals for years to come: often set on Broadway especially “backstage.” The song Singin’ In The Rain was featured, which of course became an MGM standard. It also produced three sequels, one of which, The Broadway Melody of 1938, served as Judy Garland’s breakout performance. It would be twenty two years until another musical took home top honors with An American in Paris in 1951. As long a gap as that is it pales in comparison to the next one. More on that later. There are those who suggest that Going My Way in 1944 should qualify as a musical. It is true that there are several musical numbers included and principal star Bing Crosby was known as a singer, pardon me, crooner. Crosby had starred in several musicals. He and his good friend Bob Hope had already launched the “Road” movies which always included a song (or two) by Bing. No one, certainly not Paramount Studio who released them was calling them Musicals however. Going My Way was a drama with elements of comedy and a few songs to play to Mr. Crosby’s strength. That paid off by the way; Bing won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance.

Back to An American in Paris. Featuring songs by George and Ira Gershwin, including George’s An American in Paris, which was used as the basis for a ballet sequence which took up approximately 17 minutes of screen time and was the climax of the film. Starring Gene Kelly (who also choreographed) and “introducing” Leslie Caron. Hollywood legend Vincent Minnelli directed from a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner. Those last three would combine their talents again seven years later for the Best Picture winning Gigi, also a musical.

At this point Oscar was entering it’s fourth decade. Three musicals had been named Best Picture, all from MGM. The last two within seven years of each other. The 1950’s were the end of the so-called “Golden Era” of movie musicals. Gigi at the time was one of the most Oscar honored films ever, taking home a total of nine. Interestingly enough, despite a well respected international cast, none were nominated in the acting categories. Gigi is in some ways My Fair Lady relocated to Paris.  The next two years would see one of the great Biblical epics of all time William Wyler’s remake of Ben-Hur walk away with everything in sight. Followed by the brilliant satire Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Then came 1961. Hollywood, with RKO and MGM had traditionally created musicals from scratch, using the star power of their contract players such as Astaire, Rogers, Kelly, Garland, and Rooney and producers like Arthur Freed (whose “Freed Unit” at MGM became perhaps the most prolific ever and certainly the most well-known). Warner Brothers released West Side Story in 1961. Hollywood had remade a handful of stage Musicals. Most notably Show Boat (twice) and later on a couple of Rodgers and Hammerstein groundbreakers; Oklahoma and Carousel. To give an example how seldom Broadway musicals were used in Hollywood Rodgers and Hammerstein had already written an Oscar winning song “It Might As Well Be Spring” from State Fair which was an original screen musical. West Side Story was more of a risk than modern observers may realize. The Broadway production was not the huge success that many think it was. Certainly not critically. The Tony for Best Musical that year went to The Music Man. The movie was something else entirely being nominated for 11 Academy Awards and winning 10. Rita Moreno won for Best Supporting Actress, the first leg in what eventually became her road to an EGOT. The Oscar for Best Director was shared by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Extremely unusual since the DGA rarely allowed split credits.

The Best Picture of 1964 was My Fair Lady. The first time a movie version of a Tony winning  Best Musical also won Best Picture. A minor controversy arose over casting when Audrey Hepburn, a fine actress but with limited singing abilities was cast as Eliza over original Broadway lead Julie Andrews. Julie famously took home an Oscar of her own from that same ceremony for her lead role in Mary Poppins. The movie was adapted from My Fair Lady which was written by Lerner and Lowe making Alan J. Lerner the only screen writer to have a hand in the creation of three musical Best Picture winners.

1965 saw the first and so far only time that Best Picture has gone to a musical in consecutive years. The Sound of Music was also the second Best Musical Tony winner to have  its movie version win Best Picture. The director was Robert Wise making he and Vincent Minnelli the only people to helm two. And just for good measure The Sound of Music was the tcurrent all-time box office champ. Making it the first film since Gone With the Wind to hold both crowns.

Oliver! the 1968 Best Picture winner was also adapted from a stage production. But this time around not one that originated on Broadway but rather in London’s West End. Super producer David Merrick brought the play to Broadway. The rest of the country got their first glimpse of the show on The Ed Sullivan Show. They can be forgiven if they missed it. It was the same night The Beatles made their American debut. The movie was also the last Best Picture winner to be rated “G.” The irony being that Midnight Cowboy, the 1969 winner was rated “X.”

So the 1960’s produced a total of four musical Best Picture winners, more than the thirty plus years prior. The era of big budget musical extravaganzas was coming to a close despite the five Oscars won by Oliver! in 1968. The death knell was probably sounded the year before by the financial disaster Doctor Dolittle. An attempt to recapture the magic of My Fair Lady, it starred Henry Higgins himself Rex Harrison. The movie included the Academy Award winning Best Song Talk To The Animals but received mixed reviews in general.

1972  brought the most honored musical in over a decade; Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. Joel Grey became one of an elite group who have won an Oscar and a Tony for the same role. Liza Minnelli (yes, daughter of Judy Garland and two time Oscar winner for Best Director of movie musicals Vincent) won for Best Actress. And Fosse famously picked up Best Director over Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather. Fosse was on the hottest of hot streaks that awards season picking up a Tony for Pippin and an Emmy for Liza With a Z, the triple crown.

A new millennium would dawn before Oscar would smile on another musical as Best Picture. Perhaps fittingly it was Bob Fosse’s 1975 stage magnum opus Chicago. A stage musical that in its day had been overwhelmed and overshadowed by the singular sensation known as A Chorus Line. Many considered it unfilmable which partially explains the over quarter century delay. The fact is, despite its many fans Chicago the musical took a long time to become a hit on Broadway. Much of the original cast took part in the first National Tour. An unusual situation.I was lucky enough to see original stars Jerry Orbach and Gwen Verdon when it played  the Shubert Theater in Chicago less than a year after it opened on Broadway. It would take another 20 years before dancer/choreographer Ann Reinking, who had been Fosse’s most famous mistress helped bring Chicago back to Broadway in 1996. It won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical and has been playing ever since. It now holds the record for longest running American Broadway Musical of all time. Three years later Reinking helped bring the revue Fosse to Broadway. It won Best Musical. With Fosse back in vogue the stage (or should I say “screen”) was set to take another look at the now 25 year old property.

Director Rob Marshall made an important decision early on. He chose to film the movie from Roxie’s point of view. He also staged every song like an act on a vaudeville stage. Fans of the original will recall that “A Musical Vaudeville ” was part of the original ad campaign back in 1975. The constant switches between “reality” and Roxie’s hyper-realized POV which interpreted every thing as a vaudeville routine allowed the musical numbers to take on surreal element that worked well within the context of the narrative.

The movie scored acting nominations in three of the four categories, Richard Gere was overlooked, as usual. As a side note, everyone he was in a movie with that year seemed to get a nomination, including his costar from Unfaithful Diane Lane.

Will La La Land become musical number nine to win Best Picture? We’ll have the answer Sunday night.

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