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The Differences Between 21st Century Hollywood Musicals and Classical Hollywood Musicals

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The Differences Between 21st Century Hollywood Musicals and Classical Hollywood Musicals essay

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Plot and narrative elements
  3. Contextual factors
    Form and mise-en-scene
  4. Conclusion


During the past few years, the Hollywood musical has witnessed remarkable popularity as a result of the release of various widely-acclaimed films, including Moulin Rouge!, Chicago, Mamma Mia and Les Misérables. Compared to the musicals produced between the 1930’s and the 1960’s (during the so-called “Golden Age” of Hollywood musical films), contemporary productions present a number of differences which have encouraged experts to examine how this particular genre fits in today’s society and how it has evolved, by paying special attention to narrative, structural and contextual changes. As Langford observed, the musical is a unique genre, as unlike other types of film, it is not expected to portray reality, which makes it independent from historical authenticity and expressive naturalism. This is because unlike other genres, whose subjects and themes are implied in their own definitions (e.g., war films, historical films, etc.), musical films are characterised by a single, distinctive feature, i.e., music. As a result, music can be either used as a tool to support a certain story or as the main element of a film.

From a general analysis of classical and contemporary musicals, it is evident that while musical numbers play a very important role in all musical films, the interaction between music and narrative content has certainly changed; while classical films seem to be structured in such a way to showcase actors and actresses’ artistic skills, contemporary films tend to use music as an explanatory, supportive tool which helps the audience to gain a better understanding of the plot. For example, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) opens with a musical number which seems to be unrelated to the following scene and whose main purpose is to entertain viewers before introducing them to the actual story. To be more precise, there is an evident fracture between the initial scene, where Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor sing and dance happily in the rain against an artificial blue background, and the following scene, where a series of actors and actresses are interviewed in occasion of the premiere of a new film, in a much more realistic setting. Chicago (2002), on the other hand, opens with “All That Jazz”, whose rather dark connotation and cynical sensuality are in line with the story, which also revolves around dark themes such as cynicism, violence, corruption and crime. Moreover, unlike the initial musical number in Singin’ in the Rain, “All That Jazz” is well integrated into the film and is connected to the following scene(s) in a much smoother way, without any abrupt interruptions.

As Cohan notes, the Hollywood musical is a genre which was born out of a specific socio-cultural and historical context, where viewers were used to impossible numbers and plots rich in logical, spatial and temporal contradictions. Therefore, in order to understand the reasons behind Hollywood musical films’ newly found success, it is important to analyse how contemporary musicals differ from their classical counterparts in terms of their socio-cultural significance, style and messages.

In view of these considerations, this essay will investigate the relationship between contemporary and classical Hollywood musicals by focussing on two widely celebrated yet very different films: Singin’ in the Rain and Chicago. A comparison of these productions should reveal how the musical genre has evolved since the 1930’s and give insight to why it has enjoyed a resurgence after years of silence.

In order to understand how the musical genre has evolved from a narrative and structural standpoint, the plots and main features of these films must first be explored.

Plot and narrative elements

Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, Singin’ in the Rain portrays the difficulties encountered by Hollywood performers in the 1920’s, when silent films started to be replaced by the so-called “talkies”, also known as sound films. From a narrative standpoint, Singin’ in the Rain presents a light-hearted plot surrounding Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, two silent film celebrities who are required to make their first sound film in order to keep up with other studios, which are also in the process of switching to talking films. Although Don and Lina are not romantically involved, they let the press and their fans believe that they are a couple both on screen and in real life for promotional purposes. A number of flashbacks make it clear that Don is embarrassed by his humble origins, which is why he prefers supporting his “star” status by providing a different, more glamorous interpretation of his professional background. This is the part where the pure entertainment starts, as Don’s flashbacks are presented in such a way to emphasise his lies and embarrassment in a satirical way. In spite of its numerous artificial elements, the film is actually based on a very important event which revolutionised the global film industry, i.e., the introduction of sound-synchronising technology. Such a simple and straightforward story made it possible to incorporate a number of relatively complex elements in the film, such as flashbacks, power games, excursions, dramatic turns, routine breakers, conflicts and numerous musical numbers, without confusing the audience. Even the difficulties encountered by Lina when trying to record her voice are portrayed in a parodic way, thus making the entire plot entertaining, joyous and effervescent.

Chicago, on the other hand, is part of a new era of the musical genre which started at the beginning of the 21st century with the release of several dark, award-winning films such as Moulin Rouge! (2001), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and Les Misérables (2012). Released in 2002, Chicago is set during the prohibition era, when Velma Kelly is arrested for murdering her husband and sister after finding out that they had been having an affair. Not long after Velma’s arrest, Roxie Hart is also arrested for murdering Fred, a deceitful man with whom she had had an affair in order to exploit his connections to become a star. Once at Cook County Jail, themes such as corruption, cynicism, vanity and fame are introduced through a variety of musical numbers and dances. Lawyer Billy Flynn embodies most of these qualities, or faults, as he carefully instructs his clients in such a way to help them deceive the jury and be released from prison in spite of being guilty. Unlike Singin’ in the Rain, Chicago uses satire as a tool to criticise the U.S. legal system and mass media’s ability to shape and manipulate public opinion (as can be seen in the musical numbers “Razzle Dazzle” and “We Both Reached For the Gun”), rather than entertaining the public and making light of difficult situations.

From a narrative perspective, Chicago is certainly more complex than Singin’ in the Rain, as even though Roxie Hart is presented as the main character of the film, she is surrounded by other powerful and equally significant characters whose personal stories and goals are strictly intertwined with hers. Velma, for example, is aware that fame is what she needs in order to be found “not guilty” and is willing to do anything to outshine Roxie, to the extent that she ends up testifying against her during her trial. Billy, on the other hand, is presented as a skilful lawyer who knows exactly how to manipulate the media and the legal system by staging fake reconciliations, manipulating evidence and facts and discrediting witnesses. While the musical is structured in such a way to encourage the public to see Roxie as a heroine, her journey to freedom is filled with obstacles and threats, which are not minimised through cheerful musical numbers. On the other hand, Chicago is characterised by a subtle tendency to emphasise and even glorify characters’ worries, concerns, conflicts and crimes. In Cell Block Tango, for example, various murderesses’ stories are presented in such a way to make revenge and murder sound justifiable under certain circumstances. As Mitchell points out, Chicago aims to surprise and destabilise the audience by turning Roxie from a victim into a cynical, fame-hungry and arrogant criminal. It follows that while Chicago’s narrative content and structure evoke various feelings and may even cause emotional conflict and anxiety, Singin’ in the Rain is a musical which allows the audience to relax and enjoy a much “purer” story.

From a structural perspective, Singin’ in the Rain consists of 13 musical numbers, most of which are not perfectly integrated in the plot. Chicago, on the other hand, presents 16 musical numbers which are well incorporated into the plot, to the extent that they play an important narrative role by providing useful information about each character’s intentions, background and personality.

Contextual factors

As Cohan and Kuhn point out, satire, straightforward plots, joyous stories and happy endings reflect the utopian and escapist nature of most classical Hollywood musicals. , According to Kenrick, the escapist style of classic musicals is what allowed this genre to thrive during the Great Depression, when people were very much willing to escape their everyday problems by watching light-hearted films which depicted a more exciting and positive version of the real world. However, the studios ended up releasing over a hundred musicals in 1930, causing the public to grow tired of escapist and unrealistic films. Moreover, as the Depression ended, people’s needs and desires started evolving, which is why only fourteen musicals were produced in 1931. However, with regards to the socio-political significance of musicals, Woll argues that it would be wrong to reduce classical musical films to nothing more than escapist tools, as productions such as For Me and My Gal (1942) served to sensitise the public to different war-related themes during World War II.

As Feuer points out, since the introduction of sound in films, musicals have had to adapt to changing industrial patterns and viewers’ needs, which is why environmental factors should be taken into consideration when analysing musical films. Feuer’s evolutionary theory is supported by the fact that while between the 1930’s and 1960’s musicals were meant for families, in the 1980’s Hollywood started releasing several teen musicals in order to reach a much younger audience. In musical terms, this resulted in a shift to films rich in rock musical numbers; however, from a narrative viewpoint, plots kept revolving around the three main subjects identified by Altman: the folk, the show and the fairytale. While artificial and impossible representations are certainly incompatible with contemporary viewers’ need for realistic narrative films, Cohan argues that musicals are widely seen as artefacts of nostalgia and are appreciated for their artistic and spectacular value.


Such narrative and teleological differences also reflect in the films’ endings; in fact, while Singin’ in the Rain presents a typical closed happy ending, with Kathy being recognised as the real star of The Dancing Cavalier and Lina being publicly humiliated, in Chicago, Roxie is found not guilty and rejects her loyal husband, Amos, who stood beside her during the trial in spite of her unfaithfulness.

It should be noted, however, that even though Roxie’s story seems to end happily, in reality the audience cannot be certain that she will actually achieve her goal of becoming a vaudeville star, which is why Chicago’s open ending leaves the audience wondering about her future. In comparing other classic musicals (e.g., Shall We Dance (1937) and An American in Paris (1951)) with their contemporary counterparts, it is evident that while the former tend to feature joyous endings which honour justice, love and other positive values, the latter tend to surprise the audience with apparently unfair endings, where love and justice rarely triumph (such as Staine’s death at the end of Moulin Rouge! and the macabre ending of Sweeney Todd in which the main character kills his own wife).

Form and mise-en-scene

As Sikov points out, the so-called mise-en-scene is one of the most important factors that should be analysed in order to be able to evaluate film representations in a critical way. The term mise-en-scene is actually very broad and refers to a variety of elements, including lighting, props, performers’ makeup, costumes and even behaviour.

As reported by Smith, Singin’ in the Rain was conceived as a vehicle to showcase a number of songs written by MGM producer Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown between 1929 and 1939. Although this might seem unrelated to the topic in analysis, it actually says a lot about the form and structure of Singin’ in the Rain. In fact, the film was structured and directed in such a way to place more emphasis on musical numbers rather than the plot, which would explain why it appears that the story has been adapted to or even written around the musical numbers. This impression is given by the discontinuity and fragmentation that characterise most scenes. To be more precise, viewers are exposed to a wide range of different settings, colour schemes, dresses, accessories, props, dancing styles and atmospheres. For example, the scenes in which Don and Lina perform in “The Dancing Cavalier”, they switch from modern, contemporary clothes and settings to seventeenth-century costumes, wigs and sceneries. Another apparently unrelated scene which contributes to the aforementioned feeling of discontinuity is the one in which the musical number “Beautiful Girl” is performed, where the main characters watch how another sound film is being made. It should also be noted that this scene, together with the scenes where Don and Lina are seen playing in the The Dueling Cavalier, provide the audience with an alternative perspective to filmmaking by adopting a meta-cinematic approach. Similarly, after Don successfully transforms The Dueling Cavalier into a sound film, a new scene starts where Don sings “Gotta Dance” in a completely different and artificial setting; here, Gene Kelly sings on a stage in front of a crowd and then starts dancing with Cyd Charisse. Considering their lack of direct connection to the plot and remarkable artistic significance, it is evident that these scenes were included specifically to emphasise Gene Kelly’s singing and dancing skills in order to provide the audience with pure entertainment.

As far as actors’ behaviour and performance are concerned, Singin’ in the Rain is characterised by extreme and obviously rehearsed poses, exaggerated emotions (especially laughter and anger) and satirical pauses aimed at emphasising the comic side of certain scenes and helping characters to make fun of each other when they take themselves too seriously. An excellent example of this is the scene where Don meets Kathy for the first time and attempts to belittle Kathy’s career by presenting himself as an accomplished and talented actor, when his jacket gets stuck in the car door, thus provoking Kathy’s laughter. The joyous and effervescent style of the film is reflected in its mostly bright and colourful settings.

Chicago, on the other hand, is characterised by darker colours, such as red, black and grey. As Vaz Da Silva observes, colours such as red and black are often found in fairytales as humans find it easy to associate them with certain qualities and concepts. Red, for example, is known to symbolise blood, whereas black can stand for sexual desire, death or regeneration, among other things. , In order to stress the strong relationship between corruption, fame and manipulation, several scenes are presented as rehearsed shows (in actual theatres) in which characters’ intentions, crimes, characteristics and actions are presented in such a way to help the audience better understand the following scene. With regards to lighting, Chicago’s scenes are mostly dark and colourful lights are used mainly during musical numbers when actors interact directly with the camera, treating it as a live audience. Red and white lights are often used to distinguish the real world (where the story takes place) from the imaginary world, where actors sing and dance on stage.

Compared to Singin’ in the Rain, where actors tend to handle normal objects when dancing and singing (e.g. umbrellas, raincoats, hats…), Chicago complements its musical numbers with pianos, chairs and eccentric show costumes covered in feathers and glitter, which contribute to drawing a clear line between reality and imagination, whilst emphasising its own artificiality. Moreover, Chicago’s dance numbers are also characterised by strong postmodern elements, including references to Marylyn Monroe and artificial movements whose goal is to remind the audience that nothing is natural or real. On the contrary, the dance numbers featured in Singin’ in the Rain are meant to look more spontaneous and allow characters to express their emotions, especially during moments of great happiness and romance.


In view of the theories, facts and considerations illustrated in this essay, it can be inferred that contemporary musicals differ from their classical counterparts in more than one way. From a contextual viewpoint, for example, it emerged that while during the Golden Age of musical films, Hollywood’s target audience consisted of families looking for distractions and entertainment, things started changing in the 1970’s, when Hollywood had to start adapting to rock music-loving teenagers’ needs and expectations. As of today, however, musicals’ fame does not entirely derive from their escapist nature. In fact, while the contemporary public rejects artificiality, they still appreciate musical films for their nostalgic and artistic significance. From a narrative standpoint, Singin’ in the Rain and Chicago present numerous thematic differences, as while the former is based on a simple story which glorifies love, romance and justice, the latter revolves around darker themes such as crime, violence and corruption. While they both take inspiration from real events and use the “show” theme to narrate their stories, Singin’ in the Rain emphasises its characters’ musical talent through a flexible plot, whereas Chicago features better integrated musical numbers, which are smoothly interwoven with the story.

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