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History and Comparison of American Musicals

Utopia is an ideal world state where everything which happens is perfect and there are no negative emotions like sadness, anger or jealousy to exist in it. The world is perfect and has every situation resolved in the most enjoyable manner possible. Consciously, or unconsciously, the human mind strives towards perfection to create an ideal world- a utopia for itself. But, in real life, this is not possible and this leads to a multitude of emotions like sadness, disappointment, anger, etc. which is the opposite of what a person in utopia should feel like. To bring back this sense of utopia even temporarily, humans started projecting the carefully constructed ideal world through entertainment such as theatre, films, musicals etc.

In this essay, I will compare the films Singing in the Rain by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and Meet Me in St. Louis by Vincette Minnelli as examples of classic American musicals against Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet by Baz Luhrmann as examples of contemporary American musicals on the basis of whether they satisfy the idea of musicals being a form of escape into utopianism. First, I will use Rick Altman’s “The American Film Musical”, which has laid out quite a few criteria for a standard American musical to analyse these films and ensure they satisfy those criteria. Also, I will focus on Utopianism by using Richard Dyer, in “Only Entertainment”.

“Two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment, as ‘escape’ and as ‘wish-fulfilment’, point to its central thrust, namely utopianism.” (Dyer, Chapter 3, Pg. 18)

By using entertainment, humans are able to escape to the realm of utopia but this realm is not produced by using “models of utopian worlds”, rather it is brought forth with feelings and emotions. Dyer claims that,

“It thus works at the level of sensibility, by which I mean an affective code that is characteristic of, and largely specific to, a given mode of cultural production. This code uses both representational and non-representational signs.” (Dyer, Chapter 3, Pg. 18)

Using Dyer’s words, I will also try to analyse the representational and non-representational signs of the films mentioned before.

Meet me in St. Louis is an American musical which was released in 1944 with a fairly simple storyline which focusses on an upper middle class family with their four daughters and a son. It is based in St. Louis, Missouri in the year leading up to the 1904 World’s Fair and goes through the struggles this family faces and how they overcome them together. The American film musical is known to have a dual focus narrative. As Altman says, in “The American Film Musical”,

“Instead of focussing all its interest on a single central character, following the trajectory of her progress, the American film musical has a dual focus, built around parallel stars of opposite sex and radically divergent values. This dual-focus structure requires the viewer to be sensitive not so much to chronology and progression- for the outcome of the male/female match is entirely conventional and thus quite predictable- but to simultaneity and comparison.” (Altman, Chapter II, Pg. 19)

Altman also says,

“Whereas the traditional approach to narrative assumes that structure grows out of plot, the dual-focus structure of the American film musical derives from character” (Altman, Chapter II, Pg. 21)

In Meet Me in St. Louis, there is a dual focus narrative. The plot revolves around the entire family, focussing mostly on Esther and her relationship and the news of the family’s sudden move to New York. By subjecting these narratives to “simultaneity and comparison”, we can see that they are interdependent as the narrative of the family moving away threatens the newly found relationships of Esther and her other family members- Esther and John, Rose and Warren, the parents with their kids. Also, this is putting Esther’s love for her family and her boyfriend against each other. As for structure deriving from character, the film is structured in a way that the character Esther and her conquest for her love occupies the first part of the film and this is followed up by the sudden announcement of her family’s move to New York by her father. This is done to ensure the entertainment factor is still present by creating mild tension, as the primary goal is achieved and the viewers shouldn’t lose interest.

Singing in the Rain also adheres to the principle of dual narrative as there are different narratives or paths for both the male and female protagonists. The film portrays the struggle of American film studios and their transition from the silent films to the talkies. The male protagonist, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), is a silent film actor with humble origins, who tries to survive and retain his place in the film industry during the transition. The female protagonist, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), is an aspiring stage actress who is used by Lina Lamont to be her voice backstage but she finally is given credit and her career flourishes. There are other side narratives which tie into the main narratives, the most noticeable one being the narrative of Lina Lamont, which serves the same purpose as the narrative of the family moving away to New York in Meet Me in St. Louis- to present a problem which when solved, strengthens the existing narratives, or give a neat conclusion to the narratives. These two main narratives are intertwined simultaneously and highlights the contradictions between the already famous artist and the newly flourishing artist (Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden), fame and infamy (Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont), hate turned to love (in the case of Kathy Selden), etc. These contradictions are resolved by the main characters falling in ‘love’ and this resolves or gives these characters the strength to resolve their conflicts. The structure is definitely derived from character, especially from Don Lockwood, whose narrative overshadows Kathy Selden’s narrative. All the musical numbers focus on Lockwood and his emotions, or makes him the reason for the initiation of the song- as in the case of Cosmo Brown’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” or the final musical number dubbed by Kathy Selden for Lina Lamont.

Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet are both musicals directed by Baz Luhrmann and released in 2001 and 1996 respectively. they are both contemporary musicals and they follow the dual narrative path, focussing on the male and female protagonists and their narratives highlight the differences in their character such as freedom and confinement, love and money as in the case of Moulin Rouge! and love and hate, life and death as in the case of Romeo + Juliet. As for the structure of these two musicals- Moulin Rouge! focusses on Christian’s character as the musical starts and ends with him and he is the narrator of the events which unfold. Satine’s narrative is interwoven with Christian’s and her narrative is actually the cause for the beginning of Christian’s narrative, thereby forming a never-ending loop. In the case of Romeo + Juliet, it is a loose adaptation on the play by Shakespeare, using dialogues from the play itself. The narrative is driven by Romeo’s character but it is balanced out by Juliet’s narrative as well. All these four films can be classified as American film musicals albeit there are differences in the way utopia is portrayed by these films.

The films Singing in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis bring about a utopia in terms of setting (representational) and feelings (non-representational) using various factors- one of them being the musical numbers. In Singing in the Rain, the world it has created is realistic as the film is based around the world of film and situated in the age of transition from silent films to talkies. The utopian element is brought forth by the numbers which provide another realm where the characters can be themselves and express their feelings without any complications. Dyer says, “utopia is implicit in the world of the narrative and as well as in the world of numbers” (Dyer, 1992). When a character breaks into song, as in the scene where Don Lockwood confesses his love to Kathy Selden (“You were meant for me”). Dyer says,

“We are moved by music, yet it has the least obvious reference to ‘reality’- the intensity of our response to it can only be accounted for by the way music, abstract, formal though it is, still embodies feeling.” (Dyer, 1992).

The confession scene is carefully constructed by Lockwood and narrated by him, which does make it seem realistic, unlike the other musical numbers, and this adds on to the “intensity” of feelings the song gives the audience. “Intensity”, according to Dyer, is

“the capacity of entertainment to present either complex or unpleasant feelings (e.g. involvement in personal or political events; jealousy, loss of love, defeat) in a way that makes them seem uncomplicated, direct and vivid, not ‘qualified’ or ‘ambiguous’ as day-to-day life makes them, and without imitations of self-deception and pretence.” (Dyer, 1992)

The orchestral non-diegetic music also adds on to the intensity as the two characters dance, with Lockwood encouraging Selden to dance with him and finally through the music, dance and lyrics, their mutual feelings for each other gets conveyed to each other. As the camera pans out at the end of the number, the utopian backdrop and the airy lights are accentuated, adding the final touches to the realistic utopia created by this number.

Another scene charged with such feelings is Don Lockwood’s “Singing in the Rain”, the title song. The realistic setting is done through the diegetic rain accompanying the entire song. The orchestral parts sometimes drown out the rain’s pitter-patter but it is still ever present in the background. The lively music and the dance of Lockwood transcends through to the audience and they are able to feel his emotions through this number. This utopian number comes to an end with the interruption of the police officer where Lockwood is brought back to the reality of his world.

Meet Me in St. Louis also treats its musical numbers in a similar manner as escapes to utopia. But the setting is different, it is much less realistic than Singing in the Rain. It showcases a community where singing is common practice where everyone loves to sing or break into a musical number, which already makes it feel much more utopian than the other musical film. Altman says,

“The sequence of scenes is determined not out of plot necessity, but in response to a more fundamental need: the spectator must sense the eventual lovers as a couple even when they are not together, even before they have met.” (Altman, 1987)

This is true for Meet Me in St. Louis, as the musical number “The Boy Next Door” immediately puts both the protagonists together. As the film progresses, this utopian world created in the film is strengthened with feelings of love in the air, fun and mischief, and so on. Not much goes on with the main narrative of the film till Esther’s father comes with the news which breaks their created utopia. Dyer says,

“In these films, the introduction of any real narrative concerns is usually considerably delayed and comes chiefly as a temporary threat to utopia- thus reversing the other two patterns, where the narrative predominates and the numbers function as temporary escapes from it.” (Dyer, 1992)

The musical numbers are light-hearted and chipper till the father announces his plans for the family. After the announcement, we have numbers such as “You and I” by the parents as a form of reconciliation- a place where mistakes are forgiven is created by the musical number (thereby reverting back to the original pattern of musical numbers providing escape), “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Esther as a consolation to Tootie- a place where hope is provided for the future, ensuring that everything will be alright.

In these two films, the element of utopia is strong, one way or the other. It provides the so-called escape from reality, either through musical numbers as in the case of Singing in the Rain, or through narrative and numbers as in the case of Meet Me in St. Louis. But, like Dyer says, the idea of utopia through musicals and their numbers is applicable to these early American film musicals. The contemporary film musicals are a bit more complicated in that regard as the escape to utopia is not clearly defined.

Moulin Rouge! is the film directed by Baz Luhrman, which is loosely based on the Greek myth of Orpheus. Its style and setting is highly fantastical, reinforcing the utopianism of the world. Pam Cook says,

“The heightened artificial world was projected as an illusion in which every detail was driven by the need to appear complete and plausible, but which audiences would perceive and enjoy as fiction” (Cook, 2010)

Just like how Christian saw the green fairy under the influence of absinthe, which later transmuted into a nightmarish hallucination that sucked Christian into the world of Moulin Rouge, though the setting and style is fantastical, the narrative of the film is not a utopian story. The main narrative focusses on Christian, a writer of the post 19th century suffering from depression.  Unlike other musicals which gives the audience a happy beginning and a happy ever after, the film starts with an ominous and melancholic tone, which confirms the female protagonist’s death early on in the film. This tragic revelation at the start hinders the utopian world the style and setting is trying to create.

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