What happens when Broadway’s musicals try to go Hollywood?
Mordden (On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide, 2015, etc.) is probably the authority on the American musical and the perfect person to write about the important role of American songwriters and composers who looked west to ply their trade in Hollywood. As the author makes clear, these plans didn’t always work out. Hollywood had its mogul, control-freak producers who didn’t necessarily appreciate musicals, forced too many writers to work on a film, frequently cast the wrong people, and were fond of eliminating way too many songs in order to make a “better” movie. When silent films became talking films, they were able to add music and songs, little by little. The Jazz Singer showed it could be done. Irving Berlin’s great songs in films made audiences happy, but they still remained “Berlin-catalogue films” rather than true musicals. Realizing they needed the quality and prestige of the Broadway songwriters, Hollywood started hiring. The Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, brought consummate artistry to these new films. Top Hat, Shall We Dance, and Porgy and Bess showed what could be achieved, almost—Berlin was rarely involved in “planning or executing a project.” Then came Rodgers and Hart, whose Love Me Tonight is one of the great Hollywood musicals, perhaps the “greatest of all.” Here the songwriters’ art merged beautifully with “cinema’s ability to mash time and space together.” Jerome Kern’s Show Boat has both “epic” story and music. In 1962, Hollywood filmed with “respect” to Broadway by keeping Robert Preston for The Music Man. The pace picks up as Mordden describes a series of good film musicals, from Gypsy to The King and I to The Sound of Music. He’s not, however, much impressed by the many bio-musicals made about these songwriters. De-Lovely, about Cole Porter, is an “excrescence.”
Packed with fascinating information, this is an impressive labor of love that should appeal to all Broadway fans.