The remarkable success of “La La Land” at the box office last winter suggests that the American film musical is making a comeback. But accurately tracing the musical’s comeback may largely depend on the genre’s definition.
Sean Griffin, film professor at Southern Methodist University and author of “Free and Easy?: A Defining History of the American Film Musical Genre,” says that although the musical has evaded a strict definition, the idea of what constitutes a musical has narrowed over time. He says films like “Ray” and “La Vie En Rose,” once considered exemplars of the genre, don’t fit the current definition of a musical film.
That definition, he says, has to do with how characters use music.
“[in] integrated musicals, characters are singing when they should be talking, or dancing when they should be walking, Griffin says. If you define a film musical as an integrated musical, the number of films that fall into the genre is lower than it would be under a broader definition.
Griffin says the musical has always been an American genre. He says that much of the conflict in musicals arises from the desire to maintain individual liberty without sacrificing devotion to the community.
“That’s a very American concept: being united, but united in our independence,” Griffin says.
In addition to his research on the American musical, Griffin is known for an unconventional teaching style: singing to his students.
“Often I will break out into spontaneous song when [my students] least expect it, either to wake them up or to make a point about something,” he says. “You think this only happens in movies like “Oklahoma,” but guess what, your teacher is about to do this.”
Written by Rachel Zein.