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"Cheesy, Sleazy Hollywood": Musicals about Movies and Movie-Making

While there have been quite a few musicals based on movies, there have also been a handful of musicals about movies, moviemaking, and moviemakers. Such musicals usually deal with egotistical actors, directors, or writers--they're such colorful folks!--but several consider movies as positive transformative agents or as negative social forces. Interestingly, there has never been a successful musical about moviemaking during the silent era, despite several valiant attempts. However, there are some fantastic scores here.

The Apple Tree (Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Bock, Harnick, and Jerome Coopersmith)

In "Passionella," the third of three stories in this "short-story" musical, Passionella is a Cinderella figure who wants desperately to be a movie star. She's granted her wish, with a catch: she's only beautiful between the 7:00 News and the end of the late movie (about nine hours). She gets a movie contract, but when she falls in love with a country singer who scorns her for not being "real," she makes a movie during her ugly hours. Of course she ends up turning to her ugly self while in the middle of passionate love with the singer, but he turns out to be a Cinderella-type too, and they live happily ever after.

Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk (Music by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark, and Ann Duquesney, book and lyrics by Reg E. Gaines)

This excellent musical is an overview of the black experience in America, but a chunk of it takes place in the Hollywood of the 1930s as the Kid looks for the Beat. Unfortunately, he merely encounters "technicolor pickaninny shacks," Grin & Flash ("Gators gotsta/Look right fine/Slick yo' kitchen/Greasy shine"), "good old, down-home subservient Swing," and Uncle Huck-A-Buck and his "crows" ("Who de hell cares if I acts de fool/When I takes me a swim in my swimming pool"). Preferring to be a sellout rather than to languish in obscurity, the Kid abandons the Beat in favor of "just flash." A dead-on indictment of how Hollywood treated black actors.

City of Angels (Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by David Zippel, book by Larry Gelbart)

This unique musical intertwines two story threads: that of Stone, a hard-boiled private eye in the 1940s, and that of his writer, Stine, who is trying to adapt one of his Stone novels into a screenplay. The two threads quickly tangle, with the fictional characters sometimes joining the real characters on stage. Stine's producer Buddy is screwing around with the script, the married Stine is screwing around with Buddy's secretary, and Stone is disgusted with Stine and has a shouting (singing) match with him. Things collapse from there, but Stone eventually shows up to rewrite Stine's life and provide a "Hollywood ending" that makes everything all better.

A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine (Music by Frank Lazarus, lyrics by Dick Vosburgh; additional material by Jerry Herman)

This charming show is half revue, half book musical. The first half is a fond, nostalgic look at old movies (mostly talkies); the second is a musical based on a Marx Brothers movie that was never made. The Stomp-like Hollywood Production Code number is a scream!

Goldilocks (Music by Leroy Anderson; lyrics by Joan Ford, Walter Kerr, and Jean Kerr; book by Walter Kerr and Jean Kerr)

Another flop silent film musical, this underrated and largely forgotten show was Elaine Stritch's first star vehicle. The plot is over-complicated, but it revolves around an actress who wants to stop acting and get married, but she can't because she's under contract to shoot a movie. After that one's in the can, the actress is tricked into shooting another film because the director can't afford to hire another leading lady. (He's skimming the profits from his short movies so that he can shoot a big Egyptian epic.) The director is also falling in love with her. Although she is initially sympathetic when she finds out, she decides that the director is only wooing her for her fiance's money. Hijinks ensue. Naturally, the actress ends up in the Egyptian epic and the director's arms--and we do get to see bits of the Egyptian epic in the bargain. Oh, if you were wondering about the title, it has something to do with a dance that the actress performs with a dancing bear, but it's otherwise meaningless in context.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, book by Terrence McNally)

Molina, the gay window-dresser imprisoned for corrupting a minor in his Latin American town, escapes the horrors of his prison life by retreating into fantasies involving the movie actress Aurora and her flamboyant films. Although Aurora's antics usually comfort him, he's terrified of her incarnation as the Spider Woman, a.k.a Death. At the end, though, when he's shot, he embraces the Spider Woman.

The Life (Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Ira Gasman, book by David Newman, Cy Coleman, and Ira Gasman)

One of the threads in this story of prostitutes and their pimps is that of Mary from Minnesota, whose "corn-fed" good looks prompt the hustler Jojo to introduce her to a producer of XXX-rated flicks. She ultimately accepts his offer of a movie career.

Little Me (Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, book by Neil Simon)

The show is about Belle Poitrine ("beautiful chest"), a wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl who made it big (in rather irregular ways) and is looking back at her life. At one point she joined with the Buchsbaum brothers to form a movie production partnership, where she starred in such movies as Samson and Jemima and Ben Her. Later, a delivery boy proved to be a failed director, and Belle convinced him to direct her next picture, Moses Takes a Wife. Unfortunately, the director mistook a real dagger for a fake one and killed himself while demonstrating to an actor how to plunge a dagger into his heart convincingly. One of the songs Belle sings is "Poor Little Hollywood Star."

Mack and Mabel (Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Michael Stewart)

The whole story is about moviemaker Mack Sennett and his discovery/paramour Mabel Normand. The plot has Mabel, initially a comedienne, wanting to do some serious acting, but Mack can't help introducing comedic elements into everything he does. The show also contains some typical silent movie images, such as "Hundreds of Girls" and mindlessly cheery movie musicals. The score is sensational, but the book doesn't follow reality very closely; it misses some excellent opportunities, especially in the dances. I've heard it said that it's not possible to depict slam-bang silent action onstage, but Jerome Robbins managed it with his legendary "Keystone Kops" ballet in High Button Shoes. Indeed, Jerry Herman said in his autobiography that the reason Mack & Mabel didn't have a slam-bang dance sequence was because Gower Champion didn't want to duplicate that ballet.

Merrily We Roll Along (Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth)

Songwriter Franklin Shepard becomes a movie producer, which is one of the many reasons why his friendship with Charlie Kringas falls apart. In the beginning of the show he parties with a bunch of shallow movie-type people, and not too long afterwards, Charlie bitterly sings about what the money biz has done to his friend in "Franklin Shepard Inc."

Nick & Nora (Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., book by Arthur Laurents)

One in the long string of Strouse flops, this show didn't fail because of its music or its cast. The show, based of course on The Thin Man, is set in Hollywood. One of Nick and Nora Charles's' friends is a movie director who has been accused of murder and wants Nick to take on the case so filming can continue. The murder victim was the bookkeeper for the movie; the lead actress is a friend of Nora's; and several other characters are related to the movie industry as well.

Nine (Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, book by Arthur Kopit)

Based on Fellini's 8 1/2, this musical centers around the single adult male in the show, Guido Contini, a world-renowned film director. He has come to a spa in Venice with his wife in hopes of saving their marriage. He's got too many other women in his life for monogamy, though. He's also creatively dried up and hoping to come up with a new movie, and he eventually does: a musical based on the life of Casanova, though his own behavior scuttles his ability to work on the pic. Much of Nine is taken up with fantasy movie sequences that play in Guido's head, as well as cinematic flashbacks to his youth.

On the Twentieth Century (Music by Cy Coleman, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)

Four musicals by Cy Coleman in this list--I guess he took well to the subject! Along with Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk, On the Twentieth Century is the most anti-Hollywood musical here. Theatrical producer Oscar Jaffee has sixteen hours on the Twentieth Century Ltd. ("New York in sixteen hours/Anything can happen in those sixteen hours") to persuade former-lover, former-stage-star, current-Hollywood-star Lily Garland to abandon that "pitiful cityful of celluloid slime" and return to his direction. But she hates him and is happy with the money and fame she's garnered. Then Oscar comes out with the ultimate insult: "Lily, you've gone stale!... Another stale cheap dolly/In cheap, cheap Hollywood."

Ragtime (Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally)

The main character in the "Immigrant" thread, Tateh, has trouble making a living until a stranger sees the flip-book that he made for his daughter and buys it. When we next encounter Tateh, he's a moviemaker calling himself the Baron Ashkenazy, running Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, and doing quite well.

Silk Stockings (Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by George S. Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath, and Abe Burrows)

Based on Ninotchka. Hollywood wants to use a Soviet composer's music in a serious film starring a heretofore unserious swimming actress. Dazzled by dreams of success, the composer defects to the US, but he returns to Russia when his song ("Ode to a Tractor") is turned into "a jazzy song about Napoleon and Josephine." Ultimately, the composer is lured back to Hollywood to turn his life story into a movie, and the various other Russians in the story go with him.

Sunset Boulevard (Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton)

Based on the classic movie, of course. Norma Desmond, an aging and out-of-touch actress, tries to make a comeback by playing Salome in a movie written by her and Joe Gillis, a young, ambitious, and rather amoral screenwriter. Norma falls in love with Joe, who makes a sham of reciprocating her affection while he accepts her lavish gifts. He's got a girl, after all. But everything falls apart--the studio wants to use her car in a picture, not her, and Joe wants to leave Norma for his girlfriend. Norma goes loopy, kills Joe, and walks down the staircase for her close-up for Mr. de Mille.

All non-lyric material copyright 2002, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved

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