Contradictions in the Tragic Musical
COMPLICATIONS IN THE TRAGIC MUSICAL Chelsea McCracken People are used to associating the world of the film musical with fantasy, song and dance musical numbers, and happy endings. What interests me is how the form of the musical is used in the post-studio system of classical Hollywood, when disillusioned audiences began to question the simplicity of genre films. In particular, I am exploring the ways in which tragic plot lines can be incorporated into the musical form, as they are in West Side Story (1961), Pennies From Heaven (1981), and Moulin Rouge (2001). The film musical revolves around the creation of a romantic couple, and the union of the two through song and dance. Most numbers act as expressions of joy and the success of the romantic union. On a deeper level, conflicts between class, age, high and low art, national identities, and so on are gradually resolved through the production numbers. The requirements of tragedy seem at first to contradict this happy vision of the world of the musical. In order for a work to be tragic, it must follow a protagonist that has the audience s good opinion, while he or she moves inevitably towards a painful and unhappy ending. West Side Story follows a standard musical format, although it has a dark undertone that foreshadows its tragic conclusion. In the 1970s, after an influx of European art cinema in the 1960s, generic standards shifted, allowing films like Pennies From Heaven to play with the form of the musical by strictly separating the world of song and dance from harsh reality. The contrast and incompatibility makes the tragic conclusion inevitable. Moulin Rouge works on a different principle, mixing elements of music and tragedy instead of dividing them. This more complicated blend is in part the result of the rising influence of Bollywood film (which freely combines elements from many genres) on world cinema at the time of its release. While at first the term tragic musical seems like a contradiction, these three films combine the requirements in intriguing ways. Musicals and tragedies both offer relief to the viewer, but in different ways. Musicals have a kinesthetic energy that transfers to the viewer, while tragedy causes a cathartic purging of emotion. These elements can work together in a complementary way. When done well, the emotional and physical impact of a tragic musical can far outweigh what either form could accomplish on its own.