Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Ten Greatest Traditional Musicals of the Sixties

The Sixties is generally considered a time when traditional musical films went into decline. There are some very valid reasons for believing this to be true. While the decade saw some very successful musicals at the box office (West Side Story, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music among them), it also saw a large number of musicals that bombed at the box office, including Doctor Dolittle Hello Dolly!, Finian's Rainbow, and Paint Your Wagon. What is worse is that many of the traditional musicals released in the Sixties also received extremely bad reviews from critics. Doctor Dolittle received universally bad notices upon its release in 1967. In 1970 Song of Norway not only received poor reviews, but was often accused by critics of being derivative of the phenomenally popular Sound of Music. Over the course of the decade the audience for musicals seemed to decline, a decline that only continued into the Seventies.

While several musicals were lambasted by critics during the Sixties and the box office receipts did not bode well for the genre, there actually were several truly great musicals released during the decade. Given this, I decided to compile my own list of the ten best. Here I should give readers a few notes regarding this list. First, I am considering the Sixties to have occurred between 1961 and 1970. My reasoning for this is that there is no Year 0--the first decade of the first millennium in the Common Era ran from 1 to 10.

Second, I am not including rock musicals or animated musicals in this list, hence the title "The Ten Greatest Traditional Musicals of the Sixties. I have two very good reasons for this. First, I wanted this list to be devoted to traditional musicals, the sort that Hollywood used to make in large numbers. While I love rock musicals (in fact, A Hard Day's Night numbers among my favourite films of all time), I would not consider them traditional Hollywood musicals by any means. The same holds true for animated musicals. The Jungle Book is one of my favourite films of the Sixties, but I would not count it as a traditional musical. Second, if I included rock musicals and animated musicals, the list would easily be dominated by them. In fact, A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and Yellow Submarine would occupy the top three, while the Dave Clark Five film Catch Us If You Can and The Monkees' film Head would make the list. While I adore the film, I also excluded The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) because I do not see it as a traditional musical. Since every bit of dialogue is sung, I consider it to be opera rather than a traditional musical of the sort Hollywood used to make.

Third, this list is entirely subjective. These films are what I consider to be the greatest musicals of the Sixties. For that reason some popular favourites do not appear on the list while some more obscure films do. That having been said, I do think I have fairly good tastes in musicals (although there can be no doubt that I am biased on that account).

1. The Music Man (1962): There are very few perfect films, but this could well be one of them. It certainly could have one of the best casts of all time. Indeed, at the centre of it all is Robert Preston in his greatest performance of all time, as con man "Professor" Harold Hill. And while I know Barbara Cook originated the role on Broadway, I do no think any other actress could be as ideal as Marian the Librarian as Shirley Jones. Not only does The Music Man benefit from two fantastic leads, but it also has a great supporting cast ranging from Buddy Hackett (as Harold's old friend Marcellus) to Charles Lane as Constable Locke. Indeed, what is surprising given its very large cast is that there is not one part I can say was miscast!

The Music Man also benefits from some of the most iconic songs ever to appear in a musical. Indeed, I consider "Till There Was You" to be one of the greatest ballads ever written, while "Ya Got Trouble" and "Seventy-Six Trombones" have become standards. At a little over two and a half hours The Music Man is a long film, but it hardly feels like it. The film moves at a brisk pace and there is never a slow moment. Unless someone simply dislikes musicals, I cannot see anyone getting bored watching The Music Man.

2. Mary Poppins (1964): Julie Andrews first came to fame in the United States playing Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway production My Fair Lady. She later played the title role in Rodgers and Hammerstein television's musical, Cinderella, and played Guinevere in the original Broadway production of Camelot. Despite this, when the time came to adapt My Fair Lady to the big screen, she was passed over for the role in favour of Audrey Hepburn, Warner Bros. feeling Miss Andrews was not famous enough. It was perhaps just as well, for if she had played Eliza Doolittle on the big screen, she might never have played what could be her best known role, that of Mary Poppins.

In P. L. Travers' original books Mary Poppins tended to be both stern and strict with the children, and could even be quite selfish at times. Fortunately in the Walt Disney film Mary is still stern, but at the same time she is gentler and friendlier with the children. This blend of Edwardian primness with sweetness not only made Mary Poppins the ideal role for Julie Andrews, but also made her one of the most iconic characters to ever appear in a Disney film. I rather suspect that one would have to be a total boor not to fall in love with Mary as played by Julie Andrews.

While there can be no doubt that Julie Andrews is the star of the show, Mary Poppins benefits from a good cast over all, including Dick Van Dyke (even if his Cockney accent sounds awful), David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Reta Shaw, and Reginald Owen. It also has some truly great songs, written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, as well as some truly great musical sequences (the "Step In Time" number with the chimney sweeps has to be seen to be believed). Mary Poppins also incorporates classic Disney animation into some of its sequences. While combining animation and live action had been done before, in Mary Poppins it is so seamless and so extensive that the film has to  stand as one of the great technical achievements of the era.

3. My Fair Lady (1964):  My Fair Lady was one of the first musicals I can ever remember watching and it was the first Audrey Hepburn film I ever saw. At the time I did not know that it was an adaptation of the phenomenally successful Broadway play, which  in turn was based on the 1938 film Pygmalion, which was itself based on George Bernard Shaw's play of the same name. I also did not know that Julie Andrews (whom I would have known for Mary Poppins at the time) originated the role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway Not that it mattered, as I would have loved the film anyway and I would have fallen in love with Audrey Hepburn regardless. 

My Fair Lady is relatively faithful to its original source material and as a result has a bit more intellectual clout than many Hollywood musicals. George Bernard Shaw's themes of the independence of women and the folly of the British class system are largely intact in the film. Although many think of My Fair Lady as a romance, it is more accurate to describe it as a battle of wills between Henry Higgins (played by Rex Harrison), the self-absorbed phoneticist and linguist, and Eliza Doolittle, the strong willed and independent Cockney flower girl. While it is sometimes hard to accept the ever elegant Audrey Hepburn as the bedraggled Eliza Doolittle, she is more than convincing once she has  undergone the transformation from Cockney waif to someone who can pass for a lady. Rex Harrison is suitably despicable as the conceited, demanding, and despotic Higgins.

My Fair Lady has several strengths beyond the performances of its cast. The songs by Lerner and Loewe are some of the most memorable to emerge from any Broadway show, with such memorable numbers as "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?", "I Could Have Danced All Night", and "On the Street Where You Live". The film is also beautifully shot, with Oscar winning cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr. Its production design is so impressive it is hard to believe it was shot in Hollywood. My only real problem with the film is its ending (with which I'm not sure George Bernard Shaw would have been happy either), although it is ambiguous enough that one can pretty much write his or her own.

4. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967): How to Succeed in Business was based on the Broadway play of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Shepherd Mead's 1952 book of the same name. The book how to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was not a work of fiction per se, but instead a parody of instruction manuals. In fact, its subtitle was The Dastard's Guide to Fame and Fortune. The book was largely based on Mr. Mead's experiences at the advertising agency  Benton & Bowles. For the Broadway musical a plot was created that centred on window cleaner J. Pierrepont Finch (played by Robert Morse) who uses the book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to rise up the rungs of the corporate ladder at the World Wide Wicket Company. The Broadway musical would be only one of five musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize. It won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The film version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is largely loyal to the stage production, although J. Pierrepont Finch is made more sympathetic than he had been in the Broadway play. Even so How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying still has an edge that has historically been lacking in Hollywood musicals. Quite simply, the majority of characters in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying are not the sort of people one would like to meet, let alone the sort of people with whom one would want to work. And the characters are played wonderfully by one of the best casts of any musical film. Robert Morse is perfect as Finch, the young executive who uses the advice in the book to ruthlessly remove any obstacles in his path to rising in the company. Michelle Lee is delightful as secretary Rosemary Pilkington, perhaps the only person of any decency at the World-Wide Wicket Company (it is a shame she did not do more films). Rudy Vallee is suitably seedy as the company's president, J.B. Biggley.

In addition to its sterling cast, the strongest point of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying may be its script. It is one of the few musicals of the Sixties that is truly funny, with several great lines. It also captures the way many of us have always pictured the corporate world of the Sixties to be, to the point that it seems likely it was part of the inspiration for the TV programme Mad Men (indeed, I must point out that Robert Morse plays senior partner and founder of Sterling Cooper,  Bertram Cooper, on Mad Men). It also features some great songs, including "The Company Way", "I Believe in You", and "Brotherhood of Man".

5. Bye Bye Birdie (1963): The Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie opened on 14 April 1960 with a young actor named Dick Van Dyke in the lead role of songwriter and agent Albert Peterson. It also dealt with a very timely subject. It was in December 1957 that rock 'n' roll phenomenon Elvis Presley was drafted into the United States Army. This event provided the inspiration for Bye Bye Birdie in which rock star Conrad Birdie (whose name was taken from one of Elvis' rivals, Conway Twitty) receives his draft notice. This creates a problem for Albert Peterson, whose career depends on Birdie's success. Fortunately his secretary comes up with a sure fire publicity stunt--to give one lucky fan a "last kiss" live on The Ed Sullivan Show. Like How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Bye Bye Birdie was then a musical with a bit of an edge, sending up everything from rock 'n' roll to television to American small towns.

While it retains the core plot of Conrad Birdie's draft notice and the publicity stunt of a last kiss with a fan, the film version of Bye Bye Birdie is significantly different from the stage musical. The order of events were rearranged for the film, and the relationships of various characters were substantially altered as well. Regardless, the film version of Bye Bye Birdie remains a good satire of American society as it was in the late Fifties and early Sixties, with many of the funnier lines and situations in tact. There can be little doubt that the film was greatly helped by Dick Van Dyke reprising his role as Albert Peterson. Also returning from the Broadway musical were Paul Lynde as Mr. MacAfee. While Dick Van Dyke was the star of the stage musical, however, there can be no doubt that Ann-Margret is the star of the film. As Kim MacAfee, the lucky girl who is supposed to kiss Birdie on The Ed Sullivan Show, she absolutely shines. There can be little wonder how Bye Bye Birdie was the film that propelled her to stardom. For fans of vintage television, Ed Sullivan also appears in a cameo as himself.

Bye Bye Birdie also benefits from some very good songs, including "Bye Bye Birdie", "The Telephone Hour", "Kids", "Put On a Happy Face", and "One Last Kiss". The film also features some very good musical sequences. The opening sequence with Ann-Margret singing "Bye Bye Birdie" is particularly impressive in its simplicity.

6. Scrooge (1970): The Sixties were notable in that the vast majority of musical films made during the era were adaptations of Broadway musicals. Along with Mary Poppins, Scrooge is a notable exception. What is more, it was a big budget, screen adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol. What makes Scrooge even more remarkable is that it is also fairly faithful to its source material, much more so than many other film adaptations of A Christmas Carol over the years.

What makes Scrooge work so well as a film is Albert Finney in the title role. Mr. Finney's  Ebenezer Scrooge is cruel and heartless as one might expect Scrooge to be. At the same time both Finney's portrayal and the plot of the film itself add a bit of pathos to the character that exists in the original novel but is not to be found in many film versions of the book. This makes Scrooge a much more sympathetic character, one with whom the viewer eventually finds himself or herself empathising. Beyond Mr. Finney as Scrooge, the film is also aided greatly by its visuals. This is Victorian London as many of us picture it to be. It is little wonder that Scrooge was nominated for the Oscars for both Best Art Direction and Costume Design.

Of course, Scrooge is a musical and it has some truly great songs, including "A Christmas Carol", the ballad "You...You", "I Like Life", and "Thank You Very Much (which somehow lost the Oscar for "Best Song" to "For All We Know" from Lovers and Other Strangers). It also has some very good musical sequences, including the show stopper "Thank You Very Much, which is one of my favourite musical sequences from a Sixties film.

7. West Side Story (1961): West Side Story originated with Jerome Robbins who had the idea of an updated, musical version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. His idea would ferment for many years and would undergo several changes before it reached the stage. Originally the conflict was to be between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family on the East Side of Manhattan. Realising that this idea had already been done in several films and plays, the conflict was changed so that it was between a Puerto Rican immigrant gang the Sharks and the Anglo-American gang the Jets. West Side Story opened on on Broadway on 26 September 1957 and was a success with both audiences and critics alike. It won Tony Awards for Best Scenic Design and Best Choreography (for Jerome Robbins). Among other Tony Awards it was also nominated for Best Musical, but lost to The Music Man.

What is best about West Side Story is that it is a true spectacle. Set on the streets of New York City it features some incredible production design and also some incredible musical numbers. In many respects it is the epitome of the big budget, Hollywood musical. West Side Story also features the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. Not surprisingly, then, it also has some great songs, including "Maria" and "Tonight". It also has a fairly solid cast, including Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno.

That is not to say that West Side Story does not have its flaws. Natalie Wood seems to me to have been an odd choice for Maria. While she plays the part well, to me she is not convincing as a Latina (in my rewrite of the film in my head she is a Russian orphan who was taken in by the Nuñez family when she was 10...). The film also seems to be a bit overly long. At two hours and 32 minutes its plot always seemed to me to be stretched a bit thin. That having been said, its flaws are far outweighed by its virtues, so that in the end they can be easily overlooked. I suspect that most viewers will love the film regardless.

8. Sweet Charity (1969): Sweet Charity may be unique among Sixties musicals in that it was based on a stage musical that was in turn based on a film  (Federico Fellini's Le notti di Cabiria). While Broadway musicals based on films seem to be a dime a dozen these days, in the Sixties they were relatively rare. One significant change from the film is that while the central character of Le notti di Cabiria is a prostitute in Italy, the central character of Sweet Charity is a taxi dancer in a dance hall in New York City. Regardless, Sweet Charity proved popular upon its debut on Broadway in 1966. It was nominated for twelve Tony Awards and won one, for the choreography of Bob Fosse.

As a film Sweet Charity does seem a bit disjointed and episodic, but not in such a way that it detracts from the enjoyment of the movie. Indeed, Sweet Charity is unlike most Hollywood musicals made  before or since. A great deal of Sweet Charity was filmed on location in New York City, with scenes shot in Central Park, on Wall Street, and in Yankee Stadium. What is more, Bob Fosse makes full use of these locations in the film's various scenes and musical numbers.  Sweet Charity also included some incredible costume designs by the legendary Edith Head. The film also benefits from a very good cast, with Shirley Maclaine, Ricardo Montalban, Chita Rivera, Paula Kelly, Stubby Kaye, and Sammy Davis, Jr. It also features some remarkable songs, including "If They Could See Me Now" and "The Rhythm of Life".

9. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966): A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was based upon some of the oldest source material for a Broadway musical ever, the work of  Roman playwright Plautus (who lived from 251 to 183 BCE). The Broadway production was written by playwright  and lyricist Bert Shevelove and comedy writer Larry Gelbart (veteran of Caesar's Hour and future producer of M*A*S*H), with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum proved very successful, debuting on 8 May 1962 and running for 964 performances. It won a good number of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Author of a Musical, Best Actor in a Musical, and 1963 Best Direction of a Musical.

The film adaptation would be significantly different from the stage musical, with the plot almost entirely redone and eight of the stage musical's fifteen songs cut from the movie. Regardless, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum remains one of the funniest films from the mid-Sixties. Little wonder given its cast included such comedy legends as Zero, Mostel, Phil Silvers, and Buster Keaton. Indeed, while the film (like the stage musical) is set in ancient Rome, it functions very well as a tribute to the Borscht Belt comedy of the 20th Century. There are preposterous one-liners, pratfalls, and sight gags. Of course, Plautus wrote farces and, like the stage musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a farce. As might be expected, then, there are multiple cases of mistaken identity and misunderstandings.

While most of the songs from the stage musical were cut for the film, enough remain for the movie to be considered a very good musical. And they are some great songs here, including "Comedy Tonight", "Lovely", and "Bring Me My Bride". A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is also beautifully shot, with sumptuous colours and realistic settings.

10. Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967):  Like Mary Poppins before it and Scrooge after it, Thoroughly Modern Millie was one of the very few original musical films made in the Sixties. The film follows the madcap adventures of the Millie of the title (played by Julie Andrews), a young woman living in the early 1920's. Given its setting, it should then come as no surprise that Thoroughly Modern Millie is a send up of both silent films and the Jazz Age itself, with several clichés of the era parodied throughout the film. As a result Thoroughly Modern Millie is a very funny film, although its first half does tend to be better than its second half. I also have to warn potential viewers that Thoroughly Modern Millie does include two very racist stereotypes of Chinese men, although fortunately their screen time is not long.

Thoroughly Modern Millie benefits from a sterling cast. In addition to Julie Andrews, the film featured Mary Tyler Moore, John Gavin, Carol Channing, and Beatrice Lillie.  As to its soundtrack,  Thoroughly Modern Millie has several classic tunes from the early Twentieth Century, including George Gershwin and Buddy DeSylva's "Do It Again",  Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's "The Tapioca", Harry Akst and Benny Davis' "Baby Face", and several others. The song "Thoroughly Modern Millie" is an original, but it is a great song and could pass for a song from the era.

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