How GLEE Taught my Students to Stop Worrying and Love the Musical

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This week in Introduction to Film was musical week — my favorite week. I adore musicals because they are designed to be loved. As Jane Feuer has argued, musicals, particularly the backstage musicals released by MGM’s Freed Unit, function to affirm the necessity of the musical genre in the lives of its audience (458). Forever striving to recreate the sense of liveness lost when the musical left the Broadway stage and became a mass-produced product, classical Hollywood musicals wish to break down the barriers between the performer on screen and the audience sitting in the theater. These films want to merge the dream world of song and dance with the mundane real world where we trip over our feet. Musicals achieve this goal by making song and dance appear natural, effortless and integrated into every day life.

My Intro to Film students are generally put off by musicals, finding their song and dance numbers to be “awkward” or “cheesy” (their words, not mine). And so I usually devote lecture time to explaining how many musicals attempt to integrate song and dance naturally into the diegesis — to ease this transition for the viewer. We look, for example, at one of my all time favorite musical numbers, “Someone At Last” from A Star is Born (1954).

Aside from the crude ethnic stereotyping, I find this number to be completely enchanting every time I watch it. I point out Garland’s skillful use of bricolage, that is the way she “happens” to find certain props around her living room — a smoking cigarette, a tiger skin rug, a table resembling a harp — at just the moment that she needs them. The “mundane world” of the living room becomes, through the joy of performance, a Hollywood set (which, in reality, it is). Bricolage creates a feeling of spontaneity, which is central to the appeal of the musical. As Feuer argues “The musical, technically the most complex type of film produced in Hollywood, paradoxically has always been the genre that attempts to give the greatest illusion of spontaneity and effortlessness” (463). The  more natural a performance appears, the more we enjoy it. As we watch this routine we momentarily forget that Vicki Lester/Judy Garland is the most famous female musical star and (both within and outside A Star is Born) and is instead a devoted wife who loves to sing and dance for her husband (James Mason) and for us.

Judy readies for her close up.

When I show this scene I usually have to put on quite a show myself, explaining to my students exactly why this performance is so satisfying, so joyous. But this week when I showed this clip I heard my students giggling (appropriately) at Judy’s jokes and expressing amusement at her clever use of props. They were enjoying it. The same thing happened when I showed them another one of my favorites, the iconic title number from Singin’ in the Rain (1952). In this scene, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) has just shared a kiss with Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), and is consequently filled with joie de vivre. It is pouring rain outside but he dismisses the car that waits to drive him home. Don wants to walk and luxuriate in this moment of romantic bliss. Then, he just can’t help himself. His steps down the sidewalk turn almost involuntarily into dance and his dreamy, romantic thoughts become song. Here dancing and singing truly emerge out of a “joyous and responsive attitude toward life” (459).

As this scene played on the big screen I turned to look at my 100 students and was delighted to see the enchanted looks on their faces. They were enthralled, as I am every time I watch this number. They were enjoying themselves. At last!

But why? Why now? The answer is Glee. When I began my lecture on the musical earlier this week I told my students that by the end of the week I was hoping to have some musical converts in the class. “If you are watching the show Glee right now” I said, “the convention of breaking into song and dance shouldn’t be that foreign to you.” A large portion of the class nodded their heads in reponse to this. As it turned out, more than half of the students in my class are watching the show. And I think this has made all the difference.

Feeling the glee.

Though I have not always been happy with the politics of Glee, I have always been satisfied with their adoption of the conventions of the backstage musical. Characters sing when they are in love (“I Could Have Danced All Night”) or lust (“Sweet Caroline”) and they sing when their hearts are breaking (“Bust The Windows”). And the most successful (i.e., the most passionate) group performances in the series arise, as they do in the classical Hollywood musical, when the show’s characters are working together and cooperating (“Don’t Stop Believin’,”Keep Holding On”). Resolution in the narrative equals resolution on the stage. The classical Hollywood musical incarnate.

So while Glee may not be breaking any new ground in its use and depiction of homosexual characters or ethnic minorities, it has, to my delight, given my students license to love the musical and to revel in its joy. And that’s something to be gleeful about.

Works Cited

Feuer, Jane. “The Self Reflexive Musical and the Myth of Entertainment.” Film Genre Reader III. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 457-471.

10 thoughts on “How GLEE Taught my Students to Stop Worrying and Love the Musical

    Anna said:
    October 29, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Fantastic! I’ve been wondering if our students are watching it and if it would help makeover the musical!!!

    melisser said:
    October 29, 2009 at 11:18 am

    I just showed clips to my class yesterday from Golddiggers of 1933 and Singin’ in the Rain and they responded well to both (which is unheard of for me – esp. with Golddiggers). It didn’t even occur to me that they might be watching Glee.

    I showed the scene from Singin’ when they draw the curtain back while Kathy is singing behind Lina. They laughed and totally loved it. Fantastic.

    princesscowboy responded:
    October 29, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Interesting Melissa! You should take an informal poll and find out if they’re watching GLEE or not. I think that seeing these old musical conventions used in a contemporary context (and unironically at that), may make it easier for them to accept them in their original form.

    Kelli Marshall said:
    October 29, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Love it! Always happy to wake up to a post about film musicals, my favorite genre to study and teach.

    Re: your last point, that “GLEE has made all the difference,” weren’t your students enchanted by Gene Kelly dancin’ and singin’ in the rain three, four, or five years ago as well, when GLEE wasn’t around? The majority of my students have always exuded that joy and those “enchanted looks” when we watch “You’re the One That I Want” from GREASE! and “Hakuna Matata” from THE LION KING (and of course, Mr. Kelly’s fantastic number).

    Just wondering what you’re experience was pre-GLEE, I suppose… Your students have ALWAYS found musical numbers “cheesy,” as you say?

    princesscowboy responded:
    October 29, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    Kelli, I actually thought of you and your love of musicals when I wrote this post!

    To answer your question, on the whole my Intro students have rejected the film musical, at least in its classical Hollywood incarnation (by contrast upper level film students, who are more passionate about film studies overall, tend to be more accepting). I’m not surprised that your students reacted well to “Hakuna Matata” since they grew up on Disney musicals and, on the whole, it is easier to swallow the idea of spontaneous song and dance performances in an already fantastic animated setting. And I think a lot of them are also pretty familiar with the GREASE soundtrack. I imagine my students would enjoy those performances as well.

    I have always been surprised by my students’ rejection of the musical (I usually screen MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS or THE BAND WAGON) and when I ask them why they didn’t enjoy these films the answer is always that the dancing/singing is “cheesy” or “artificial” or that they “just couldn’t get into it.”

    Who knows though–this maybe this change of heart has nothing at all to do with GLEE. Maybe I am just better at teaching the musical this semester? : )

    Kelli Marshall said:
    October 29, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Re: “You’re the One That I Want” and “Hakuna Matata,” yes, yes, t’is true. They’ve grown up with those and are likely more willing to accept them.

    And you’re right: with THE BAND WAGON and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, I get some eye rolls as well.

    With that said, the students almost always like SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN as well as some of the Astaire-Rogers numbers I show. ON THE TOWN and SUMMER STOCK seem to be favorites too. I don’t know–maybe it’s my apparent love for (or unhealthy obsession with!) Gene that makes them smile like that? After all, he IS in every one of those musicals that I just listed. =)

    nfrankenhauser said:
    November 1, 2009 at 2:08 am

    I can’t seem to remember any specifics about student reactions to The Band Wagon when we did it, but I think that’s probably because they weren’t very strong one way or the other. Personally I have kind of a love/hate relationship with musicals, but the hate part is for reasons of personal history (I can act, but I can’t sing or dance, and all my school ever produced were musicals). I love the catchiness of the songs, and the unabashed enthusiasm of the musical numbers, but the older ones do seem a bit, well, lame–even to a fairly serious student of film. Maybe I’m too used to seeing the conventions used ironically to take them seriously when they are not. Certainly, I can’t watch that clip from Singin’ in the Rain anymore without a shadow of cynicism in my heart, most likely thanks to too many viewings of A Clockwork Orange.

    Liz said:
    November 8, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    I generally do not like musicals. I can’t stomach when characters break into what we are to believe is unrehearsed pitch perfect song and choreographed dance. The transition never feels effortless or spontaneous no matter what tricks filmmakers use and the fancy names you film professors use to describe them (“bricolage”). But, I LOVE Glee. It’s fundamentally different from the musicals you mention. I do not have to make the leap to accept that high school students spontaneously erupt into song and dance numbers. The characters in Glee sing and dance because they are in fact performing or practicing to perform in the context of a glee club. This I can accept and the annoyance I feel during most musicals is not present.

    princesscowboy responded:
    November 9, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Wow Liz I love the disdain with which you wrote the words “no matter what tricks…you film professors use to describe them.” Lawyers can be so testy…

    Mark Hobin said:
    January 5, 2010 at 8:21 am

    You mention “A Star is Born”. Rarely has a musical featured such happily upbeat numbers (“Gotta Have Me Go With You”, “Lose That Long Face”) and simultaneously presented a storyline that is so profoundly sad. See my review here:

    I appreciate the comparison to Glee. I too enjoy this TV show and I find it one of the most important works of recent memory that revives the musical in a way I haven’t seen in a long time. Great blog!

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