The Musical ‘One genre to rule them all?’


by Lee Hamilton




Today, it’s hard to come across any new film release which isn’t advertised or promoted as being multi or mixed genre. This may be a direct result of the ever-increasing amount of genres and sub genres out there or just a simple marketing strategy to encourage larger audiences. Whatever the reason, it begs the question whether it’s possible to create ‘pure’ genre films any more, or whether they ever existed in the first place. This essay is going to investigate the concept of genre by examining theoretical, practical and commercial perspectives. Focusing on the Hollywood musical I hope to explore the notion of pure and mixed genre and will further examine the effect of genre on screenwriting to determine whether genre can be a useful device to use or a potential hindrance.


Usually when we talk about what genre a film is, we mean what type of film it is. Genre is just a way of grouping films, which share common elements, into named categories. But because genre is also one of those generalized terms, the word can mean different things to different people and this can cause confusion. So depending on which theorist’s definition of the musical you’re looking at, one film may constitute as a musical, or not.


Rick Altman wants us to look at the musical semantically (narrative format, length, romantic coupling, etc) and syntactically (dual focus narrative, societies reliance on the couples relationship, etc). But hold Altman’s ten defining characteristics of a musical up against Lars von Trier’s ‘Dancer in the Dark’ (2000) where single mother and Czech migrant Selma (Björk) lives a life of misery working in a factory, the film fails on several counts. The largest being Altman’s daring statement that musical films are “built around a romantic couple whose coupling takes place within a recognizably human society. On this notion hangs the totality of this book. No couple, no musical.” (1987 p103) Add to this Martin Suttons notion that the narrative of a musical can be represented as “a lone character or series of characters; a set of misunderstandings, confusions and personality crises; a resolution supplied by the protagonists’ linking up with some established group.” (1981 p194) and the films brutal ending of Selma being hanged in mid-song is not only a diversion from Hollywood’s predictable happy ending but also contradicts Suttons expected integration of the protagonist back into society.

Critics, Jane Feuer and Jeremy Butler both agree on the musicals other defining characteristic – it’s self-reflecting nature. Most films try to hide the fact that they are films. They don’t want the audience to think for one moment that what they are watching isn’t real. The musical however, can’t help but do this. Having characters spontaneously burst into well-rehearsed song and dance routines cannot do anything but shout at us that this isn’t real life, it’s fantasy. Butler describes this as “the musical’s interconnected fictional worlds: the stage, the dream, and the “real” world”. (1986) But look at the film ‘Once’ (2006), a busker and immigrant meet, write and rehearse songs to tell each others love stories. The numbers are so naturalistic that they blend in seamlessly destroying that self-awareness and they occur not in the protagonist’s dream world but in real life. The subtlety is as far removed from the expected spectacle of the ‘show’ as you can get.


Does this mean that ‘Dancer in the Dark’ and ‘Once’ aren’t musicals? Or does this simply highlight a disparate relationship between what theorists think genre is on paper as opposed to what audiences and filmmakers see it as on screen? If anything, ‘Once’ is an example of purposefully breaking some theorist’s established view in order to create new conventions within a genre and ‘Dancer in the Dark’ is a clear example of how even serious drama can be merged with the musical and still work.

These examples serve to make the point that genre is a fluid term, it’s subjective. David Buckingham reiterates this by saying genre “is in a constant process of negotiation and change” (1993 p137). It is also impossible to have a collectively agreed list on what constitutes a genre. Neither can one film exclusively been seen as the definition of a genre. It has to be compared and viewed within a wider selection of films, including films from other genres. There doesn’t even seem to be an agreed terminology for discussing the subject and critics seem very good at inventing complex ways of presenting their theories. Also look at the dates of the quotes I have cited so far. If genre itself is ever changing, do these theories still bear any relevance on modern filmmaking?

We can see how many films contain conventions that don’t always fit with their supposed genre but could be seen to fit with another, thus becoming a hybrid. The musical certainly has to. Altman tells us this has been happening for years and Nicholas Abercrombie agrees by saying “the boundaries between genres are shifting and becoming more permeable” (1996 p45) These statements all allude to the same suggestion – that ‘pure’ genre may be a thing of the past.


Bearing in mind that I’ve already made a case against the musical being a ‘pure’ genre and therefore has to be combined with another, lets look at the conventions a screenwriter should understand when tackling the musical and how understanding these ‘rules’ could impact on their work.

Basically, a writer is going to have to use the same techniques to write a musical that they would a drama, horror or comedy. The most crucial difference is of course, the use of musical numbers. Numbers function, not as light relief from storyline, but like any other element, the dialogue or the scene, it must be active, advance plot or develop character. Although saying that, it could be argued that ‘Mamma Mia’ (2008) acts as the opposite, where plot has been constructed loosely around the collective and disparate pre recorded songs of Abba. It also shares similarities with structure, having a beginning, middle and end. In that respect, the musical number also has a lot in common with the action sequence.

Genre ‘rules’ can come into play by looking at which character typically sings what type of song, ballad, solo, ensemble etc. Equally, suggesting the voice range of a character can be seen as genre specific. “Certain types of roles are commonly associated with certain vocal ranges.” (Anon. 2010) Voice types can almost become stereotyped when we look at how sopranos commonly play either the romantic lead or purity personified and the altos who frequently play the middle-aged leading woman.


There is already a lot of debate on the subject of dialogue versus numbers. ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) certainly has musical elements attached to the plot, it’s about a guy in a band after all, but there are not enough numbers in there to constitute it as being a musical. ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ (2007) on the other hand has plenty of numbers but more importantly about ninety percent of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken. When looking at applying genre to writing, using the iconography or well-known genre convention can act as a short cut for the writer to give exposition. In musicals, the same can apply to numbers. Take Burlesque (2010) for example. Ten minutes in and we get a number giving us all the information we need about what type of club the protagonist is in, who goes there, what goes on and what the audience can expect. A lot of information given in a short period of time. Add to this the common practice of cutting numbers like a montage, thus giving the opportunity to give even more information in reduced screen time.

Musical numbers can also be used by the writer to heighten character emotion to great effect. Alexandra Kelle makes the comment that “a closer reading of the genre reveals that the paradox between the production number and reality actually illuminates the deeper meaning within the structure of the film musical.” (2011) Think of an emotional number from any musical. Would the scene be as emotional if the character had spoken the lyrics instead of singing them? Would the audience have the same response?


It is perhaps here that Blake Snyder’s reconstruction of genre is most useful. As with other theorists, Snyder determines that there are a finite number of genres but Snyder uses plot alone as the basis. His constructs are purely for the screenwriter, as I doubt we are about to see the DVD shelves renamed ‘The Fool Triumphant’ or ‘Dude with a Problem’. Snyder does however tell us that it is essential to be “well versed in the language, rhythm, and goals of the genre you’re trying to move forward.” (2005 p43) It’s that old adage about knowing the rules before you can break them. Having a guide on what is and isn’t expected can be a useful tool when writing and having this knowledge can then enable a writer to construct ways of defying these elements in order to provide audiences with a surprising twist that in itself can change the entire genre. Robert McKee tells us that “Choice of genre sharply determines and limits what is possible within a story” (1999, P.86) Note he says ‘genre’ not genres. McKee is correct here in suggesting that ‘pure’ genres can potentially hinder writers by making it harder to come up with stories that haven’t been done before or are full of reused predictable scenarios. Here the trend of mixing genres now opens up the possibilities for a writer to a much wider degree.

Screenwriters, filmmakers, and theorists aside, the purpose of genre most serves those who consume it – the audience member, the moviegoer. Genre gives a viewer a point of reference, an expectation, a guide to whether they will make the decision to go and see a film or not. A main factor in making this decision comes from the marketing of a movie. The general public don’t go to the library to look up what the theorist’s think what genre a movie is; they rely on film distributors to tell them. Here lies a slight problem. A distributer’s goal is to aim their product to as many potential buyers as possible. This is why we can see many films being pegged as being two or more different genres at the same time. Naturally this can be a reaction to the popular trend of genre mixing and decline of ‘pure’ genres. But this tendency can also cause confusion for the viewer. The Internet Movie Database describes Disney’s recent musical effort ‘Tangled’ (2010) in no less than six different genres and has ‘Sweeney Todd’ as a drama, a horror, a musical and a thriller. One can’t help think that this broad spectrum of labelling is going to leave a fan of one or more of those genres rather unhappy.


Look at trailers as another example. Thanks to the internet, the trailer has become an important way of advertising a movie. This too isn’t as dependable as you might think. A film often has more that one trailer for it, each target different audiences by being cut to suit different genres. ‘Sweeney Todd’ is often voted as one of the most deceiving trailers of recent times. It completely eludes the viewer to the fact that the film is a musical and certainly becomes a trap for any unsuspecting paying audience member.


I would argue that no film can be defined solely as a musical. Yes, the musical is clearly a genre, (although there perhaps should be a warning: theorists definitions may vary), but it is a genre of media rather than story content. Sure you can have singing and dancing, but unless the number is linked to either plot, setting, theme, or any other fundamental story telling element, it remains meaningless. Taking the point further, I would also claim that the musical, along with animation (without getting into arguments over whether animation is a genre or a medium) could be perceived as the most versatile genre, which can potentially be coupled with every other.