I’ve never been a big fan of movie musicals. I don’t hate them. It’s just, if I had my choice, I’d rather have a movie with a good story, good acting, symbolism, irony and some social commentary on life, and leave the music in the background as the score. (I’m of course referring to that classic movie Porky’s.) I guess I just don’t glisten with culture the way some people do.
As with most people my age, the first musical I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz when it played on TV, but you really can’t count that as a musical. It’s more of a kid’s movie, like Sponge Bob only with witches and flying monkeys. The first movie musical I ever saw was West Side Story. I saw it in the backseat of our family car at the drive-in at Tyndall, South Dakota. I had to have been about eight. There were five kids in the family at the time—with three more Iowa-born siblings to follow later. We were piled into the family Ford Fairlane 500. Mom and Dad were in the front seat, with probably the two youngest, while I sat in the backseat with my two older sisters, the nice one with chubby cheeks and the mean one with fingernails like eagle’s talons that she was not afraid to drive clear to the bone if I pulled her hair or flipped a booger her way.
I believe my mother must have somehow conned my father into taking us to the movie, because it was not the kind of movie he would normally go see. (I’m sure she told him it was a gang movie and there would be a lot of fights and action and swearing.) I freely admit to having the sophistication of a toad. I’m not cultured, well-heeled or suave ( I’m so un-suave I’m not even sure what suave means), but compared to my father, I’m James Bond—the Sean Connery one of course, Shaken, not stirred. My father just looked bored at the beginning of the movie and then the Sharks and Jets started chasing each other around.
“Who dances at a rumble?” he whispered to my mother. She just patted his leg.
He put up with the singing and tolerated the dancing, when both gangs were at the dance. Then the big knife fight between Riff and Bernardo started. The action finally got his attention. This was what he had come for. He watched the movie intently for a moment until his face dropped down into a look of disbelief.
“WHO THE HELL DANCES AT A KNIFE FIGHT?” he yelled at the screen, or us in the car, or anyone within earshot.
“Serves you right getting stabbed, dumbass,” he said. “I mean, who the hell dances at a knife fight?”.
After a while he lost interest and dozed off. My mother woke him when the movie ended.
“It was a modern version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,” my mother said to fill him in on what he’d missed. “Two people in rival groups fall in love, and it ends in tragedy.”
He looked at her as if she were insane. “Who the hell dances at a knife fight?” he said.
Needless to say our father did not take the family to see The Sound of Music. And so began my baptism with musicals.
The second musical I remember was Roger N. Hammerstein’s Cinderella starring Lesley and Warren. It was on TV and my father sawed logs on the couch while my sisters prayed he wouldn’t wake up until it was over.
Who the hell sings while they’re scrubbing a floor? I mean, who the …
I was at the age where hair was starting to grow in places it had never been before, and Lesley was easy on the eyes. It got me through the show. You might even say I enjoyed it (Although I never would have said it to my sisters any more than I would have told them about the hair.)
I can truly say my favorite musical made into a movie is Paint Your Wagon. The guts and absurdity of director Joshua Logan casting two people who can’t sing a lick in the lead roles of a musical has my undying admiration.
Joshua Logan: Let’s see, I have Clint Eastwood, who can’t sing at all, cast in one of the leads. Now who can I get for the other lead that will actually make Clint sound good? I know … Lee Marvin.
Both my daughters have been in high school musicals—my son figures Hell will be a place where they make you be in musicals. I have been in church plays, and I played Jeff in The Curious Savage in community theatre, but I have never been in a musical. There is that silly requirement that you have to know how to sing—unless you’re in Paint Your Wagon.