The making of films has been an ongoing activity for many decades. This industry gave rise to Hollywood where many acting and supplementary careers were established. In particular, the major aspect of the movies was the narrative. However, various films incorporated different accessories to maintain the plots. Hence, the birth of musicals in films heralded a new approach to storytelling that gained popularity among the viewers. This genre reflected the preferences of a majority of the audience, which were bound to change from time to time. The switch in musical tastes was transferred to the films whereby producers made movies with stark similarities and differences over time. Therefore, the musical genre has evolved in the film industry signifying a shift in the preferences of its audience.


The classical Hollywood period is often referred to as the time from 1917 to 1960. The duration after that is known as contemporary as well. In both instances, the narrative is based on a love story. A lead actor in the plot is romantically linked to another person, and this forms part of the appeal for the genre. For example, Singin’ in the Rain that was directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelley in 1952 chronicles the lives of two aspiring actors, Don and Lina whose relationship is tested by the entry of another actress, Kathy (Bukatman, 2003, p. 267). This love triangle threatens to overshadow their careers and the film ends by a scene where Kathy and Don kiss passionately.

Similarly, the 2002 Rob Marshall directed Chicago presents an intriguing story about would-be star, Roxie and her sexual escapades on her way to stardom. At some point, she even kills her sister and husband after finding them in a compromising position. Thus, the use of love is meant to make the films relational since most moviegoers experience the same emotional challenges in their own real lives. They are able to make an affiliation with the words and actions of the actors thereby resulting in the success of the movie among a large demographic. Most of the film producers are aware of this, and they try as much as they can to capitalize on this market trend.

In addition, classical musicals and contemporary ones employ humor in their depictions (Flinn, 2006, 57). The use of jokes in both films is strategic as it is meant to make them enjoyable. By shooting different scenes with comic relief, the attention of the audience is captured and that generates interest in knowing the outcome of various sub plots. By so doing, the viewer finds that he/she has watched the entire movie, a key target of the producers. In 1932, Rouben Mamoulian directed Love Me Tonight. The movie revolves around a tailor who is in love with a girl, Jeanette from a wealthy family. When he goes to claim payments for clothes obtained on credit, he uses that opportunity to profess his love.

However, Jeanette initially declines but later on accepts, and they head into one of the castle’s rooms to get intimate (Dileo, 2008, 1927). Upon the family catching the pair with Jeanette undressed partially, Maurice responds by saying that he is redesigning her riding outfit. Likewise, the 1988 film It Couldn’t Happen Here by Jack Bond features a scene where a priest is seen memorizing Bible verses and in the evening directs twelve fishermen to pull a large cross out of the sea. The scene is an apparent reference to the Bible version in which Jesus commanded his twelve disciples to haul large tracts of fish. Hence, both eras saw the infusion of comedy in the films as a way of enhancing their appeal to the viewers. Likewise, the rise of animations also reinforced the idea of comedy in musicals. In most cases, the storylines were made with the script containing many hilarious parts as a way of making them appealing to watch for both young and mature audiences. For example, the 1987 Chipmunk Adventure by Janice Karman and the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs directed by Ben Sharpsteen have numerous episodes where the characters tell jokes and perform actions that are deemed comical. Such instances lead to the popularity of the films as the audience makes a connection with the happenings on the screen.

Furthermore, the classical and contemporary periods were marked with the use of different kinds of musical instruments (Inglis, 2003, 69). These accompaniments made the songs desirable to listen to as they provided the rhythm and momentum. As such, an assortment of appliances was combined in harmony in order to produce distinct sounds for specific special effects required in different scenes. Thus, these tools were used in unison in order to create a dramatic effect to various actions of the characters in order to draw reactions from viewers. Therefore, such tactics were used to build an allure for the storyline. For instance, Evita, the 1996 film directed by Alan Parker and Phil Karlson’s 1948 Ladies of the Chorus both used a piano in the production of the songs. The different piano keys can be overheard in the renditions as the characters do their performances.

Consequently, the audience gets to hum to the songs while watching the films, and this makes the experience interactive (Ford, 2010, 111). In most cases, the songs and musical tones used are deliberately picked to mirror the main message of the movie. This helps in comprehending the plot as much as providing an impression of the different stages of the film. In particular, drums are used to illustrate the plot has reached a point of high intensity while acoustic tools soothe the listener as a sign of emotional scenes. All these aid in generating interest, which in turn leads to the fascination with the movies.

Musicals made in both tenures had similar structures too. They had a beginning, middle and end that were discernable. In fact, the nature of the storyline was such that a conclusive resolution was offered at the end with the main motivation of the characters’ being psychological rather than social. Therefore, the narratives depended on building blocks in every turn as opposed to intrusive scenes that did not develop the story. This is evident in the 1954 film, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, by Stanley Donen in which a chance encounter between two members of the opposite sex led to the courtship and eventual marriages of seven brothers to seven brides from another town.

Similarly, Edward is a restless prince in the 1976 Slipper and the Rose because of being forced to accept an arranged marriage (Ford and Mitchell, 2004, 31). He tries to deny the offer since he is in love with another girl, Cinderella albeit a non-royal. Eventually, he succumbs to the wishes of his ruling parents, but Cinderella suddenly appears at the wedding and the rules are changed to allow the prince to marry the woman he chooses. Edward then lives happily ever after with Cinderella. Clearly, the plots are chronological, and the mystery is solved at the end of the movie.


The use of songs in classical and contemporary musical films is not in doubt (Dunn, 2009, 11). However, this genre underwent various transformations during the contemporary phase such as the use of synchronized choreography. This technique requires the application of similar dance moves by a large group of actors for maximum visual effects to the viewers. Moreover, the dance styles are more sophisticated with the advent of each film and include intricate patterns that take longer to master. In contrast, most early films that were shot throughout the classical era featured lone characters singing the songs. The solo performances were often riddled with simple dance moves and were done for a shorter time. This made them unsatisfactory because they had a series of anticlimax moments.

For example, Hearts in Dixie was a film about the celebration of African American dance and music (Friedman, 2011, 3). Directed by Paul Sloane, in 1929, it has episodes where grandfather Nappus hums and dances around the house alone. This serves to highlight the various struggles the minority race has suffered and the manner in which they are coping with a fast-changing lifestyle using songs. Nevertheless, the 2013 Make your Move by Duane Adler shows groups of dancing to various songs with their movements being in accord. The actors are able to sway their bodies in complex formations with precise coordination that the audience find breathtaking. Different music genres such as hip-hop are used as well, and this creates diversity in the stage performances of the characters. Hence, the variety of dancing styles and songs provide entertainment, which makes watching the films worthwhile.

Likewise, the contemporary period witnessed a change in traditional cultural norms. The societal change in such mores led to a sexual revolution in which sexual relations outside the common heterosexual boundary was explored. As a result, gay rights and feminism prevailed upon filmmakers to create films that depicted the changing trends (Misiroglu, 2009, 39). Thus, the content of most musicals shifted to align itself with the political correctness of the young and rebellious nature of the hippies. This revolution meant that topics such as homosexuality could be tackled. However, the classical era portrayed films that adhered to certain societal taboos. This made some topics off limits as they were considered too sensitive and in violation of the moral code of conduct in place then.

For instance, in the Dancing Lady, the 1933 musical directed by Robert Leonard, Jane Burlow struggles to get a job and decides to strip for money. After being arrested for indecent exposure and being bailed by Tod, a millionaire playboy, she lands a job as a dancer in Patch’s show by his help. Upon realizing that she might be snatched away from him, Tod cancels the show, but Jane and Patch start a new successful one. Similarly, in 1977, John Badham directed Saturday Night Fever, which is a display of Tony’s pressure filled lifestyle. He works at a hardware all week but takes weekend breaks where he leads his friends to partying dens in Brooklyn. He has a brother, bobby who abandons priesthood but is plagued by his unwanted girlfriend’s pregnancy. While that becomes difficult, Tony and his friends engage in wild behavior that culminates in a suicide that prompts them to change their behavior. Therefore, the exploration of the abortion issue in the film signified a change of times in which such issues could be discussed in the society.

In addition, most musicals that were produced during the contemporary era were subjected to a new form of editing that emphasized on the use of the jump cut (Dancyger, 2006, 220). This form of editing relies on the eyeline match in which two shots of the same object are taken from different camera angles in quick succession. The effect of such manipulation is to provide the audience with a seamless view of the scenes and a passage of time. In comparison with the classical Hollywood phase, the camera shots painstakingly showed the dissolve to indicate the elapse of time. This technical change in the art of filmmaking enhanced the clarity of the pictures while shortening the running time. Tsai-Ming Liang directed the 1998 The Hole that talked about a bizarre disease that hit Taiwan with some tenants defying evacuation orders. When a plumber visits the apartment block, he drills a hole that emerges into another tenant’s room thereby creating tension among the neighbors. There is a jump cut during one of the moments that Hsiao-Kang, an owner of a shop, gets into an altercation with the female neighbor. This transition is flawless and improves the cinematography of the film.

Reasons for Mutation of Musicals in the Contemporary Era

The inclusion of realism in most musical plots can be attributed to the rise in activist behavior across a large section of the population. Many people have become enlightened, and their views on different topics have shifted. Hence, they would not be attracted to films that do not illustrate the current norms as they would be deemed old-fashioned. For example, the rise in affirmative action activities occasioned recognition of women as equal partners who do not have to be subjected to unfair treatment by their male colleagues. These opinions apply a lot of pressure on film directors to make movies that reflect the will of most people. However, sometimes they intentionally make controversial films stir interest from the audience thereby facilitating their success at the box office.

Furthermore, an increase in freedom in different aspects of the industry provides autonomy to various studios (Evans, 2002, 308). This has created an environment where most studio executives would like to push boundaries in the scope and details of the contents of the stories produced. Thus, most of them have exploited the liberalization of the industry to skew the format of musicals in a bid to develop new paradigms for the society to embrace. By so doing, numerous concepts are continuously tested and applied in filmmaking with retention of fundamental musical structures such as the inclusion of songs and dances in the narratives.


The musical genre of films has been in existence for a long time. To date, it has undergone various changes but ha been able to stick to some basic format, which includes the combination of songs and dances with the movie’s storyline. The exact shift occurred in the 1960s with the time prior referred to as the classical period and the subsequent era called contemporary. Thus, the differences in both phases of this genre can be attributed to the cultural changes in the society that embraced certain viewpoints. These opinions had to be incorporated into filmmaking to increase the popularity of the movies as that would be the guarantee of financial success.






















Bukatman, S 2003, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

Dancyger, K 2006, The Technique of Film and Video Editing: Theory and Practice, Focal Press, Boston

Dileo, J 2008, Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery, Hansen Publishing Group, East Brunswick, NJ.

Dunn, MR 2009, I want to be in Musicals, PowerKids Press, New York.

Evans, R 2002, Practical DV filmmaking: A Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners, Focal Press, Oxford.

Flinn, DM 2006, Little Musicals for little Theatres: a Reference Guide to the Musicals that don’t need Chandeliers or Helicopters to Succeed, Limelight Editions, Pompton Plains, NJ.

Ford, A 2010, The Sound of Pictures: Listening to the Movies, from Hitchcock to High Fidelity, Black Inc., Collingwood, Vic.

Ford, E & Mitchell, DC 2004, The Makeover in Movies: Before and After in Hollywood Films, 1941-2002, McFarland, Jefferson, NC.

Friedman, RJ 2011, Hollywood‘s African American Films: The Transition to Sound, Rutgers Univ. Press, New Brunswick, NJ.

Inglis, I 2003, Popular Music and film, Wallflower, London.

Misiroglu, GR 2009, American Countercultures: An Encyclopedia of Nonconformists, Alternative Lifestyles, and Radical Ideas in U.S. History, Sharpe Reference, Armonk, NY.

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