Are musicals the operas of the people?

“If you start to sing I miss the squid”

This snaps at him Maui to the protagonist of Moana (2016), one of Disney’s greatest hits of the last decade. The grace of this expletive It is that the film is musical, like most of the firm’s productions. There are those who do not support the format, others love it. The vast majority of us tend to love musicals when they are done correctly, recent examples of this are La la Land (2016), the last remake from The Miserables (2012) or Coconut (2017)

There is something about music that distinguishes it from the rest of the fine arts: it is the only one that does not imitate anything that is given to us in nature, be it biological or cultural. Painting and sculpture begin by copying objects from the environment, literature is born as a result of the fact that we are animals with the ability to think, reflect, we are symbolic beings. From communicating to each other the most everyday things – today it’s time to go pick berries – we go on to figure out myths and legends.

Now, what does music imitate, in a strict sense of the word? The wind through the trees, the howling of some birds, the waves breaking on the sand … Certainly scarce material from which to justify the origin of chamber music or opera.

What we know for sure is that human beings not only like to tell and listen to stories, but also it enchants us when music is added to the story. There is multiple evidence of the phenomenon, from traditional songs, through lullabies, national and military anthems, operettas and zarzuelas, 20th century popular music (jazz, rock, pop, country, rancheras, boleros, etc.) to come up with something as sophisticated and sublime as opera.

It is not surprising then that within the cinematographic genres the musical exists. The origins of the format are in the phenomenon of Broadway musical theater, although since the 30s of the last century and thanks to Busby berkeley the genre took on a language of its own that distanced it from the employee in theaters.

Metamusicales and trompe l’oeil

One of the best-known musicals tells us about this distance, Singing under the rain (1952). I like to call it “the metamusical”, because it tells the story of a film studio and its workers who transform their first talking film into a work that introduces music and songs as something new.

The script of the famous film by Gene Kelly speaks to us of a real problem of this cinematographic genre: the dilemma about the legitimacy of the actors’ vocal dubbing. Singing under the rain tells how the failure of a film preview is reversed by dubbing the main actress, whose diction and vocal sound damage the audience’s hearing. Why in the film do they choose to voice the actress, instead of looking for another? Because the actress was already famous, as well as very beautiful.

The mop stabs of the producers of ‘My fair lady’ were dealt by the two actresses, Hepburn and Andrews, who teamed up not to lose their elegance or goodness

The same thing happened in real life with the movie My fair lady (1964), which was first a blockbuster Broadway musical starring a then unknown Julie Andrews. When it was decided to take the script and the music to the cinema, the leading actor of the Broadway play was preserved, but Andrews was discarded and replaced by Audrey hepburn. The British was not known or pretty enough, in the opinion of the producers. At the Oscars of 1964 My fair lady won twelve statuettes, none of them for best actress, which was awarded to Julie Andrews for her brilliant role in Mary Poppins (1964), the first of many successes, among others the well-known Smiles and tears (1965).

The reason for not rewarding Audrey Hepburn’s memorable performance in My fair lady was the dubbing of her voice in the musical part by an opera actress, Marni nixon. Another performance of his that has already been imprinted in the collective memory belongs to Breakfast with diamonds (1961), the famous balcony scene where Holly golightly he plays the guitar and hums melancholy. Hepburn’s voice performing “Moonriver” is wildly sweet and endearing but low in power and vocal register, something that Eliza Dolittle’s role in My fair lady demanded inescapable.

United against abuse

Hepburn wanted from the beginning to interpret the character globally, so the dubbing was done behind his back, as happens in the script of Singing under the rain. The mop stabs of the producers of My fair lady they were fitted by the two actresses, Hepburn and Andrews, alike. They were both aware of the Hollywood low blows, so not only they did not hold a grudge against each other but there are numerous photos of them posing together, smiling and in a kind and loving attitude. If the difficult childhood and adolescence that the two lived through did not take away their natural elegance and goodness, Hollywood was not going to do it either.

Marni Nixon – the voice we hear in My fair lady– had already bent to Natalie Wood a couple of years before, in West Side Story (1961). This film also came from a great Broadway theatrical success. What makes the music of West Side Story -both in theater as in 8 millimeters- is that it was commissioned to Leonard berstein, one of the great composers of the last century. It is usually called the work “The first modern opera”Bernstein is the first to introduce great instrumental complexity into a score designed for Broadway: to reproduce it faithfully requires at least thirty musicians.

The score is not easy for the singers either. It is indeed commendable that all the actors – except for Wood – performed the songs. It is also true that, with the exception of the aforementioned case of Audrey Hepburn, at that time musical talent was given priority over other considerations. In the recovery of this concept in The Miserables lies a large part of her success, and more than justifies the Oscar for best supporting actress she received Anne Hathaway for just a few minutes of footage.

An example of how complex the score of West Side Story for those who interpret it vocally, we find it in the recording that Bernstein made years later with consecrated opera singers, among them our beloved José Carreras. This recording is a cult piece hardly known to the general public. I invite you to listen to it as an aperitif prior to the next premiere of the remake from West Side Story what has prepared us Steven Spielberg. I can’t wait to see it. And for telling him later, of course. Enjoy.

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