Columnist Jim Cahillane: Taking lessons from musicals


Published: 1/24/2017 6:33:14 PM

The era of Trump arrived last week in Washington, D.C., complete with dancing girls. The Radio City Rockettes seemed out of place, as did a blond billionaire’s bromides to the masses. Think of a wizened 20th-century billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, handing out dimes during the Depression.

Neither image warms your heart.

It’s unkind to gripe that a person is “off in la la land,” meaning that they’re living in a world of their own. A new Hollywood musical, “La La Land,” referring to the city of Los Angeles, stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Both scored wins at the Golden Globes.

One critic noted that it was filmed in L.A. and is about Hollywood. He viewed it as a self-referential movie sure to win votes from film buffs. I invested two hours watching “LLL.” I went with high hopes because early reviews praised the long-delayed return of the movie musical. Yet, I left the theater hungry for lyrics and unable to hum any tunes.

It was like a first date in which you’ve invested a few dollars and a dream that “this might be the one.” Movies and first dates often suffer by comparison. At any rate, I agree that it has been too long since a romantic musical hit the big screen.

Many moviegoers will discover and love “La La Land.” That’s a good thing because their newly acquired musical taste may not be satisfied by what next comes out of Hollywood, prompting them to research and rediscover earlier, much better musicals on YouTube.

Last year ended on two sad notes when actress Debbie Reynolds died one-day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher. Carrie’s “Princess Leia” in Star Wars was the role of a lifetime.

Debbie’s first big role was Kathy Selden, an aspiring actress in the 1952 movie musical “Singin’ in the Rain.” One big advantage of “Singin’ ” was music by Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the book, and it was but one example of their Broadway and Hollywood careers lasting 60 years. In 1949, Hollywood filmed their Broadway musical “On The Town” on location in New York City. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin were the dancing and singing sailors to tunes by Leonard Bernstein and Roger Eden.

My parents took me to New York City to see a 1942 Gene Kelly and Judy Garland musical, “For Me and My Gal,” a life-changing experience. Gene starred in “Pal Joey” on Broadway before MGM came calling; the rest is movie musical history.

The postwar scene shifts to Northampton’s Calvin Theater where I donned my stripe-panted usher’s uniform and marched the carpeted aisles. The job benefits were fabulous free movies. I developed an admiration for musicals. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly danced gracefully, sang lovely songs, and then, after overcoming setbacks, landed the girl of their dreams.

For a blossoming teenager, what’s not to like?

The only movie my father ever praised was “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with Jimmy Cagney as George M. Cohan. Cagney danced on the stage and up the walls in his flag-waving 1942 musical. Cohan was crowned “The King of Broadway,” and is the only actor with his statue in Times Square.

What Cagney was to my dad, Gene Kelly was for me. In addition to “Singin’ In the Rain,” watch “On The Town,” then “An American in Paris,” and you, too, will be well on your way to a movie-musical education. I hasten to admit my colossal lack of musical chops.

Gene Kelly loved Paris and his love became “An American in Paris.” Its story, all types of dance, and music by George and Ira Gershwin, made for an instant classic. Pianist and composer Oscar Levant played Kelly’s best friend, Adam West. In the film Oscar ad-libbed a tart sampling of his wit: “It’s not a pretty face, I grant you. But underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.”

Levant was no Donald Trump, but he had identical issues.

Jim Cahillane, of Williamsburg, writes a monthly column.

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