The myth of the “first”

In light of the Les Misérables cinematographic adaptation using live singing, I’ve come across with all sorts of early reviews and comments stating how this practice has never been used in a musical before, a quite inaccurate affirmation.

Given the fact that playback has been a common practice for the cinematographic musical since early on, it might seem easy to ignore the few films that didn’t and haven’t used previously recorded music during shooting.

As is to be expected, early productions before the final development of the sound system often recorded the sound and act of singers simultaneously –thus producing numerous problems of synchronization during the exhibition of the movies.

According to Richard Barrios, it was the film The Broadway Melody (1929) the one to give birth to the use of playback in musicals, after it was decided to reshoot the sequence for the song “Wedding of the Painted Doll”, and sound technician Douglas Shearer suggested to the production team that they could reuse one of the song’s recordings previously made (1995 :60).

Yes, playback did become the standard procedure, yet contemporary musicals such as the poorly received At long last love (1975) challenged the norm in an era of experimentation and used live recording of the actors as the camera rolled – causing many problems that finally collaborated with the movie’s failure (Muir, 2005 :58).

Fairly recent films such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) have also toyed with, at least, partial playback, having scenes or fragments recorded live; and actors like Meryl Streep in Mamma mia! (2008) have also advocated for live recording, yet their voices have been enhanced in post-production –a practice that is to be expected in Les Misérables, too.

In conclusion, the myth of a “never done before” live recording is, as it seems, mistaken. Perhaps we should try to be a little more careful with the history of cinema, and take into consideration that naming “firsts” usually provokes the obliteration of years of experimentation and development.



V. Wonka




BARRIOS, R (1995). A song in the dark. The birth of the musical film. Oxford University Press. New York.

MUIR, J. K (2005). Singing a new tune. The rebirth of the modern film musical, from Evita to De-Lovely and beyond. Applause theatre & cinema books. New York.

and Internet Movie Database.



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