Classifying the musical (Part I)

To the unenthusiastic lot that abhors the sight –and sound- of musicals, there’s no deeper sin than its’ proneness to make its’ characters burst into song and dance abruptly. To us, musical-loving freaks, that’s not a matter of concern at all. But do all musicals operate like that?

Not really. There are many types of cinematographic musicals, all of which embrace different resources and present distinctive characteristics. In this article we’ll introduce the readers to some of the most well-known classifications as well as newer distinctions that will help you grasp the diversity of the genre.



The most widespread of categorizations involves the correlation between the real world and the diegesis, which is the world presented by the film. It splits the production into two large groups: the integrated musical and the non-integrated musical.

When moviegoers condemn characters that brusquely express themselves through song and dance, they’re actually criticizing the integrated musical. This type of films creates a diegetic world in which song and dance are as natural to the characters as speaking. It is, perhaps, the most unrealistic of musicals, in the sense that it creates a completely alternative domain, away from the laws and boundaries of the real world. Musicals like The Wizard of Oz, West side story or, more recently, Les Misérables; work this way.

The reticence to accept this kind of otherworldly tales isn’t recent, and in the early days many musicals opted to root their numbers in stories with characters whose professions justified the intervention of song and dance. Singers, choir girls, composers, dancers and actors became the protagonists of these musicals, which were labeled as backstage musicals, for they revealed to the viewer the gritty, not-so-glamorous world of the backstage.

Many of these films separated the musical numbers from the tale, thus interrupting the flow of the narration. These movies are known as non-integrated musicals. Unlike the integrated films, the numbers don’t necessarily relate to the plot or help it advance. The many revues done throughout the past century are good examples of this tendency.


Some films shake things up a bit, presenting stories where characters burst into song, but also numbers that take place on a stage with no link to the story. Think of Singin’ in the rain, A star is born, Moulin Rouge!… the protagonists of these narrations are actors, singers, dancers, and they are more than willing to perform on a stage in front of the audience. Many of the numbers are showstoppers, but don’t really do much for the story. And then, when the lights dim, they still display a proclivity to sing about their emotions.

Rick Altman, a prolific theorist whom has studied the American musical profoundly, believes that these classifications are deficient, since reality is not really a concern for this genre: all musicals are unrealistic, and shouldn’t be studied as anything but that.


In the next parts we’ll review a more historical approach for categorizing the films, as well as Altman’s unique and interesting submission.





V. Wonka



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