Another common approach to the categorization of the musical is the historical taxonomy. Usually the musical is divided into two groups: the classic musical and the contemporary musical.
The term ‘classic musical’ is often used in reference to old-style films produced since the early days of the genre up until the sixties, whilst ‘contemporary musical’ refers to the films made after that.
However, it’s not quite that simple. Although historically films such as Swing time, Top hat or The Harvey girls can easily be identified as classic musicals according to their date of release, when it comes to the characteristics that define other movies the terms become problematic.
If all classic musicals are happy-go-lucky, have extensive group choreographies and revolve around love stories, then we’ll find that many productions with these traits still exist within the compounds of the contemporary period: Hello Dolly!, Hairspray, High school musical…all feature attributes from classic musicals, although they were produced after the sixties.
Likewise, many theorists employ diverse dates as the star or end of these phases. Some indicate that contemporary musicals came to existence after the seventies instead of the sixties. Others use the term to define musicals created in the new millennia.
Author Kelly Kessler decides to sort the matter by proposing a different approach, one that takes account of not only the time when the musical was produced, but also the traits that define the film. Thus, she suggests two new categorizations: arcadian musical and ambivalent musical.
The notion behind the arcadian musical is similar to that of the classic musical: it involves productions made before the fifties which center their attention in romantic rendezvouses, communal energy, (mostly) happy endings, large choreographies and music as a way of saving the day for the protagonists.
The ambivalent musical is produced during the sixties, seventies and eighties, and it includes productions in which the redeemable qualities of music and dance are put to the test, mocked or rejected by the genre. Parodies, darker approaches and subjects, and narratives that no longer focus on romance but on the personal perils, are the main characteristics of these pieces. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pennies from heaven, All that jazz,…exemplify the transgressing energy of these new musicals, which derives from the complex era of the baby-boomers –war, distrust towards the government, loss of innocence, dissolution of the Hays Code, etc.
After the eighties the musical loses importance and doesn’t perform well in the box-office, except for animated musicals, until in 1996 Evita premieres and reinvigorates the genre. The production that follows up until now is known as the post-Evita musicals, or musicals of the new millennia.
These movies have the peculiarity of employing cinematographic devices which derive from both the arcadian and the ambivalent musical. For example: Moulin Rouge! starts like a classical film, centering in the consummation of a heterosexual romance. However, the visual techniques –fast-paced cutting, bright and surreal colors, odd camera-angles, etc- as well as the introduction of matters and figures which would have been considered taboo back in the day –plain display of sexuality, mentions of drinking, corruption, etc-, make the film an odd mixture of classic and ambivalent characteristics, with a special proneness to technological display and self-referential (de)construction which define the new decade.
To be continued.