New York movie musicals from ‘The Jazz Singer’ to ‘In the Heights’
New York, New York is a helluva town. The Bronx is up. And the Battery is down. The people ride in a hole in the ground. New York, New York. It’s a helluva town. And it’s also a perfect backdrop for countless Broadway and movie musicals.
And for good reason. The metropolis is a melting pot of cultures and boroughs. Over the decades, the Great White Way has been home to burlesque, vaudeville, Broadway. The town always is brimming with the best writers and composers. Remember Tin Pan Alley?
There is also a romanticism of New York often depicted in these musicals: most of them were shot on sound stages and studio, so they offer an expressionistic, impressionistic, and even surreal look at NYC. Martin Scorsese tipped his out to these studio musicals with his classic 1977 “New York, New York,” starring Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro.
The very first movie musical was set in New York: Warner Bros.’ “The Jazz Singer,” the landmark 1927 Al Jolson musical drama which was the first film to present lip-synchronized singing and limited dialogue. And the latest is “In the Heights,” based on the 2008 Tony Award-winning Broadway smash that put Lin-Manuel Miranda on the map and shot on location in Washington Heights.
Just in time in time for the Christmas holiday is Steven Spielberg‘s COVID-delayed remake of the indelible New York musical “West Side Story,” based on the Leonard Bernstein–Stephen Sondheim–Jerome Robbins landmark 1957 Broadway musical and the transcendent Robert Wise-Robbins 1961 film version which won 10 Oscars including picture, directors, supporting actor for George Chakiris and supporting actress for Rita Moreno, who also is in the Spielberg adaptation.
SEE Watch the opening 8 minutes of ‘In the Heights’ right now
Here’s a look at a few of the other pivotal and classic New York movie musicals.
“The Broadway Melody” (1929)
The first movie musical to win the Best Picture Oscar is creaky, creaky, creaky. But almost a century ago it was “hot stuff” and set the template for a lot of the plots of these musicals-young talent trying to make it big on the Great White Way. In this case, it’s two sisters (Bessie Love, Anita Page) from the Midwest. Charles King plays a song-and-dance man who headlines a Ziegfeld Follies-esque revue. The movie was so popular with audiences that it spawned three sequels, the last being “Broadway Melody of 1940” with Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell.
“42nd Street” (1933)
Movie audiences flocked to the early movie musicals but soon grew tired of the novelty due to boring plots, lackluster performances and poorly staged numbers. It got to the point that musical numbers were edited out of films. But that all changed with Warner Brothers’ vibrantly fun “42nd Street,” directed by Lloyd Bacon and featuring hypnagogic musical numbers stage by the innovative Busby Berkeley. The plot doesn’t break new ground but the dialogue is snappy and the action a bit more gritty. The cast features Oscar-winner Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels and George Brent and a slew of young up and comers like Ruby Keeler, Una Merkel and Dick Powell. The musical numbers, especially the title tune performed by Keeler, are fun, compelling, and influential. And “42nd Street” also has one of the best monologues delivered by producer Baxter to Keeler who is taking over the starring role after the leading lady suffers an injury: “All right, now I am through, but you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours and go out, and Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.”
“On the Town” (1949)
A New York musical shot in New York. Okay, not the entire film was shot in New York, but MGM allowed five days of shooting in the Big Apple for this exhilarating Technicolor adaptation of the hit Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden–Adolph Green 1944 Broadway musical about three young sailors (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munchin) who find love (Ann Miller, Betty Garrett, Vera-Ellen) during their whirlwind 24-hour leave in New York. (Kelly and Stanley Donen also directed the film). The vibrant opening number “New York, New York,” which features the trio hitting all the tourist spots in the city, just wouldn’t have had the excitement and color if it had been film on the backlot at MGM. Of course, they had problems during the shoot-it rained a lot and Sinatra’s rabid fans went crazy whenever he was spotted on the mean streets of NYC. In fact when they are at Rockefeller Center you can see fans watching in the distance. And today, it’s a great glimpse into what New York was like seven plus decades ago.
“It’s Always Fair Weather” (1955)
Six years later, Kelly and Donen joined forces for “It’s Always Fair Weather,” which is much more cynical than “On the Town.” The film, which was shot entirely at MGM, revolves around three soldiers (Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd) who reunite a decade after their last visit in New York. These former buddies, though, find they have very little in common. Comden-Green penned the script and the lyrics. Andre Previn composed the music.
“Funny Girl” (1968)
Barbra Streisand made her film debut and won her first Oscar reprising her Broadway triumph as comedienne and singer Fanny Brice. Born in Manhattan, Brice dropped out of school for burlesque only to become a huge star at the Ziegfeld Follies and radio as Baby Snooks. She also made movies but didn’t have the same success. The majority of “Funny Girl,” which was directed by William Wyler, was primarily shot in various locations in SoCal. But Streisand’s big “first act” number of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is a love song to NYC with Babs belting out the tune on a boat with the last note hit when it passes by the Statue of Liberty.
“Hello, Dolly!” (1969)
The following year, Streisand headlined the lavish adaptation of the 1964 Broadway hit “Hello, Dolly!,” directed by Gene Kelly and co-starring Walter Matthau. One of the ultimate New York musicals was shot in various locations in New York state but not in New York City. Most of the Big Apple sequences were shot on the New York Street at 20th Century Fox in Century City.
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