I mentioned the #1 programs of the 1950-51 and 1951-52 seasons. Godfrey’s show dropped to #2 for 1952-53 because #1 was a show you might have heard of, I Love Lucy. You may not be used to thinking of it as a musical. A staple of the show was performances by Desi Arnaz, whose character ran a nightclub. This is less clear if you watched this series on its endless syndicated reruns, where those numbers were often chopped out to make room for more commercials. The parts that got left in were those where Lucy inveigled herself into the proceedings, and these were legion.
As much as everyone recalls the chocolate-eating and grape-stomping and Vitameatavegamin, I fondly recall musical moments such as Lucy’s dream where Fred and Ethel play a dragon, and the Gypsy operetta where the sets are repossessed, and Lucy and Ethel singing an acrimonious duet of “Friendship”, and the wonderful Albuquerque episode where Ethel regales her home town with “Shortnin’ Bread” amid background antics. Most of all, there’s an exhilarating scene at the start of their Hollywood arc where the four stars cross into the world of the spontanous musical for perhaps the only time: they launch into “California Here I Come” while driving, backed by invisible orchestra. I believe the exhilaration comes as much from breaking the genre barrier as from the sentiment itself.
This point causes us to consider the degree to which some sitcoms relied upon music. The shows starring Jack Benny and George Burns & Gracie Allen were fluid combinations of sitcom and musical variety, and many other shows were about people who worked in show biz for some reason. Even Ozzie & Harriet Nelson found that their son Ricky was interested in becoming a pop star, which led to several examples of performance on that long-running series. Indeed, it sparked a ripple of other young sitcom players trying their luck on their own shows.
Another convention was the musical guest who happens to drop by for no particular reason, such as when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs would show up on The Beverly Hillbillies and the show would bust into a hoedown and a hootenanny. Still another sitcom convention is “putting on a show”. Perhaps it’s not as frequent as “the visiting relative” but it’s ahead of “the bump on the head causes amnesia” and probably ties with “the evil twin”.
For example, in an earlier installment of Canon Fodder I reviewed a late ‘60s offering called The Mothers in Law, a Desi Arnaz production with some of Lucy’s writers. (‘The Mothers-In-Law’: Just for Good Measure, We’ll Give Everyone the Intelligence of a Radish, 31 August 2010.) Plots commonly had the characters putting on a charity fundraiser or some such scheme. These were excuses for the actors simply to indulge in pure performance, so that the show was at least a semi-musical. Arnaz even dropped by a few times, so we had both “the musical guest” and “putting on a show”. For that matter, Ozzie Nelson dropped by for such a combo.
At the risk of introducing a tangent, it wasn’t unusual for jazzy crime shows about private eyes to incorporate musical performance by way of characters who worked in nightclubs. Peter Gunn, Mr. Lucky, Johnny Staccato and 77 Sunset Strip fall into this category. Nobody has ever really thought of them as musical hybrids, but like the sitcoms, they all subscribed to the theory that the plot could stop for a song in the name of entertainment and atmosphere.
Aside from this incidental injection of music into generally non-musical plots, I’m aware of at least three sitcoms that were outright musicals, each of a different type.
The forgotten That’s Life (1968-69) was a one-hour musical comedy that followed the romance and marriage of a young couple played by Robert Morse (fresh from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, now on Mad Men) and E.J. Peaker. The first episode had George Burns, Tony Randall and The Turtles. Later guests included Louis Armstrong, Ethel Merman, Liza Minnelli, Nancy Wilson, Robert Goulet, Paul Lynde, Mel Tormé, Flip Wilson, Mahalia Jackson, Sid Caesar, Betty White, Shelley Winters, the Muppets, Phil Silvers, Goldie Hawn, Agnes Moorhead, Lesley Uggams, Rodney Dangerfield, Phyllis Diller, and Little Anthony and the Imperials. I’ve been curious to see this thing for decades and have just about given up hope.
A show that has stayed in the public memory, though it only lasted two years, was The Monkees (1966-68), starring the “Pre-Fab Four” in a series that, while conceived as a calculated riff on the Beatles movies, was also its own groundbreaking formal curiosity. As in the Beatles films, the surreal, off-the-cuff action halted periodically for performances known for their highly-edited, gag-oriented, expressively visual nature.
In between the two styles lies The Partridge Family (1970-74), a good example of a sitcom with musical performance built into it in a natural, realistic way. It was on during the wrong era, however, for the hit sitcoms of the early ‘70s were about social relevance, and had no time for music aside from the theme songs presented as mini-numbers or music videos. Still, with David Cassidy selling hit records, the little girls understood.
Midway through the decade, Happy Days (inspired by the film American Graffiti) became a hit with emphasis on nostalgic pop songs used as window dressing. It wasn’t a musical, but like most sitcoms used “the musical guest” and “putting on a show”. This series and Laverne & Shirley took a step back from relevance and angst toward the tradition of the good-time sitcom, where musical interludes are more welcome. The nostalgic context underlined this.
In England, Dennis Potter virtually invented his own genre of postmodern-nostalgia with serials such as Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective, whose characters imagined themselves into elaborately movie-like numbers. Potter is an important harbinger of the tendency in Glee to incorporate elements signalled as “imaginary” into its “real” numbers.
In the 1980s, an episode of Taxi about the characters’ fantasies ended with Marilu Henner leading the cast in a flashy Broadway-style number. That was another positioning of the musical number as self-consciously “imaginary”, which in itself signals a lack of belief in the old-fashioned alternative reality of the musical, or rather an attempt to recapture that innocence by mediating it through our “reality”. In other words, he continued laboriously, we can’t just say “We’re bursting into song now.” We have to say “If only we believed in bursting into song, this is how we’d do it, only of course we’re not really doing it, even though we are.” It’s the postmodern curse.
More recently, The Drew Carey Show (1995-2004) felt the spirit come upon it with no need for apology. It celebrated the classic musical by staging a spontaneous number in the finale of each season. That reminds us that The Simpsons has been known to burst into song. Somehow it doesn’t feel strange in a cartoon, and yet they’re still pretty self-conscious about it, as when Milhouse declares that they should express their feelings Broadway-style. The show’s winks and nods range from a re-imagining of “Kids” (from Bye Bye Birdie) to a Bollywood number for the character Apu.
Other cartoon shows burst into song, from South Park to Family Guy, because it still feels natural and acceptable for something as openly unreal as animation to erupt into music. Perhaps this is because everyone who grew up watching cartoons and kids’ shows had the musical world injected via cathode ray into their veins. Kids’ entertainment from The Singing Lady to Captain Kangaroo to Sesame Street to The Muppet Show depended on the conventions of the musical to allow their characters to express themselves Broadway-style. Perhaps this leads some to believe not only that musicals are “unrealistic” but actually somehow childish, something to be outgrown.
The aforementioned The Monkees has often been credited as a pre-cursor to MTV. There were many precursors, including the musical variety shows we’ve already mentioned. Shows like Sullivan’s indulged in increasingly psychedelic visual effects as TV moved into the ‘60s and ‘70s, as did the plethora of musical specials that still dotted the TV landscape. After those programs became as scarce as the dodo on network TV in the ‘80s, MTV kept the musical format alive, conditioning the post-rock generation to accept visual narratives with music. These little narratives were their own context and not part of a larger narrative; still, music videos are frankly musicals.
MTV cannot be overlooked as an influence upon stressing a new sense of music in TV drama, not through actual numbers but through the foregrounding of pop songs. Miami Vice, one of those what-you-call iconic shows of the ‘80s, had its high concept summarized as “MTV cops”. Today, every hospital drama and cop show that wants to end on a poignant note suddenly plays some alternative singer-songwriter over the final scene. Frankly, it’s one of the more irritating TV conventions of the last 20 years.
Since music videos are a kind of advertising film, it’s appropriate to emphasize the most common element on commercial TV: the commercials. Many of these are musicals. This has always been true, and their evolution as musicals shows the evolution of the musical’s place in the culture. The earliest examples are about people unapologetically shouting out their jingles and send-ups. “Oh, we’re the men of Texaco. We work from Maine to Mexico” was how it went in Milton Berle’s day. This strain never died. It’s been heard in everything from “Plop plop, fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is” to songs about cat chow.
We can see the postmodern wink of embarrassment creeping into Stan Freberg’s classic 1970 commercial when housewife Ann Miller suddenly pulls off her skirt and starts tap-tap-tapping as the walls of her kitchen pull away, leading to her husband’s punchline, “Why do you have to make such a big production out of everything?” Even as old-style conventions were being laughed at, the new conventions of the Flower Power era were being co-opted in musical ads aimed at the young and hip. Madison Avenue wanted to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony; it wanted to buy the world a Coke and keep it company. It was the real thing.
More recently, the link between the music video and the TV commercial has been cemented with dazzling commercials for cars and perfume and wireless services, and any number of websites are now devoted to answering viewers’ questions about “What was that song in that commercial?” Commercials for Target have been especially savvy and eclectic. TV commercials are my primary evidence that the musical never died in popular culture, just as they’re also evidence that silent cinema never died. But that’s another topic.
A variety of highlights can be noted in the evolution of TV drama over the last 30 years. Moonlighting, which blew like a comet across the Nielsen ratings and the public consciousness, evoked a retro sense of style and romance in various ways, including an indulgence in musical moments. This was a show that got away with having Bruce Willis lead the crowd in a rousing rendition of “Good Loving” during an episode based on The Taming of the Shrew, or breaking into a dance choreographed by Stanley Donen in “Big Man on Mulberry Street”. Notice how the revisiting of passé conventions can seem fresh and subversive.
Twin Peaks (another comet) emphasized music as part of its texture, especially when nothing else was going on and especially in the otherwordly performances of Julee Cruise, who showed up in a few episodes singing ethereal originals by David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti. David E. Kelley’s Ally McBeal regularly featured nightclub performances by Vonda Shepard. One episode of Kelley’s Chicago Hope, “Brain Salad Surgery”, was a musical. The explanation: it’s a hallucination. Fans of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer will never forget the favorite “Once More With Feeling”, which is entirely sung. The explanation: it’s a curse!
Then there was Steven Bochco’s infamously ambitious Cop Rock (1990), an honest-to-Murgatroyd police musical that felt exactly like warmed over Hill Street Blues with musical interruptions. The premiere had a simple, outstanding ballad written by Randy Newman, but most of the series made it plain that the directors were more comfortable with cop drama than choreography. Fortunately, Bochco hit upon a more popular formula with warmed-over Hill Street plus nudity for NYPD Blue. (Digression: Wasn’t that groundbreaking hit supposed to trigger a wave of partial nudity and “B.S.” profanity all over commercial network TV? Why didn’t that happen?)
We’ve already mentioned Fame, the most successful and long-running musical series before Glee. It has more in common with Glee than does Disney’s phenomenally popular High School Musical franchise, because the latter whole-heartedly commits itself to the classic spontanous form rather than the rationalized performance-oriented form of musical drama. However, without the example of its popularity in the new millennium, it’s unlikely that Fox would have taken a chance on Glee.
And that’s where we came in, folks. We hope you liked our show. We know you’re rooting for us, but now we have to go-o-o-o-o….