Trope-tastic Musicals

Elisabeth Lane (who has started a fantastic YouTube romance channel!) initiated a conversation on Twitter recently about the books that converted you to genre romance. Not necessarily the first romances you read, but the ones that convinced you that romance was awesome. I hazarded some guesses when she asked it, but as I pondered her question more, I wondered whether my Ur-romances were books at all.

I was in my late 20s when I started reading romance. Romance novels were so precisely what I needed at that moment, I inhaled them by the bushel. It felt as if I’d been reading around romance my entire life, and now I had finally discovered the good stuff, a genre that could deliver the purest version of what I’d been seeking. But maybe the sense of familiarity, of ah, at last, that I felt when I started reading romance came from the overlap between the tropes in romance and those in movie musicals.

As a child, I’d been as devoted to musicals as I am to genre romance today. Musicals taught me about introspection, harmony, and female friends with whom you can dance in your bloomers if you’re ever carried off by a family of mountain men (see below). They’re unabashedly sentimental, almost always have happy endings, and frequently contain a (or sometimes several) central romance(s).

This list isn’t a best of or even a set of recommendations. It’s skewed by what I watched and listened to as a kid in the early to mid 90s. It’s very white, almost entirely heteronormative, and more than a few of these films are seriously problematic. But putting it together convinced me that my origins as a reader and writer of romance are in Hollywood movie musicals.

Spoilers ahead.

Opposites Attract

What set this list off, actually, was trying to come up with romance novels that have a buttoned-up heroine and a charming rogue hero, which is a musical mainstay pairing. These two could also be enemies to lovers.

  • Guys and Dolls (1955): specifically I’m referencing the Sky-Sarah strand. Look, Marlon Brando cannot sing, which is normally deadly in a musical, but the hypnotic kiss following “I’ll Know” was formative for me, so I’ll overlook some flaws. The other romance plot, Nathan and Adelaide, is “he can’t commit,” a trope we almost never see in today’s genre romance.
  • The Music Man (1962): on my list of books I want to write some day is an ode to this movie, to the ultimate con man and the uptight librarian who brings him down with her research skills. It doesn’t hurt that I buy the romance completely.

Genre romance more frequently has the opposite: a starchy hero and a sunny/exuberant heroine. That does pop up in musicals, too.

  • A Song is Born (1948): possibly the most obscure item on my list, this Danny Kaye-Virginia Mayo film features an uptight professor falling for a gangster moll who has to hide out at his music conservatory. I haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it being super charming.
  • Once Upon a Mattress (1959): while there was never a full film version, I do love the Fred-Dauntless dynamic. She’s so boisterous and absolutely herself, and he has the good sense to adore that about her. This show heavily influenced Vivy and Dean in Free Fall.
  • The Sound of Music (1965): this is probably the most widely viewed movie musical ever, so I doubt I need to say much about it beyond oh, Captain von Trapp, you are so in need of a good rumpling. Plus you rip up swastikas, so…

Instalove

  • Les Miserables (1980): I’m cheating because there wasn’t a film version when I was kid, but I listened to the Les Mis soundtrack almost daily in middle school. The show’s only couple who, ahem, live–Marius and Cosette–are a love at first sight story: boy meets girl, which is tragic for the other girl who loves the boy, the other girl dies during a protest and the boy almost does too, boy recovers while suffering from survivor’s guilt, and boy and girl live happily ever after. You know, the classics.

Enemies to Lovers

  • Singin’ in the Rain (1952): the enemies part doesn’t last long, but it’s crucial to the dynamic that Debbie Reynolds thinks Gene Kelly is a hack–and that he secretly agrees. The movie is all kinds of deliciousness rolled up in one and works on almost every level. This could also be listed as famous person.
  • The Pajama Game (1957): Doris Day is a factory worker leading a strike and he’s been hired by management to shut her down–of course, of course this on my list. Note that this could also be shelved under cross-class.

Friends to Lovers

  • Meet Me in St. Louis (1944): this isn’t true friends to lovers as Judy Garland has designs on Tom Drake before they’ve even met, but it has many of the same beats. Plus Judy has never looked more lovely on screen than she does crooning “The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” or “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
  • Gigi (1958): this movie as a whole is indefensible. It really is. The set up is straight up grooming and the less said about “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” the better. But Louis Jourdan singing the title song is a perfect friends to lovers epiphany captured in music and lyrics. I just wish I could pluck it and “The Night We Invented Champagne” out of this film and put them into something that induces less skin crawling.

Marriage of Convenience

  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954): if Seven Brides for Seven Brothers were only the Millie-Adam plot, which is an appealing and, for me, convincing, marriage of convenience, I’d be able to recommend it whole heartedly. But of course there’s also the whole large-scale abduction/Stockholm syndrome thing, and I, at least, can’t get beyond that. At least the barn raising scene is still amazing and Howard Keel’s voice still makes my toes curl (in the best way).

Impossible Love (Note: Not a lot of HEAs Here)

  • West Side Story (1961): there was a time when I could have recited this movie from start to finish. It’s aged well because of superlative secondary performances (Rita Moreno!) and almost operatic music, and it remains crushing and relevant.
  • The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964): oh, how cool and sophisticated I felt renting this on VHS from my local Hastings, but, honestly, I’m not ashamed looking back. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg just oozes longing and technicolor dreams deferred. It remains deeply romantic and deeply tragic.
  • Fiddler on the Roof (1971): so this is a musical about Russian pogroms. Whenever I find myself singing “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” while sweeping my kitchen (which is often), I remember Fiddler’s plot, and it startles me anew. But it works SO WELL, and it does so across four different romances: Motel and Tzeitel, Perchik and Hodel, Fyedka and Chava, and the renewed love between Tevye and Golde. I’m shelving it as impossible love, but it could work in several of these categories.
  • Rent (1996): yes, I’m cheating again. There is now a movie, and it’s lukewarm at best, but the Original Broadway Soundtrack went off like an explosion in my high school theatre department. I think I listened to it and the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack on alternating repeat for a year. The most interesting couple is Collins and Angel, and among the rest, neither Mark nor Rodger is at all compelling. Rent has not held up especially well (and it makes me wonder whether more recent mega hits like Hamilton will), but despite its missteps, it represented a more inclusive turn in musicals, and I’ll always love it for that.
  • Moulin Rouge! (2001): I was in college when this came out, so I’m stretching my rules again, but all I wanted to do for weeks after I first saw Moulin Rouge! was watch it over and over again. It was the first contemporary movie musical that recaptured the power and magic of the golden age for me. Looking at the musicals that followed it to the screen in the last 20 years, for my money, it’s still the best.

We’ve Known Each Other Forever

  • The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964): this is such a fascinating show because it pushes beyond the ostensible HEA and becomes a marriage in trouble story. For me, the moment that is most seared on my brain is Harve Presnell stalking across the mountain toward Debbie Reynolds singing “I’ll Never Say No to You.” I’m literally shivering at the remembered intensity.
  • The Phantom of the Opera (1986): once again I cheat, but anyone who loved musicals in this era listened to a lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Like a lot a lot. But while the Christine-Raoul romance is the secondary plot in a lot of ways, it’s perhaps the healthiest dynamic in the show, and it probably says a lot about me that I imprinted on him and not the Phantom.

Famous People

  • Funny Girl (1968): obviously you can’t make a list of movie musicals without including a Barbara Streisand vehicle, and I think this is her best role. While it doesn’t have an HEA (sorry! but it’s important to know that going in for a romance fan), I love Fanny as a heroine and also what the show has to say about the pressures of wealth and fame on a relationship.

May-December

  • Funny Face (1957): this is one of the most stylish musicals ever made thanks to Audrey Hepburn and all those gorgeous Givenchy clothes, but it also works as a romance beyond the production numbers and the costumes. I buy the gap between Fred and Audrey, and that they would want to bridge it.
  • South Pacific (1958): I’m referring, of course, to the Mitzi Gaynor-Rossano Brazzi plot, because the Liat-Cable romance is irredeemable. Indeed, on a rewatch a few years ago, I found the entire movie to be mired both in the weird quirks of its filming (those color filters: yeesh) but also its politics. The show should be lauded for engaging directly with racism, colonialism, war, and sexism, but South Pacific is very much a product of its time. (I’m curious, however, about some of the newer revisionist stagings of the show and whether they work as art or politics.) For the moment, though, I’ll just say that Nellie’s arc and her duets with Emile continue to work for me, and I believe that these two very different people could want to build a life together.

Mistaken Identity

  • Top Hat (1935): this movie is a meringue. Describing the plot would either make you not want to see it or render it silly. So instead I’ll just argue that it’s a perfect marriage of screwball comedy and musical, and that’s either a thing you want or it isn’t. “Cheek to Cheek” is my favorite Fred and Ginger number ever, and possibly the most elegant 5 minute sequence in any Hollywood movie.
  • Victor Victoria (1982): I’m afraid to rewatch Victor Victoria because if it doesn’t hold up, it will ruin my childhood memories of smoldering James Garner. So if someone has seen it recently, and can tell me how clunky the representation of gender and sexuality will seem to me now, I’d appreciate it.

Cross-Class

  • My Fair Lady (1964): let me get this out of the way: the ending is a travesty. Eliza should never go back to Henry Higgins; he’s an abusive jerk and while he may love her, he’ll never be a good partner. She should have a scorching affair with Freddy and set herself up as a speech teacher while tearing down the British class system instead. But I still love this movie for Eliza as a self-making heroine.
  • Newsies (1992): I can’t overstate how important this movie was to young me. It’s got labor politics, lots of hyper attractive young men, and a tablespoon of cross-class romance. While the later Broadway adaptation eliminated the character of David’s sister Sarah (substituting a budding female journalist for Bill Pullman and pairing her with Jack instead), I prefer the quieter promise of the movie’s rooftop kiss.

So please, please share your most trope-tastic and beloved musicals in the comments!

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Author: Emma

Emma is a novelist, full-time mama, recovering academic, and former political staffer. When she’s not reading or writing, she loves her twins' hugs, her husband’s cooking, her cat’s whiskers, her dog’s tail, and Earl Grey tea.

24 thoughts on “Trope-tastic Musicals”

  1. So many of my favorites here! A lot of these I remember fondly even if I agree they haven’t aged well.

    “Music Man” is probably one of the first movies I remember loving and I think it imprinted on me very strongly. I would love a romance with similar characters. The cynical, tarnished hero. The heroine who is smart enough to see through him, but decides to love him anyway. I also just remember loving the whole town. It was portrayed with some nostalgia, but they also showed a bit of of the gossipy narrow-mindedness that is part of small town life.

    I also loved “The King and I” growing up. It’s debatable if it’s a love story. It’s definitely not happy ever after. And I don’t think it’s going to win any points for historical accuracy or aging well. But there is that one moment in “Shall We Dance” . . . Yul Brynner puts his hand on Deborah Kerr’s waist to polka and he says “was like this, no?” And she says “Yeeeesss” in this low, throaty voice. That scene is sexier than a lot sex scenes in my opinion. Sigh.

    1. I completely agree both re: River City and that scene in The King & I, but oh the latter has aged so badly. I want to pluck certain songs and numbers from otherwise problematic films, but it’s hard to divorce them from the characters and plots.

  2. I also agree about Raoul. About Newsies, will cheat a little bit and will go to the stage show, Jack’s lover is Katherine, who becomes the reporter of the strike- just to let you know, fell in love with Newsies by the stage show. Love Marius and Cosette. Love Marian and Harold Hill.

    There is a number of other musicals I love.

    1. I’ve seen the recording of Broadway Newsies, and I liked the new songs for Katherine’s character, but Kara Lindsay’s performance didn’t quite work for me, and, as a result, I didn’t buy the romance. Though Jeremy Jordan’s singing is so much better than Christian Bale’s, it’s made watching the original movie almost impossible for me. Haha.

      1. I watched the 1992 movie, and that one couple didn’t do it for me.

        I see the stage show 3 times- twice on stage and Newsies live. Still love Jack and Katherine- part of it has to do with “Something to Believe In”. My favorite Jack is not Jermey Jordan- but Joey Barreiro, and a BIG reason behind that is that Joey was my first Jack

      2. I’m so jealous you saw it live!!! And yes, the order you experience the performers (or the film-show) matters a great deal to one’s response.

      3. The first actor and actress is pretty important- they are your first impression. After all, you didn’t know the character previously. Your first one will help with the ones you have after.

  3. I LOVED your list! So many are guilty pleasures–like “The Music Man,” but they are fun. I saw “Victor/Victoria” on TCM lately, and I thought it held up very well, maybe because it stand so squarely in favor of cross dressing, homosexuality, etc. “Gigi” has some lovely songs, but the whole premise is beyond creepy. Essentially, the grandmother is pimping out Gigi, preparing her for her whole life to be a kept woman. And no one today can listen to “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” without thinking it must be an anthem for pedophiles, regardless of its ending that affirms that thanks heaven that “Little Girls Grow Bigger Every Day.” Even for Louis Jordan to consider Gigi, whom he’s known since she was a kid, as a mistress, not a wife (until the end) is revolting. “7 Brides for 7 Brothers” is one of the most laughable (and not in a good way) musicals that has survived. From the hero’s advice to his younger brothers on how to get a woman in his “hilarious” song, “Rape of the Sabine Women” to the song which is an ode to one of the brother’s love of a sheep, plus the kidnapping of the 6 women (knee-slapping HILarious–then), this movie makes me cringe. For some reason, its choreography is admired, but it’s beyond me. I adore the songs from “South Pacific,” but the Cable/Liat romance, with Liat’s mother pimping her out, is awful. I don’t even like the much-admired anthem “You’ve Got to be Taught,” as, to me, it’s self-righteous. I always wanted to buy Nellie’s transition to a loving, accepting step-mother to mixed-race kids, but I never could. I always thought, after I hit 25, that she was just a romantic fool. I think musicals, other than comedies, are the most perishable entertainments. Most musicals would be so much better off (including almost all of Rogers and Hammerstein’s) if they would throw out the book (anything that is not sung) and rewrite it, keeping the songs.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!!

      Yeah, I’ve definitely spent a lot of time wondering whether golden age musicals can be salvaged or should we just put them out to pasture, so to speak. Evidently the revival of My Fair Lady that’s on Broadway right now rewrote the ending (spoiler: the review I read say Eliza does not come back in the last scene; Henry is alone and she’s out in the streets and goes to a suffrage rally). And the Kennedy Center had a revisionist staging of South Pacific that rewrote parts of the book. But the songs are so part and parcel of the characters, the songs themselves are often problematic in the ways you point out re: “You Have to Be Carefully Taught.” With Rogers and Hammerstein, I’ve wondered whether their shows have specifically not aged well because they did try to address Issues (TM) head-on. (And that has lots of implications for popular writers, though I won’t digress.)

      The Metropolitan Opera has a great podcast called Aria Code (here’s the link if anyone’s interested: https://www.wnycstudios.org/shows/aria-code). In the episode on Carmen, the host, Rhiannon Giddens, suggests the answer isn’t to stop performing operas but to stage them in ways that try to confront sexism/racism/etc., both historically and in the present. And that sounds lovely in theory, but I don’t know what that looks like in practice.

      But I do love musicals. And I will always love them. Not even in a guilty way. ; )

  4. Love this- thank you so much!

    Agree with Lynda re: Victor/Victoria: it’s positive in a lot of ways re: homosexuality, gender-bending, cross-dressing etc that I didn’t expect a 1982 film to be, although wiser people than me would probably critique that it might land too much in cliche? (I’m thinking of Lady of Seville redux especially- and Toddy is my fave). But the joy and good intentions (plus Julie Andrews singing Le Jazz Hot) mean I will rewatch as my default airplane movie forever.

  5. Another to include under the insta-love — Kismet. The setting definitely doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny whatsoever and I can’t bear to watch it. The music, however, draws on Borodin and I’d like to extract and keep “Sands of Time” and “And This is My Beloved”

    1. The music in Kismet *is* beautiful. I’ve never made it through the film because WOW, but I do listen to Howard Keel singing “Strangers in Paradise” frequently.

  6. Second Chance romances are my favorite romantic trope (Kiss Me Kate is one that springs to mind, although I don’t love the movie). I love the Music Man. I *really* love Top Hat, as I do most of the Rogers/Astaire musicals, although they admittedly have some problematic elements due to their era. Like you, there are elements of so many other movie/musicals that I love, but as an adult in the present day, I find that the overall show doesn’t necessarily hold up (Seven Brides & South Pacific being probably the two most egregious that I’ve seen most recently).

    1. I can’t believe I omitted second chance! I love that trope in romances, where is it in musicals? Kiss Me Kate, yes. A Little Night Music, definitely, but there’s no movie–though there is a recording on Live from Lincoln Center. What about Grease (which I’ll admit, I don’t have a great fondest for) or Mamma Mia?

      1. This is such a great review, and I’m intrigued by the tweaks made to the show. I suspect we’ll see more and more of this moving forward, and we absolutely need it if these shows are going to continue to be performed. Art has to be a living thing.

      2. LOVE Mamma Mia – I totally forgot about that one!!

        And yes, Art is a living thing, and I think the changes to these shows are a good way to modernize them while staying true to the original.

      3. Actually, there is a movie version of A Little Night Music done in 1977. It has part of the original cast — but the role of Desiree is played by . . . Elizabeth Taylor. Lets just say I prefer times I’ve seen it onstage.

  7. I always disliked the “heroes” and story lines in My Fair Lady and The King and I, even as a child. I was going to mention Kiss Me Kate, which others already have, I think it’s enemies to lovers. Then there are the 1930’s Busby Berkeley musicals, which always have a romance in them: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, etc. which are co-worker romances. Maybe I’m stretching things to call “Some Like It Hot” a musical, but there are some songs in it, and 2 HEA’s! I’m going to call it a mistaken identity/cross-dressing trope.
    I can think of more, like “An American in Paris” .
    This is such a great topic!

    1. There is a musical version of Some Like It Hot called _Sugar_ which I saw at a regional theatre years ago. The film is better. ; )

      And yes, I should have included workplace and second chance, of which there are many.

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