Balance of Songs and Dialogue

         It seems that the general public seems to have a love/hate relationship with musical films. I think that one reason for this is that it is very difficult to balance songs and dialogue in a musical film. In a musical you are basically using songs and dialogue interchangeably. You have to be careful that there is balance between the two and that one does not go on for too long. If a song is too long and does add enough to the plot, the audience will know it. On the other hand, if the dialogue goes on for too long, the audience will begin to wonder if they are watching a musical anymore.

         It is noticeably easier to balance if the plot includes music like in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera, in which the music has a set place in the story, but is also used to enhance the characters and their relationships. But it is harder to balance in a plot where the music is added, like My Fair Lady, in which there is no obvious place for a song. For the most part George Cukor, the director of My Fair Lady (1964), did a good job balancing the two. There were a few times where I can feel the plot dragging, especially after seeing Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard’s 1938 film Pygmalion, based on George Bernard Shaw’s original 1913 story without music. I think a good rule of thumb is that, if the song does not add to the plot, the character, or the atmosphere in a specific and obvious way, it will distract from and slow down the storyline.

         While finding this balance is very hard, I hope that film makers will continue to make musicals. Musicals can bring a sense of magic to the screen that no other genre of film can.

Justin Wylie

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