Martha Shearer on New York City and the Hollywood Musical

Shearer book cover
Martha Shearer - New York City and the Hollywood Musical: Dancing In the Streets (Palgrave MacMillan, 2016)
Martha Shearer sits down with Mediapolis to discuss her new book on the history of New York City musicals.

This conversation marks the first in what will be a regular series of interviews with authors of new books on cities and urban culture. We begin by sitting down – virtually – with Martha Shearer, whose new book New York City and the Hollywood Musical: Dancing in the Streets was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan as part of its Screening Spaces series.

(Full disclosure: Martha is a member of the editorial board of Mediapolis, and Screening Spaces is edited by Pamela Robertson Wojcik, who sits on the journal’s advisory board.)

Brendan Kredell:
Martha, thank you for this wonderful book. I wonder if you could first start by talking a bit about what drew you to the topic – after reading it, it seems so obvious that the city-set musical is in need of serious study, and it’s really been sort of a neglected area until now, right?

Martha Shearer:
Yes, it really has. I got interested in this topic during my MA. I was doing a module on whiteness and ethnicity in American film, and I was thinking about writing a paper on Gene Kelly and Irishness, so I started working my way through his filmography and watched Cover Girl, which has some good Irishness stuff in it, but what really struck me about the film was the “Alter Ego” number where Kelly has a dance battle with his reflection in a deserted street, and I thought there’s definitely a project here on the musical and urban space (then thinking back over all the other films that use urban space in interesting ways), and ended up doing my MA thesis on Kelly and urban space, which was really the earliest starting point for the project. And when I looked into research on musicals and cities, it really did seem like a neglected area, which seemed quite strange given how much work there had been on cities and other genres. And the musical has such obvious ties to urban culture (Broadway, for example) and some of the most famous musical sequences use city streets (“Singin’ in the Rain” most obviously). I think one of the first things that drew me to it was that very neglect but also an awareness of how seriously film noir is taken in relation to the urban, which the musical has more overlap with than you might think, but is also approaching the issue in some very different ways.

Cover Girl (Charles Vidor, 1944, Columbia)
Cover Girl (Charles Vidor, 1944, Columbia)

I thought that one of the more provocative – and productive – contributions that your book makes has particularly to do with noirs and the idea of a “canon of cinema and the city.” You make the case that we should be thinking expansively of such a canon, to include On the Town alongside The Naked City, e.g. Beyond the shared setting, what do you see as the overlap between the way that the two genres have taken up questions of the urban?

Well, first of all, you see what we might think of as noir aesthetics in musicals. There’s a tendency sometimes to oppose the two genres, like the musical is utopia and optimism and noir is dystopia and cynicism, but if you look at something like Young at Heart, Sinatra’s numbers (and his whole character really) are noir-inflected, and other films like, say, The Girl Next Door have these noir numbers, where actually people can really get into the expressionist side of things because it’s a number and some kind of break with reality, or at least a break with everyday narrative space by being set on stage. Both genres also have this emphasis on the street: walking in noir and street dances in the musical. But more broadly, the shift from centripetal to centrifugal spatiality that Edward Dimendberg sees in film noir is something that absolutely structures the musical too. And that’s something that I argue is fundamental to the shift that takes place in 1950s musicals, that this is a genre, like noir, formed by centripetal spatiality that is trying, straining to adapt to new conditions.

Young at Heart (Gordon Douglass, 1955, Warner Bros.)
Young at Heart (Gordon Douglass, 1955, Warner Bros.)

I’m glad you brought up this concept of centripetal/centrifugal spatiality. In your reading of the history of the New York-set musical, diegetic tensions over spatiality are bound up in broader tensions in the city itself. You convincingly argue that we should understand the evolution of the musical’s engagement with city – from The Jazz Singer on to the 1970s – in dialogue with the changing city around it. In fact, you offer us a whole periodization of the Hollywood city-set musical that is in large part defined by urban history.

I thought this was fascinating – I wonder if you might talk a bit about how you trace that history, from the 1920s onwards. How is the urban musical changing (in multiple ways) through this time?

So in general I argue that the musical was dependent on the urban density of the modern city and that as New York was transformed by, in particular, suburbanization and urban renewal, the genre’s representational strategies run into crisis, eventually leading to the decline of the genre after the studio era. At the outset, in the late 1920s, there’s this legacy of the glamour of the urban the musicals are really engaged with, but already some anxiety about the conditions of cities that would, of course, become very pronounced in the Depression. So it’s never like there’s this pure moment when the musical is all about the expression of a desire for the city that then gets worn away. The genre is constantly managing those tensions that exist in relation to how the city is changing or might change in the future. So I argue that in the Depression the genre uses that sense of glamour and excitement to deflect and manage anxieties about the Depression’s social and spatial disruptions. And then as we move into the late 1930s and 1940s there’s this new prominence in public debate about the condition of the city and a real sense that New York is blighted and will need to change. So 1940s musicals are essentially defensive, resisting any potential change to the city through two major cycles: neighbourhood musicals that express the value of tight-knit urban neighbourhoods through, for example, street dances, passed-along songs, and revues; and nostalgia musicals that are really invested in continuities with the past, with expressing the value of urban density through a depiction of its roots. And then as we move into the postwar period, you see shifts in depictions of both the urban core through these anxious or dystopian or highly stylized cities, especially in films about Times Square, for example, and you also see musicals attempting to adapt to new spaces like the new suburbs (although, it has to be said, there are surprisingly few New York suburb musicals). And then by the time we get to the 1970s, urban musicals are really about an attempt to reassert urban density and so on or to dwell on the ways in which that older conception of the city has become an impossibility for a 1970s musical.

In your epilogue, you talk about how the “urban crisis” of 1970s New York represented almost an existential threat for the musical; a moment when, as the subtitle for the chapter puts it, the paths forward for the genre seem to have narrowed to “death or metamorphosis.”

I wanted to ask you about this, as here in the US, Damien Chazelle’s new film La La Land is due to be released this weekend, and while it would certainly be a stretch to say that the urban-set musical is commonplace, I can think of some more recent films that meet your criteria – ie. not only city-set, but also not set in some idealized past. (500) Days of Summer, while not a musical, seems like a hybrid example, for instance, with musical numbers interspersed throughout. But what’s notable, of course, is that those aren’t New York films.

I wonder if you’ve given any thought to whether this “metamorphosis” that you speak of is, in part, also a de-centering; that the narrative of urban identity in contemporary American cinema isn’t as tightly bound up with the specific case of New York City as may have been true through the classical Hollywood period?

Yeah, that’s interesting. I haven’t seen La La Land yet (I was quite distraught to miss out on tickets at the London Film Festival, and it doesn’t get released over here until January), but (500) Days of Summer struck me as a film where part of what it’s doing is shooting LA in a way that you’d traditionally associate with New York – all that emphasis on parks and the skyline, which is interesting given the musical numbers. And there are New York examples. I mention Enchanted, for example. But The Get Down is really interesting in this context and actually has quite a lot in common with 1940s neighbourhood musicals in the way that it treats the Bronx. But your point is right, I think, that contemporary musicals (and American cinema more generally) are just much more dispersed. You can see this, for example, with the Step Up films. Of the five, only one is New York. The others are Baltimore, Miami and in the case of the fifth film, LA and Las Vegas.

Right, I’d forgotten about those. I wonder how much of that de-centering has to do with the diminished cultural role of Broadway in American life. You demonstrate the mutually productive coexistence the New York City-set musical and Broadway, but – with no offense to the legions of Hamilton fans out there – I think it’s safe to say that Broadway doesn’t retain the central position in American popular cultural that it once enjoyed.

Oh, absolutely not.

And certainly not musically, Hamilton aside.

You talk at the beginning of the book about a tension between the fluidity of urban culture and the fixity of urban representations; referencing a scene in On the Town in which Frank Sinatra’s character attempts to navigate New York with an out-of-date guidebook, you draw connections between the way the romanticized way that cities gets represented in those kinds of publications and in (at least certain kinds of) musicals.

I thought this was really interesting, and got me wondering about whether there was some recursive effect at work here as well. That is, do these fixed representations in cinema also become “handbooks” in themselves about how to perform urban affect?

(I’m sure I learned how to navigate subway systems by watching the “Bad” video, for instance.)

Ha! Yes. I think there’s something to that. But then there’s that mismatch between your sense of what a city is and how to move through it and so on and the actual everyday experience of doing so. I think my experiences of coming to places like London or Los Angeles or New York has always involved some kind of process where I’m comparing what I’m expecting of the city, that pretty much entirely comes from media representation, with the actual experience of being there and figuring out how to, you know, actually navigate subway systems in practice.

And that mismatch is really what On the Town is about when it comes down to it.

On the Town (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1949, MGM)
On the Town (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1949, MGM)

Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for your time, Martha – and congratulations on the book.

Thank you so much! It’s been great talking with you about it.

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