Last I saw Top Hat at the Aldwych Theatre because my flatmate had a free ticket. I agreed to go because I quite like the Fred Astaire film from 1935, and I like film musicals generally. The performance wasn’t bad, but as dancing doesn’t do much for me at the best of times, I found myself thinking about the nature of stage performance.
Specifically, I was thinking about why, in general, I prefer film musicals to staged ones. This is not the case for me with film versus stage as a rule. On the contrary I’ve recently been to see a reasonable amount of theatre, and although I’m a bit of a film buff, I often get more out of a good play than I do out of an exceptional film. So what is it that makes the film Top Hat so markedly superior to the stage version, and why is it that a good performance of Strindberg’s The Dance of Death or Chekhov’s Three Sisters can be so utterly compelling live? It seemed to me to be not merely that the individual stage interpretations of film musicals are not as good, but something more intrinsic to the nature of the performance.
I decided that the difference is in the goal of each genre. Not only are musicals inherently escapist, but their effect depends wholly on their technical perfection. They’re absurd, but in being absurd—while at the same time so impressively perfect—film musicals achieve a kind of mesmeric quality. It’s the overwhelming perfection (of the dancing, singing, music, lyrics, costumes, sets, cinematography, timing, wit, and so on) that makes film musicals as diverse as The Band Wagon, Oklahoma!, or even Little Shop of Horrors so satisfying. These musicals, like the whole musical genre, are utterly ludicrous if you suspend disbelief for a split second, but their intention is to totally overwhelm with their consummate proficiency. In other words they strive to be as far from lifelike as they possibly can. However talented performers in a stage musical, they will never reach this level of perfection, if only because they don’t have the luxury of multiple takes, editing, and an essentially unlimited budget.
On the other hand, the power of serious drama is not in its technical perfection, but in its verisimilitude—in other words, in its imitation of life, or the diametric opposite of the musical. Of course technical brilliance can benefit drama, but it is not necessary for the medium to work, and in fact the pursuit of dazzling displays at the expense of realism tends to create bad action, sci-fi, or horror films. Drama is about creating lifelike characters and situations which immerse the audience and evoke empathy, rather than overawing the audience with effects. It’s possible to do this with good acting and nearly nothing else; furthermore good acting, in a way, does not require perfection. In a musical, a missed step or false note can really ruin the experience, whereas a wrong line on stage, if in the midst of sputtering fury or an otherwise emotional scene, can actually be more convincing than its practised film equivalent.
I could be wrong about this, or just have seen inferior stage musicals (or good dramas), as a friend recently said that she normally prefers stage musicals to the film versions. But I think it’s justified my sense that my money is better spent on live drama.