The next time you watch a movie musical or stage production, look for references to the film world or stage world. Backstage musicals are essentially musicals devoted to the inner workings of a production. The production encompasses parts of traditional musicals, including the song and dance numbers, but also incorporates dialogue scenes, with everything relating to an often fictitious play or performance.
"The Great American Backstage Musical" is one example of a backstage musical. The story takes place in different cities and countries during World War II and follows characters from the stage to backstage. The popular 1952 musical "Singing in the Rain" is sometimes referred to as a backstage musical.
A backstage musical uses a song and dance number as a major or important moment in the performance. The performance might relate to the storyline, such as a naïve ingenue trying to impress the director by breaking into a routine. In other performances, the routine is part of a fantasy number, like the same ingenue imagining that she's singing on stage in front of the crowd. The lyrics of the song relate back to the storyline and you often will see more than one actor performing in the routine.
Backstage musicals have roots in the silent film era. Studios could not produce musical numbers on film because film had no sound. Vaudeville routines, operas and Broadway shows were the only way actors could combine singing and dancing in front of an audience. "The Broadway Melody," which was released in 1929, is viewed as the first Hollywood musical. The introduction of sound technology to traditional movie houses led to the rise of the backstage musical. The sheer number of musicals released in the coming years earned the 1930s the nickname of the "Golden Age of the Musical."
The Broadway Melody
When MGM released "The Broadway Melody," it changed the way audiences viewed movies. The film incorporated song and dance numbers, set in a plot that took place behind the scenes of a fictional play. According to AMC Filmsite, the film earned more than $1.6 million for the studio and made history by becoming the first musical to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The story focused on two sisters that arrived in New York City, hoping to become stars.
Backstage musicals typically follow a young female character as she tries to start her career and become a star. In some cases, the story follows multiple characters that are driven to succeed. Male characters in the shows often have the dominant roles, such as director of the play or leading actor in the show within a show.