Musical numbers can be absolutely central with nothing of the extraneous about them. The “barn-Raising” number in “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” is one of the greatest dance sequences in the history of the cinema And it conveys an enormous amount of information about plot and character at the same time that couldbe established in no other way.
Yes, a dance can take the place of an action sequence and a song can take the place of dialogue. And in the best musicals, everything is integral (amazing how many 40s-50s musicals ignore this).
But usually, part of the appeal is that the sequence is integral but wildly EXCESSIVE to its purpose. Not so in Seven Brides, where a straight dramatic version of the barn-raising would still have had to be a grand sequence occupying the same amount of screen time.
And couldn’t possibly have been as good…
The general default in movies is to frame a love song as a confession or a seduction. This is especially handy went a musical is built around existing song catalogs that are mostly romantic stuff. But of course the favorite out is when characters are actually Performing A Song to other characters, which allows you to interpolate almost anything. Is there any other way to lace “My Forgotten Man” into a silly comedy about playboys and chorus girls not having sex?
Any sort of speechifying or soliloquizing can be effectively rendered as song. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” neatly combines a ballad with Henry Higgins throwing a hissy fit. In “The Music Man”, the con man uses “Trouble” to create a panic and “76 Trombones” to sell the cure.
The term “I Want” song seems to be associated mainly with Disney princesses, but numbers where a character spells out desires and goals go way back. In “Seven Brides”, “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” is Howard Keel musically picking a wife; “Wonderful Wonderful Day” is Jane Powell expressing what she expects as Keel realizes she’s going to be disappointed.
A slightly different category might be dubbed the “I Am” song. In Lubitsch’s “Merry Widow”, Chevalier expresses his pre-Jeannette attitudes in “Girls” and “Maxim’s”. In “The Bandwagon”, Astaire’s “By Myself”, followed by “Shine on Your Shoes”, tell us what kind of guy he is so he doesn’t lose us by fighting with Cyd Charisse. “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” opens with Robert Morse singing chapter headings from the book, telling us he’s a wildly ambitious cartoon character plunging into a cartoon of big business.
Scene-setting songs are usually full-out production numbers: We are happy villagers, behold our happy village. These are more an artifact of stage musicals; on old musicals created for film the songs and dances are often limited to the stars. But they pop up more often in films consciously following the old Broadway style. “Belle” in “Beauty and the Beast” ends with the townsfolk are facing an invisible audience and swinging their arms like a community theater chorus; the whole number parodies operetta conventions while succeeding as an appealing number in its own right.
How would you classify THIS?
Isn’t It Romantic? works as tone-setting, theme-setting, character-setting, and forms a geographic bridge between two distant characters who haven’t met yet — it’s all-purpose and all-embracing!
I like songs which are about characters realizing they’re in love. In Singin’ in the Rain, the sole narrative purpose of Good Morning is to express “We’re happy!” and then Gene walks home alone and sings another song whose sole purpose seems to be to express “I’m happy!” which would make no sense save for the wonder ingredient of subtext — he may not know it yet, but he’s happy in a particular way…
A love song to a lover unmet; a subgenre that includes classics like “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” — although Rodgers and Hart give it a distinctly comic lilt.
To simply introduce the heroine singing the same song would tell us she and the hero are fated to meet and fall in love. Instead, Lubitsch sends it from Paris to the country via cabbie, poet, soldiers and gypsy violinist. We’re still tipped to the upcoming romance, but the comic journey underlines the distance between the two worlds, the capriciousness of chance, and perhaps the benign witchcraft promised by the three old ladies.
A little later there’s another comic montage, showing how Chevalier has won everybody over: Everybody above and below stairs is singing a fragment of “Fifi”, which all fit together in a single reprise. Note this removes the need for dialogue about Chevalier’s popularity, arguably advancing the plot.