17 November 2015

Dancing for Joy, Dancing for Sorrow

Plays are great (and movies, of course), but sometimes words are not enough; some things can't be
Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly
said with words. As one of the building blocks of musical comedy the popular song became a form to convey the most subtle emotions with heart-stopping clarity, especially in the hands of an artist like
Frank Sinatra. Another building block is dance, which can express what can't be sung or articulated; everyone can thrill to the deeply romantic mating dance of Astaire and Rogers, or the explosion of joy Cagney so perfectly displays in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Musical comedy is so familiar to us today, such a part of our lives, that it simply seems like human nature just spontaneously developed it over the years. We yearn to communicate and to understand others -- naturally, we would use every expressive art available to us, wouldn't we? 
Well, actually, musical comedy had to be invented. We owe these wonderful moments of human understanding to George M. Cohan.
Most people know George M. Cohan today only through the movie about his life, Yankee Doodle Dandy. There's nothing wrong with that; it's a wonderful movie, and most of the story is true. But what they don't tell you (because it's a movie, not a dissertation) is that Cohan's huge hit, Little Johnny Jones, which he wrote, starred in, directed, composed, orchestrated, and choreographed when he was twenty-six years old, was the first "book musical." The story was told not just through dialog but through song and
dance; the action didn't halt for the interpolation of a musical number -- the musical number moved the plot forward.
James Cagney as George M. Cohan
Remember this scene? The hero of Little Johnny Jones has been waiting on the dock for a signal that he has been exonerated of wrongdoing; when the signal comes, he explodes into a dance of joy. Well, Cohan was the first artist to do this in character. The dance is not just a display of virtuosity; it tells us how the character feels, a joy too big to express in words. Apparently Cohan was a truly great dancer, too; even critics of his flag-waving writing and wise-cracking persona remark on his superb dancing and choreography. Unfortunately, only a few brief minutes of film exist from his later years, but you can still see the clarity and precision that is the mark of a true artist.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
Essentially, we owe all of these beautiful moments of expressive dance in film musicals to Cohan, exploring heights and depths of human feeling from Gene Kelly's dance with his own reflection in Cover Girl to Astaire's broken-hearted One For My Baby in The Sky's the Limit to Rita Hayworth's blazing dance in Down to Earth, and dozens -- maybe hundreds -- more. Male and female, happy and sad, they speak with their bodies, and we understand.