Musicals, in some form another, are one of the oldest forms of storytelling. While we wouldn’t consider the works of Greek playwrights like Sophocles to be musicals, music has been essential to storytelling since those earliest days of the theatre. Musicals are simply the natural evolution of the idea. Musical films take these concepts a step further, transitioning from the stage to the screen. Musicals are fluid and versatile, they can be about anything and everything as long as there’s music, but there is a sort of stigma around them. When most people think of musicals, their mind either wanders to the mega musicals of the eighties, 1930s Gershwin and Porter song cycles, or Disney. They are often seen as light fluff.
Something that many don’t realize however is just how often musicals have been tackling the horror genre, especially musical films. The two have been fused together countless time and have seen incredible success. It may seem like an odd match, but when observing the nature of both, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched. To start with, horror is also very old. Perhaps even older than the idea of musical storytelling. Scary stories being told around a campfire is practically a universal experience. Both horror and music are ancient arts in every culture and understood by all. We all recognize and appreciate music, and our basic human emotions and instincts allows us to recognize stories as scary or dangerous. These are basic, primal feelings that work well in tandem. It’s hard to describe how music can sound scary, but we just know it when we hear it.
Both horror and musicals often benefit from heightened worlds and stories. A lot of horror is based in the supernatural and the unknown; things that cannot be explained. We, as rational human beings, know that there aren’t such things as werewolves or vampires, but we still become engrossed in the stories and get frightened anyway. We allow ourselves to become engrossed in the world of the film, and feel the same emotions the characters feel. It’s a sign of solid writing when you become invested in the characters and emotions in an otherwise unbelievable scenario.
This is almost identical to the viewing experience of musicals. On paper the concept of characters suddenly bursting into song and dance seems ludicrous. The late great lyricist Howard Ashman talked at length about this. He talks about the difficulty of adapting musicals to film. In a physical theater, the audience is more willing to accept the absurd and abstract. The audience can easily tell that the characters are not actually in a castle or holding a real gun, and thus the seemingly absurd idea of singing feels more natural. We the audience are already aware of what we’re seeing is a performance and our brain goes along with it. Film conversely is much more grounded in realism. The sets and props look much more realistic, causing the sudden appearances of musical numbers to be jarring. Ashman cited animation as a great compromise, since the sense of realism is lessened and more fantastical worlds can be created where singing doesn’t feel so unnatural.
Of course, Ashman has worked a fair amount on live action musical films as well, including the creature feature Little Shop of Horrors. The film, based on a stage musical and Roger Corman film of the same name, is a tribute to the cheesy sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s. This movie ends up being a terrific blend in the same way Ashman described animation. The audience is introduced to a heightened world straight out of the 1950s with talking killer plants. In this absurd world, the idea of characters suddenly singing isn’t so farfetched. It’s a film that starts off playful and transitions to dark comedy as the plant has characters killed off so that it may feed. Both the horror and musical elements build off of one another and create an engaging piece.
However, musicals are more than just silly tales where characters sing. They can tell gripping and dramatic stories with deep compelling characters, just as any medium can. Musicals and theatre as a whole are actually incredibly adept at deep character studies. When a character has a monologue or song alone on stage, there is a connection immediately established between character and audience. We as viewers gain a deep insight into a character’s inner most thoughts and desires in a way they would never express in a traditional film. The old saying in theatre goes “When the emotions become too high for talking we sing. When the emotions become too high for singing we dance”. This of course translates to film musicals as well. Just as an epic poem uses rhyme and verse, a musical uses song and dance in its DNA to tell a compelling story.
This fact gives horror musicals an edge over other forms of horror. Take a film like Halloween (1978). All we the audience know is that Michael Myers is a masked figure on the loose hell-bent on killing. We don’t know how, or even why. Now imagine we could get a deep dive into the killer’s psyche. Put the troubled storm of thoughts in his head to words. Enter Sweeney Todd. The tale of Sweeney Todd is that of a murderous barber taking out all the people who have wronged him. Through songs like “My Friends”, “Pretty Women”, and “Epiphany” we get deep dives into the mind of a murderer like Sweeney Todd. He instantly becomes a more compelling character.
In a standard horror film, having the killer explain his backstory and motivations in a monologue would be boring and lazy, but in a musical songs are the fabric through which characters’ whole identities are woven. Their inner most thoughts on full display. It makes a Sweeney a fascinating and compelling character, and not a faceless villain like your typical slasher. Other musicals make good use of this, with Phantom of the Opera being one of the most notable examples. The film focuses so much on the Phantom’s wants and desires and positions him in a way to make the audience question who they truly wish to root for. The Phantom at the end of the day is still the monster in the wrong, but we wouldn’t have had that conflict without songs like “Music of the Night”, “Stranger Than You Dreamt It”, and the finale.
Of course, horror musicals don’t have to be all about killers and terror. Films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show are campy and high energy, and instead pays tribute to old sci-fi films and also serves a tale about sexual liberation and the breaking down of preconceived notions of gender and sexuality. It’s a story that relishes in its larger than life nature, in a way that feels true to both musical theatre tradition and the horror canon. Rocky Horror has become one of the most widely beloved and performed stories, with live shadow casts becoming an integral part of many theatres around the country. The legacy of stories like this cannot be understated.
When looking at the long and storied history of movie musicals, it’s surprising to see just how often they’ve mixed into the horror genre. They can be dark and foreboding like Sweeney Todd or they can be eccentric and lively like Rocky Horror. Both examples have seen tremendous success in different ways all these musicals present us stories that just couldn’t be told any other way. It’s a tradition that has been around for decades, and one that will continue to endure.