The modern musical begins with Cabaret (dir. Bob Fosse, 1972), a film that ironizes and sharpens the conventions of musical theater so that they no longer feel corny (and I say this as a devoted fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein). Cabaret is a musical made out of angles, jagged edges. It dares to be sinister and grotesque instead of sweet and light. Critics immediately noticed that this was a novel approach to the form. Richard Eder at the New York Times observed that “Fosse’s approach has been not to open up but rather to confine, on a small and well-defined stage, as much of Cabaret as means to be musical theater.” Pauline Kael, not surprisingly, was more pointed: “Cabaret demonstrates that when you revolt against the organic Oklahoma! conception of musicals [i.e., the forced attempt to make the music seem as if it’s organically arising out of the action] you can create a new organic whole by style and imagination—if you have enough faith in the audience to do it right.”
As someone who can appreciate the classical Hollywood musicals perhaps better than Kael could (though she never hid her love for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), I’m disinclined to bash Oklahoma! in order to praise Cabaret. But I see where she’s coming from. She felt (perhaps rightly) that there was something profoundly embarrassing about the self-congratulatory hugeness of the Hollywood musicals from the 1960s and their incongruous attempts at naturalism. They had become parodies of themselves and by 1968—the year of Carol Reed’s abysmal film of the already-not-very-good Oliver! (1968)—they were in dire need of resuscitation. And it came in the form of choreographer-director Bob Fosse, who had already begun revolutionizing dance in stage productions like Sweet Charity.
He had already adapted that play into a film in 1970, but it’s Cabaret that really feels like the first modern musical. It almost seems conscious of the fact that it’s doing something brand-new and exciting. Cabaret dispenses with the idea that musical theater can ever be “natural” by making its production numbers explicitly theatrical. It uses more close-ups, and uses them more effectively, than perhaps had ever been attempted before; it must surely have been the first movie musical to employ dialectical montage. Nearly forty years later, it doesn’t feel stiff in the way that Oklahoma! and South Pacific do, or like a dazzling relic from another era, in the way that the classic Freed musicals from the 50s (Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon) do. Cabaret feels like it’s completely of our time, perhaps because it determined what the film musicals of the next forty years would look like.