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6 Memorable Movie Musical Moments That Were Recorded Live

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Much ado is being made about the fact that the movie musical version of Les Miserables, out December 25, did not use pre-recorded vocals. Instead, the actors sang live to a piano track played through earpieces; the full orchestra was added in post-production.

Though director Tom Hooper and the cast will claim this is “groundbreaking,” that’s not exactly true. According to Slate, “Even if you eliminate non-narrative concert and experimental films—which typically record vocals live—there are movie musicals that counter Hooper’s claim. As film scholar Lea Jacobs explains, musical numbers at Paramount Studios were recorded live on set ‘whenever possible’ as early as 1931, and RKO recorded singers live—accompanied either by a live orchestra present off-screen or a recording of the score—until 1934’s The Gay Divorcee.”

Hollywood’s pre-recording began with a 1929 musical called The Broadway Melody, says John Kenrick, author of Musical Theatre: A History and the creator of Musicals101.com. “When MGM was doing its film of The Broadway Melody, they had what became a hit song, ‘The Wedding of the Painted Doll,’” he says. “When they filmed it, they were not happy with the look of it, but they didn’t want to blow a fortune doing it over. MGM’s sound supervisor, Douglas Shearer, said 'Look, you can save a bundle if you just refilm the number and use the existing soundtrack. There's no reason it can't be done.'”

After that, Hollywood realized it could pre-record its musicals in a sound studio, which gave them high quality music and vocals, top quality pictures, and saved tons of money—and they haven’t looked back since. But advances in technology have allowed the cast of Les Mis to sing live on set, take after take. “I think it’s a brilliant idea,” Kenrick says. “Most of the performers in this film have a background in live musical theater, and they can bring that immediate quality to the screen without having to worry about lip syncing. They’re actually performing for a change.”

In honor of Les Mis, here are a few other movie musicals with memorable numbers recorded live.

1. Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer, 1927

The first full-length “talkie” film also prominently featured musical numbers performed by Al Jolson, who performed in blackface. “The Jazz Singer was done live on set, because that’s simply what made the most sense,” Kenrick says. All of the early [movie musicals] were done live on the set with the orchestra there, just off camera in most cases. And in one or two cases, like The Jazz Singer, the orchestra was on camera because it was convenient.”

2. The Cast of The Love Parade, 1929

The numbers in this 1929 musical starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier were “were filmed and recorded live on the set,” Kenrick says. “But that was also the year that Broadway Melody came out. That’s when pre-recording began to take over.”

3. The Cast of Love Me Tonight, 1932

Even though pre-recording was becoming the norm, there were still movie musicals recorded live on set, including Love Me Tonight—also starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier—which recorded a full orchestra and vocals simultaneously while filming.

4. Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, 1964

As phoneticist Henry Higgins in both the stage and movie versions of My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison was required to sing patter songs—a type of number which is more spoken (and usually quickly, at that) than sung. For the movie, “[Harrison] said ‘The patter songs are just too intricate,’ so while everyone else’s numbers are pre-recorded, every song he does in My Fair Lady was recorded on set,” Kenrick says. “While that was more expensive, it worked. His performance is dynamic, it’s fresh, there’s vitality to it. He won the Academy Award, and he had also won the Tony for that part.” Harrison also sang live in 1967’s Dr. Dolittle.

5. Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, 1968

All of Barbra Streisand’s numbers in Funny Girl—in which Streisand played the legendary Fanny Brice—are pre-recorded, save for the beginning of the film’s final number (mid-way through the song, the pre-recording takes over). “Streisand made her reputation as a nightclub and stage performer,” Kenrick says. “Funny Girl was her film debut, and people had always wanted her to sing Fanny Brice’s most famous song, ‘My Man.’ At the beginning of the number, she’s breaking down in tears—it would have been almost physically impossible to lip sync that. How do you lip sync to a breakdown? So it made sense for her to do the number live to capture the Streisand performance style.”

6. Julie Andrews, Star!, 1968

It would have been impossible to record what is arguably Julie Andrews’ most famous number, “The Sound of Music,” live on set. Not so for at least part of the closing number of Star!, "The Saga of Jenny." Andrews sings while giving an acrobatic performance, starting at 2:28 in the video above. Impressive.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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