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Why Singin’ in the Rain is still the perfect musical

·6-min read
Adam Cooper as Don Lockwood ( )
Adam Cooper as Don Lockwood ( )

Do do do doo, do do do do doo. Whether you’re a Singin’ in the Rain superfan or have never seen the film in your life, those opening bars are immediately recognisable, eminently hummable and instantly cheering. Their continued grip on our collective imagination, over seventy years since the film was first released, encapsulates the sheer carefree pleasure of the musical itself, which is regularly voted the greatest movie musical ever made. This summer, it comes to splishy splashy life on the Sadler’s Wells stage; after a drought of high-kicking, top class live musical escapism, it’s a glorious feeling... we’re happy again.

It may now have the timeless quality of a gold-minted Hollywood classic, but Singin’ in the Rain – released in 1952 but set in the late 1920s – marked a specific turning point for the film industry, when silent films were replaced by “talkies”. In the most iconic role of his career, Gene Kelly played Don Lockwood, a leading man who moves with the times by using music to keep himself relevant. Less smooth is the transition of powerful diva Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), whose abrasive New York accent causes considerable alarm to audiences (“I cayyynn’t stayynd ‘im,” she squeaks desperately in elocution lessons).

Often described as ‘the musical for people who don’t like musicals’ thanks to its perfectly balanced combination of romance, comedy and pastiche, it has its own set of behind-the-scenes myths, too. Kelly allegedly had a 103 degree fever when he filmed the iconic title scene, while Debbie Reynolds (playing chorus girl-turned-starlet Cathy, drafted in as Lina’s voiceover) apparently had to be carried off set after a marathon 13-hour shoot for the Good Morning scene made her feet bleed. “The two hardest things I ever did in my life are childbirth and Singin’ in the Rain,” she once said.

The production at Sadler’s Wells, directed by Jonathan Church, first ran at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2011 when he was artistic director there, before transferring to the West End. It isn’t the first theatrical version – it premiered at the London Palladium in the 1980s, before a now notorious flop version on Broadway – but it is one of the most successful. So what exactly is that makes Singin’ in the Rain so endlessly appealing?

“There’s an old saying about musicals: If you can’t say it, you sing it; if you can’t sing it, you dance it. The perfect illustration of that to me is Cathy and Don’s number, You Were Meant For Me,” says Church. “He has to sing to her to describe how he feels about her. And, to her, singing is inadequate, so it goes into the most amazing dance duet. It’s perfect musical form – and you keep hitting moments where, structurally, musically and emotionally, things come together.”

Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly’s performances in Singin’ in the Rain have gone down in Hollywood history (AFP via Getty Images)
Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly’s performances in Singin’ in the Rain have gone down in Hollywood history (AFP via Getty Images)

It was part of an era of post-war movies that aimed “to bring joy and love and all of those positive things as we recovered from the war,” he adds. Coming out of our own crisis now, Church and the company have felt all of those things in the rehearsal room. But he also thinks that the engine of the plot – sound coming to the silent movies – has a drive that’s rare to find in musicals. “Everybody’s job is at stake. Lina Lamont, who I know is on some level a figure of fun, is about to lose her career and livelihood and status.”

For Robin Baker, Head Curator at the BFI National Archive, Singin’ in the Rain proves that popular entertainment can be high art. “It’s nearly always voted best film musical, but actually it’s up there with the best romantic comedy ever made, one of the best films ever made about show business, and one of the best films about movies and movie-going,” he says. When the BFI screened it as part of a celebration of musicals in 2019, he was struck by its rare intergenerational appeal. “Looking at the age mix of audiences, virtually none of them would have ever seen the film the first time,” he says. “It feels wholly untarnished by age. The thing’s almost 70 years old – it’s remarkable.”

Jeanine Basinger, film historian and founder of the department of film studies at Wesleyan University, did see it when it was originally released, then many times more while working as a cinema usher. “It never failed to be fun,” she says. Over the last forty years, she’s often returned to it when programming screenings for students or community audiences. “There are one or two old movies that you can always feel safe showing – they never fail to please because they are still what they set out to be, they’ve not lost their charm or become mean-spirited or useless in any way. They are a handful of true sure-fire old movies. Singin’ in the Rain is one of them,” she says.

Its influence is so ubiquitous that it isn’t always obvious. Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean moves were inspired by Kelly, while Baker sees a through-line reflected in the sardonic tone of French comedy Call My Agent! In fact, its influence is such that it’s become an omnipresent cultural reference point.

“It’s impossible for any director making a musical at any time since Singin’ in the Rain to not think about it,” says Baker. “There are those like La La Land or Jacque Demy’s La Demoiselles de Rochefort, where he even cast Gene Kelly in it, that feel like the live spirit of Singin in the Rain is channelled through.” But more widely, “it shapes how and what we expect of musicals now; the word ‘Technicolor’ is almost impossible to separate from it.”

In an essay in her book The Movie Musical, Basinger points out that, in the script, the pivotal rain scene is simply written as “Don dances in the wet street.” But, she writes, “On-screen, these six words become four minutes of song and dance that define Gene Kelly and are often used to define the whole genre of original Hollywood musicals. The rain dance: so easy, so relaxed, so happy and emotional, so simple. Just a carefree little moment on film. But what did it take to put it up there?”

And that’s another part of the magic - they make it look so effortless. Prior to rehearsals with the rest of the company, the Sadler’s Wells leads, Adam Cooper (who also played Don at Chichester), Charlotte Gooch and Kevin Clifton, had to attend a boot camp to learn the material and keep up their fitness. “It’s very easy to underestimate the sheer force of will and energy that went into making the film in the first place, the craft involved. Our job, and Gene Kelly’s job when they made the film was to make it look easy, but it was pretty herculean,” says Church.

Achieving greatness, then, is no simple matter. The alchemy that looks like perfection comes from the efforts of many people, all at the top of their game, pulling together and seizing a moment – and that’s why Singin’ in the Rain is still so cherished. “Musicals are quite elusive – we all wait for a Hamilton or Les Mis to come along, but they don’t grow on trees,” says Church. “I think, in a world where it’s complicated to make shows like this land, they stand as a beacon.”

Singin’ in the Rain is at Sadler’s Wells from July 30 to September 5;

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