A popular '40s radio show and specialty act called Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge featured bandleader Kay Kyser conducting quizzes and leading his swing band in an academic gown and mortarboard.
Bill Condon, the screenwriter of Chicago and now writer-director of Dreamgirls, has such a swinging, easy command of his field you can envision him presiding over Bill Condon's College of Musical Comedy Knowledge. His new movie, a remake of the 1981 Broadway hit, opens tomorrow.
Speaking with him over the phone, I felt like saying, "Take it away, Professor Condon!"
But Condon has acquired his expertise in the best way: not as an academic but as a zealot. "Growing up in New York and going to the theater, I've loved musicals all my life. And working on Chicago was my university education."
The subject for today was what made great movie musicals tick. Why did his Chicago win awards and burn up the box office while the movie versions of Rent and The Producers bombed?
I put forth the notion that whenever a genre, like the movie musical, ceases to be a common event, you have to reinvent it each time out. For example, Condon and director Rob Marshall reshaped Chicago as the delirious extended fever dream of its anti-heroine, Roxie Hart.
"Yes," Condon said, excitedly. "What's wild about musicals these days is that you have to look at them and reinvent them in some way."
On Dreamgirls, he retooled the original in every way, expanding the subject matter and revamping the production design and choreography. He loved the original - he stood up and cheered on its Broadway opening night - but he wanted to make it zing for a contemporary audience.
Dreamgirls tells the story of black singers and songwriters crossing over to mainstream white pop culture in the 1960s. It was never a musical roman a clef. But when the musical reached Broadway 25 years ago, its creators took pains to distance their tale of the rise and dissolution of a Supremes-like group from Motown reality.
Condon revitalized the plot by going back to its Motown roots. That made its social-political themes even more excitingly explicit. "In the early 1960s, Detroit had been this city with a great, vibrant, integrated economy that fell into incredible urban decay and has never really recovered. Martin Luther King Jr. led a great civil rights march there in 1963 and gave a speech that was like a tryout for his 'I've Got a Dream' speech. And Motown was thriving when riots broke out in 1967."
He threads this history through the story of three girls, Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) and Deena (Beyonce Knowles), meeting an irrepressible manager, Curtis (Jamie Foxx), who makes them back-up singers for headliner James "Thunder" Earl (Eddie Murphy) and then turns them into stars.
Condon was hyper-conscious that, to fashion a musical for film, "you have to take into account the fact that there are people unaware of these musical-comedy conventions or really actively resisting them."
He dreads audiences thinking, "The people onscreen are singing again, now I'm going to have to wait two minutes for the story to pick up." So Condon tries "to weave story through a song. The basic rule becomes the characters should wind up at a different place from where they began."
He spells out white usurpation of black music and Curtis' decision to break into the big time by any means necessary with a rush of singing and dancing. "It's obviously easier to do that when you can literally put scenes within songs," Condon says.
But you can't do that with the title song, "Dreamgirls," which introduces the group as newly polished stars. "Then you have to tell the story within the song itself and within the staging. So when it starts, we reveal them on a revolving platform, almost like a lazy Susan - along with Curtis, we're saying, 'Here's this new product, what do you think?'"
In Dreamgirls, Condon integrated two types of numbers: the kind audiences have become familiar with from biopics such as Ray and Walk the Line, in which the actors belt out tunes as characters who are also real performers, and the kind from book musicals like West Side Story, in which the characters break into song because of emotions that have built to a musical flash point.
To make that fusion work, he embraced the musical's stage origins. And that embrace involved a paradox.
Michael Bennett's legendary Broadway production had been called "cinematic" because the action unfolded with prodigious kinetic force on huge turning towers with hydraulic bridges. Even the sophisticated lighting changes became the equivalent of quick-cut movie editing. But Condon hoped to make a movie that could be called "theatrical." By setting two of the personal numbers on a stage, he wanted to acknowledge that "this show began life in the theater, and it's still happening on a proscenium."
Reams have been written, deservedly, about the rebirth of American Idol also-ran Jennifer Hudson as a full-blown movie star. But the other big story here is the reemergence of Eddie Murphy as an earth-shaking actor. Both Murphy's gifts and his star persona suited Condon's purposes.
"James 'Thunder' Early enters the movie or the show as a star, and we needed a star of a certain age," said Condon. "Equally important, there seemed to be a special resonance between him and James "Thunder" Early. Eddie could be seen as someone who is beloved but also may have been coasting for a few years."
On Chicago, Condon learned that "choreography is just another form of storytelling." But integrating story points with Murphy's unique talent required tons of preparation and a leap of faith. "Eddie was slightly allergic to rehearsals. You know, he has a standup background, he loves the idea that things happen in the moment. And his thought was that he didn't want to be completely choreographed because that's not what Jackie Wilson or James Brown would have done."
So Condon laid out Murphy's numbers with the choreography team, then consulted with the star on which steps fit his Jackie Wilson-James Brown vision of Early.
"In the big rap number Eddie does near the end, there's a moment, about four seconds, when he's moving in time with the dancers behind him, but otherwise it's all him doing his own interpretation of it. That made us a little anxious before the first number. What is he going to do? How is it going to look? But he would do it, and we'd shape it, edit it, convince him to add or take out one or two things. But it was so much his take on it all.
"He's not someone you talk to endlessly about something. At one point, I told him that James 'Thunder' Early's rap number was like a nervous breakdown happening on stage - and I didn't know that sunk in until I heard him tell a friend on the phone, 'Bill says it's like I'm having a nervous breakdown on stage!' And, of course, Eddie has the greatest show-biz instincts in the world."
Condon's ability to combine artifice and reality, choreography and improv, has given Dreamgirls a shot to become the first movie-musical smash since, well, Chicago. "By embracing the theatricality," he says, "I help people relax into the idea that singing is a natural extension of drama - that it just has to come out when the characters' feelings reach a fever pitch."