The musical is not dead and nor does it have any intention of being so. The success of Glee and musical theatre demonstrate its enduring popularity. Yet film theory positions it as the often neglected family member avoided at gatherings as they are known to be difficult. Why the difficulty and reluctance? It is due to that essential element: the musical number. What are musical numbers and why do they work? Musical numbers should be seen as a Gestalt: where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Analysing either music and/or visuals in isolation will not lead to an understanding of the whole as it is a synthesis of the two. Any reading, therefore, should pay constant attention to the relationship between the two aspects: music and image.
Musical numbers are great for analysing this relationship. The Danish director Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) epitomises perfectly the complexities of the medium. The ‘Cvalda’ number illustrates how audio-visual space is actively played with. Images alone provide a fragmented space, so how is a coherent space created? We watch this scene and accept that which is presented to us. Closer inspection, however, shows us that there are 199 shots in the complete number, with an average shot length of 1.2 seconds. We move from long shots to close-ups with dizzying effect and providing little help with spatial cohesion. Yet our ability to negotiate the space remains due to the use of sound.
The industrial sounds of the machines build to create a pleasing harmony. The images, particularly at the beginning, are used to visually locate the sound sources. They are emanations of the music and provide us with an audio-visual proxemic relationship which is logical (when the camera shows a close-up of a machine, it provides us with a sonic ‘close-up’ with noise emitted). Here we have an example of sound driving the image, as it is the sound we first experience. We are happy to move around the scene as frantically as we do because the sound provides reassurance and stability with its regular tempo. Whilst the sound alone varies very little, the images provide no fixed point of reference; together they create a coherent space. They are a Gestalt and conventional film studies analysis that focuses on narrative and visuals therefore fails when attempting to understand musical numbers.