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Classic Roots Inspire

Rob Marshall’s New Film

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Center, director Rob Marshall, left, Tom Johnson and right, David Fantle of Reel To Real.
The Marshall Plan In The New Millennium Is Not Rebuilding Europe And Defending Against Communism, But The Single-Focused Passion Of Director Rob Marshall To Celebrate Musicals As A Creative Process

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special For Modern Times Magazine

Dec. 22, 2014 — It’s a blustery March afternoon in Greenwich Village and in a non-descript office building not too far from the Hudson River, director Rob Marshall and his production team are busily at work in post-production putting the final flourishes on the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 Broadway musical fantasy, Into the Woods. The movie is coming out Christmas day with high expectations, including a new song by the legendary Sondheim and an already announced three Golden Globe nominations.

Since his directorial debut with the Oscar-winning Chicago in 2002, Marshall has been strategic in selecting projects, but his trademark panache for high-energy, splashy productions has been evident in such films as Nine and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

In Into the Woods, his latest, Marshall again teams with his Pirates star Johnny Depp, as well as Meryl Streep, Chris Pine and Anna Kendrick.

Today, Marshall is considered the preeminent interpreter of the musical film.

While the “Golden Age” of the Hollywood musical went the way of the covered wagon after the fall of the studio system, Marshall, 54, said his affection for the genre became part of his DNA when as a teenager growing up in Pittsburgh he saw That’s Entertainment! in 1974, a compilation of clips from many of the great MGM musicals.

Ironically, Pittsburgh was the birthplace of film musical icon Gene Kelly. When Marshall was dancing in an amateur show as a child, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a picture of the young hoofer with the cutline, “Will he be another Gene Kelly?”

Amid the frenzy that was the post-production for Into the Woods, Marshall was happy to carve out some time to talk about his lifelong love of musicals and his early influences, including the films produced by Arthur Freed, considered then and now as the “gold standard” for this original American art form.

“The Arthur Freed era brought us these extraordinary musicals that he produced, but, more importantly, it was a master class in how to make musicals,” he said. “Freed’s strength was that he was an accomplished songwriter but he gave free reign to the directors, choreographers, composers, writers and stars to put the pieces together. It’s about putting the pieces together and trust. And that’s what Freed gave these musicals.”

Marshall then rattled off his favorite musicals (all Freed productions): “Singin’ in the Rain will always be a huge one for all of us, the perfect musical. But for me, that list also includes Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade,The Band Wagon and Gigi,” he said.

Even in some of Freed’s “creative flops” (The Pirate and Yolanda and the Thief), Marshall finds moments of brilliance. “There are treasures in those films,” he said. “’Coffee Time’ (in Yolanda) is extraordinary. The fact that Judy Garland and Gene Kelly are in a film together (The Pirate), who cares if something doesn’t work! You get to see them. It was an attempt to do something different. It didn’t matter because these films are all filled with amazing moments.”

One of those amazing moments often overlooked by musical film fans and sometimes dismissed as Gene Kelly once told us, as a “Marx Brothers type romp” –  that’s the tap duet, “Moses Supposes,” expertly delivered by Kelly and co-star Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain.

“The joy and organic nature of ‘Moses Supposes’ is amazing,” said Marshall. “It’s clever and smart. It is not a huge production number and it just builds. It’s how you take a small novelty number and make it a huge piece. It’s just thrilling.”

While Marshall said he would never aspire to remake any of the classic musical films, he’d like to replicate an Arthur Freed Unit in which he would assemble a stable of talent to make new musicals. If anyone can re-imagine the film musical for modern day audiences, it’s Marshall. Indeed, it’s part of his plan.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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