Around the end of the first thirty minutes of A Star is Born (1954), Norman (James Mason) enters an empty bar very late at night and finds a band and a female singer jamming. He silently sits in the shadows waiting for the performance. The piano player asks Esther (Judy Garland) to “take it from the top” and she offers a haunting rendition of “The Man That Got Away,” a song that anticipates the doomed heterosexual union that will follow between Esther and Norman. In “Love’s in Need of Love Today” of Pose (season 2, episode 6, FX, 2018-present), Pray Tell (Billy Porter), the mother of almost the entire ball community in Harlem in the early 1990s, is in a hospital bed fighting HIV. During a drug-induced hallucination, Pray Tell offers his own version of “The Man That Got Away” in a different yet equally haunting rendition. A few questions immediately follow from this: what drives the decision to adapt a musical number from an emblematic genre film of the 1950s about a young woman’s rise to stardom and place it in a dramatic TV series about the LGBTQ+ ball community of the late 1980s and early 1990s? What is the original song’s relevance to the present of the fictional world? What, if any, is the narrative function of this type of adaptation? These questions are part of a greater investigation into a television trope that has multiplied in the 2010s. This trope is defined by the adaptation of numbers from paradigmatic Hollywood musicals, or musical numbers with original choreography and original songs, that allude to past film and Broadway musicals and their integration into American television series.
The goal of this essay is to use the case study of the torch song “The Man That Got Away” in A Star is Born and Pose to probe into the function of these televisual adaptation instances, which I label “micro-adaptations.” I suggest this designation because the scenes/sequences in questions are short in duration but significant in emotional weight and narrative function as will be discussed below. I also acknowledge beforehand that they function simultaneously as intertextual references woven into a larger narrative and especially a contemporary television long-form story. Yet I maintain they merit meticulous study as special adaptation cases on a micro-narrative level. The analysis is preceded by a contextualization of the ways contemporary US television adapts familiar strategies from the musical film genre and brings them into their fictional universes, irrespective of their own generic guidelines.
Musical Micro-Adaptations in Contemporary Television
Musical micro-adaptations are certainly not a new television phenomenon and one can easily bring to mind examples from the 1990s and the 2000s from both action/fantasy series as well as sitcoms.1 Both Xena: Warrior Princess (NBC, 1995-2001) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The WB, 1997-2001, UPN, 2001-2003) aired two episodes in 1998 and 2001 respectively (“The Bitter Suite,” season 3, episode 12 and “Once More with Feeling,” season 6, episode 7) that were structured entirely as musicals and gave the chance to viewers to hear the singing voice and/or enjoy the dancing talents of their favorite characters. Likewise, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) performed several famous songs in the eponymous sitcom (NBC, 1993-2004). In “Look Before You Leap” (season 3, episode 16, 1996), he attempts to sing an aria for a charity television event with disastrous results and in “Sliding Frasiers” (season 8, episode 13, 2001), the protagonist serenades his lady friend with the 1972 hit “Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?” Even Frasier’s father Martin (John Mahoney) was the star of a lavish musical number during the last season of Frasier (NBC 1993-2004). In episode 14, titled “Freudian Slip,” Martin dances and sings “On the Sunny Side of the Street” in tails and a top hat, in a lavish decor complete with dancers in luxurious costumes.
However, it was not until the arrival and subsequent popularity of the musical dramedy Glee (Fox, 2009-2015) that the insertion of musical numbers of different types started populating several television series. As Hahn Nguyen notes, Glee and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW, 2015-2019) assisted the creation of “a built-in understanding with audiences that bursting into a song or dance is part of the storytelling.” Indeed, empirical observation can corroborate Nguyen’s argument as the late 2000s and 2010s included a great variety of disparate TV narratives (from fantasy and drama to sitcoms and animated series) that incorporated musical numbers into their fictional worlds.
For example, the popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother (CBS, 2005-2014) celebrated its 100th episode (“Girls Vs. Suits,” season 5, episode 12) in 2010 with an elaborate 2:42-minute sequence based on an original song whose lyrics and music belong to the show’s creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. The song of the musical number titled “Nothing Suits Me Like a Suit” stars one of the main characters, irreparable womanizer Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), who ponders whether to part with his favorite clothing item (the suit) in order to sleep with a woman who cannot stand men who wear suits. The musical number was shot on the Fox backlot in Los Angeles and featured all six protagonists of the sitcom. It included 75 back dancers and was helmed by none other than Glee’s Choreographer Zach Woodlee (Gelman 2010), which confirms Nguyen’s observation about the musical show’s influence. The sequence not only showcased the singing and dancing talents of Neil Patrick Harris, who went on to receive a Tony for best male actor in a musical in 2014, but also allowed the rest of the cast to experience the musical genre. In the words of Josh Radnor, who plays Ted, the main protagonist, “It felt like an old MGM musical. It was very exciting” (in Gelman 2010). Radnor’s quote not only confirms the intention of the creators to bring an aura of the classic Hollywood musical to television screens but also speaks to the actual process of adaptation. First, the sitcom number used the location of paradigmatic films from the past, such as Hello, Dolly! (1968), which was also shot at the Fox backlot (Griffin 2018, 246). Second, the hiring of Glee’s choreographer is further evidence as to the kind of authenticity the HIMYM showrunners wanted to lend to their production number. Finally, the funny lyrics of “Nothing Suits Me Like a Suit” are reminiscent of similar humorous numbers of the past, such as "We're a Couple of Swells" from the backstage musical Easter Parade (1948) or “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.”2 The musical sequence of HIMYM is actually a visualization of Barney’s mental process when the woman he pursues asks him bluntly to choose between her and his suits. Therefore, “Nothing Suits Me Like a Suit” is integrated into the plot of the episode and its narrative purpose is to actually provide an answer to Barney, who finally puts his favorite attire above his sexual urge.
Although the sitcom can be considered a structure that could easily accommodate a musical number due to its light-hearted atmosphere, there are also several television dramas that decided to adapt musical segments. In 2011, the medical drama House (Fox, 2004-2012) aired “Bombshells” (season 7, episode 15), containing four dream sequences that adapted respectively a sitcom, a horror/action movie, a western, a melodrama and a musical. Although the dream sequences were integrated into the usual procedural nature of the show, which follows Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) and his team trying to solve their weekly medical mystery, the episode was advertised with the tagline “This is no ordinary episode of House” (Mitovich). The promotion underlined the intertextual aspects permeating the episode but what is of interest here is the micro-adaptation of “Get Happy” originally performed by Judy Garland in Summer Stock (1950), her last MGM musical. The number, whose religious undertones are accentuated in its television adaptation, is the last intertext of the “Bombshells” episode. The two-and-a-half-minute sequence begins as Caddy (Lisa Edelstein), House’s boss and girlfriend by season 7, undergoes anesthesia as her surgery begins. Thus, it is integrated in the plot as a medically induced dream that processes Caddy’s fears regarding her health as well as her doubts over her relationship with House. In a detailed description of the entire episode, Greg Yaitanes, producer and director of “Bombshells,” explains the amount of time, energy and artistry it took to adapt Garland’s number. The end result that took 15 hours to be filmed included the participation of 200 people and 150 camera set-ups before post-production began. To this day, it remains “one of most elaborate musical sequences put to TV” (Yaitanes).
The two micro-adaptations described above are quite intricate and thus, demand time and money (especially for music rights acquisition), two factors that limit their number within the television context which operates with greater speed and more restricted budgets.3 Hence, the majority of these micro-adaptations feature “simpler” versions of past musical numbers or popular, more recent, songs in the form of a character or entire casts singing and/or dancing in their usual setting. Some of these scenes are added in order to showcase the singing abilities of specific actors, such as Tom Ellis singing Radiohead’s “Creep” in Lucifer (Fox, 2016-2018, Netflix, 2019-2020) or Ben Platt singing Billy Joel’s “Vienna” in The Politician (Netflix, 2019-present). Other micro-adaptations create comic intervals that accentuate a narrative plot point or an emotional curve, such as those in the sitcoms 30 Rock (NBC, 2006-2013), The Big Bang Theory (CBS, 2007-2019), Community (NBC, 2009-2015), American Housewife (ABC, 2016-present), the superhero and fantasy dramas The Flash (The CW, 2014-present) and The Magicians (Syfy, 2015-2020), and the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy (ABC, 2005-present).
These musical micro-adaptations also confirm the transmedia environment of the last several decades and the profitability of synergy. Starting with the first acquisitions of major film studios in the 1960s, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell note that one of the trends that emerged consisted of “wordless scenes, often montage sequences, backed by pop songs” (514). Popular hits such as “The Sound of Silence” used in The Graduate (1967), or original compositions, such as “Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head” from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) underlined the affiliations of film studios with music companies, “and made the sound-track album a source of profit” (515). The same applies in the world of contemporary television. Many shows release soundtracks (i.e. Lucifer, The Politician, Pose), while one can find the songs played in all the shows listed above on Spotify. Furthermore, a specific performance may be uploaded from fans on YouTube or become the subject of a discussion online as evidenced by a number or relevant articles.4 Thus, this trend of adapting musical numbers generates more income and publicity for the television industry.
“The Man That Got Away:” Sixty Years Apart
Warner Brothers’ A Star is Born is the first musical Garland starred in after MGM fired her a few years earlier and the last “big” picture of the studio. The film invites a variety of discussions through a number of theoretical perspectives; it can be analyzed as a remake/adaptation case study. It is after all, the remake of David O. Selznick’s 1937 same-titled romantic drama that bears affinities with George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1913), which, in its turn, draws from the Greek myth of the Cypriot king and sculptor Pygmalion. The film can also be studied as a paradigm of the last great musicals of the studio era; as part of Garland’s declining movie career; as an example of George Cukor’s virtuosity as a director; as commentary on Hollywood “reality” behind the scenes; or, as meditation on American gender politics during the 1950s.5
In this article, however, we are interested in a single sequence that occurs in the first thirty minutes and constitutes the catalyst for the development of the plot. The 1954 remake follows the story of Norman (Mason), an actor whose career is in decline, who stumbles upon charismatic artist Esther (Garland) and helps her to reach stardom. The “Man That Got Away” sequence is the moment that reveals Esther’s divine talent, which bewilders Norman and drives him to act as her Pygmalion. This song, whose music composition belongs to Harold Arlen and lyrics to Ira Gershwin, was written expressly for the film and Garland’s voice in mind as a torch song.6
The “Man That Got Away” sequence in A Star is Born lasts for four and a half minutes and consists of seven shots. The initial six shots alternate between Norman’s entry to the closed club and the musicians playing while Esther is sitting next to the pianist. Garland’s performance covers three and a half minutes of the total duration and is delivered in a single shot. The scene is beautifully lit and staged; behind the pianist, the trumpet player and Garland, who serve as the limits of the foreground and are in focus, we see an empty bar that occupies the right section of the frame. On the left side we see some tables with chairs on them to indicate that the only people in the club are only employees. The background color palette accentuates brownish and warm red hues while everything is blurry, evoking quietness after a busy night. The pianist is wearing a dark brown suit with a white shirt and brown tie that links the background with the foreground. Garland is in an elegant, dark blue form fitting sheath dress with ¾ sleeves. The collar of a white shirt underneath the dress illuminates her face and an elegant polka dot bow in blue hues serves as her accessory. Her hair is done up in a low chignon and her style is completed with a pair of discreet pearl earrings and red lips. The Technicolor process used in the film results in beautifully saturated colors and a stark contrast between the faint background and the larger than life foreground, which is dominated by Garland. Garland is shot in medium and medium close-ups as she subtly moves among the musicians and the camera moves along with her (see Figure 1). Her performance is unforced, and her voice fills the club and mesmerizes Norman. The few and careful movements of the camera and the choice of a single shot for the number create a memorable scene.
The melody of the song is subtly heard in the beginning of the sequence while Norman enters the bar, sees the musicians and hears the pianist say to Esther to “take it from the top.” Thus, Esther’s performance is an impromptu one, within the context of the band’s jam session after the end of their working day. This is also confirmed by Garland’s rather sudden and semi-staged gestures during her singing as well as her laughter once the song is over. However, “The Man That Got Away” is not placed in the scene accidentally, as a random song chosen by the pianist. Discussing the classical Hollywood film score, Kathryn Kalinak notes that it predominantly operates as “a set of conventions formulated to sustain and heighten the active reality of the classical narrative film” (264). Indeed, “The Man That Got Away,” whose lyrics talk about the pain of a woman whose lover left her, serves three narrative purposes: first, its melodic difficulty showcases Esther’s singing talent; second, it convinces Norman to help her become a star, and third, it foreshadows the end of Norman and Esther’s romantic relationship. The song’s functions confirm the variety of roles music is expected to offer: “provide characterization, embody abstract ideas, externalize thought, and create mood and emotion” (Kalinak 268). In other words, “The Man That Got Away” underlines the heroine’s talent and artistic nature (characterization), creates the abstract idea of heterosexual romantic love (abstract idea), affirms Esther’s satisfaction in her role as a singer (thought) and leads to an atmosphere of an impending beginning through Norman’s hidden gaze which betrays fascination (mood and emotion). The power of the song also lies in the formation of “spectator response” which binds them “to the screen by resonating affect” (Kalinak 268). In this respect, Patrick Keating argues that narrative and other film attractions (action sequences, dance numbers, song performances, etc.) work together to produce spectatorial emotional response. Keating (18) maintains that “narrative also encourages us to enjoy culminating emotions “in the present” and even to eagerly anticipate some events that we know for certain are going to happen.”
On a meta-narrative level, the film itself functions as a commentary on the harsh rules Garland had to obey in MGM (from cosmetic makeovers to strict diets to psychological abuse) and the sad reality she had to endure. In addition, according to Wade Jennings “The Man That Got Away” marks Garland’s change from a cute little girl singing cute little songs to a mature woman that does not hide what the Hollywood industry and entertainment culture of the time considered as physical “imperfections.” More importantly, the song showcases Garland’s on-screen voice in a way that has never been depicted before. The song “builds with dramatic inevitability, making ever-increasing demands on the singer. Garland/Esther carries off the tour-de-force in magnificent style…” (Jennings 330). Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” has remained culturally charged through the decades. Although the classic song has been interpreted by a number of great female and male voices—from Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand to Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra—its association with Garland’s film career and real life still prevails, as will be shown below in the discussion of its micro-adaptation in Pose.
Pose is an acclaimed television drama series, created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steve Canals. Starring an ensemble cast, the series focuses on the African American and Latino LGBTQ+ ballroom community during the late 1980s and early 1990s in New York City. Pose is a history course on the cultural importance of the New York ballroom scene, revealing an art form which has remained “forbidden” for decades. Pose is also a political and social history course, pointing to the marginalization of and the unprecedented obstacles members of the LGBTQ+ community had to face. This is mainly achieved through two ways: first, the representation of how these ostracized individuals formed Houses with their chosen families around a Mother figure; and, second, the representation of the first years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the stigma that surrounded especially the homosexual community. What unites the various characters in the narrative is their participation in the weekly ball where they compete for trophies and recognition but most importantly a sense of belonging. The ball’s emcee is Pray Tell (Billy Porter), who is admired and respected by the whole community and whose knowledge and experience are never questioned.
Due to its theme, Pose is a show filled with music and dance. Contemporary popular hits and older classics abound in the ballroom sequences as well as other narrative points, such as the Cabaret night Pray Tell organizes for his lover Costas (Johnny Sibilly) when the latter is hospitalized due to AIDS complications in season 1. Thus, Pose is a suitable fictional universe for the musical micro-adaptations this article discusses. Tony winner as Lead Actor in a Musical in 2013 and famous Broadway entertainer, recording artist and composer, Porter himself is another significant factor to the show’s success and the micro-adaptation of “The Man That Got Away.” The entertainer made history in 2019 as the first openly gay black man to ever win the Emmy for Best Performance by an Actor in Television Series - Drama for Pose’s first season. The show itself won the American Film Institute “TV Program of the Year” award among many other accolades and nominations as it redefined the representation of LGBTQ+ characters by making them the protagonists of the narrative.
The micro-adaptation of “The Man That Got Away” occurs in the sixth episode of the second season, which focuses on Pray Tell’s fighting the side effects of the medication he takes to combat HIV. During a medically induced hallucination in the hospital, he is visited by a friend who has been murdered, confronts the ghost of his dad that sexually abused him as a child, and reconnects with Costas, who died in season one. Although the visits Pray Tell receives draw from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) as a narrative grid, our attention lies with the adaptation of “The Man That Got Away,” which serves as the closing section of Pray Tell’s hallucination and his re-entry to reality.
The sequence in Pose lasts for four minutes, thirty seconds less than the original but consists of thirty-six shots, five times more than Garland’s scene. This difference in editing is due to the long-lasting decrease of the average shot length in films and subsequently television fiction (Brunick, Cutting and DeLong 135) and the specifics of each creative team’s staging and vision. The micro-adaptation begins after Costas visits a tired and rather resigned Pray Tell and forces him to stand up and go to the AIDS Cabaret show to sing because he shouldn’t disappoint “all the men that have died in the hospital” and “are waiting for him.” Reluctantly, Pray Tell walks out of the room but once he’s out he finds himself alone as Costas stays behind. The first notes of the song are heard on the soundtrack and Pray Tell is seen walking down the empty hospital corridor dressed up to the nines. He is in a silver suit, a white vest and shirt with a matching bow tie and a 1920s boater hat worn sideways. He also has a silver cape with an adorned long train. The lights flicker as he walks toward the hall where the Cabaret is to take place while Pray Tell seems reluctant as he starts to sing the first verse. However, once the verse is over, the automatic door to the hall opens and we hear the sound of a spotlight that falls on Pray Tell’s face (see Figure 2). He has finally reached his destination and is awaited by both a sitting audience and an orchestra. His spectators are all ghosts of male patients that died from HIV. They are wearing their hospital gowns, some are even carrying their IV drip bars, while others are in wheelchairs. Their faces betray their suffering from the disease and only a faint smile appears when Pray Tell welcomes and touches some of them. In the middle of the sequence, the eighteenth shot, Pray Tell finally takes his place in front of the microphone and forgets about his misapprehensions. His rendition of “The Man That Got Away” is powerful and heartbreaking and reveals a tremendous voice and singing ability. Moreover, intensity is gradually built with a careful rhythmic alternation of Porter’s medium close-ups with shots from the audience and the band as well as a long shot that allows television viewers to take in the entirety of the space as if this were a recorded theatre clip.
The last two shots that coincide with the song’s ending show the ghost of Costas blowing a kiss goodbye to Pray Tell. The camera follows the direction of the imaginary kiss to an open-eyed Pray Tell who is holding the last note and encircles him stopping its movement behind him. Then, a dissolve transports us to the fictional reality, and we see Pray Tell in his hospital gown thanking his audience and blowing kisses to the air until a nurse brings him back to the here and now.
The description of both renditions of “The Man That Got Away” in the 1954 film and the 2019 television text immediately points to a number of similarities and diversions in both the diegetic and extradiegetic level. First, the two renditions of the torch song function in different ways in their respective fictional universes. The original sequence is embedded in the fictional reality and acts as a narrative catalyst that pushes the plot forward. In other words, if Norman hadn’t heard Esther’s impromptu performance, he wouldn’t have been convinced about her immense talent and their relationship would not have begun. On the other hand, the micro-adaptation in Pose is not part of the narrative reality but is presented as a medically induced hallucination. However, this does not mean that it constitutes a narrative pause. On the contrary, I would argue that the Pose micro-adaptation is a substantial commentary on Pray Tell’s arc as one of the leading characters of the series and provides a narrative closure to his relationship with Costas. “The Man That Got Away” is a song about a man who abandoned the woman he was with and the despair the woman feels. Nevertheless, Esther’s performance takes place at such a point in the narrative that the lyrics do not carry emotional weight, because no romantic relationship has yet evolved between Norman and his future protégé, unlike the Pose micro-adaptation. In the context of the series, Pray Tell and Costas’s relationship has already begun and ended but not because one abandoned the other but because Costas died. His untimely passing made him “get away” but not because he stopped loving Pray Tell. The appearance of Costas’s ghost in the beginning and end of the micro-adaptation also intensifies Pray Tell’s rendition and amplifies both his emotional reaction and the viewers.’ At the same time, the last kiss Costas sends to his lover, however imaginary, gives Pray Tell the opportunity to say yet another goodbye to his partner and perhaps start finding some peace. The last narrative function of the micro-adaptation has to do with the history of the LGBTQ+ movement and especially the AIDS epidemic that claimed the lives of thousands of gay men, who not only suffered from the disease but from the social stigma that surrounded their community. In this context, Pray Tell’s audience, that is the ghosts of the AIDS victims that watch his performance, stand in for a myriad of lost lives, transforming at the same time the micro-adaptation of “The Man That Got Away” into a farewell to all those men who passed away and left their lovers alone.
The sequence also functions extradiegetically as both a recognition of the classic torch song and as an homage to Garland and a reminder of her importance as a gay icon. After all, as Georges-Claude Guilbert notes, Garland was a gay icon well before her untimely death in June 1969, and there is even an association, albeit still insufficiently substantiated, between the star’s funeral on June 27th and the Stonewall riots, which began in the early hours of June 28 and are considered “the real start of modern gay activism” (81). What is more, the multiple references included in this episode to some of the most revered gay icons of the past and present (from Garland to Madonna and Patty LuPone) enrich uninformed viewers’ knowledge and add to the visibility and history of the LGBTQ+ community.
Emotionally charged and both diegetically and extradiegetically polysemous, the micro-adaptation we discussed proves that the trend of incorporating musical numbers in contemporary American television merits attention from scholars of adaptation studies. Micro-adaptations are not mere extravaganzas or humorous “intermissions” that are simply incorporated into their long-form narratives. As the examination of “The Man That Got Away” shows, they have important functions both in the diegesis and also outside of it, while they also link the present with the past. Another area that deserves attention is the reasons behind this resurgence of musical conventions at a time where the genre, at least in its film form, is not considered a popular investment. Can these musical micro-adaptations be considered as a generic evolution? Do they herald the new ways musical conventions can become popular again? I find that these are some the questions adaptation studies can and should provide answers to.
1 Although there are relevant examples from earlier decades, I limit the historical context to the last three decades as the goal of this essay is not to historicize the use or function of musical conventions in television fiction.
2 In “integrated” musicals, “the song and dance numbers further the narratives, articulate the situations to which they give rise, and develop or further articulate the relationships between the characters involved” (Hanson and Neale 254). In the backstage musical, whose plots center around putting up a show, the “musical interludes” usually take “the form of rehearsal sequences detailing the maturation of the show” and are “interspersed with parallel dramatic scenes detailing maturation of the off-stage love affairs” (Feuer 31).
3 A note should be made, however, about the increase in television budgets since the early 2000s (Ryan and Littleton). Thus, a show like House, with a budget of $5 million per episode (Schneider) can afford an expensive musical number. Nevertheless, the difficulty in acquiring rights from the music industry as well as the time factor limit the number of such special cases of musical micro-adaptations as those found in House or Pose.
4 General titles such as “20 TV Shows with Musical-themed Episodes” (Perks), “Best, Worst, Weirdest: Musical Episodes of TV” (Donaldson), “10 Best Musical Episodes Of Non-Musical TV Shows” (Bryce) or more specific articles praising a single act, such as “Ben Platt's Cover Of "Vienna" In 'The Politician' Will Make You Sob” (Williams) attest to the appeal of these micro-adaptations.
5 The ancient myth of the man who controls the perfect woman he has created persists throughout the 20th century and the 21st as evidenced by the two remakes of A Star is Born in 1976 and 2018.
6 The torch song is not an ordinary love song. Forged in the Harlem nightclubs of the 1910s, it incorporates blues and jazz elements resulting in overwhelming melodies and intimate lyrics, and “refined by singers such as Billy Holiday, Lena Horne, and Peggy Lee” with “their full-flame treatment” (Smith xvi). It should also be noted that “The Man That Got Away” was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to “Three Coins in a Fountain” by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn at the 27th Oscar ceremony in 1955.
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