Interview: Conor Sullivan

You might know Conor Sullivan from his work as one quarter of the caustically absurd sketch group Oh Theodora, or as a burgeoning screenwriter (his first screenplay, Sandkicker, was a finalist in 2011's Chicago Screenwriters Competition). Conor is also a huge fan of classic MGM movie musicals from the '40s and '50s, like Singin' In The Rain, Anchors Aweigh!, and Ziegfeld Follies

While these films are generally regarded by critics and cinéastes as classics, they're hardly fashionable today; with their deliberately crafted and expertly choreographed dance numbers and physical comedy standing out in stark contrast to the modern ambling, overtly improvised mainstream comedy picture. I talked to Sullivan all about his unique passion, and got a few recommendations for those looking to explore this genre further.

Transient

The Steamroller: Hi Conor, let's get the background info out of the way first. Where are you from? How long have you lived in Chicago? Where can people see you perform?

Conor Sullivan: I'm originally from the Boston suburbs, and I've lived in Chicago for 3 years. Aside from Oh Theodora (always pluggin' Show Theodora, 3rd Wednesday of every month at the Pub Theater), I'm the co-creator of Collector's Edition, a bi-monthly music essay show beginning at the Upstairs Gallery, October 24th with our show on the rise and fall of alt rock radio.

I'm also a screenwriter, my first screenplay, Sandkicker, was a Comedy finalist in the 2011 Chicago Screenwriters Competition and a Quarter-finalist in the 2011 PAGE International Screenwriting Competition. 

My next screenplay is a modern tribute to MGM musicals called Molly in Technicolor, which will have a staged reading with full musical numbers early next year. I've spent two years outlining and watching as many of these musicals as I could, so sorry if I get long-winded/rambly/psychotic about my love here.

TS: Did you grow up watching old timey movie musicals or was this something you came to on your own later on?

CS: My obsession with MGM musicals began at a very strange age: 22. The beauty of Youtube and people posting any and all clips of their favorite things on Facebook means that every so often, you'll stumble upon something great.

For me, it was someone posting Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds performing the "Good Morning" number in Singin' in the Rain. Up to that point, movies (specifically comedies) were more on the lazy side, putting more emphasis on improvised moments and less on scripts and choreography. But here was a scene where every single moment was staged with forced glee. And it could not have looked more loose and silly and fun. Something about the effort in it all hooked me, and in 2010, I became the last person in the world to see Singin' in the Rain

MGM musicals rose in the 40's as escapist fare, movies families could go to and forget about World War II and its repercussions. Once the war was over, TV was on the rise, and movie-goers were looking for more realism in their movies. Within ten years, the musical was out of fashion, a hokey, idealistic sort of movie thrown aside for movies where James Dean would brood, and Jayne Mansfied would heave her tits in a befuddled Tony Randall's face. 

TS: What was it about these films that grabbed you so strongly?

CS: That escapist nature of these movies is what speaks to me. Not that my life is plagued with problems that only an Anne Miller tap number can dance away. Though, if I DID have huge problems, this video would probably help:

But I say escapist because for me, its an escape from scrolling through Facebook feeds of endless political opinions and photos with the caption "Nachos? Yes, please!" It's an escape from streaming full seasons of television shows JUST to get to the end. And it's an escape from performances or videos featuring people that couldn't have less of an interest in genuinely entertaining an audience.

At some point in the last 10 years, movies and TV shows got very loose. The word "improvised" was thrown around as a descriptor more than ever. Which is fine, plenty of unscripted forms of entertainment are terrific. There's nothing wrong in turning your brain off for a night, in fact, that's the reason most of these movies were made! But in MGM musicals, there is CRAFT.

Craft in the choreography through mountains of fucking bubbles!

Craft in an alpha male's ability to tap dance while on fucking roller skates!

Craft in constructing a working Early 20th Century fucking Show Boat!

In every MGM musical, every single second is intricately planned. A rather popular story regarding Singin' in the Rain is that Gene Kelly made Debbie Reynolds' feet bleed when filming "Good Morning."  I think it got popular not just because it's gossipy, but because when you watch the number, even though they're having fun, you can see EVERY SINGLE HOUR that went into those steps.

This video gives an incredible behind the scenes video of Eleanor Powell's "Fascinating Rhyhym" number. Look at all those stagehands go! In 9 out of 10 modern musicals, there'd be quick cut after quick cut just to shield you from the fact that your leads can't dance. But here?! Dozens of people work just to make sure they get the WHOLE number in one shot!

TS: Are there any modern movie musicals (made in, say, the last 25 years) that can live up to the standards set by the classics? If not, what's missing from them?

CS: Though I think that no modern musical could ever compare to the MGM golden age, that's not really fair to say. The form has mutated so much with the advent of rock and rap that sometimes you're not even sure if you can call what you're watching a musical. I'm sure the majority of dudes who went to see 8 Mile in theaters wouldn't be too pleased if I called it the most toe-tappin' revue of 2002!  

But I think the main thing most musicals are missing is the candy-coated Entertainment Delivery System style that these musicals had. Take one of my absolute favorites, 1945's Anchors Aweigh. The plot is absolute shit: sailors on leave on the prowl for ladies in Los Angeles. No one seemed to notice that these same two sailors (and a third, slightly more ethnic sailor) were on leave and on the prowl for ladies in NYC only FOUR years later in On The Town. But throughout Anchors Aweigh's bizarre and consistently entertaining 2 hours, there's a hodge podge of musical numbers including

  • A song performed by a symphony consisting entirely of pianos.
  • A scene where Gene Kelly stops an adorable cartoon mouse's reign of terror over a cartoon kingdom by teaching him how to dance.
  • A jaunty little ditty where Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly call the leading lady a slut in various ways.
  • A Three Musketeers scene where Kelly plays a Douglas Fairbanks-type hero for no fucking reason at all.

That's how the old movies would work. Someone would suggest "Hey, it'd be cool if we had a claymation orchestra of fruit in a fruit bowl, right?" "You're right, Vincent. Might as well put it in this Mickey/Judy picture!" It was just a collection of the most interesting, strange, crazy ideas.

TS: Do you find this obsession/fascination manifesting itself in your performing/writing?

CS: This pure desire to entertain and amuse has definitely shown up in Oh Theodora quite a bit. We're really not that interested in proving political points or sticking it to people for using smart phones on the train. Sometimes a little (or in our cases, an intense overdose) of silly and bizarre can be a lot more refreshing. 

TS: What's a good starting point for people interested in the genre? What about a few personal favorites?

CS: If you want to immerse yourself in a few of these movies, here's where I'd start

  1. Singin' in the Rain: The obvious choice. But man, if you haven't seen it, you're missing out on something special. Gene Kelly was at the height of his power, and he got whatever the fuck he wanted. That's why there's a 12 minute ballet near the end of the movie that has NOTHING TO DO WITH THE REST OF THE MOVIE! 
  2. Anchors Aweigh: For all the crazy reasons above, plus it's worth it to see Frank Sinatra play a wuss who is afraid of asking out girls. I bet all the women he bagged in the 50's and 60's met up once a year to watch this movie and throw things at the screen. And then maybe they'd all make out.
  3. Ziegfeld Follies: This is where the above bubbles beauty number comes from, along with a handful of numbers featuring Mr. Fred Astaire. Most of Fred's best movies were with Ginger Rogers with RKO in the thirties, but the numbers here certainly rank among his best. This also has his only true number paired with Gene Kelly. Add Judy Garland, Esther Williams, Lucille Ball, and Lena Horne, and you've got a murderer's row of talent. MGM said once that they had more stars than were in the heavens, and this one movie alone proves it.
  4. Gigi: A perfect example of MGM's prestige musicals. Here we see an actual attempt at plot, and a scaling back of dancing (but not on costumes or locations) Plus, Maurice Chevalier tips his cap to you and narrates first person in the first three minutes. That's pretty awesome, though he may not have gotten away with the title of this song in 2012.

  5. Any Mickey/Judy Movie- Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were GODS!  Holy shit, they were fucking SUPER GODS of the cinema for a few years. These movies were just money printers. The plots were EXACTLY THE SAME, as evidenced in this hysterical montage. But again, early musicals could not have cared less about your PRECIOUS plot when the numbers and performers were so goddamn good. 

    A lot has been written about how MGM permanently fucked up Mickey and Judy with pep pills. But man oh man, they were something special. Check out Mickey Rooney drumming in Strike Up the Band. Holy shit, right?

Now these are just basic recommendations. I could give you a hundred other musical numbers to find on Youtube (Judy''s unjustly cut masterpiece "March of The Doagies, Bob Fosse's crazy-ass dance mid-way through "From This Moment On"  and OH MAN! HOW HAVE I GONE THIS FAR WITHOUT TELLING YOU TO DROP EVERYTHING AND WATCH BING AND FRANK BOOZE IT UP IN "WELL, DID YOU EVAH?"

TS: Anything else?

CS: I'll end with a quick story...

In July, I went to a special commemorative screening of Singin' in the Rain, in honor of it's 50th Anniversary. The theater was packed with families and bookish girls in raincoats, but the man sitting in front of me was a large, surly-looking hispanic man and his wife. For the sake of this story, I'll call him FatGrump.

Apparently, the digital presentation was having streaming issues, and was delayed 15 minutes. FatGrump only grew grumpier (thankfully not fatter) and went outside to curse out the manager. He returned, and shouted to all of us. "Don't worry folks! The manager has assured me the movie will start soon, and will start at the beginning. Because if he starts it in the middle of "Moses Supposes"... he trailed off and clenched his fist, readying a punch for ANYONE who would get in his way of enjoying the entirety of this silly little musical from thr 50's. 

The movie soon began, but 10 minutes in, it stalled. FatGrump rose and screamed at the projection booth "THAT'S IT!" He rose and left the theater to cuss out the manager a SECOND time. He returned with an angry grin and a thumbs up. The movie began again, this time without any disruption. I watched FatGrump more than the screen. This dude knew EVERY moment of the movie. Every line, every lyric, every orchestra sting! When the movie ended, his gigantic Gene-induced grin shone throughout the theater. As my friend Ben stated, "NOTHING was going to get in between this man and his Singin' in the Rain

What's the point of the story? First, I think FatGrump is a cruel name. But more importantly, it's that these movies don't have a set appeal. They're not for teens or housewives or guys that like cars and HATE housework. They're a pristine example of entertainment for anybody .Or maybe I'm just justifying my own obsession.

Anyways, I love these movies, you don't have to, but it would be pretty awesome if you did. Then we could all petition the Music Box together to get 'em played every single weekend! What do you say?