The French have always had a difficult relationship with musicals, or as they call them, les comédies musicales. The form is one of America’s principal cultural ties to its erstwhile colonizer. Of course, the dialogue is not limited to Gilbert & Sullivan and Sondheim, but extends across genres with shows in perpetual rotation between the West End and Broadway; a show is only to close in New York to be transferred to London to close in London to be revived in New York. If British and American politicians could achieve the same level of spirited collaboration in the “special relationship” as the West End and Broadway, it could have enormous geopolitical benefits. Though, Anglo-American diplomatic intercourse, perversely cordial or otherwise, is not our concern here. This brief aside was only meant to demonstrate the theatrical intimacy between the UK and the US and their adoption of many of the same forms and conventions. As a general rule, for all of the cross-pollination between French artists and their Anglo-Saxon peers, la tradition française has stood in contrast to their Norman descendants, especially when it comes to musicals.
For all that, musicals owe their existence to a Frenchman. Hevré established the light comic operas, or opérettes, which were popularized by the German born French composer Offenbach. The opérettes leapt across the channel where they lost their courtisane stars and became respectably English. Perhaps it is this association with middle-class virtue that has attracted such derision on the continent. Christophe Honoré’s new musical film Les bien-aimés (Beloved) may break with the traditional Gallic snub for English probity, but it is not without precedent. Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) was an unexpected succès fou in France. And yet it would be unwise to too closely associate the two. Demy’s film was a Technicolor tribute to Hollywood; M. Honoré’s film is in dialogue with its Tinseltown counterparts, not in fealty.