I don't really know Dreamgirls the way I know, say, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Anything Goes or Brigadoon. I could hum you "One Night Only" -- or, at the least, its unrelenting chorus -- but that was about it. I was surprised, then, not only by the verve and dazzle Bill Condon brought to his big-screen version of the 1981 Broadway musical, but also by the strength in the original material -- the songs, the script, the underlying micro-to-macro swoop of the story as it looked at years of history in America through a pop group and a family's journey. Dreamgirls is the sizzle and the steak, the glam and the grit, in one rousing piece of moviemaking.
As terms of art go, "Movie Musical" is like "Fresh-Frozen," a self-contained contrary idea. The musical is theater; it's live. There are no cuts; there are no shots; your point-of-view is determined by your ticket. And the musical gives us something -- life -- that the movies do not. It's why they're so damned sentimental, and one of the reasons they live for us. And even as an art form in decline -- and living in the tryout market for a musical based on Legally Blonde will make you think that the musical theater is in decline, or at least it does for me -- I'd wager that while more people in America have seen movies than live musicals, more people have been in live musicals than movies, those clumsy high-school productions and university revues, or standing as a baritone shepherd in a Nativity chorale.