When actors are not on song

This week, our resident historian answers your questions on dubbed musicals, decorum at cinemas and small theatrical openings
Man of La Mancha
Excess all arias ... Man of La Mancha. Photo: Kobal

Why are dubbed musicals so frowned upon in the west when Bollywood pictures depend so heavily on playback singers?
Vidhu Khanna, Coventry

In reviewing Man of La Mancha (1972), the American critic Roger Ebert offered the Wildean quip, "If there's anything worse than dubbing in the voice of a non-singer, it's not dubbing the voice of a non-singer." In the early days of screen sound, the primitive technology meant that songs had to be recorded live. However, the accidental discovery of playback during the filming of Broadway Melody (1929) allowed for numbers to be staged to pre-recorded music. This not only saved time and money, but it also solved the problem of achieving a balance between the vocal and orchestration. The introduction of sound mixing shortly afterwards enabled technicians to tinker with the timbre of a performer's voice or simply to replace it with that of a more accomplished singer.

With characters breaking into song in everyday situations, the musical genre relied entirely on the suspension of disbelief and shrill or discordant voices couldn't be allowed to shatter the illusion. Consequently, stars were required to lip-sync to such unsung vocalists as Trudy Erwin, Jo Ann Greer, Louanne Hogan, Martha Mears, Virginia Rees, Betty Wand and Eileen Wilson.

Eventually, the tendency towards greater realism that had transformed Hollywood's other genres seeped into the musical, too. Audrey Hepburn was dubbed by Marni Nixon in My Fair Lady (1964), but Rex Harrison talked on pitch and there was no going back after Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave had performed their own songs in Camelot (1967), even though it proved a commercial calamity.

In Bollywood, however, fantasy remains a key ingredient of masala musicals and stars have to sound as good as they look. Moreover, the huge popularity of soundtrack albums means that quality takes precedence over authenticity. Yet little attempt has been made to disguise the fact that the majority of India's screen idols are miming and playback singers have always been promoted as stars in their own right. Thus, while few will have heard of Anita Ellis, Carole Richards or Bonnie Lou Williams, the likes of SP Balasubramaniam, KS Chitra, Manna Dey, Geeta Dutt, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Udit Narayan, Sonu Nigam, Mohammad Rafi, Kumar Sanu, Kavita Krisnamurthi Subramaniam, Alka Yagnik and the sisters Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar are household names across the subcontinent and its diaspora.

When did they stop playing the national anthem at the end of cinema shows?
Patrick Peterson, Bicester

The custom for last house audiences to stand to attention for the national anthem died out with the culture of deference in the early 1960s. Previously, it had been considered bad manners and disrepectful to the monarch to leave as soon as the action ended. Moreover, with the credits coming at the beginning of a picture, it was easy for cinema managers to play the anthem before anyone could reach for their coat.

However, in the late 1950s, disregarding the anthem came to be seen as an act of socio-political protest among students and efforts to play God Save the Queen before the main feature were abandoned as latecomers ignored it to find their seats before the picture started. With British movies being dominated by angry young men in kitchen sink sagas that reflected the reality of everyday life, the anthem ritual becoming increasingly anachronistic and exhibitors simply gave up trying to impose decorum on their patrons.

I was amused to read in Charles Gant's box-office rundown that Gunnin' for That #1 Spot took only £86 on its opening weekend. Is this a record low?
Megan Thomas, Wrexham

A: No, John Penney's Zyzzyx Rd took a mere $30 when only six people attended its six-screening sojourn at the Highland Village Park Theater in Dallas, Texas during the last week of 2006. And, even then, producer-star Leo Grillo refunded $10 to the film's makeup artist Sheila Moore after she paid to take a friend. Worse still, Grillo had spent $1,000 on hiring the venue to comply with Screen Actors Guild's salary regulations for low-budget pictures. He did recoup some of the $1.2m budget, however, when DVD sales in 23 foreign territories brought in $368,000.