Just as the primary subject of popular music is love, so the great theme of the film musical, like Shakespearean comedy, is romance, which it tends to depict according to the honeyed clichés of pop music. Typically, love in the musical from Flying Down to Rio (1933) to Moulin Rouge is of the wonderful "some-enchanted-evening" variety, where lovers are depicted as destined for each other, and after an inevitable series of delays and obstacles, they get together and presumably live happily ever after. In An American in Paris (1951), Gene Kelly is inexplicably blind to the obvious charms of Nina Foch but irredeemably smitten with Leslie Caron upon his first view of her.
The film musical allows dance to work as a sexual metaphor, for when a couple dances well—as they always do in musicals—two bodies move in graceful harmony. As a sexual metaphor, dance offers an appealing fantasy, for it suggests that making love is always as smooth as, say, dancing is for Astaire and Rogers. Also, the dance metaphor neatly solved the problem of censorship for
Beginning with the cycle of nine musicals starring Astaire and Ginger Rogers (1911–1995) made by RKO in the 1930s, the genre offered a series of model romantic relationships. Typically in the Astaire–Rogers films, the two stars are initially attracted to each other but unable to come together due to some comic misunderstanding. The narrative conflict is resolved when the couple's differences are reconciled, generally through the mediating power of musical performance, resulting in the couple's union. Rogers makes this clear enough to Astaire in the first film of their series, The Gay Divorcee (1934), when she sings to him about "The Continental," in which "You tell of your love while you dance." In Top Hat (1935) Astaire and Rogers play out their courtship through dance in the "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?" number, where the pair tests each other out through dance steps and then finally dance together on an empty bandstand, where they are waiting out a thunderstorm. The Astaire–Rogers films worked so well because the two performers were equal partners in the dance numbers, neither one dominating the screen when they danced together.
In the Astaire–Rogers films, as in many musicals, the male character represents unchanelled sexual desire, but inevitably he becomes monogamous and romantic in the end. In Top Hat Astaire is a ladies' man who proclaims, in response to comic foil Edward Everett Horton's suggestion that he get married, that he has "No Strings," that "I'm fancy free and free for anything fancy." Later, his aggressive dancing in his hotel room disturbs Rogers in the room below, and when she comes up to protest, he immediately falls in love with her. After she leaves, he sprinkles some sand on the floor and does a soft-shoe that soothes her to sleep, his initially aggressive and indiscriminate desire literally softened by her femininity. Similarly, when Astaire sings "They Can't Take That Away from Me" in the climax of Shall We Dance (1937) amid a sea of women all wearing identical Ginger Rogers masks ("If he couldn't dance with you, he'd dance with images of you," she is told), Rogers joins the crowd, momentarily reveals her true self, and then makes Astaire search her out by unmasking and rejecting the others before they can dance alone.
In The Pirate (1948) Serafin (Gene Kelly) is initially depicted as sexually active and indiscriminate. His first song, "Niña," expresses his desire for all beautiful women, whom he refers to with the Spanish word for the generic "girl." Kelly's athletic dance in this number gives a choreographed shape to his robust masculinity as he climbs poles and trellises. By the end of the film Manuela (Judy Garland) tames Serafin with romantic love, so that they can come together and joyously perform the finale, claiming, "The best is yet to come." If the western hero rides off into the sunset and the detective hero walks alone down those mean streets, in the film musical characters are almost always united in the end. The genre's vision of romance is nothing less than, to quote the title of one film musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).