What Debbie Reynolds' role in "Singin' in the Rain" meant to me as a young female performer
While Singin’ in the Rain will always be rightfully defined by Gene Kelly’s performance of the title song, you can’t forget who inspired that iconic dance — Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden. Thanks to Reynolds’ performance, Kathy in Singin’ in the Rain was the type of leading lady that I could look up to as a young woman and performer — and still do. With the death of Debbie Reynolds comes the loss of a powerhouse performer who I (along with many others) first met on screen in Singin’ in the Rain. And thanks in large part to her role in the 1952 musical, her legend will live on in my dancing and singing heart.
Growing up, I was raised on a steady diet of old school musicals, and as a dancer, my favorite dancer was always Gene Kelly. Yet, when I first sat down and really watched Singin’ in the Rain at the age of 12, I was introduced to a female performer who caught Kelly’s character’s eye, and my eye too — Debbie Reynolds. While Kathy was approachable (Reynolds was known for playing the girl next door), she also had a lot of spunk and talent that made her both likable and worthy of admiration.
Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, Kathy was a pretty fantastic role model for me — not only as a dancer and aspiring singer who performed in musical theater, but as a young woman.
After all, she showed me the value of not immediately swooning when Gene Kelly jumps into your car unprompted, which is a pretty tremendous feat.
Yet, the biggest thing I took away from Reynolds in that role was that the type of performer that I could relate to was also the type of performer that I wanted to be. While Cyd Charisse was literally the dream dancer in Singin’ in the Rain, Reynolds was the very real and down-to-earth Kathy.
Reynolds wasn’t as statuesque as Charisse or even the other chorus girls she danced with earlier in the film. She was a short, normal, hardworking chorus girl whose energy and talent made her stand out.
Because of her experience as a chorus girl, Kathy — and, of course, Reynolds — was a triple threat. So many modern musicals feature main female roles where the women have to be phenomenal singers, but their dancing doesn’t matter as much, or at all. As an amateur dancer, I’ve always had a soft spot for musical theater leading ladies who excel at dancing and do it all — and Reynolds certainly did and could.
And when you know the backstory of how inexperienced and tenacious the 19-year-old Reynolds was as she danced alongside Kelly and Donald O’Connor, it makes her legendary performance all the more impressive.
While I know the trivia about Kelly recording over Debbie’s tap sounds and her voice being dubbed on the songs “Would You?” and “You Are My Lucky Star” (listen to her recordings though and you’ll wish they were the versions in the film), once you watch “Good Morning,” there’s no denying Reynolds’s natural talent. Can I say in good conscience that she was as great of a dancer as Kelly, in terms of technique? No, I cannot.
However, that’s actually something else that Reynolds taught me from Singin in the Rain’ — being a performer isn’t always about being the most technically advanced dancer on the stage.
Being a great performer is about stage presence and pushing yourself to succeed despite a lack of experience or limitations. Beyond being a pretty damn good dancer, Reynolds certainly had that stage presence and performance style that could grab anyone’s attention. The fact that I usually spend the majority of my time watching Reynolds, rather than Kelly, in “Good Morning” is evidence enough for me that Reynolds had that thing called “star power.”
As the rest of her career after Singin’ in the Rain proved, everyone else thought she was a star, too. And with her fresh-faced adorableness, sweet singing voice, charismatic acting, and spectacular dancing, why wouldn’t she be? The smile on Kelly’s face as he watches her perform “All I Do Is Dream of You” is how Reynolds made audiences feel during her long career.
Kathy in Singin’ in the Rain has always been a dream role of mind — thanks in large part to how accessible Reynolds made the character.
It seems somewhat of paradoxical to say that Reynolds was both incredible and accessible in the role, but I think that was a large part of Reynolds’s appeal as an actress.
She embodied the girl next door persona that she was famous for, but she wasn’t all wholesome. Even as Kathy, she was sweet with an edge. And her approachability didn’t mean you should underestimate her talents, which were massive. Reynolds was a force to be reckoned with — something that I have continued to aspire to be as a performer ever since she first mesmerized me in Singin’ in the Rain.
So I’ll keep dancing and smiling for as long as I’m able — even if my feet are bleeding — just like Reynolds did in Singin’ in the Rain and throughout her life.