Let’s talk about something that people everywhere like to talk about: Lists of best things.
And since this is a musical theatre blog (still looking for a better word…blarticle?), I think we should talk about movie musicals. Don’t you? (Of course you do.)
Now, there have been a lot of lists generated on this subject, and they usually have quite a few top choices in common. Singin’ In the Rain usually breaks the top 2 on most lists, and people certainly over-value the Chicago film. (Relax.)
Which leads us to the conundrum oft-spoken of, which is that many great musicals have made TERRIBLE movie musicals, and many seemingly simple-minded musicals have actually turned out very well on the big screen. There’s no real direct correlation between how tremendous a musical is to how well it will turn up on film. One only need to look at the majority of Sondheim movie musicals, like A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum or A Little Night Music. The elusive properties of success in the move-musical genre have puzzled many a studio, and many a film-goer as well.
So, any time you’re compiling a BEST-OF list, it’s always a combination of personal taste and an attempt to justify its quality from a non-emotional point of view. How “GREAT” it is can be is of course quite subjective, but there are plenty of “great” musicals that I simple don’t care for very much, and some musicals that are guilty pleasures. We’ve all got them. Yes, you do have them, don’t pretend.
I remember back in college a friend and I had a rule that you’re allowed to have 1 guilty pleasure musical in your top 5 of all time, but only one. Restrain yourself. Spoiler Alert: I may have 2.
But the one thing about adapting a stage musical to film is that you’re going to have to make changes. And the changes are going to be either better or worse than the original source material. And it’s gone both ways, of course. Normally, human beings tend to stick with the first version of something they experience, and then dislike changes from that first experience, which is why many people who experience the stage version of Newsies first tend to have trouble with the film, while people who saw the film first have MAJOR problems with the musical on stage. (These latter people are, of course, 100% correct.)
Many of MY favorite movie musicals are pictures that I think improve upon the source material dramatically. And many of these films I saw AFTER seeing the stage production, which I think makes it even more valid. But I encourage you, while reading through my highly personal-opinion-based list, to consider your own, and maybe argue a bit with me.
Now, disclaimer: I haven’t seen all of the movie musicals that exist. In fact, there are a few that I can’t BELIEVE I haven’t seen. And neither can my friends. I’ll probably see them soon enough, but don’t be mad. Examples of movie musicals that I haven’t seen, that show up on some people’s lists prominently:
Cabin in the Sky
The Greatest Showman
I’ll see them eventually. Maybe there will be some on my list that you haven’t seen.
Also, I think the criteria for movie musical is a musical (original or adapted from the stage) that is not merely a video of a stage production. We’re so fortunate that some stage productions have been preserved on film, such as Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, Passion, etc…but this has to be a movie musical, not a professionally shot stage production. Also, not including animated musicals, such as the Disney collection. That’s really its own category, I think. I’m on the fence on whether to include television musicals, like the Jason Alexander Bye Bye Birdie or the Matthew Broderick Music Man. I think those can be fair game. Otherwise, all other movie musicals apply.
Here is my top 35 of all time. I’m excited to hear some of yours!
DICK TRACY (1990)
I would say that this straddles the line a bit in terms of eligibility, but featuring Mandy Patinkin, Madonna, Dick Van Dyke, and 5 original songs from Stephen Sondheim, it’s tough to forget some of the terrific moments of this film. Patinkin and Madonna’s duet “What Can You Lose?” is standout Sondheim, and songs like “Sooner or Later”, “More” and “Back in Business” are regularly heard by these ears in auditions for jazzier shows. In a non-musical role, Al Pacino gives a tremendously villainous performance as Big Boy, one of the better performances of his, believe it or not.
THE MUPPETS AT WALT DISNEY WORLD (1990)
Well, this features Muppets and it was made for television, so it’s skirting the parameters a bit, but if you’ve never seen this 60-minute piece of nostalgia, it’s well worth it. It’s Jim Henson’s final Muppet work; he’d die 10 days following it’s airing on NBC. The plot takes Kermit and his friends to, yes, Disney World. It features a young, Cosby-show-era Raven-Symone singing “The Rainbow Connection” to Kermit, an Epcot World Showcase-travelling Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem with the song “Rocking All Around the World”, and of course some vintage Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy. One of the gems is the Statler & Waldorf duet “Who’s Your Lady Friend?”, as well as Rowlf’s “Doggin’ It”. If you’re a muppets or a Disney fan, you should watch it within the week.
THE TOP 35
35 – CAMP (2003)
Well, obviously it’s not cracking the top 25 here, but there was something wonderfully authentic about the performances in this film, especially from Robin de Jesus (later Sonny in In The Heights), Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect, The Last Five Years), Sasha Allen (Bare, Hair), and of course a cameo from Stephen Sondheim himself. Based on the musical theatre mecca-camp Stagedoor Manor, the movie has some truly cringe-worthy moments as well. But some standout songs are also in play, such as “How Shall I See You Through My Tears”, “I Sing For You”, “Century Plant” and “Here’s Where I Stand”. Also standing out is its performance of “Turkey Lurkey Time”, of which there’s never a bad time to partake.
34 – DREAMGIRLS (2006)
Dreamgirls is tricky. There’s the makings for a fantastic movie musical, and then there are so many missteps along the way. Most notably Jamie Foxx as Curtis, and a lot of decisions to cut certain portions of the sung recitative throughout. Hardly a first for a movie musical, but so much of the original production was the seamless, never-pausing motion delivered by Michael Bennett, and that you never felt the action stop. It was such a whirlwind, very much on purpose, and there are times the movie just screeches to a halt. But, among its better moments? Well, it’s rare that the obligatory writing-a-new-song-for-the-best-song-Oscar musical number ever works, but this film has 4 (FOUR!) of them, and I think they ALL work. “Love You I Do”, “Perfect World” and “Listen” all enrich the plot in different ways, but the standout contribution is “Patience”. This song, to me, is what it’s all about when you change the medium from stage to screen. The song features a montage of the well-documented dilapidation of Detroit that was occurring around this time, and the way it’s interwoven with the song and the collapse of Jimmy Early is exactly what’s beautiful about using all the videographic tools at your disposal.
33 – THE LAST FIVE YEARS (2014)
Well, I don’t think it was cast poorly. These are two gifted actor-singers, so you get a lot of great interpretation in these songs, and they both nail the vocals. But something about the film doesn’t add up to me. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of chemistry going on, and you end up not really rooting for either of them. And I don’t think that’s a flaw of the show, I’ve seen it work, most notably with Norbert Leo Butz and Lauren Kennedy. But it’s still nice to see a smaller-scale movie musical. One wonders how this film could have connected to its audience more. I only know I felt very little from this film of a show I genuinely like.
32 – LA LA LAND (2016)
I know, what’s wrong with me, La La Land at 32…I just didn’t really believe almost any of it. It rang very hollow. And I think the perfect microcosm of the issue with the film is on display in the number “Someone in the Crowd” as the girls are getting dressed and ready for this party, and this vague jazz score beneath it, paired with the jazz-cool lip-syncing just made this whole premise seem so false, so non-theatrical to me, that I couldn’t buy in. I couldn’t buy in to this 21st Century romantic Los Angeles dreamscape. Maybe I’m the only one (my wife loved the movie), but I WILL say that the acting in the book scenes were quite good, and I found both of them as charming as anyone could be in the situation. And its success come awards season is only good for musical theatre in Hollywood. But the disconnect between the sound of the show and the performing of it was something I couldn’t get past.
31 – LES MISERABLES (2012)
Well, I’ve got a bunch of problems with Les Mis…but also some good things to say about it, too. We’ll start with the good. I think Hugh Jackman is a pretty decent choice for the role - build-wise, name-wise, talent-wise. In general, I thought he did well. I also really liked Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, even with it being so built up from everyone. It really was what’s good about movie musicals. That 20-minute segment of the film I think is among movie-musicals’ best. I also really bought into Eddie Redmayne at times as Marius, though the singing could be a little jarring to the ear. And the idea of having live singing worked about 80% of the time, which is incredibly high for a first endeavor like that. The obligatory grumblings have to do of course with Russell Crowe’s Captain Crunch-like Javert, the singing of Amanda Seyfried, and the incredibly leadership-lacking, non-magnetic performance of Aaron Tveit in one of the more exciting roles written into musical theatre. Other than the Fantine stuff, there were 2 great movie-musical moments in the film…the crane shot out of the monastery when ValJean rips his papers at the end of his soliloquy and the “At the End of the Day” music starts cranking through. And the moment where they’re about to start the revolution, and you have what sounds like a 50-piece orchestra playing the student’s quick theme. Where was that orchestra throughout? Talk about a project that could benefit from a large orchestra budget and some grandiose epicness…Also, Jackman’s lack of a soft falsetto while singing “Bring Him Home” was quite quizzical…everyone around him is asleep? How is that possible, he’s screaming his face off? I digress.
30 – GODSPELL (1973)
Well, it’s Victor Garber playing Jesus in Godspell. So that’s worth something. In general, Godspell is a show that just works a little better on stage then on screen, especially with the original concept of the clowning elements, which this film maintains. But Garber is very transparent on film, and he helps bring this bizarre interpretation of the book of Matthew to light. He’s a great choice for this role, especially in 1973.
29 – LUCKY STIFF (2015)
It’s rare to see a smaller-budget movie musical in 2015, but this short little romp on screen is pretty decent. Jason Alexander is quite the hoot, and there are some lovely smaller roles played by Kate Shindle and Cheyenne Jackson. Overall, it’s a bit odd, sure. But for a musical theatre fan that likes the show, it’s a rare treat. And it’s quite short, so you won’t have wasted too much of your life if you disagree. You wish they’d make more musicals on this scale, so there’s no massive disappointment on the line if your hundred-million-dollar budget film falls flat. Think of all the smaller shows that could be represented.
28 – RENT (2005)
Yes, there’s plenty of issues with this film. But the way that these performers have sunken into their roles 10 years later is very rewarding to watch. Living with the characters for 10 years really does something to the subtext and depth of expression. Especially Jesse L. Martin and Adam Pascal, who are really honest and magnetic in their roles. Both Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms are worthy additions to the original cast, but it’s also pretty clear that this movie is shot in San Francisco instead of NYC. This film, unfortunately, comes 10 years too late, though. What was incredibly daring and groundbreaking in 1995 seems a bit meh in 2005. Also, pay your rent, people. It’s just what responsible people do.
27 – EVITA (1996)
This is an interesting placement for this film, I admit. Some of it is unwatchably boring. Absolutely. And of course there’s controversy of Madonna even playing this role, but I think she does a decent job. I have it here for 2 reasons – Jonathan Pryce, who is wonderful as Peron, and the cinematography, which is some of the best of the last 30 years in a movie musical. The costume design, the locations, the way they use the light, it’s really stunning visually. Which you’d hope for a film like this. Visually, it delivers. Antonio Banderas is also a great choice for Che Guevara, at least Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s version of Che Guevara. Also “The Lady’s Got Potential” is an upgrade to “The Art of the Possible”, and the addition of “You Must Love Me” I think is pretty valuable. The score and lyrics themselves are cringe-worthy at times, but that’s the source material. But it’s another great example of what can be achieved on film with superior resources and locations.
26 – SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER, AND UNCUT (1999)
It’s no secret that Stephen Sondheim was a fan - “Oh, yes, I think South Park Uncut is just terrific, and the numbers in it are wonderful” – but the real joy behind this irreverent romp is that it pays homage to musical theatre quite well, making the pastiche on point, and this formula would be used again in The Book of Mormon to even further success. Of course “Blame Canada” and “Up There” are great songs, but even “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” is musical theatre gold. Yes, it’s animated, and I broke my own rule. But I only ask myself, what WOULD Brian Boitano do if he were making this list. Case rested.
25 – MOULIN ROUGE! (2001)
There’s a LOT of heart in this movie. It’s quirky, over the top, and Baz Luhrman’s in-your-face editing is on full display. But it’s executed well, and stands up as a unique film telling a heartbreaking story. Jim Broadbent is wonderful, and the film’s score is particularly divine from Craig Armstrong. “Come What May” stands up very well as one of the only original songs, and the different arrangements give the movie a fascinatingly 2001 Bohemian feel, something that Rent wished it could accomplish with its Bohemian roots. Especially loved Placido Domingo as the moon during “Your Song”. Interested to see this new stage version. I think a lot of the quick camera cuts is what gave the film it’s style, so it will be fascinating to see what plays on stage.
24 – ON THE TOWN (1949)
Much of this film is unlike the stage show, but Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly combining forces on screen leaves the audience simultaneously enraptured and perplexed. It’s just…something. Quite enjoyable is one of the songs added for this motion picture, “Main Street”. In fact, much of Bernstein’s score would be deleted from the film as “too complex”…Yeesh. And the MPAA wouldn’t allow the lyric “helluva”, so the iconic opening number told us that New York was a “wonderful town”. Wonderful Town indeed, later-Bernstein.
23 – LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986)
Frank Oz, the legendary Muppet-eer, went behind the camera on this one, directing this cult classic for the screen, featuring an incredibly earnest Rick Moranis, who’s really wonderful in the role of Seymour. It’s also great to see Ellen Green’s work on display and preserved for posterity, while Steve Martin is a treat as the Doctor. After poor audience reactions to the final 23 minutes including “Don’t Feed the Plants”, they reshot it all with a more palatable ending. But the great cameos (Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, John Candy) and the earnestness of Moranis’ performance makes this film a pretty decent movie musical. When Rick Moranis hits his final note of “Skid Row”, it’s a pleasant surprise that jolts you into the action to come. You really get a sense of how cool this must have been onstage when it first opened.
22 – BRIGADOON (1954)
This is a musical I adore, so this imperfect film probably holds more esteem to me than to others, and that’s fair. The amount of material cut from the film for various reasons (MPAA thought both of Meg’s songs were too risqué, after listening to Gene Kelly sing some of the ballads they cut them, etc…) could have really put a damper on this interpretation. But then the parts that work, REALLY work, including the addition of Jeff to “I’ll Go Home With Bonnie Jean”. Gene Kelly is certainly a different Tommy than Robert Goulet’s 1966 Television performance, but this is Gene Kelly at his smoothest, and his effortless Tommy adds quite a bit of whimsy to the film. And Cyd Charisse as Fiona is pretty magical as well. It would be nice to see this film get a new treatment today, with a large budget and more on location shooting.
21 – MY FAIR LADY (1964)
Well, it was a piece of art on stage, so getting to see Rex Harrison portray Henry Higgins to more and more people is definitely a privilege. Hepburn is pretty great as well, and you really get a sense how well this musical actually works. Great to see Stanley Holloway back as Alfie, and the majority of the score firmly in place. Marni Nixon’s work, dubbing for Hepburn, is also terrific, but when you listen to Hepburn’s own vocals, they’re pretty serviceable. Oh yeah, and this film won the Oscar for Best Musical, Best Actor (for Harrison), and Best Director. And the American Film Institute rated it the 91st greatest film of all time. So it’s got some cred.
20 – THE MUSIC MAN (1962)
Seeing Robert Preston strut his stuff on film in this role is something that we’re lucky to see. One of the best roles written for the theatre, the film is pretty close to the stage musical, with a few notable exceptions. But capturing this performance is especially instrumental to why the musical was such a hit on Broadway, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical over West Side Story. Getting to see Pert Kelton reprise her role as Mrs. Paroo and the Buffalo Bills as the quartet lends some weight to the proceedings, and Buddy Hackett is a treasure as Marcellus. It’s one of the rare instances that the original Broadway director (Morton DaCosta) also directed AND PRODUCED the film, ensuring that the movie would be as faithful to the original as desired. But only can only imagine how much more dangerous the original production was, as this film seems rather saccharine at times.
19 – WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954)
Many people grew up watching this movie (my wife, for one), but I only recently saw it for the first time, and I must say, yeah it’s delightful. Danny Kaye is especially strong, the plot is really rather wonderful, and it’s actually shot quite beautifully. Originally meant for Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, Astaire dropped out after reading the script (Yikes…), and Donald O’Connor dropped due to illness just before shooting, opening up the door to Danny Kaye, who asked for (and received) $200,000 (about $1.8 Million today) PLUS 10% of the gross…Solid businessman, that Danny Kaye. Obviously many of the glorious songs weren’t introduced in this film, but featured none the less, and when it comes to holiday musicals, it’s tough to beat. It’s also interesting that when you listen to the song “Sisters”, know that Rosemary Clooney actually sang both roles…
18 – CHICAGO (2002)
Chicago is a pretty solid movie musical, that’s for sure. It also lends itself extremely well to the screen, which doesn’t hurt. But the performances are all pretty standout and appropriate, which is rare when you’re trying to go with bigger names. The film would win the Oscar for Best Picture, the first since Oliver in 1968. (Once again, full disclosure, I haven’t seen Oliver. A friend of mine thinks it’s the best movie musical of all time, which is probably why I haven’t watched it yet…just to spite him…) The movie won 6 Oscars, including one for Catherine Zeta Jones, whereas Richard Gere and Renee Zellweger both won Golden Globes. John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah were also standouts in well-crafted performances. And more importantly, Chicago re-started the movie musical craze, along with Moulin Rouge, and so it deserves a ton of credit for that.
17 – ALL THAT JAZZ (1979)
This film is not for the weak-of-heart escapist. This is a gritty, personal, nihilistic film directed by Bob Fosse, and there are some questionable scenes and numbers for sure. But Roy Scheider’s performance is outrageously good, Ben Vereen is wonderful, Ann Reinking is great, and the movie’s direction is truly brilliant. One can only wonder what movie musicals would have been made from a longer-lasting Fosse career. “Bye Bye Love” is a real tour-de-force number near the end of the film. Reviews of the film vary from Leonard Maltin’s “self-indulgent and largely negative” to Stanley Kubrick’s “the best film I think I have ever seen…” You be the judge. For me, it comes in at 17.
16 – WILLIE WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)
At first I was wrestling with whether or not this was a movie musical…but of course it is! You can almost forget how many songs are actually in this film, some of which are terrific (Candy Man, I Want it Now, Pure Imagination), and some of which are just a bit quizzical. But Gene Wilder’s performance is absolutely unforgettable, and Jack Albertson’s Grandpa Joe is a master class from a seasoned Broadway veteran. Roald Dahl, the original author of the book, couldn’t meet deadlines on the film for script-writing, was eventually replaced, and then Dahl ended up completely disowning the film, hating the changes and the insertions of musical numbers. But Charlie’s wonderful innocence in this story was played so beautifully, and the production design was absolutely stellar. It also has so many quotable moments about snozzberries and the like, and who can forget that terrifying, nightmare-inducing boat ride?
15 – THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
This could be higher, this could be lower. But truly, this is the OG of the real book-musicals on film. So iconic, so steeped in lore, and with fantastic performances and an annoyingly-memorable score, this movie just plain works. The pre-production of this film is the stuff of legends, with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” nearly being cut from the film. But performances from Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr and especially Judy Garland make this film move-magic. If you’ve never really looked at the beautiful simplicity of Yip Harburg’s lyrics paired with Harold Arlen’s music for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, unplug for a moment, and take it all in fresh. One of the better-written songs of all time.
14 – HAIRSPRAY (2007)
This movie, surprisingly, has a LOT going for it. Like Chicago, it does extremely well with its casting…well, with one or two major exceptions. But it’s tough to argue with the work put in by Nikki Blonsky (who was working at a Coldstone Creamery when cast), Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, James Marsden, Brittany Snow, Elijah Kelley, Allison Janney, Zac Efron and Jerry Stiller. Questionable calls include Amanda Bynes, and Michelle Pfeiffer (who wasn’t all that bad), but John Travolta was absolutely frightening in the role. Creepy and at times unwatchable. But to nail so many of these other roles is a massive accomplishment, making it I think the strongest ensemble cast of a movie musical. And there were plenty of changes from Broadway to this film, but I actually think just about all of them work. “Ladies Choice” is a superior number to “It Takes Two”, and I think the musical does well without some of the reprises that work better on stage. Elijah Kelley’s “Run and Tell That” is outrageously impressive, and the costume design is particularly good.
13 – GREASE (1978)
I’m sorry, but this movie works. It’s not terribly ambitious, the messaging isn’t all that encouraging, and it’s not as if there’s a top-notch score taking place. But for whatever reason, the amount of heart in this film is off the charts, and the changes from the Broadway production to this film are all pretty stellar. The car race is terrific, and the song substitutions all work. “You’re the One That I Want” is certainly superior to “All Choked Up”, the same with “Sandy” over “Alone at the Drive-In”. “Rock and Roll Party Queen” isn’t missed, and “Hopelessly Devoted” is a real standout. Also, the opening sequence with the song “Grease” is a great way to start this up. Maybe I miss the character of Roger and the song “Mooning”, but not enough. But John Travolta is the real star of this film, both in newly-allocated material (“Greased Lighting: from Kenicke-focused to Danny-focused), and in the book scenes, and Travolta has every bit of the magnetism needed in the role. So much so, that it’s difficult to see a stage production replicate that magic, which usually makes the story fall a bit flat. Stockard Channing is of course a standout as well, and it’s great to see Sid Caesar a part of it all. But Grease is certainly the word, and the movie stands up pretty well all these years later.
12 – MARY POPPINS (1964)
Who is going to sit here and argue with Mary Poppins? (Put your hand down.) It received 13 Academy Award nominations (a record for Walt Disney Studios), and features some of the most winsome performances in movie-musical history, from both Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Glynis Johns, who would go on to play Desiree in A Little Night Music, is bold and wonderful as Mrs. Banks, but one of the real standouts (and the only way a production works, really) is the standout work from the Mr. Banks. David Tomlinson brings the role to life, helping the vast majority of the audience feeling as though they know quite clearly the Mr. Banks that exists in their own lives. The score is quite winning, and the mixture of animation is a great element. But Julie Andrews, who is on my Mount Rushmore of female musical theatre performers (more of THAT in a later blog), gives an Oscar-winning performance that justifies every inch of her casting, and an added smugness to the film of My Fair Lady who refused to cast her after she’d premiered the role on Broadway.
11 – SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)
Singin’ in the Rain is usually ranked as the #1 movie musical of all time. Yes, it’s true. And yes, it’s terrific. I’ve got 10 that I think are better, obviously, but you can’t tell me this movie isn’t spectacular. Gene Kelly is simply a tour-de-force, Debbie Reynolds is wonderfully tasteful, Donald O’Connor is comedic magic, and Jean Hagen is pitch perfect as Lina Lamont. O’Connor would win the Golden Globe, and Hagen was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. But one of the thrills of this movie is how unbelievably well it holds up on repeated viewings. Remember how good some of these songs are: “Fit as a Fiddle”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Make ‘Em Laugh”, “Good Morning”, “Moses Supposes”…And the dance sequences are simply divine. The behind the scenes of this movie are just as memorable…Gene Kelly had a 103-degree fever while shooting the title song, Debbie Reynolds wasn’t a dancer when they began, and after Kelly had yelled at her one particular day, Fred Astaire found her crying under a piano and offered to help her with her moves. After a 15-hour shooting of “Good Morning”, Reynolds feet were bleeding, and O’Connor was on BED-REST in the hospital for several days following the filming of “Make ‘Em Laugh” (mostly relating to the fact that he was smoking 4 packs of cigarettes a day). But there’s a reason that the phrase “movie magic” was coined, and Singin’ in the Rain’s got loads of it.
10 – 1776 (1972)
Few musicals go through such a small amount of changes from the stage to the screen, but the film of 1776 is thankfully extraordinarily close to its original incarnation. Now I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for the musical in general, so this is higher on my list than it might be on yours, and that would be understandable. But, not being alive in 1969 to see the original cast on Broadway, this is the closest I can get to it. The original cast members reprising their roles include William Daniels as Adams, Howard Da Silva as Franklin, Ken Howard as Jefferson, Ron Holgate as Richard Henry Lee, (among others) and feature fine performances from Donald Madden as Dickinson, and John Cullum as Rutledge. Some of the original cast members appearing in this movie would be the only time they’d ever appear on film. Interestingly enough, the decision to cast so many original Broadway cast members stemmed from Jack Warner (the head of Warner Brothers) wanting to not repeat his self-admitted mistake turning down Julie Andrews for the My Fair Lady film. The story is obviously quite stirring; it’s the story of the birth of our nation. And while the score isn’t a masterpiece, it’s really everything it needs to be. The film has an obviously dated appearance, coupled with needing to set it even further back to the 1700’s. But there’s real charm here, especially when you feel you’re getting a taste of the musical that won the Tony for Best Musical in 1969.
9 – AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)
Movie magic. Plain and simple. This musical is ranked #9 among AFI’s Greatest Movie Musicals, so at least we have that in common. But featuring the songs “I Got Rhythm”, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise”, “S’Wonderful” and “Love is Here to Stay”, this is a Gershwin dream come true, featuring Gene Kelly as the ringleader, bringing this film to life at every turn. The climax of the film is, of course, the 17-minute “An American in Paris” ballet, using the composition from George, and gorgeously danced by Kelly and Leslie Caron. This film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and spawned its own Broadway production in 2015. The real treat is when it was digitally restored in 2011, and if you don’t watch this movie at least once every two years, I think you’re life-ing wrong.
8 – ONCE (2007)
Once, the film, is one of the best examples of what can happen when the biggest thing on display is authenticity and honesty, and this film has it in spades. There’s something about Glen Hansard and what he brings to the role that has never been replicated onstage. Of course it helps that he actually wrote the songs he’s singing, but there’s an Irish passion and reckless pathos that seems to be musical-theatre-ized in the worst way possible once it hit the stage. The music is fantastic, guttural and from the soul, and the simplicity of the moments in the film make it an intimate musical, something that many shows try to achieve but can’t quite accomplish. One of the best, yet understated moments in the film is when they’re in the studio recording “When Your Mind’s Made Up”, and the seen-it-all sound engineer starts paying a bit more attention, and starts adjusting some levels. It’s these small moments that make this small picture work so well.
7 – THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964)
There’s a reason this movie shows up a lot of top 10 lists, has a 98% at Rotten Tomatoes, and won the Palme D’or at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival. It’s perhaps one of the most colorful, beautifully shot musicals of all time, and it’s sung through score from Michel Legrand is so charming, it’s hard to imagine this movie NOT working. There have been some stage productions that have adapted this material, notably by Sheldon Harnick in 1979, with a lovely translation, but this story I think will always work best on film. Undeniably French, and unrelentingly bittersweet, this is the like buying the vinyl album of your favorite musical. If you’ve never seen it (and many musical theatre fans have not), curl up with some hot chocolate on a rainy day and delve into a French world you won’t want to leave.
6 – FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971)
It’s as if a decision was made early on to tell Topol, who plays Tevye, to simply do his thing, and make it authentic. And that decision led to one of the strongest performances ever captured in a movie musical, and a 3-hour film that could have been 30 minutes shorter if he wasn’t “taking his time” throughout. But when it’s good, it’s GOOD, and this film, so close to the original production in many ways, is a huge success. There was some controversy in not casting Zero Mostel, the Broadway Tevye in the film, but I agree with the reasoning that on screen he would have just been too Zero, larger than life, and larger than Tevye, something that isn’t the same when he’s on stage. Topol’s heartbreaking scenes and commanding presence makes this movie a great example of what good musical theatre can look like. And John Williams, in one of his earliest film projects, does a fantastic job with the underscoring, earning him his first of MANY Oscars to come. The on-location shooting in Croatia, combined with Oswald Morris’ Oscar-winning cinematography, paints a visual expression that many films, musical or not, envy.
5 – HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR (2008)
You could continue shaking your head, or you could get with the program. Maybe even get your head in the game. This is nearly a perfect execution of a very specific agenda, and Zac Efron is so incredibly winning in this film, it’s hard to believe you’re watching a movie from the High School Musical franchise. The music is the strongest of all 3 films, and its Grease-like quality of graduating High Schoolers taps into a nostalgia that many viewers easily get behind and reminisce about. When the film opened, it was the biggest opening day for a musical film of all time, as well as the biggest opening weekend. Standouts from the score are “Right Here, Right Now”, “Can I Have This Dance”, and “Just Wanna Be With You”. OF COURSE it’s formulaic, and you can probably guess all of the plot points coming up, but it’s rare that you find a film that nails all of its objectives so deftly.
4 – DR. DOLITTLE (1967)
The great W.C. Fields once quipped “Never work with children or animals.” Well, 3 minutes into the film you can see what Dr. Dolittle is going to be all about, as poor Anthony Newley begins his musical adventure. The story behind the making of this musical is as bizarre as the searching for a Giant Pink Seasnail, and it’s worth looking into. The amount of things that went wrong are EXTREME (and of course there are some typical Rex Harrison being-a-nightmare stories), but this film is exquisite, the score full of zip, and many of the performances stunning. Rex Harrison is great, per-usual. But Anthony Newley is a revelation as Matthew, and his singing voice is off-the-charts effortless. Richard Attenborough’s work as the circus owner reveals one of the best examples of a character song in musical theatre with “I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It”. The scope of this story is of course so fantastical, but always whimsical in a way that keeps you dramatically invested as you go along. It’s a massive undertaking for sure, but the score really shines as well. Particularly the song “Where Are The Words”, which ended up being cut from the film, but released on the album, and “After Today” – a rousing Anthony Newley explosion. I’ll admit, this is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but I feel I can defend it against any attack. And I will. Bring it.
3 – NEWSIES (1992)
One of the best things about this film, strangely enough, is how understated it is. Sure there are rousing moments constantly, but Christian Bale’s Jack Kelly, at 17 years old, is so genuine that you really value his story from start to finish, and get curiously invested in his subtext at every turn. Robert Duvall’s Pulitzer is a delight, and Kenny Ortega’s direction and choreography are at times quite stunning. Alan Menken’s score is also particularly strong, his first major collaboration without Howard Ashman, who was took sick (due to AIDS) to work on the project. But especially impressive are the orchestrations, on full display in the opening, and in dance breaks of songs like “Santa Fe”. Bill Pullman is uncharacteristically terrific as Denton, and even some of the ensemble parts are filled out by lovely turns, including Max Casella as Racetrack, and Trey Parker (yes, from South Park, Book of Mormon) as Kid Blink. This is also one of the few times where the movie musical came first, then the stage adaptation, but I’m firmly in the camp that every single one of the near 200 changes from the film to stage is an impairment to the story. Literally, I can’t think of ONE change that improves the story. Everyone’s got some staunch opinions, and this is one of mine. I know, probably in the minority, but Newsies is a musical I can come back to again and again. And then again.
2 – WEST SIDE STORY (1961)
There’s few things not to like about this film. Sure, we could have had a slightly better-sung Tony, perhaps who didn’t option away from the Bb in “Maria”, or the high C at the end of the “Tonight Quintet”. But I’m racking my brain to think of another disappointment. The changes made from the stage production to the film were all improvements. You can recognize why the stage version does things, but “Cool” simply works swapped with “Gee, Officer Krupke”, the addition of the character Ice works, adding the men to “America” works, adding the gangs to the top of the “Quintet” works, and even the slight dialogue changes to the script are better and more fluid, especially with Lt. Schrank. The strength of the musical itself is really what vaunts this film to the top of most lists. It won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. Crazy that while they were considering Warren Beatty for Tony, his girlfriend at the time read with him at the screen test as a favor…and that’s how Natalie Wood ended up in this picture.
1 – THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
Well, you’ve got yours and I’ve got mine. This is my #1, and I don’t think I have a single problem with this movie. My goodness, it’s everything you want. The music is splendid, especially with that large orchestra, and the use of underscoring is pitch-perfect, especially when that title-song kicks in when the Captain and Maria are falling in love. Speaking of the two of them, Christopher Plummer’s Captain Von Trapp might be one of the top 10 acting performances of all time, musical or otherwise. It’s so hauntingly stoic and morally brave, and the backdrop of the impinging Nazi-ism is so much more encroaching on film than on stage. I absolutely love the changes from stage to screen. The script is significantly better, the order is better. It almost makes me unwilling to see it on stage. But Julie Andrews couldn’t have put in a better performance. And the fact that so much of it was shot on location in Austria proves exactly how a film can elevate a project in a way that cannot happen on stage. The country of Austria literally leaps onto the camera as another major character. Plummer’s 5-minute segment at the music hall, his speech and Edelweiss, is just stunning, and Max’s little smirk when they announce “they’re gone” is as delicious as you can get. I’m sure that as time goes by, and I see more of the musicals missing from this list, the order will shuffle a bit. But I’m not sure anything will be able to knock this out of the #1 slot, as this film literally gets better and better as every year goes by.
Well, that’s the end of this Blarticle. Or Artilog. I’m sure you’ve got your opinions, so let’s hear ‘em. And in the meantime, let’s enjoy this move-musical resurgence that we’re in! Hopefully we’ll get some new additions to this list in short order.