The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3–1960 to 2019
In Part 1, I offered my definition of a movie musical and in Part 2 presented my choices for the best musicals from the height of the Hollywood Studio Era (1939 to 1959). Here, I will talk about my favorites from 1960 on—a period that includes the decline of the studio system, when movies in general, and musicals in particular, were going through tremendous change.
West Side Story (1961)
Dazzling on every level. The music is well beyond musical comedy into the realm of semi-classical. The photography, editing, and sound are perfection. It set the bar very high for all future Broadway-to-Hollywood transfers. On a large screen, Natalie Wood’s performance is particularly fine and subtly beautiful. And of course, the Jerome Robbins choreography is unsurpassed on film.
The Music Man (1962)
This may be the most faithful and successful transfer of a Broadway musical to the screen. It’s so close to the stage version in every way, it makes you feel like you are watching a stage show—front and center! Yet it never feels static and has a distinct cinematic feel all its own. And It’s so fun and spinetingling right to the last frame. Robert Preston is superb as the phony Professor Harold Hill.
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
It might seem strange to see this Elvis vehicle on the same list as West Side Story, but great talent is great talent, and Elvis Presley together with the one star who matched his charisma— Ann-Margret—is quite an atomic blast. Over the years, the film seems less trendy (or silly) than it used to. It’s all done with great fun and excellent production values, and the energy of the film and its eclectic score make it a wonderfully campy and a very enjoyable 85 minutes.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Director Richard Lester completely threw out all musical movie conventions to totally re-invent the form. It’s a perfect vehicle for The Beatles and spoke to a whole new generation. The free-for-all style of the film laid the ground for many rock and edgy film musicals of the ‘60s and ‘70s including Help and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (both helmed by Lester), Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter, and of course the whole MTV network.
Mary Poppins (1964)
Don’t forget this is an original film musical! Yet Mary Poppins is written (songs by the Sherman Brothers) with the sophistication of a Broadway show. It’s as if Walt Disney said to the boys, “I want my own My Fair Lady!” And in many ways, it is! Especially since it also stars Julie Andrews, Broadway’s original Fair Lady. But the magnificent addition to its Broadway musical-like structure is all the fantasy photography. Technology might be even better today, but without great writing and good plot structure, musicals like Mary Poppins Returns and Cats, just don’t come anywhere near the high bar of “Walt Disney’s masterpiece” Mary Poppins.
My Fair Lady (1964)
This is one of the most elegant yet entertaining movies ever made. Absolutely perfectly done on every level. And made all the more powerful by the masterful 1956 stage musical on which it was based. Warner Bros. knew they had a good one and they were determined to do it right. And director George Cukor did just that. Rex Harrison is magnificent, of course, but Audrey Hepburn adds that sparkling drop of cinematic magic to make this a true film, and not just an excellent stage-to-screen transfer.
The Sound of Music (1965)
If Singin’ in the Rain isn’t the greatest film musical of all time, then this is. Sound of Music is certainly the world’s favorite film musical, and deservedly so. Based on a true story, it has a humanness to it that makes the softer elements of the story moving. It’s directed with great restraint and taste by Robert Wise, and Julie Andrews’ performance as Maria is perhaps the best-loved female screen-musical performance ever. Sorry Judy, Liza, Emma, Rene, and Barbra . . .
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1965)
Michel Legrand’s unique jazz and romantic score is the principle reason this incredibly original film works. The jazz riffs are easily acceptable as a substitute for dialogue. It never slows the story or feels static. The wistful romantic music embraces the heartbreaking story. The color cinematography
is breathtaking. Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo are perfectly cast as the young lovers. It’s all brilliantly written and directed by Jacques Demy. This film is a worldwide treasure.
Funny Girl (1968)
Barbra Streisand’s first song in the film is “I’m the Greatest Star,” and by all accounts that she is! In this William Wyler film, she has never been better. The film looks, sounds, and plays perfectly to showcase Streisand’s enormous talents. Under Wyler’s direction, Funny Girl was realistic and dark enough to ride the cultural revolutionary wave of the late 1960s. At that time, audiences took this dramatic Fanny Brice bio-pic very seriously. And since Wyler and Streisand did such a good job, you can take Funny Girl as seriously today as you could in 1968.
At the exact time as Funny Girl was released, the stage hit Oliver! arrived on screens. And it easily won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1968. This may come as a surprise to some because there still is a lot of prejudice against a film whose title sounds like a kiddie flick. But they should remember this is based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the film was directed by the great Sir Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol) and photographed by the great Oswald Morris. This musical of Oliver Twist, with book, music, and lyrics by Lionel Bart, has all the elements and dark characters of the novel and yet so much more. It’s witty, even outright funny at times, and yet it can turn scary and disturbing on a dime. The big musical numbers are spectacular and soaring (Academy Award-winning choreography by Onna White) yet they fit right into the storyline so you never feel like the action stops. It’s amazing on how many levels this film works.
Bob Fosse’s adaptation of the 1967 Broadway smash is superb but hardly an adaptation at all. It’s very altered from the stage version and hardly feels like it was ever on the stage. Ergo, this film runs like an original film musical. This very adult and realistic version hit the mark in the 1970s when films looked more realistic than ever. It did include most of the songs from the Kander and Ebb Broadway score, but several important new songs by the same writers were added. Liza Minelli’s star performance sends the film into the stratosphere of entertainment perfection. Viewing this film today, it looks like it was made last week! Bravo, Bob!
Fiddler on the Roof (1973)
This is a very realistic film version of the 1964 stage smash hit. Rather than cast comedian Zero Mostel as Tevye, the lead, or some of the other famous actors who played supporting roles on Broadway (Bette Midler, Julia Migenes Johnson, and Christopher Walken), director Norman Jewison chose to cast all unknowns so that the characters appear very real. The Israeli actor Topol heads the movie, and it’s a loving but dramatic telling of the Sholom Aleichem stories. Fine musical adaptation by John Williams of the Bock and Harnick score elevates the movie yet matches the earthy Oswald Morris cinematography. It’s a great story about family, tradition, and persecution, and a moving experience in any decade.
Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
In a way, this film follows the Richard Lester style of freewheeling camera work used in Hard Day’s Night, yet Rocky Horror Picture Show is as unique and wonderful as it can be. Based on the moderately successful West End and Broadway stage favorite, it works so much better as a film where it can be cinematically outrageous. Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Tim Curry, and Meat Loaf are all hysterically excellent and play the “horror-comedy” tone just right. It’s easy to see why this is the most famous cult film of all time, and stayed in release longer than any other musical film!
This film has grown to enormous stature today! Blake Edwards’ intelligently adapted screenplay explores the fine line between masculine and feminine posturing. Julie Andrews and indeed all the performances seem three-dimensional, yet incredibly entertaining. The gorgeous Henry Mancini (music)/ Leslie Bricusse (lyrics)
score has just enough songs to qualify it as a musical, but they always support the characters and story. The production is also visually classy with a beautiful Art Deco look. By today’s standards, it’s hard to believe it didn’t win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
This film was a terrific surprise in its day, when it seemed musical films were a thing of the past. But it’s so well done and entertaining, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Its success may have a lot to do with the excellence of the original stage show by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse, which is still running on Broadway today!
This is a very ambitious and thoroughly successful film adaptation of the legendary Broadway show. Not since Cabaret 30 years earlier had a film been transferred with such freshness and cinematic energy. Dreamgirls feels like an original for the screen. Each member of the cast is superb, especially Jennifer Hudson, who won an Academy Award, and Eddie Murphy in a stellar supporting performance. On top of all this, the music and singing are superb.
La La Land (2016)
Just when we thought it couldn’t be done ever again, along came this original film musical. It has an all-new song score with pulsating and exciting music by Justin Hurwitz. It’s all very stylishly directed by Damien Chazelle and attractively performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It’s also a great tribute to movie musicals of the past like An American in Paris and The Band Wagon yet it feels modern and fresh and youthful.
and let’s not forget . . .
Well, that’s 37 of the best. But for those who enjoy neat and nice round numbers, as do I, here are three more “best” movie musicals that co-incidentally all have the same name.
A Star is Born (1954)
This is Judy Garland’s ultimate showcase. Judy shows off all her triple-threat talents (acting, singing, dancing) to the “nth” degree. Unfortunately, she has so much talent and so much to give, it took three full hours to fit it all in. Ergo, the film has suffered from destructive editing over the years. In 1983, an effort to restore the original version required inserting black-and-white stills. Today, the creaky technology from 1983 destroys the pace and believability of the story. It’s time for a proper restoration. But what is always superb about this version is that it’s a realistic portrait of Hollywood in the 1950s, thanks to screenwriter Moss Hart and director George Cukor, both of whom knew how it really was.
A Star is Born (1976)
This is Barbra Streisand’s ultimate showcase. Barbra shows off all her triple talents (acting, singing, writing) to the “nth” degree. It’s a solid retelling of the story, this time set in the world of rock. Kris Krisofferson is also quite good in his bathtub scenes. Nowadays, this is a terrific time capsule of the 1970s but it’s also “Evergreen.”
This is Lady Ga Ga’s ultimate showcase (so far). Lady Ga Ga shows off all her triple threat talents (acting, singing, song writing) to the “nth” degree. But Bradley Cooper also wants his share of showoff time, and as producing-director, he makes sure he gets it. Set in the modern-day pop world once again, the love story pays off, being the core of another very good film musical.
To round things out, in Part 4, I’ll take you on a tour of some classic “antique”—but still hugely enjoyable—movie musicals from the 1920s and ’30s.
Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.