So just because it wouldn't be a movie commentary site without a list like this, here's my picks for all-time favorite musicals on film. The key word being film: there are several great stage musicals (A Chorus Line for example) that were served very poorly by their film adaptations. These are the list of musicals that I not only think are good but which, either by being recorded in their stage incarnation or being adapted successfully to the screen, make for a great movie watching experience.
The list is chronological because, to be honest, at a certain point I think ranking movies becomes an apples-to-oranges comparison. Every movie on this list is good in its own way, and that way is different than that of every other movie. Which one I prefer depends on what I'm in the mood for, and very frequently what day it is. That probably makes me sound wishy-washy, but I prefer the term “flexible.”
Anyway, enough self-justification. On with the list.
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
It might be a bit cliché to put this one on a top musicals list, but with good reason: it really is that good. Singin' in the Rain contains some of the best song-and-dance scenes ever committed to film: “Make 'Em Laugh,” “Good Morning,” and the iconic title number to name a few. Gene Kelly's choreography needs no quick editing or artistic angles to make it effective; the fancy footwork speaks for itself. (Recent attempts to mimic Singin's film style—such as The Producers—have not fared so well as the staging is just not inventive enough to justify it.) The film was built around a catalog of songs by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, making it one of the earliest examples of a jukebox musical and one of the few I can truly claim to love (the other is further down the list). Part of this is because the story itself—a romp through Hollywood in the days when silent films were giving way to talkies—is so entertaining and funny in its own right: the scenes where Jean Hagen's cacophonic diva trades barbs with Kelly or gives her elocution teacher a lesson in futility are the funniest things in the movie that don't involve Donald O'Connor literally dancing up the walls.
Oklahoma! (1955 and 1999)
A sentimental favorite of mine, Oklahoma! was one of the first musicals I ever saw and the one that really got me into the genre. The story is simple almost to the point of silliness (the entire first act is basically a bunch of people arguing over who gets to take who to a country dance), but it's told with warmth and heart through Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic score. There are two film versions of the show available, and I adore both. The 1955 feature film directed by Fred Zimmerman features Agnes de Mille's groundbreaking choreography and classic powerhouse vocal performances from Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones in the leads. The 1999 DVD (a recording of the revival by the Royal National Theatre in London directed by Trevor Nunn and starring a then-unknown Hugh Jackman) takes a darker tone that focuses on the pride and insecurities that drive the main characters, revealing a surprising emotional complexity in the material (particularly from Shuler Hensley as a pitiful and increasingly unbalanced Jud Fry). Together, both movies show how two different productions can take the same material and make something unique of it.
The Music Man (1962)
Lord help me, this musical is just so much fun. There's just something comforting and endearing at its affectionate satire of small-town turn-of-the-century Americana, peopled with such familiar characters as the pompous malaprop-spewing mayor and the cluster of gossiping biddies twittering over the latest (imagined) scandal. The characters are puffed up enough that we enjoy seeing them get their comeuppance at the hands of skilled con artist Harold Hill (Robert Preston, effortlessly wrapping his tongue around some of the finest patter lyrics ever written), yet likable enough that we're happy when his snake-oil routine, strangely enough, ends up making them better people. Hill ends up being the better for it too, after he finds his heart touched by Marian the Librarian. (Though her name is now synonymous with the prim-and-proper library lady, Marian is actually pretty radical for her time and place, shocking the biddies by daring to read “Chaucer! Rabalais! BAAAAL-ZAC!”) Music Man is one of three musicals I consider to be technically perfect, and the only one where the feature film adaptation captures that perfection. (The less said of the 2003 remake with Matthew Broderick, however, the better.)
Cabaret is one of those movies that retains its relevance no matter how many years pass, and that's a pretty scary thing to contemplate. How often do we blithely breeze through life, ignoring weightier matters that could threaten everything we hold dear? The characters of Cabaret—foreigners, Jews, GLBTs,--stand to lose the most in the rising Nazi regime, yet they willfully close their eyes to the growing danger, unwilling to admit the party is coming to a swift and brutal end. By whittling down the score to the diegetic songs, Bob Fosse creates an important contrast between the seedy false glamor of the Kit Kat Klub and the hard reality beyond its doors. Only one song—the Nazi Youth anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”--takes place outside the cabaret, in what is probably the most chilling scene in the entire movie. Unlike the characters, we have the benefit of hindsight...but what dangers are lurking in our world, dangers so great that future generations will wonder how we missed them?
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The Disney Animation Renaissance at its absolute finest, Beauty and the Beast shares many of the same building blocks as other animated features—the plucky heroine, the anthropomorphic comic relief characters, the nasty villain and his goofy sidekick, the Alan Menkin score—but puts them together in a glorious way that no other animated movie before or since has managed. The musical sequences are gorgeous, the comedic characters have real function and value in the plot, and the love story at the heart of the movie is well-developed and touching. (Side rant: no, Belle is not suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, she's not a domestic abuse victim, and she has no interest in trying to reform the bad boy. She stands up to the Beast, runs away from him when he gets scary, and doesn't even start to like him until he starts shaping up on his own. If she were interested in rehabilitating jerks, she'd have probably just stuck with the brutish, bullying Gaston.) The first animated film to earn an Oscar nomination for best picture (and the only one to do it under the old five-picture limit), Beauty and the Beast is a feast for the eyes and ears that I never tire of.
Into the Woods (1991)
My first real exposure to Stephen Sondheim came through this filmed performance of Into the Woods' original Broadway production starring Bernadette Peters, which originally aired on PBS's American Playhouse. Nowadays it's more common to deconstruct fairytales than to play them straight, but few do it quite so well or as thought-provoking as in this clever mash-up of “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Rapunzel.” A baker and his wife (most of the characters, true to the archetypes the represent, go without proper names) on a quest to break a curse that has left them barren provide the thread connecting these fractured fables. Of course everything ends happily ever after...and then act two begins, and the story delves into the weightier themes of consequence, morality, and parent-child relations. As I've grown from child to adult to mother, the message of Into the Woods has taken on new resonance for me, and my perspective of it will probably continue to change as I grow in age and experience.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
I love Halloween. I love Christmas. So perhaps unsurprisingly, I love this Tim Burton-inspired tale of what happens when the two holidays clash. As someone who grew up associating “stop motion” with jerky-looking things like Rankin-Bass specials and The Magic Roundabout, the fluidity of the animation here was a revelation to me when I first saw it, and Danny Elfman's gleefully demented style has rarely been used so effectively as in this score. The story of what happens when Halloweentown's number-one citizen decides he'd like to try on Santa's hat this year—and the resulting message of “be happy with who you are”--doesn't hold any real surprises, but that doesn't make it any less fun. No wonder Jack Skellington, Sally, and the rest have pretty much become poster children for the cheerful misfits of the world.
So that's a start. Look for Part 2 next week.
Located on a small expansion shelf about midway between the Third and Fourth Circles, Musical Hell is presided over by Diva, a minor demon charged with passing judgement on the worst musicals ever committed to film. (She still hasn't figured out if this is their punishment or hers.) Take a seat on the bench and have your earplugs ready, because court is now in session.
New videos posted on the first Monday of the month. Other viewpoints, news, and general ramblings posted when they crop up.