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By Noelle Buffam · December 12, 2011
The Musical: it’s a very distinct genre, beloved by Hollywood and the world in general. Though the golden age of the Hollywood musical is considered from 1930 through the 1960s, the genre still lives and thrives today. Musicals, of course, use music and lyrics as a tool. Whether it is to advance the plot, set the mood, or develop character relationships, music serves as a poignant and purposeful instrument of storytelling in this genre. Films like Across the Universe, Enchanted, and Mamma Mia! prove that musicals have a allure that crosses time and generations.
Musical film is a natural outgrowth of stage theatre. With the development of sound technology in film, the screen took on the musical. While there are many similar elements between stage and film musicals, the movie musical has now become synonymous with elaborate background scenery, lavish costumes, and varying exotic locations that stage musicals simply could not accommodate.
Because musicals rely on specific talents (dancing, singing, physical humor, etc.), this genre is more likely than others to center around a single star. Think of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers… they are some of the most respected and celebrated movie stars of all time, and they made their names in musical films.
Below are the Top 10 Best Musicals. Whether they charmed us with romantic numbers, carried us away to mysterious worlds, or simply provided a little escape from reality, these films had a huge impact not only on the movie industry, but on contemporary culture as a whole.
10. An American in Paris (1951)
As one of the kings of the musical, Gene Kelly stars in the classicAn American in Paris. Interestingly, the film was inspired by the 1928 orchestral composition by George Gershwin. In the film, Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is an American World War II veteran living in Paris attempting to make a name for himself as a painter. Jerry is “discovered” by an heiress who seems to be more interested in Jerry than in his paintings. To complicate things, Jerry falls head over heels for Lise (Leslie Caron), a French woman who is engaged. The story is interwoven with dance numbers choreographed by Kelly and set to Gershwin’s music. Notable songs include, “I got Rythm”, “S’ Wonderful”, and “I’ll build a Stairway to Paradise”. The climax of the film is “The American in Paris Ballet”, a 16 minute dance routine featuring Kelly and Caron. Not only is it recognized as a grand production, but it is also just the kind of musical to showcase Kelly in his golden era of musicals.
9. The Producers (1968)
It’s a hilarious satire about the business of Hollywood. The Producers, directed by Mel Brooks, tells the story of a theatrical producer named Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel). After a long run of misfortunes, Max relies on seducing rich old women to satisfy his financial needs. One day, a timid accountant named Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) comes into Max’s life. The pair concoct a plan to make money… by producing a play that is a sure flop, the two can make a fortune. Thus, Max and Leo produce “Springtime for Hitler”. When it premiered, the film received mixed reviews.The New Yorker even called it “amateurishly crude”. However, over time the film has gained the kind of acclaim appropriate. Roger Ebert considers it one of the funniest films ever made. Ebert wrote years later that he once found himself riding in an elevator with Brooks and his wife. A woman got into the elevator and said, “'I have to tell you, Mr. Brooks, that your movie is vulgar.' Brooks smiled benevolently. 'Lady,' he said, 'it rose below vulgarity.'” Regardless of its reputation at the time, the film won two Academy Awards (Best Writing and Best Actor in a Supporting Role) and went on to live as one of the best comedy musicals of all time.
8. Cabaret (1972)
Unlike most musicals on this list, Cabaret is only loosely based on the Broadway musical of the same name. In the film, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) is an American singer living in Berlin in the 1930s. Sally falls in love with Brian (Michael York), a reserved English academic writer who has moved in to her apartment building. Sally tries to seduce Brian, unsuccessfully. Brian reveals that he is bi-sexual, and the two are able to begin their friendship. However, things get complicated when Max (Helmut Griem) seduces both Sally and Brian. The film stands out with its fantastic cast performances and stylish musical numbers. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning a total of eight. While more nontraditional than the usual musical, Cabaret certainly has danced its way into history with sass and flare.
7. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
St. Louis: 1903. It’s the year before the St. Louis World’s Fair. The wealthy Smith family has fours daughters. One of the daughters, 17-year-old Esther (Judy Garland), has fallen in love with John (Tom Drake), the boy who has just moved next door who seems not to notice her at all. Just as things go well and the city is on the brink of welcoming the World’s Fair, Mr. Smith shocks the family. He reveals that he has been transferred to New York, which means the family must leave St. Louis and miss the fair. The four daughters learn important lessons about love and life as they reluctantly prepare for the move. When released, the film was noted for its use of Technicolor. Time is quoted saying that, “Now & then, too, the film gets well beyond the charm of mere tableau for short flights in the empyrean of genuine domestic poetry.” Meet me in St. Louis is filled with wonderful songs, beautiful images, and a sense of nostalgia only befitting of one of the greatest American musicals of all time.
6. My Fair Lady (1964)
My Fair Lady is one of the most popular musicals of all time, and in 1964 it came to the silver screen. Based on the original stage play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, the film was directed by George Cukor. It tells the story of Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), an egotistical professor of phonetics in Edwardian London. One day, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), goes to Higgins seeking speech lessons to correct her strong Cockney accent. Soon, Higgins enters into a bet with his houseguest, Colonel Hugh Pickering. (Wilfrid Hyde-White). The two make a wager in which Higgins will attempt to pass Doolittle off as a duchess at an embassy ball. What comes next is movie history. The film won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. My Fair Lady went on to become a timeless favorite, pleasing any audience in search of a classic musical.
5. Mary Poppins (1964)
When it premiered, Mary Poppins was truly one of a kind. The film is a whimsical story of a nanny named Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews), who along with her friend Bert (Dick Van Dyke), transforms the lives of the Banks children. Mary Poppins received 13 Academy Award nominations (it shares this record along with films such as Titanic, Gone with the Wind, and Forrest Gump). Critically acclaimed and beloved by many generations, the film has some of the most famous songs ever to be sung on the big screen, including “A Spoonful of Sugar”, Let’s go Fly a Kite”, and of course, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. The film is a gem in film history. In Mary Poppins’ words, it is “practically perfect in every way”.
4. West Side Story (1961)
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, West Side Story is the adaption of the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name. The story is adapted from Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. In the film, there are two rival New York City gangs – the white Jets, led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernando (George Chakiris). However, trouble ensues when Riff’s best friend Tony (Richard Beymer), and Bernando’s younger sister Maria (Natalie Wood) meet at a dance and fall in love. Not only is the film a staple in musical history, but West Side Story also holds the distinct honor of having won the most Academy Awards than any other film. In fact, the film took home 10 out of the 11 Oscars for which it was nominated.
3. The Sound of Music (1965)
Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, The Sound of Music features songs written by the Broadway team Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Originally, the stage musical was based on the memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, by Maria von Trapp. Adjusted for inflation, the film made $1.046 billion domestically (at 2010 prices), putting it third on the inflation-adjusted box office hits, just behind Gone with the Wind and Star Wars. In the film, Maria (Julie Andrews), leaves an Austrian convent to become the governess to the children of the widower Naval officer, Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). The film won five Academy Awards, and is recognized as the film that saved 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy. Most noted are the film’s songs, including “Edelweiss”, “My Favorite Things”, “Do-Re-Mi”, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, and the title song. Telling of the film’s impact on the world is the fact that the soundtrack album has sold over 11 million copies worldwide, and has never been out of print.
2. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
It is not often that there is a film that is as famous and carries as much clout as The Wizard of Oz. Based on the 1900 children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, the film was directed by Victor Flemming. It tells the story of the simple farm girl from Kansas, Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland). Dorothy awakens to find her house being carried away by a tornado. When she ventures out, she discovers that she is alone in a strange world. In order to get back home, Dorothy must venture to the Emerald City to visit the Wizard of Oz. Though the film was initially a box office bomb, it still won two Academy Awards: Best song for “Over the Rainbow” and Best Original Music Score. When it premiered, it was MGM’s most expensive film ever made. Since then, it has been noted for its use of special effects and Technicolor. Not only that, but its adventurous world, fantastical characters, and unforgettable musical score has made The Wizard of Oz one of the most celebrated films of all time.
1. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
It's the classic Hollywood musical. Singin' in the Rain, directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, is set in 1927 Tinseltown. A film production company must make the difficult transition between making silent films and making "talkies". The company's leading duo, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), share a smoldering chemistry in their silent films. However, Don detests his star counterpart in real life. Instead, he opts for Kathy Sheldon (Debbie Reynolds), an aspiring actress. Along with Don's right-hand-man and set pianist, Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor), the team takes a funny, clever, and wacky trip into the future of film. Interestingly, Singin' in the Rain was not considered a big hit when released. Since then though, the film has garnered critical acclaim. It is even listed as the American Film Institute's 5th greatest American films of all time. In fact, it has one of the most famous scenes in all of movie history: Don takes to the rainy street to profess his love by singing the title song and splashing in the puddles. Its quick dialogue, star power, and big musical production scenes made a lasting impression in the film world. No doubt, Singin' in the Rain stands as the epitome of the Hollywood musical.