15 of the Best Film Musicals of All Time
Ever since sound and film were first united in The Jazz Singer (1927), the musical has been a staple of cinema history and popular culture, but what are the best film musicals of all time?
Ever since sound and film were first united in The Jazz Singer (1927), the musical has been a staple of cinema history and popular culture. Over time the genre has evolved, peaked and waned. Hollywood cornered the market, though Bollywood has certainly given it a run for its money over the years, and it enjoyed a lengthy golden age.
The last few years have seen the (Hollywood) film musical enjoy a bit of a comeback, but what are the best film musicals of all time?
Best film musicals ever
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Harold Arlen & Yip Harbug
dir. Victor Fleming
The yellow-brick road, the ruby slippers, the wicked witch of the west… Everything about The Wizard of Oz is iconic. Based on L. Frank Baum’s children’s stories about the fantasy land of Oz (first published in 1900), this mini epic is also notable for its use of the fledgling Technicolor film process – though the film begins in black and white, the land of Oz is revealed to us in spectacular colour.
The original songs by Arlen and Harburg are all classics, with the Oscar-winning ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ the most famous. The film was released just months into the Second World War, and so the song became something of an anthem for hope of better times ahead.
Though there have been stage versions of the story, this take on it was only fully adapted for the theatre stage in 2011 and featured additional songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Nacio Herb Brown & Arthur Freed
dir. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
Everyone knows the title song, and the image of Gene Kelly splashing about in puddles and swinging around a lamp post is surely engrained on the popular conscience. But there’s more to Singin’ in the Rain than that soggy dance number. It’s a colourful, comical film about making films with memorable turns from leads Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor. Musically it’s a total patchwork, with the majority of the featured songs having been written for MGM productions from the 1930s. Only ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ and ‘Moses Supposes’ were written for the film.
The film was adapted for the stage in 1983 and enjoyed a very popular revival in 2011.
Calamity Jane (1953)
Sammy Fain & Paul Francis Webster
dir. David Butler
The musical was big business for Hollywood in the 1950s and so was the western, so bringing them together made a lot of sense. Annie Get Your Gun had been a big success for MGM and so Warner Bros decided to get a piece of the action. ‘Calamity Jane’ was a real person, famed for her colourful life in the American West, and the story brings together (and in many respects softens) her most storied exploits. Brought to vivid life by Doris Day, ‘Calamity’ remains one of the screen’s most beloved characters and her fabulous vocals added great weight and colour to a clutch of barnstorming musical numbers, including ‘The Deadwood Stage’, The Windy City’, ‘The Black Hills of Dakota’ and the Oscar-winning ‘Secret Love’.
West Side Story (1961 & 2021)
Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim
dir. Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins (1961); Steven Spielberg (2021)
The first in this list to have actually begun life as a stage musical, West Side Story has now been adapted twice for the big screen and both versions are worthy of a place here. The heartbreaking reimagining of Romeo & Juliet features incredible choreography and music, not to mention songs that have stood the test of time.
The original film will remain iconic, with its bold use of colour and dynamic set pieces overseen by the show’s creators. Steven Spielberg managed to make a film that not only matched up to the original in terms of its emotional and visual impact, but did so with a more profound feeling of authenticity.
Johnny Green, Irwin Kostal, Sid Ramin and Saul Chaplin shared an Oscar win for their work on the 1961 film’s music.
Mary Poppins (1964)
Robert B. Sherman & Richard M. Sherman
dir. Robert Stevenson
Walt Disney spent years trying to convince author PL Travers to let him buy the film rights to her character Mary Poppins. Travers’s books had enchanted him and his children and he thought it would make a magical film. Thank goodness she relented, because how right he was. From the picture-book sets and costumes to the characterful music and lyrics of the Sherman Brothers, it’s quite simply Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious. It also marked the screen debut of Julie Andrews in the title role, which won her an Oscar.
The Shermans won two Oscars, for their scoring and the song ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
dir. Jacques Demy
Okay, so it’s not only Hollywood who could make musicals. This French film from Jacques Demy starred Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo as the romantic leads whose love, and lives, are torn apart by his conscription into the army to fight in Algeria. It’s not exactly cheery, then, but there’s something about its melancholy charm that gets under the skin. Speaking of which, Michel Legrand’s main melody is one of his very best and with reprise after reprise (after reprise), you begin to hum it long after the film has ended.
The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was adapted for the stage, in English, in 2011.
The Sound of Music (1965)
Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II
dir. Robert Wise
Like West Side Story, it didn’t take too long for Hollywood to catch on to this Broadway hit. Indeed Twentieth Century-Fox bought up the film rights for what was becoming a Rodgers & Hammerstein classic just a few months after its premiere in late 1959. The studio didn’t rush and the work, on the screenplay, location scouting and casting, paid off. Its use of real locations is one reason why the film works so beautifully, another is its lead; Julie Andrews was the toast of Hollywood after Mary Poppins and, though wary of playing another singing Nanny, the gamble was worth it. Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote a new song for the film: ‘Something Good’.
Irwin Kostal won an Oscar for his music direction.
We named 'My Favourite Things' one of the best songs from a musical ever
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Robert B. Sherman & Richard M. Sherman
dir. Ken Hughes
This absolute gem was, believe it or not, based on a novel by 007 author Ian Fleming, produced by Bond’s legendary helmsman ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and originally adapted for the screen by Roald Dahl. The success of Disney’s Mary Poppins has a lot to do with this film’s creation, particularly as it stars Dick van Dyke and features original songs by the Sherman Brothers. It’s full of memorable moments, beloved characters and some now classic songs… though the less said about the terrifying Childcatcher the better.
dir. Carol Reed
Lionel Bart’s 1960 West End musical needs little introduction, and neither does this film version – a go-to for TV schedulers at Christmastime… or anytime for that matter. Based on Charles Dickens’s beloved classic, this big-screen take on Oliver Twist spared no expense with its lavish sets, costumes and thrilling musical numbers. The casting, too, makes it a winner – who can forget Ron Moody as Fagin, or Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes?
Johnny Green won an Oscar for his music direction.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick
dir. Norman Jewison
It’s fair to say Fiddler on the Roof owes a little of its impact to The Sound of Music in that it, too, was shot partly on location. So many Hollywood musicals had been created within the confines of the studios themselves, on backlots and soundstages, that to have the action take place out in the real world was seemingly just what the genre needed. Based on Sholem Alecheim’s ‘Tevye’ stories, Fiddler is a lively and moving snapshot of life in a Russian Jewish settlement in the early 1900s. The film’s star, Israeli actor/singer Topol, lights up the screen and Jerry Bock’s original songs (including the very familiar ‘If I Were a Rich Man’) were brought to dazzling life by the film’s musical director, John Williams. Williams won his first Oscar for his work on the film.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Anthony Newley & Leslie Bricusse
dir. Mel Stuart
Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was ripe for adaptation and the funding for a film version came from the most unlikely of places… Quaker Oats. Yup, the cereal company stumped up the cash with a tie-in ‘Wonka Bar’ in mind. That’s one reason the film’s producer’s changed the title, so they say. Such a colourful, and at times frankly odd, story would be served well with music, and so the project was devised as an original musical. Notable composers turned the job down, but songwriting team Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley gamely took it on. Though it didn’t exactly light up the box office upon its original release, it has become something of a cult classic today, with ‘Pure Imagination’ the standout musical number (performed so memorably in the film by the late Gene Wilder). That song (plus ‘The Candy Man’ and ‘Oompa Loompa’) would make it into the 2013 stage musical, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, otherwise featuring original songs by Hairspray songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
Jim Jabobs & Warren Casey; John Farrar; Barry Gibb et al
dir. Randall Kleiser
You’d be forgiven for thinking Grease is an original film musical, but it was in fact adapted from a stage show. It’s fair to say, though, that the film took it to a whole new level and brought mass appeal thanks to its hot young cast and additional songs by Barry Gibb (of Bee Gees fame) and John Farrar. Indeed the most famous songs were new, including ‘Grease’, ‘Hopelessly Devoted’ and ‘You’re the One That I Want’; of the very popular numbers, only ‘Summer Nights’ featured in the original stage musical by Jacobs and Casey. The soundtrack album was a multi-million seller and it seems no matter your age, you probably know a song from Grease.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Alan Menken & Howard Ashman
dir. Frank Oz
Before Menken and Ashman gave voice to Disney Mermaids and Beasts, they were most famous for their 1982 Broadway hit based on Roger Corman’s 1960 horror comedy film about a man-eating plant. It’s popularity on stage led to this 1986 screen version, now a cult classic, starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene (the latter who originated the role of Audrey on Broadway and in the West End). Menken’s brilliantly catchy doo-wop score and Ashman’s snappy lyrics pervade, with memorably zany turns from supporting cast members, including Steve Martin as a sadomasochistic dentist.
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The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1996)
Alan Menken & Stephen Schwartz
dir. Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise
Okay, so we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to Disney animated musicals (they alone really kept the film musical alive for years) and a good number have now been transformed into blockbuster stage musicals. This beautiful film has been overshadowed by its more successful forebears, however, and really deserves to be reassessed. The music by Alan Menken is perhaps his very finest work, drenched in pathos, steeped in grandeur. It is perhaps the story, of a man vilified for the way he looks, which touches the heart the most, but Menken (and Stephen Schwartz) responded with a soulful accompaniment. Tom Hulce (who played Mozart in the film of Amadeus) voices Quasi-modo and delivers one of the film’s most spinetingling songs, ‘Out There’. Menken and Schwartz went on to expand their work for the stage, and it was hugely popular in Germany, though it never made it to Broadway. A studio recording of the revised show was released in 2015.
The Greatest Showman (2017)
Justin Paul & Benj Pasek
Dir. Michael Gracey
This film has been something of a phenomenon and showed just how much of an appetite audiences had developed for film musicals. Such films had occasionally done good business, particularly if they were adapted from already popular hits – Chicago (2002), Hairspray (2007) – but an original film musical? The Oscar-winning La La Land (2016) was a sure sign that change might be afoot and with its thrilling set pieces, life-affirming songs and a few tugs of the heartstrings, The Greatest Showman ended up being the film experience we never knew we needed. Paul and Pasek have a flair for a showtune that can double as a popular hit – as they’d proven with their Broadway show Dear Evan Hansen, and the tunes keep on coming in this upbeat firecracker with a sweet centre.
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.