10. Mary Poppins (1964)
As far as live action Disney films are concerned, Robert Stevenson’s Mary Poppins is the studio’s crowning achievement. The film is a marvel in multiple ways, it was a major advancement in special effects, took a giant leap in crossing live action and animation, and has one of the most elaborate sets in the history of studio films.
The story is a little bit fantasy and a little bit of a family drama. The Banks family is looking for a new nanny; their stern father does not believe in children acting like children, instead they should act like adults. Mary Poppins is a nanny who possesses the ability to use magic and take the kids to fantasy places where they can act like children and not live by their strict household rules. Julie Andrews, played the role of Mary in her first film, and she is an absolute delight. Andrews was a stage actress before starring in feature films, so she had singing and dancing experience. Dick Van Dyke played the role of Bert, who is Mary’s best friend, as well as a local in the neighborhood.
The production quality of Mary Poppins is amazing. The film was shot entirely on the Disney Studio lot and it was a massive production. Creating the sets and bringing this film to life shows, once again, how powerful the studios were and what could be accomplished on a back lot. The amount of work to create this film must have been staggering. The color and camera work is fantastic and Stevenson’s direction is of the best Disney has ever produced. The film was a major success and was #2 at the box office for the entire year in 1964.
The film was nominated for an unbelievable 13 Academy Awards and took home 5. Of course, the soundtrack is as iconic as it gets in the world of cinema. Songs such as, “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” are of the biggest hits Disney has ever had. Mary Poppins is more than a children’s movie, it is a spectacular film and a landmark in studio production. It very well could be considered Walt Disney’s finest work, and it is hard to find a film that did more for his legacy as a cultural phenomenon.
9. Fiddler On The Roof (1971)
Norman Jewison’s landmark film is a masterful and beautifully crafted tale of dying traditions, religious oppression, and a changing political world. Perhaps the most symbolic and metaphorically driven musical ever made, Fiddler on the Roof goes much deeper than many film musicals. It is superbly shot and so well acted and directed it’s hard not to be entranced as soon as the opening shot begins.
The narrative of the film follows Tevye, played flawlessly by Chaim Topol, as a staunch, traditional Jewish father who can’t seem to accept the changing world around him. He and his family live in a small village in Russia during the dawn of the communist rise. Tevye is driven by the old traditions of the Jewish ways such as arranged marriages, not marrying outside the faith, and even as far as not dancing with a woman in public.
Tevye is constantly being challenged as a man and must choose between his faith and the acceptance of his daughters “rebellious” ways. All of this is happening in Tevye’s life while the Russian military is slowly driving the Jewish people out of their villages and forcing them to move to other countries. As a narrator of the film, Tevye often breaks the forth wall and speaks of his conflicts directly to the audience.
The soundtrack has many iconic songs that have radiated through audiences for over 40 years. Songs such as “Tradition,” “If I Were A Rich Man,” “Do You Love Me,” and “Anatevka” are all embedded in cinematic history. While the film doesn’t rely on choreography as heavy as other films do, Chaim Topol was still able to bring a spark and a vulnerability to his character with minimal dancing. Fiddler on the Roof is one of the finest musicals you could ever see, and what makes a musical standout is when it transcends the genre and is also known, simply as, a great film.
8. Top Hat (1935)
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers defined what an American musicals. The two actors collaborated on 10 films together and influenced an array of performers, singers, and dancers. Of all the films they have done together, none are as memorable or better known than Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat. This was the first time a film had been written specifically for the two stars to collaborate on and it was one of the biggest hits of 1935 as well as one of RKO Pictures most successful releases of the 1930s.
The film follows a dancer named Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) on a trip to London to star in a stage show produced by Horace Hardwick. While practicing his routine in Hardwick’s room, Travers awakes Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers). When Tremont goes to confront him to be quiet, Jerry is immediately stunned by her and falls in love. Unfortunately, she thinks Jerry is the producer, who is married to a friend of hers. The film is a classic Hollywood screwball comedy and Astaire and Rogers are, as always, exceptional together. The chemistry the two had as performers is unparalleled and it is no surprise the two of them were able to set the standard for an entire film genre.
The musical numbers in Top Hat are all iconic, and were even radio hits when the film was released. Songs such as “Cheek To Cheek,” “Isn’t This A Lovely Day (To Be Caught In The Rain),” “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” and “The Piccolino” elevated the two actors into must see superstars of the Hollywood Studio era. The choreography and tap numbers by Astaire are flawless and Rogers was able to accompany him perfectly. The two molded better than any other collaborators past or present. The influence and legacy Top Hat has is undeniable, and there is a reason that performers of both the stage and screen study their work and their films.
7. An American In Paris (1951)
Vincent Minnelli once again struck gold with the beautifully written and incredibly choreographed An American In Paris. This film is an example of just what the Hollywood Studio system was able to accomplish in a back lot and a warehouse.
The film stars the iconic and brilliant Gene Kelly (who also choreographed the film) as a WWII veteran who stayed in Paris to become a painter. He and a friend of his fall in love with the same girl and the story unfolds as a series of attempts to win the lovely lady over. All of this, of course, is happening even though neither guy knows they are after the same woman.
The narrative by today’s standards may seem cliché, but when watching this film it doesn’t at all seem dated or tried. The film is a marvel of choreography and Gene Kelly shines as always. The film features a 15-minute dance scene similar to a ballet. It is a true accomplishment, the time and money spent to bring this massive ending to life is astonishing and shows the madness and genius of Kelly himself.
While dancing is one of the major highlights of the films, the soundtrack is equally impressive. Songs such as “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” and “I Got Rhythm” don’t just provide the cast with material to dance too, but were made iconic in their own right as a partner to Kelly’s choreography.
An American In Paris was loved by audiences and critics alike and it took home Best Picture at the Academy Awards along with 5 other awards that night. While Gene Kelly didn’t win best actor, he was awarded an honorary Oscar for his performance as well as his incredible choreography. An American in Paris is one of those films you can’t help but love, it is classical Hollywood at its finest and it is worthy of being considered a top 10 musical.
6. The Sound of Music (1965)
From the very first shot of the film, audience members knew they were in for a massive feature. Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music is as big as it gets for musicals in every way possible. It is a film about love, life, sacrifice, and the eventual takeover of Austria by the hands of Nazi Germany. The production was big, the sound is big, and the story is big.
The choice to shoot on 70mm makes the film have a crystal clear look and luscious color scheme. Once the film fades in and we see beautiful Austria and the camera weaving in and out of the mountains it was perfectly clear what Wise and his crew was trying to accomplish, and they succeeded without question.
Julie Andrews stars as Maria, a young woman trying to become a nun who is asked to move in with the von Trapp family to take care of the children. Captain Georg von Trapp, played by Christopher Plummer, is a decorated naval officer who runs a very strict household for him and his seven children. Maria slowly turns Georg into a more kind-hearted person his rules and policy slowly begin to fade away. The film has a political undertone throughout and takes place at the dawn of the Third Reich. As far as film narrative in musicals are concerned, The Sound of Music has one of the most engaging and fascinating stories of any of the films listed.
The soundtrack to The Sound of Music is of the most famous ever released. Julie Andrews and the rest of the cast did wonderful work in brining the songs to the big screen. Songs such as, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “My Favorite Things,” and “Do-Re-Mi” are just a small sample of the songs featured in the film. The film was a major success and is one of the highest grossing films of all time (adjusted for inflation).
It was the first film to surpass Gone With the Wind at the US box office as well. The film also took home Best Picture at the Academy Awards as well as 5 other awards including Best Director. The Sound of Music is an American masterpiece and one of the pinnacle films in the genre. There is no question it is a top 10 musical as well as one of the great achievements in the history of cinema.
5. Wizard of Oz (1939)
What can be said about Wizard of Oz that hasn’t already been said? The film was released in what is considered the greatest year for cinema ever. It was one of the first films shot in beautiful Technicolor, gave American audiences the “dream” ending, and has the most famous song in film history. Wizard of Oz is a true achievement in filmmaking and it showed just what Hollywood was capable of doing during the era of the studio system.
The film was shot in an MGM lot and all of the sets were built and painted for the screen. The production was massive at the time and cost MGM a lot of money. Despite the film’s legacy and success in later runs, the film was considered a flop by MGM when it was released. The budget for Wizard of Oz was 2.7 million and the film only grossed a little over 3 million during its initial run.
The soundtrack to Wizard of Oz is timeless and features songs such as, “If I Only Had a Brain,” “Ding-Dong The Witch is Dead,” and “Over the Rainbow.” The success of “Over the Rainbow” has kept Wizard of Oz in the hearts and minds of filmgoers for decades and it is also on top of the American Film Institutes list for 100 years…100 songs. The accolades for Wizard of Oz are undeniable, and there is a reason it is considered not just one of the best musicals ever made, but one of the best films of all time.
4. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
French filmmaker Jacques Demy wrote and directed one of the most unique and fascinating musicals in the history of cinema. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a slice of life drama about a 16-year-old girl named Geneviève and her mother, Madame Emery, as they struggle for financial security as their umbrella shop starts to lose business. Geneviève also is hopelessly trying to have her sweetheart marry her before he is called into the military.
While traditionally musicals have set scenes for singing the dialogue and dancing, this film has no dancing, no choreographed movement between characters, no scene breaks, and no specific songs; instead all of the dialogue is sung. Using recitative speaking feels completely natural in this film. Demy wrote a beautiful script and hearing every line of dialogue as a harmony with constant music in the background is a unique and welcoming way to progress the narrative.
The cinematography and use of color are stunning and the film looks fantastic even by today’s standards. The performance by Catherine Deneuve as Geneviève is a marvel and this film elevated her into an international star. As mentioned before, the film features no actual songs, but all of the music in the film serves as a background for the dialogue. Most of the music is upbeat and jazz like, while the more dramatic scenes have a more traditional, film soundtrack.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg took home the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and cemented Jacque Demy as one of the premier filmmakers of the French New-Wave. If any musical stands out on its own as a unique piece of storytelling and style The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is just that.
3. All That Jazz (1979)
Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz was the last musical of the 1970s and a better film couldn’t have capped off the decade. The film is based loosely on Fosse’s own life as a director, choreographer, and editor just a few years before the release of this film. Fosse borrows aspects from Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece, 8 ½ especially with the fantasy and dreamlike sequences of the film.
While 8 ½ is about a filmmaker trying to finish his film, All That Jazz is about a stage director trying to direct and choreograph his newest stage play all while finishing a feature film. In real life, Fosse was both finishing postproduction on his film Lenny, while choreographing the first stage production of Chicago, which is where the idea for All That Jazz comes from.
The film stars Rob Scheider as Joe Gideon, who is the plays director. Gideon is a drug addict, sex addict, and is trying to cheat death. Throughout the film there are many dreamlike sequences in which Joe even speaks with a women who represents death and jokes with her about his lifestyle. On top of all this Joe is also a father and has to balance his love life as well.
While the film is most certainly a musical, it isn’t like the others. A majority of the song sequences come at the end, while the rest of the film is composed primarily of just dance sequences with diegetic music. This works however, because in the narrative, they are working on a stage play. It doesn’t take away from the film at all. In fact, this element adds a level of originality within the genre.
Songs such as “After You’ve Gone,” “Who’s Sorry Now,” and “Some of These Days” help being the film to a satisfying end. All That Jazz is a semi-autobiographical, egotistical, Fellini-esque, hilarious, and above all, a brilliant film. All That Jazz is without question, Bob Fosse’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker. Although Cabaret has far accolades and is better known, this is his biggest contribution to the cinematic art form and is a film that should be seen immediately.
2. Singin’ In The Rain (1952)
The funny thing about “Singin’ in the Rain” is that it is the be all, end all musical. It’s widely regarded as the best of all time, the pinnacle, the definitive, the “Citizen Kane” of the genre. Honestly, it’s hard to argue against these claims, and that is its biggest problem, its reputation. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen crafted a true masterpiece of dance, singing, and narrative with this film and it earned every accolade it has received. But because of its reputation how can it hold up and meet people’s expectations?
The narrative of the story is pure Hollywood. It’ s a film about film, mainly; the transition from silent films to talkies and how silent actors struggled to crossover into speaking roles. The always-incredible Gene Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a silent film star. His on screen partner Jean Hagen, plays the role of Lina Lamont, a jealous actress who can’t seem to grasp she isn’t cut out for speaking roles.
The two are casted to star in a talkie that could end the careers of both actors. They do test screenings and the audience is baffled and don’t take it seriously. They then decide to make it a musical to gain viewers but Lina can’t sing, and her voice is far from pleasant.
The soundtrack to this film is interesting because it has many memorable and iconic musical numbers. But it’s a jukebox musical; the songs are featured in other famous films. Producer Arthur Freed for example, wrote the film’s title song in the 20’s and the song “Good Morning” is from Babes in Arms. While there is no denying the songs and flawless choreography in this film, it is a bit odd that the highest regarded musical doesn’t have an original score.
As mentioned before, the only thing wrong with Singin’ in the Rain is its reputation as being the best. Like Citizen Kane people watch it with unbelievable expectations. However, if you have never seen this film before, watch it, and you will see why it is as respected as it is. Singin’ in the Rain is Hollywood and MGM at their best and proof that the studio system worked.
1. West Side Story (1961)
The 1960s was the last great decade for major musicals. So many significant films of the genre were released in the 60s and none as important or as incredible as Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s West Side Story. As far as Hollywood musicals are concerned, I think this is as exceptional as it gets. The plot of West Side Story was inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and is one of the great tragic films from the 60s. The film revolves around two rival gangs, The Jets who are young, white American teens and The Sharks, the Puerto Rican societal outcast.
West Side Story is a textbook musical. It has all the aspects of a traditional stage play as well as stylized and choreographed violence, an overture, an intermission, and of course, an incredible score written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. The film also looks gorgeous; the choice to shoot the film on a Super Panavision 70 gives the visual style of West Side Story eternal beauty. Its big, crisp, and colorful look will never be outdated. It was the first musical to be shot in 70mm and only one of twenty films to be shot entirely by the Super Panavision 70.
As far as the soundtrack and score are concerned, it’s hard to find a musical with a more recognizable list of songs. Every piece of music from West Side Story is a classic and the music has reached multiple generations of listeners. Songs such as, “Jet Song,” “Maria,” “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Gee Officer Krupke” are all staples in both the stage and screen world. The accolades and praise for this film are very high as well.
It won Best Picture at the Academy Awards as well as 9 other Oscars, it is listed at #51 on AFI’s top 100 movies list, and was voted #2 on AFI’s top musicals list. West Side Story has something for everyone and even viewers who don’t generally like musicals can appreciate this film. West Wide Story is more than a great musical; it is an achievement and above all, a fantastic film.
Author Bio: Chaz Ludwig is a film writer and avid cinephile. He studied film at Columbia College Chicago and has written and directed 2 short films. He hopes to run an independent movie theater one day.