Last week I launched a new podcast series ShenTens here, counting down my top ten favourite musicals, and today the second episode is released. You can listen here:
What follows is the equivalent of the CD booklet — a complementary editorial that gives some of the facts and anecdotes around those choices, plus provides you with links to YouTube viewing opportunities for each of them.
Of course, unlike my stage choices of the week before, each of these titles can be revisited in full by watching the entire film on your favourite streaming service, sometimes for free or otherwise via a rental.
Movie musicals naturally overlap with stage musicals, in as much as many of Broadway’s greatest titles have been turned into feature films, with varying degrees of success. Nowadays, the process is more often reversed, with feature films — both musical and non-musical ones — being converted into stage musicals. Just before the first lockdown arrived, the latest of these to transfer from Broadway arrived at the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre with a musical version of Pretty Woman — a theatre that had previously been home to such film-to-stage titles as Metropolis and Ghost, amongst others, and had also already been announced as the destination, after Pretty Woman, where the current (and currently suspended) Broadway version of Moulin Rouge was due to be headed this year.
But we’re also still seeing some plays and musicals headed to being put on film, as I itemised here earlier this week, the latest examples of which are the new Netflix version of The Prom, and the Tim Minchin-scored adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda also headed to the big screen. The latter is actually my husband’s own favourite stage musical, so my household can’t wait for this.
But while we wait, here are my own favourite movie musicals. On the podcast, we count down in reverse order from 10 to 1, but here we go forwards.
(Dates given after each title are the year of their original release)
1) NEW YORK NEW YORK (1977)
Martin Scorsese directs a musical romance, set in jazz-age New York, with Robert de Niro as a saxophonist and Liza Minnelli as the singer he falls in love with. The score featured part standards, part brand-new songs written by Broadway’s Kander and Ebb, who had already written Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975) at this point, which Minnelli respectively starred in the 1972 film version of (see next entry), and the original Broadway production when she stood in, unannounced, as a replacement for the temporarily indisposed star Gwen Verdon. Minnelli had, in fact, made her Broadway debut aged just 19, in the title role of another Kander and Ebb musical Flora the Red Menace in 1965, winning her first Tony Award in; they would also go on to write The Act as a vehicle specifically for her, that was premiered on Broadway in the same year as New York New York, and also directed by Scorsese in his sole theatrical directing credit.
The film was originally released in 1977, then re-released in 1981 with a 20-minute sequence, Happy Ending, that had been cut from the original release. A film-within-the-film, it is like a MGM ‘golden age’ musical come to life, starring Minnelli and Larry Kert (Tony in the original Broadway production of West Side Story).
The title song would go on to become New York’s unofficial theme tune, particularly after Frank Sinatra recorded and turned it into a hit in 1979; interestingly, of course, there’s another song with the same name from Leonard Bernstein’s first Broadway musical On the Town that was premiered in 1944, and is itself a classic.
2) CABARET (1972)
Kander and Ebb’s first major Broadway hit Cabaret, premiered in 1966, is a modern stage classic that was originally directed by Hal Prince and choreographed by Ron Field. On Broadway it starred Jill Haworth as Sally Bowles, an English cabaret artiste living in 1930s Berlin and working at the decadent Kit Kat Club, where the nightly show is presided over by an Emcee, originally played by Joel Grey.
When it came to London’s Palace Theatre in 1968, the role of Sally Bowles would be originated by a young Judi Dench. But for the 1972 film it was entirely re-conceived under the direction of Bob Fosse, who also choreographed. Joel Grey would reprise his stage role as the Emcee, winning an Oscar for best supporting actor, but Sally Bowles lost her English accent and became a young American performer, played by Liza Minnelli in a performance that won her the 1972 Oscar for Best Actress.
Grey and Minnelli’s Oscar triumphs were part of a haul of eight Oscars in all which also saw Bob Fosse named best director, but despite those successes, it was unusually not also named Best Picture.
An additional song, Maybe this Time, originally written by Kander and Ebb for nightclub singer and actor Kaye Ballard in 1964, was added for the film version, and is now incorporated into the stage version, too.
3) ALL THAT JAZZ (1979)
“It’s showtime, folks!”, the character of Joe Gideon regularly tells himself in the mirror in this dark, forbidding semi-autobiographical film masterpiece from the troubled soul of director/choreographer Bob Fosse. He puts all his personal demons and fears on full display as Roy Scheider plays a version of Fosse, furiously popping pills to sustain the demands of his job working simultaneously on a film and Broadway musical.
Fosse himself was juggling both of these duties in 1975, as he was editing the film Lenny (about the great stage comic Lenny Bruce) and working on the original production of Chicago. The title, in fact, is a reference to one of the most famous songs from Chicago; and continuing the autobiographical strand, the role of his current girlfriend was played by Ann Reinking, who was herself Fosse’s mistress during his marriage to Gwen Verdon (dancing to Peter Allen’s Everything Old is New Again, below with Erzsebet Foldi).
All of this has recently been chronicled in the TV series Fosse/Verdon, but Fosse’s All That Jazz long predates it, and in fact even anticipates the circumstances of his own death: just as the director here faces Jessica Lange’s Angel of Death after a heart attack, Fosse would himself die after suffering a heart attack on the streets of Washington DC in 1986, collapsing into the arms of Gwen Verdon, where he was supervising a Broadway-bound revival of his 1966 hit Sweet Charity. Nominated for eight Oscars, the film won four, including for best original score.
4) ONCE (2007)
This low-budget Irish indie film, written and directed by John Carney, became a sleeper hit, winning a 2008 Oscar for Best Original song for Falling Slowly, written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová who also starred respectively as a Dublin street busker and the Eastern European pianist who fall in love after meeting on the street after she sees him playing there.
It was turned into a Tony winning Broadway musical that transferred to Broadway in 2012 after premiering at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop the year before (also the original home of Rent). A British team of director John Tiffany, designer Bob Crowley and orchestrator Martin Lowe would all win Tony’s for their efforts; the show would win eight in all, including Best Musical. It subsequently transferred to the West End’s Phoenix Theatre in 2013. I loved the stage version with a passion; but catching the film only after I’d seen it there, I ended up loving the film even more.
5) LA LA LAND (2016)
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, La La Land was described by The Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw as “a sun-drenched masterpiece,” and I totally agree. A stylish, stylised musical romance about a mismatched LA actress and aspiring musician, it has the same tender heartache of New York, New York, and some utterly stunning production numbers, including an opening number, Another Day of Sun, set in a traffic jam on an LA freeway that’s completely exhilarating.
The songs are by Justin Hurwitz (music) and Pasek and Paul (lyrics, the Broadway darlings who also scored the current West End and Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen); City of Stars won the 2017 Oscar for best original song; later the same year, Dear Evan Hansen also won them the Tony for best original score.
La la land also created the single most extraordinary fiasco in Oscar history, when Faye Dunaway announced it had won Best Picture when she mistakenly read out a card that was a duplicate of the Best Actress Award that had been won by Emma Stone, only for the error to be revealed as the creative team were already onstage that in fact the prize belonged to Moonlight.
Pasek and Paul have since scored The Greatest Showman (2017, indulging the Oscar nominated This is Me). Benj Pasek, who is active on social media, recently tweeted the following provocative question:
6) NINE (2009)
A film musical of a stage musical based on an original semi-autobiographical film classic by Federico Fellini (the 1963 film 8½), Nine is a multi-layered work about both the creative process of film-making and the confused and confusing emotional life of its key protagonist. Originally premiered on Broadway in 1982 — when it went head-to-head with Dreamgirls (itself turned into a Oscar-nominated film in 2006) and scooped it for the Best Musical award that year — Nine has a score of lush, plush melodies by Maury Yeston, who also wrote Grand Hotel (on my top ten favourite stage musicals list last week) and Titanic.
Three new songs were added for the film, including the Oscar nominated Take It All and Cinema Italiano, the latter a breathtaking vehicle for Kate Hudson as the newly-added character of a fashion journalist.
The all-star cast of the film also included Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido Contini (originally Raul Julia on Broadway), Penelope Cruz as Carla (his mistress, originally the late Anita Morris), Marion Cotillard as Luisa Contini (his wife, originally Karen Akers), Judi Dench (Liliane la Fleur, a costume designer, originally Liliane Montevecchi) and Sophia Loren as Mama Contini (originally Tania Elg).
A 2003 Broadway revival of the show — directed by David Leveaux and choreographed by Jonathan Butterell, who had done the same duties on the show’s 1996 West End outing at the Donmar Warehouse — is one of the greatest productions I’ve ever seen on Broadway…. and will inevitably therefore feature in a future ShenTens, when I list my favourite-ever physical stagings I’ve ever seen.
7) SWEET CHARITY (1969)
Yet another Fosse original — he was also responsible for Cabaret (number 2 above) and All That Jazz (number three) — he reprised his duties from the 1966 Broadway musical, that like Nine (number six above) is also based on a Fellini film, in this case his 1957 film Nights of Cabiria. With an irresistible score by Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics), and a book by Neil Simon, amongst its classic songs are Big Spender, If My Friends Could See Me Now, There’s Gotta Be Something Better than This and I Love to Cry at Weddings.
The film version has a stunning sequence for The Rhythm of Life, performed by Sammy Davis Jr, as the evangelical leader of a cult called The Rhythm of Life church that the title character of Charity Hope Valentine takes her date, Oscar, to.
Shirley MacLaine is a marvel as Charity (replacing Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon who originated the role onstage), opposite John McMartin reprising his Broadway performance as Oscar. Also in featured roles are Broadway regulars Ben Vereen (who would go on to star in Fosse’s original 1972 production of Pippin), who performs the wonderful Rich Man’s Frug dance sequence, and Chita Rivera (who in 1957 had created the role of Anita in the original production of West Side Story) as Nickie, a colleague of Charity’s from the Times Square dance hall where they both not so much dance as “we defend ourselves to music,” as another of their colleagues Helene sardonically quips.
8) THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)
A cult film version of a cult theatre show, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is, like Little Shop of Horrors that followed less than a decade later, a small show that grew into a global phenomenon. Just as Little Shop was born in a tiny Off-Off Broadway theatre in 1982 (the WPA Theatre, no longer there), so The Rocky Horror Show was born in London’s tiny Theatre Upstairs above the Royal Court in 1973, before transferring to a former cinema further down the King’s Road from Sloane Square.
With book, music and lyrics by Richard O’Brien, who also played the character of Riff-Raff in the original stage production before reprising his role in the film, it was a show about daring dysfunction, ahead of its time, in portraying a story of a bisexual transvestite scientist Dr Frank N Furter, intent on creating the man of his dreams as a personal plaything (the Rocky of the title).
Tim Curry, who created the role of Frank N Furter both on stage and film, was absolutely dazzling — he performs ‘Sweet Transvestite’ above — and the film version also has the choice casting of Susan Sarandon as Janet Weiss, the innocent virgin who stumbles with her fiancé into the scientist’s path, and Meatloaf in the small but significant role of Eddie.
Although some of the critics were not kind — Newsweek dubbed the film “tasteless, plotless and pointless” — the film soon became its own phenomenon, with audiences arriving for screenings dressed as characters from the film; in San Francisco, a performance group acted out and performed the whole film as it was shown. To this day, screenings of the film, as well as physical revivals of the show, invite audiences to “call and response”, much like a panto, to particular moments in the script.
9) MY FAIR LADY (1964)
One of Broadway’s most perfect musicals — in terms of structure and score — My Fair Lady was faithfully and sumptuously transposed to the big screen eight years after its 1956 New York stage premiere. George Cukor’s film, which had a budget of £17m that set a record for the most expensive film made to date, would win eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Rex Harrison, reprising the role he created in the show’s Broadway premiere.
Julie Andrews, who had created the role of Eliza Doolittle, was passed over for the film in favour of Audrey Hepburn, even though Hepburn wasn’t up the role vocally so all but one of her songs were re-dubbed by Marni Nixon.
A year later Andrews would inherit the role of Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music that had originally been created onstage by Mary Martin; while Theodore Bikel, who had created the role of Captain von Trapp in the original stage version of The Sound of Music but was replaced for the film by Christopher Plummer, makes a guest appearance in My Fair Lady as Zoltan Karpathy, the man who tries to expose Eliza as a fraud at her first ball.
When she returns from that ball, she sings “I Could Have Danced All Night”.
As one critic wrote of the film, “It’s a classic not because a group of stuffy film experts have labelled it as such, but because it has been, and always will be, a pure joy to experience.” And that’s spot-on.
10) THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
The last of the “Big Five” Rodgers and Hammerstein hits that began in 1943 with Oklahoma! and continued with Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I, before culminating in the 1959 premiere of The Sound of Music, the film version was released in 1965, five years after Hammerstein’s death, aged just 65. Eidelweiss (sung by Christopher Plummer below) was the last song he wrote.
This became, a year after its original release, the highest grossing film of all time up to then, overtaking Gone with the Wind; and remains a phenomenally popular title today, screened annually at Christmas on television. Saltzburg in Austria, where the location shooting took place, has built an entire tourism industry around the film.
It won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Robert Wise, who four years earlier had won the same Oscar for his film version of another Broadway classic, West Side Story.
It’s easy to dismiss the sentimentality of The Sound of Music — the legendary New York film critic Pauline Kael dubbed it “the sugar-coated lie people seem to want to eat”, and she said that audiences have “turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.” But the film has a reassuring warmth that helps to dissipate both that and the gritty reality of the rise of Nazism that the Von Trapp family seek to escape from.
If I had another five choices, I’d also include Moulin Rouge (2001), Baz Luhrmann’s movie mash-up set in the eponymous Parisian nightclub that has recently been turned into a hit Broadway musical that was due to come to the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre this year, but has been delayed by the pandemic.
Below, Ewan McGregor performs Come From May with Nicole Kidman.
Two movie musicals from Alan Parker, who died last year, would also make my list — Bugsy Malone (1976) and Fame (1980), both of which have been adapted less successfully for the stage. And I’d also include the stage-to-film adaptations of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! (1968) and Hair (1979), both of which faithfully reproduce the spirit of those shows.
AND FINALLY, A GUILTY PLEASURE….
That would have to be Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) dire backstage look at strippers-turned-Vegas-showgirls, that I once enjoyed in a cinema in a Chelsea, New York to the accompaniment of a hilarious live commentary from a famous New York drag queen.
Original trailer below:
My ShenTens podcast and feature here will count down my personal top ten favourite Sondheim songs.
Special thanks to my producer Paul Branch; Howard Goodall, for theme music; and Thomas Mann for the logo design