With Hamilton dropping on Disney+, sans fucks, I have decided to give all the fucks to movie musicals. To see Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldberry, Philipa Soo, Christopher Jackson, Oak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda do their dang thing in #hamilfilm… I’m feeling nostalgic for theatre. I’m an actor by trade and the COVID “pause” of theatre and film sets leaves me looking for the jolt good live theatre can give to a day. If you’re also missing the theatre, let me steer you towards some musical gems in the film world.
1. West Side Story (dirs. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961)
If you went to public school, you probably saw this movie in middle school music class. Stephen Sondheim considers it his most embarrassing work as a lyricist, but it’s hard to not feel moved by the Shakespearian sentiments of this 1961 take on Romeo and Juliet. You know the story. The Jets and the Sharks are two rival gangs. The Jets are white, the Sharks are Puerto Rican, and one member of each side of the schism falls in love, resulting in unnecessarily violence shaking the core values of the two groups. This film won 10 Academy Awards, including acting accolades for the legendary EGOT Rita Moreno and George Chakiris as Anita and Bernardo. Russ Tamblyn also gives a fantastic performance as Riff, the Mercutio stand in.
Special shout out to choreographer (and co-director of the film) Jerome Robbins for making the transition from stage to screen seamless. The Prologue is one of the most beautiful examples of wordless character set up.
2. A Chorus Line (dir. Richard Attenborough, 1985)
Never has a show explored the disappointment and dehumanization of auditioning for a Broadway show than A Chorus Line. As a working actor, disappointment and rejection is the name of the game. For every 1 Yes you hear 500 Nos. Hard work, passion, experience, and skill does not always equal a job. The show was on Broadway in 1975, Michael Bennet, the show’s creator and choreographer, won the Pulitzer Prize in drama and explores the insides of the industries only the way an insider can. The movie is SO 80’s and has a very stiff performance by Michael Douglas at its heart, but the heart is there. The characters are endearing, the songs are catchy, the choreography is amazing, and I dare you not to want to get up and dance with them at the end. Oh, and it’s directed by Richard Attenborough. Yes. Jurassic Park’s Richard Attenborough.
3. Tommy (dir. Ken Russell, 1975)
A movie, based on a concept album, that was then adapted into a stage musical. If it sounds like a lot, wait until you see the movie! The film is full of wild performances by A list stars. Highlights include an incredible Tina Turner as The Acid Queen, Elton John as a high-platformed pinball wizard, Oliver Reed grumbling and calling it singing, Eric Clapton as the Hawker, and Jack Nicholson as a doctor. Ann-Margret and Roger Daltry, as Mrs. Walker and Tommy, give great performances and the visuals of the piece are fantastically fun. They even have an extended instrumental sequence where Ann-Margret rolls around in a bunch of chocolate, looking like a fresh poop. It’s perfect.
4. Dreamgirls (dir. Bill Condon, 2006)
Loosely based on the story of The Supremes and the Shirelles Dreamgirls follows The Dreams (Beyonce, Anika Noni Rose, and Jennifer Hudson) as they ride the wave of stardom. This colorful adaptation of the 1981 stage play boosts powerful performances by Jennifer Hudson, winning her a Supporting Actress Oscar, and earning Eddie Murphy his only Oscar nomination, which is insane to me. Justice for Dolemite Is My Name. The movie follows the stage play pretty closely, but omits songs to make way for new ones, and the new songs are also bops.
The QUEEN, Jennifer Holliday in the original production.
5. Little Shop of Horrors (dir. Frank Oz, 1986)
A Frank Oz film is always a rip-roaring good time, and Little Shop of Horrors, the 1986 film, based on the 1982 broadway musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, based on the 1960 Roger Corman black and white movie, is no exception. Seymour (a nerdy Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Green, who originated the role on broadway) live on skid row with no way out of their hopeless situations. Seymour will never escape working in a flower shop. Audrey will never escape her never-ending parade of terrible men who are terrible toward her. Suddenly, a plant arrives to the shop (Levi Stubbs voices “Audrey II”, and also has the best singing voice known to man) and while this new plant seems to be turning Seymour’s luck around, it starts requiring blood to live. Human blood. And it demands to be fed.
In a fun cameo, the newest asshole in Audrey’s life is Steve Martin, huffing some gas as Orin Scrivello, a sadistic dentist. One of the folks he tortures is Bill Murray, making this the only movie they ever appeared in together.
There was a revival of the musical at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2019 with Be More Chill’s George Salazar, Pose’s MJ Rodriguez as Audrey, and Amber Riley voicing Audrey II. This ran the same time as Jonathan Groff (Hamilton’s spitty King George) and Tammy Blanchard were about to lead a COVID-canceled revival on Broadway, showing just how immediate elements of the musical can be when performed by people who don’t look how we “envision the characters”.
6. Fiddler on the Roof (dir. Norman Jewison, 1971)
The musical follows traditional Tevye, a Jewish dairyman, attempting to preserve Tradition as his three oldest daughters find love and marry in a pre-revolutionary 1905 Russia.
The 1971 film naturalizes the action of the musical in ways that ground Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein’s 1964 story. When Tevye (a legendary performance by Topel, who still performs the role to this day), talks to the screen, it feels natural. The music exists as a companion to the action, as opposed to stopping momentum to sing. Like, they’re just doing their chores. Feeding chickens and shit. But singing.
The characters in Fiddler are real and three-dimensional. It’s a joyous and shattering to spend time and experience a changing world, for better and for worse, alongside them.
7. Chicago (dir. Rob Marshall 2002)
Did you know that Chicago is still running on Broadway? The same Bob Fosse-inspired revival that opened in 1996 is (was? Thanks COVID) still playing, making it the longest running revival in Broadway’s history. Set in the murder obsessed 1920’s Chicago, two death-row murderesses Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger, pouting) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones, doing splits at 3 months pregnant) compete for publicity, fame, and a super star lawyer (Richard Gere) who will save their lives at the price of their fame. Directed by Rob Marshall, the film won 6 Oscars, including Supporting Actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones and Best Picture. In stark contrast to Fiddler on the Roof’s naturalistic tone, Chicago instead decides to spotlight the stage within a screen aspect of Roxie’s personality to varying degrees of success. Queen Latifah as a hard-nosed prison warden and John C. Reilly as Roxie’s sad sack husband are delightful as the best singers in the bunch.
8. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (dir. Jim Sharman, 1975)
It’s the pelvis thrust that really drives you insay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ayn and your sexuality probably took a turn for the better if you were a human who discovered this movie at a formative age. Based on Richard O’Brien’s deliciously weird 1973 The Rocky Horror Show, this movie is one of the best things that has ever happened to film. Newly engaged Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick, ASSHOLE) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon, HOT) breakdown in a strange area and have to seek shelter at a castle in the middle of nowhere, inhabited by Dr. Frank ‘n Furter (Tim………..SAY IT….. Curry), a sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania. An exploration of kink, seduction, and some banging (lulz) songs follow. If the Disney-fication of Hamilton’s fucks bothered you, give yourself over to absolute pleasure and experience this movie for the first time or the five millionth time. It’s a cult classic and was one of the first popular musicals to depict fluid sexuality in a positive way. The 1975 Broadway run closed after 45 performances. They weren’t ready. The show is rarely produced now. Maybe because the movie regularly comes equipped with a shadow cast. Maybe because people are still prudes.
9. Cabaret (dir. Bob Fosse, 1972)
Bob Fosse was known for being a dickhead, but he was also a master at musicals and let that mastery spill into the world of musical movies. Cabaret is an example of that mastery. Joel Grey and Liza Minelli give game-changing performances in this musical about a crumbling Cabaret in the middle of the rise of Nazi Germany. It’s terrifying, seedy, and there are no good guys. Kander and Ebb set the scene with some of the most famous music to come out of the theatre. Sam Mendes directed a seedier revival starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee. The production kept its punch in 1993 and was touring the country until the COVID shutdown.
10. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (dir. John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
Internationally ignored songstress Hedwig Robinson, is left questioning who she is in the world. With a botched sex change operation and an ex-lover getting famous of her songs, she is left giving A+ dive bar performances while searching for her other half. John Cameron Mitchell and Miriam Shore reprise the roles they created off-broadway and Mitchell steps into the director’s seat. The result is a fast, funny, and heartbreaking, experience. It’s my favorite musical movie about finding yourself in a sea of loss and unfulfilled potential. It gave a place for all the misfits, and the losers, and the strange rock and rollers to know we’re doing alright, listening to the midnight radio.
11. Hair (dir. Milos Forman, 1979)
We follow Claude, a wannabe rebel, as he is embraced by a group of hippies protesting the draft and embracing free love and drugs during the time of the Vietnam War. The movie, directed by Milos Forman, is vastly different than the 1967 musical. The musical is more of a collection of vignette style protest songs, as it was supposed to be a contemporary celebration of the hippies at the time. Every once and a while we get some plot, but for the most part, we are following a movement and an energy. No, Hair is not intended to be a “period piece”, but it’s been set in the 70’s ever since. The movie reorganized the songs and sharpens the characters into movie stars. We’ll see if a true to the source version of the musical ever gets adapted to film, but for now, we have this goosebump inducing final scene.
12. Cats (dir. Tom Hooper, 2019)