The musical sometimes feels like a relic of a long-dead Hollywood studio system, but it remains a genre that captures movies’ ability to create story worlds that move freely between reality and fantasy. The worst examples come from filmmakers who give license to music, color, and movement to run amok; the best transcend artifice and integrate songs that become expressions of pure character emotion. Musicals offer endless possibilities, but success demands a complete mastery of the medium.
The best movie musicals of all time have faced obstacles as varied as their creators’ styles and tastes. That’s in part because its integration of at least two art forms — music and film always, but sometimes also dance — demands an unusually high-caliber of multi-faceted talent from those attempting its complexities.
After Lee De Forest invented the “talky,” the opportunity oozing from that new tech prompted an industry rush on musicals in the last days of the 1920s. That went over well with audiences at first. But by the end of the ‘30s, movie musicals were a dime-a-dozen, leaving people fatigued and rapidly turning music into the Marvel debate of mid-century cinema. Who needed another film with “Broadway Melody” or “Big Broadcast” in the title?
Of course, historic hits throughout the ‘40s, ’50s, and ‘60s, including “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Singin’ In The Rain,” meant Hollywood’s best movie musicals were still to come — with story and emotion put first. The genre saw another decline in popularity later in the 20th century when action flicks reigned supreme. But such is the ebb and flow of the genre, which has been (incorrectly) declared dead more than once.
Even now, with the success of Steven Spielberg’s jaw-dropping “West Side Story” and more musicals in the pipeline (see Baz Luhrmann’s recently released “Elvis”), movie musicals are offering yet another encore to audiences hungry for their lively energy. Sure, few current stars could learn the choreography of Busby Berkeley, Jerome Robbins, or Bob Fosse, and adapting a medium developed and most suited for the stage requires innovative direction. But the skills of contemporary movie musical champions, like Spielberg and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the promise of Disney-backed animated musicals tell us the curtain will never close on this movie moment.
From “A Star Is Born” and “Swing Time” to “Chicago” and “West Side Story,” here are 55 musicals that represent the height and the incredible range of the genre.
Eric Kohn, Anne Thompson, Ryan Lattanzio, Jude Dry, Kristen Lopez, Jenna Marotta, Jamie Righetti, Michael Nordine, Siddhant Adlakha, Christian Blauvelt, Noel Murray, and Alison Foreman contributed to this list.