Top 15 Musical-to-Film Adaptations
There’s nothing better than a great musical film. From the dawn of cinema, stage musicals and plays have constantly been adapted for the screen, with many featuring music and elaborate dance numbers that one might see on stage. In some cases, movie magic makes some of these sequences seem even more spectacular.
In the anticipation of the new musical film La La Land, opening in theatres on December 9th, we’re counting down the best in the world of musical theatre with a three-list series. In this list, we’re focusing on the 15 best musical-to-film adaptations.
You can find our list of the top 15 film-to-musical adaptations here, and our list of the top 15 completely original musicals here.
Using the expertise of local theatre and film expert Harper Leander, we have narrowed our selections based on the following criteria:
One young girl, a marriage, three possible dads, and Meryl Streep. What could be better than that? This film adaptation of the 2001 jukebox musical featuring the songs of ABBA came out in 2008, featuring Amanda Seyfried as Sophie, the bride-to-be searching for her father (which could be Pierce Brosnan, or Colin Firth, or Stellan Skarsgaard. Who knows, really?) to walk her down the aisle, all while her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) faces the pasts that she’s had with all three men. Oh, and there’s 70s Euro-disco music, so what could be more entertaining? While it’s not the best or most successful film the stars in this one have done, Mamma Mia does well to emulate the energy of the Broadway production by putting it on locale in a gorgeous Greek isle setting, while also remaining as true to the source material as possible.
- The Phantom of the Opera
Phantom is one of those shows that’s extremely annoying (and I know I just made a huge divide there with people). It’s been on Broadway since 1988, and nothing really has changed about it, it’s just there and it probably will continue to be there for a long time to come. The 2004 film version was a breath of fresh air for Andrew Lloyd Webber and his phenomenon. Okay, so it was directed by Joel Schumacher (who directed the horrendous Batman & Robin- the one with George Clooney and his bat-nipples), and Gerard Butler had no singing experience and was cast as the Phantom anyways. But, to be fair, the cast acted the crap out of that movie. You’ve got Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson (who can sing), Cirian Hinds (who can’t sing, but, eh), and Minnie Driver supporting Butler in the film. While the writing and direction were criticized (because, y’know, it’s the guy who directed Batman & Robin…), the acting and visuals were praised highly. When someone presents to you a half-decent musical, you do what you can with it, I suppose. Bless whoever did the visuals for this film. You can do so much more with film magic than you can with theatre magic.
So here’s the thing. The message of this show is awful. “Change yourself so that you’ll be more attractive and your man will fall in love with you.” Come ON. Really? To be fair, the film did the Broadway film some justice. The musical, premiering on Broadway in 1972, featured unknowns like Doug Stevenson and Leslie Goto. The 1978 film had a lot more firepower than that, featuring the likes of John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, and Stockard Channing. We can credit the film version of Grease for making the musical more popular- it also re-informed people that Grease was a stage show before it was a film. We can also thank the 2016 FOX television version of Grease for being the best thing ever. Thank you, FOX, for making Grease likeable again.
Fiddler on the Roof
A film version of Fiddler on the Roof not staring Zero Mostel? Sounds crazy, no? Just about everyone knows in some capacity the original production of Fiddler. “Tradition,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” the list goes on. It premiered on Broadway in 1964 and won 9 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, score, book, actor, and actress. It was also for a time the longest-running show in Broadway history. The 1971 film version starred Chaim Topol as Tevye (a highly controversial decision, as many could see Mostel, the originator of the role, playing the role), and, while not as wildly successful critically as the original Broadway show, made $83.3 million worldwide, and managed to nab three Academy Awards, as well as nominations for various others, including Best Picture and best actor for Topol. Overall, the film manages to keep the spirit of the original alive in a whole new light, keeping alive the values that the people of Anatevka held dear to their hearts. What values? I can tell you in one word: Tradition!
Downsides of the Rent film: much of the rock-opera feel of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Tony-winning musical was lost, substituted for spoken dialogue instead of singing or rhythmic speaking. As a result, much of the dialogue sounds weirdly rhyme-y and choppy. Upsides of the Rent film: pretty much everything else. The 2005 film featured just about all the members of the original Broadway company, while (in my opinion) making upgrades in casting for the characters of Mimi (Rosario Dawson in favor of Daphne Ruben-Vega) and Joanne (Tracie Thoms for Fredi Walker). It also featured upgrades to the orchestrations of the numbers, making them rock a little harder than they did in 1996. Taking “I Should Tell You” from a straight 6/8 and making it a swung 6/8 might be the best thing for that song, and it’s evident how much more powerful it is in the film. What the film upgrades in terms of music is, on the whole, for the better. "I'll Cover You (Reprise)," seen above, is particularly moving. The film wasn’t a great commercial success, nor was it nearly the phenomenon that the musical was, but the film version of Rent gives you all the feels of the Broadway show, while adding a few little sparks of 21st century energy to keep the audience guessing and feeling re-invigorated.
I will not tell you about what’s wrong with this film. I will not tell you about the poor casting decisions, and how the studio execs decided to go with names instead of people with musical talent. I will not tell you that having the actors sing live and promoting it was pompous and how it severely backfired, because the actors were too busy not being strong singers. I will not tell you how laughable Russell Crowe is. I will not tell you about Eddie Redmayne’s face-brado. I will not tell you that this film should not have had as much awards recognition as it did. I will not tell you that Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are the best parts of this film, as they took the over-the-top Thernardier roles and turned them into dry, deadpan, and subtly hilarious screen versions (Also, God bless Aaron Tveit). I will not tell you what’s wrong with this film. The only thing I will say is that this show belongs on a stage. And until someone can make a musical version that proves me otherwise, my opinion will remain unchanged.
The Top 15:
15. Little Shop of Horrors
To clarify (and tying back to the criteria for this list), Little Shop of Horrors, the musical, premiered off-Broadway in 1982 and on Broadway in 2003. The film is based off of the musical, and was released in 1986. The musical is based off of a 1960 film, which was not a musical, so I draw no correlation between the basis for the 1960 film and the 1986 film, which was a film adaptation of the musical itself. ANYways. Little Shop’s cast included the likes of Rick Moranis as Seymour, Ellen Greene as Audrey, Vincent Gardenia as Mushnik, and Steve Martin as Orin. It also featured the likes of John Candy and Billy Murray in cameo roles. The film keeps pretty well to the plot of the off-Broadway show, but audiences did not react positively to the ending of the film (you know, that whole “Don’t feed the plants” business, which includes Audrey II eating Audrey and Seymour and eventually taking over the world). The filmmakers opted for a “happier ending,” but still managed to sneak in an “I’m still here” for Audrey II. Classic, funny, and horrific, the film version of Little Shop maintains all the spunk of the musical.
Before you throw me out a window, let me clarify by saying that this is not the 2014 version with Quevenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx. This is the incredible 1982 version, featuring the likes of Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, Ann Reinking, and Tim Curry. The musical, which played Broadway in 1977, won itself a Tony for Best Musical. The film makes a few noticeable changes (including the addition of characters like Punjab and the omission of songs like “NYC”), particularly the ending, which involves Annie escaping from the clutches of Rooster, Lily St. Regis, and Miss Hannigan, culminating in a standoff at the NX Bridge. Overall, the film does a great job throwing in new twists onto already beloved characters and songs. The film was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Scenic Design, and Best Adapted Score. Carol Burnett was even nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress- Comedy or Musical.
It is at this point in the list that I would like to direct the attention of the filmmakers who made Les Miseràbles to Hairspray. This is how one casts names in a film. This film, based on the 2003 Tony-winning musical, tells the story of the “pleasantly plump” Tracy Turnblad, as she attempts to become a star on local television, all while rallying against racial segregation in 1960s Baltimore. Firstly, the music by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is boss, featuring possibly the best closing number in the history of Broadway with “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Then you’ve got the cast, which featured John Travola (you may remember him from a film called Grease), Christopher Walken (who can’t exactly sing, but he’s Chris Walken), Amanda Bynes, Queen Latifah, and the incomparable Zac Effron- not to mention Nikki Blonsky, who puts the pretty little bow on the film itself. Much of the campiness of the stage musical is toned down (a major plus for those who have too much camp in their life already), and obviously, many changes from John Waters’ 1988 film are gone completely. Hairspray was nominated for three Golden Globes, including Best Picture, Best Actress (both in the comedy/musical department), and Best Supporting Actor for John Travolta. Do yourself a favor and listen to the soundtrack from the film- see how you like it compared to the original… or the live version that just aired on NBC.
12. Into the Woods
A show near and dear to my heart (also, dare I say one of Sondheim’s best?). The 2014 film version of Sondheim’s beloved 1988 musical about the characters featured in Grimm’s Fairy Tales was the newest big-budget musical-to-film project since Les Mis in 2012 (naturally, I was disheartened from the latter, so I was a tad nervous about seeing Into the Woods). Produced by Disney, it also went with the big names to fill the show’s legendary roles, landing names like Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Johnny Depp. While many had thought that Disney might “Disney-fy” the film, it maintained all the mystery and darkness of the original stage version, as approved by Sondheim and James Lapine. Kendrick, Blunt, and Corden all hold their own against the tough score, and manage to pull all the right heartstrings, particularly during Kendrick’s rendition of “No One is Alone.” The omission of the Mysterious Man and the song “No More” is something to note though. However, Into the Woods remains an emotional journey, and certainly restored my faith in the musical-film genre.
11. The Producers
We’re all familiar with Mel Brooks’ classic 60s film. So was the Broadway community, as its fantastic 2001 stage version featured the likes of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, and racked up a record 12 Tony Awards. The 2005 film version of The Producers featured many of the same actors from the stage show (except for Uma Thurman replacing Cady Huffman, but still performing a fantastic Ulla, not to mention Will Ferrell’s hysterical Franz Liebkind), and manages to put together a slightly darker, but still incredibly zany version of the show. While the show, some may argue, is suited better to the stage, it is still an effective homage to the 1968 film, while maintaining the authenticity of the stage production. Lane and Ferrell managed to grab Golden Globe nominations for the film.
10. The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Yes. This was a stage show before it was a movie. Shut your lips and learn. The Rocky Horror Show premiered first in London in 1973 before moving to Broadway in 1975, just before the film was released in August of that year. The musical was a failure and closed after just 45 performances. The film version, needless to say, was wildly successful, making $140 million off of a $1.4 million budget, and has become a cult classic, with midnight showings of the film prominent around the country and the world. The film has never been pulled from theaters by 20th Century Fox since it was released in 1975, and is considered to be the longest running film in history. Tim Curry starred as Frank N. Furter in both the film and stage version- the role that defined much of his career. It’s because of him, as well as show creator and original Riff Raff, Richard O’Brien, that so many people can rock out to songs like “Sweet Transvestite,” “Time Warp,” and “Hot Patootie-Bless My Soul.” It’s the “little musical that could” of this list, with the payoff quite possibly being the biggest of any film on this list.
9. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
From one horror story to another (though this one is much darker), Sweeney Todd hit cinemas in 2007, featuring a Tim Burton-assembled cast (because, of course Tim Burton) of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sacha Baron Cohen. Based on the 1973 musical by Stephen Sondheim about the barber who seeks vengeance for the death of his wife, the film creates the dank and deep atmosphere of 19th Century London, with undertones of suspense and tension at every turn. Depp’s performance as the dark and layered Sweeney was critically acclaimed, and, for someone who is not exactly known for his singing, he is able to knock it out of the park with his performance. While lacking certain singing qualities, Depp attains the emotional depth needed when the character’s emotions grow so that he can only express his feelings with song. I say, if a normal person were to do this, odds are, the singing voice wouldn’t be perfect. What really matters is the heart. Depp offers a killer Sweeney for this film. Burton’s daring choices to cut the opening number from the show, as well as reducing much of the music in general (because the stage version is basically an operetta, it’s 93% music) may anger the purists, but the brave choices pay off, as the film’s gritty realness comes into focus with every corpse baked into a meat pie.
8. Funny Girl
This is the film that made Barbara Streisand. And I say “made” in that after Funny Girl, she’s won two Oscars, ten Grammys, five Emmys, four Peabody awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and an honorary Tony Award (oh yeah, Babs is EGOT. Duh.). Funny Girl, released in 1968 and based on the 1964 musical, tells the life story of comedian Fanny Brice, and her stormy relationship with entrepreneur and gambler Nicky Arnstein. This film has become legendary, standing the test of time against nearly five decades of musical films, and for propelling Babs to superstardom. This one’s got it all: some of the most famous Broadway standards in history (including “People,” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,”) as well as one of the most famous lines in film history (“Hello, Gorgeous!”). While the stage musical was not as successful at the Tony Awards, as it faced stiff competition from Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl remains one of the greatest musical films of the 20th century, and possibly of all time.
7. My Fair Lady
This one’s been called “The Perfect Musical.” It won eight Academy Awards. Featuring the heavyweights of Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, this adaptation of the 1956 Broadway show had a lot to live up to, with its film counterpart becoming the longest-running show in Broadway history, as well as winning six Tony Awards. While Audrey Hepburn may not have the vocal chops that Julie Andrews does, but Marni Nixon faithfully upholds the standards that Andrews set as Eliza. Rex Harrison declined to pre-record his musical numbers for the film, stating that he never talks through his songs the same way twice. The sound department used a wireless microphone (the first of its kind) to record Harrison’s voice live during filming. The film won an Oscar for sound design (naturally). Also, get a load of Henry Higgins’ library. It’s actually a room at the Château de Groussay, an opulent mansion in Yvelines, France. For a musical that had a lot to live up to, Harrison, Hepburn and the entire team uphold the musical that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe created, making the film just about even with the stage musical in terms of prestige.
Anything written by Charles Dickens is always a good time. Of course, if you’re in a high school English class reading Great Expectations, Dickens might seem boring. But there’s something about a Dickens work on stage that is magical. It’s almost as if Dickens’ language is translated into the emotions and intricacies of the music. That’s what the 1968 film version of the 1962 stage musical Oliver! strives to accomplish- putting the intricacies of Dickens’ language and depth of Dickens’ ideas to work. Many pundits have claimed that the film version of Oliver! is actually superior to the stage version, complete with dazzling choreography from Onna White, and strong performances from Ron Moody and Jack Wild. Oliver! holds the distinction of being the last musical film for 34 years to win the Oscar for Best Picture (another film on this list was the one to break the streak). Consider yourself lucky that Oliver! is as legendary as it is.
UGH. This one. Talk about firepower in the voice department. First, you’ve got Beyoncé, the queen of all that is good in this world, Jennifer Hudson of American Idol fame, Jamie Foxx, an accomplished musician in his own right, Eddie Murphy, who we know can sing very well, and Anika Noni Rose, a Broadway veteran. The real story here lies with Jennifer Hudson, who, despite coming in 6th on American Idol, wound up winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Effie White. Her rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is chill-inducing. Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls is a showcase for the A-list celebrities that comprise this cast to showcase all of their musical talents to tremendous effect.
Set against the backdrop of early 1930s Berlin, Kander and Ebb’s legendary Cabaret entered the theatrical canon in 1972, about 10 or so years removed from the golden age of musical film adaptations. Still, Cabaret has entered the conversation as one of the greatest musical-to-film adaptations of all time. Helmed by legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse, and starring the incomparable Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, Cabaret was a smash at both the box office and the Oscars, where it won eight Academy Awards. While there are some significant differences from the stage version (including Sally Bowles being a good singer as opposed to a bad one, and the character of Cliff being changed to a British man named Brian), the film is still as fun, powerful, and emotionally jarring as ever. Fosse, Minelli, and Grey were all given Oscars for their efforts (best director, leading actress, and supporting actor, respectively); Cabaret currently holds the record for most Oscars won by a film that did not win Best Picture (that honor went to The Godfather). The film gave notable stage talent a face in the Hollywood limelight- Fosse became the most celebrated director in film, while Minelli and Grey both broadened their repertoires with dazzling and brilliant performances.
3. West Side Story
I’ll be honest. I don’t like the stage version of this one. It could be because I saw the re-hashed version in 2009 with legitimate Spanish lyrics for the Sharks, which I thought alienated any audience members who couldn’t understand the language or knew the show very well- but that’s neither here nor there. The 1957 film version is the most successful musical film of all time, raking in $43.7 million and a then-record 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. While the stage version lost out to The Music Man (for some unknown reason… maybe the American Theatre Wing wanted entertainment as opposed to genuine acting techniques), West Side Story remains one of the most celebrated musicals of all time. The performances in the film by Natalie Wood as Maria, Richard Breymar as Tony, Rita Moreno as Anita and George Chakiris as Bernardo are second to none, with the latter two being honored with Supporting Role Oscars. Go and watch the fantastic “Dance at the Gym” sequence, as Jerome Robbins’ choreography, Daniel L. Fapp’s cinematography, and Leonard Bernstein’s score come to life. West Side Story remains one of the most iconic Shakespearean adaptations (surprise- it’s based on Romeo and Juliet if you live under a rock) to ever grace the stage and screen.
2. The Sound of Music
Don’t you just feel happy saying the name of the film? Can’t you just picture running and frolicking along with Julie Andrews at the top of a grassy hill, singing about how said hills are alive with the title of said film? This 1965 musical epic tells the story of one Maria von Trapp, who leaves a convent to become a governess for seven children of a retired naval officer. The film, based on the highly successful 1959 musical that tied for Best Musical with Fiorello! was initially given mixed reviews, but has grown into one of the most beloved musical films of all time. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs are iconic; Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer are unforgettable; the storylines are beautifully told, as Maria is able to get the von Trapp children to love music, and ultimately fall in love herself with Captain von Trapp. This movie has so many killer moments, from Captain von Trapp finally opening himself up to his children and playing “Edelweiss,” to Rolfe and Leisl’s adorable “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” to Mother Abbess’s moving “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” convincing Maria to go back to the von Trapp family and pursue her life. With all of its powerful moments, songs, and characters, The Sound of Music takes the silver medal on this list.
Chicago is “all that jazz,” and more. The 2002 film became the first musical film since Oliver! to take home the Academy Award for Best Picture. If you want star power, this one has it: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zita-Jones (an Oscar winner), Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Christine Baranski, Taye Diggs, Luc Liu, and Chita Rivera (in a cameo), just to name a few. The story of this film being placed where it is on this list is complicated. The original musical was produced on Broadway in 1975, but was essentially panned by critics, and closed after 936 performances. The show was revived in a much more minimalist style in 1996, where it still runs on Broadway today (after more than 8,000 performances). This revival greatly improved upon the 1975 show, where many people where far more accepting of the “criminal-as-celebrity” notion, due in part to things like the O.J. Simpson case. I dare say that the 2002 film not only mimics the 1996 version (at least in its musical sequences, all of which transport the characters away from the action to this vaudevillian stage, as if every character were performing in an act), but it improves upon the 1996 version. It takes the dismal and cynical atmosphere on 1920s Chicago (found in the 1975 Broadway show) and combines it with the minimalist qualities found in the current Broadway production. Rob Marshall’s spectacle, which won six Academy Awards, is the big winner on this list.
What are your favorite film adaptations of musicals? Anything that hasn't been made yet? Leave a comment down below.
La La Land is in theatres beginning December 9th.