Sometimes, I wish that life could be a musical. I would wear a huge dress, a small scarf around the neck and a red lipstick. I would sing in the metro, splash in puddles, everything would be funnier and more dramatic in the same time. My dear Hannah, who had already given me a list of our favorite American classic books, sent me a list of 22 classic American musicals. She loves musicals and her list promises long hous of entertainment!
Oklahoma! (Rogers and Hammerstein): A handsome cowboy, a stubborn farm girl, and a creepy farmhand. Who will she take to the dance? Actually, though, that’s seriously the whole plot. The movie version is great and has Shirley Jones, my absolute favorite old musical actress.
Carousel (Rogers and Hammerstein): Surprisingly avant-garde structure where the bulk of the musical is a flashback for the main character after his death. He reflects on his life and his relationship with the girl he loved and abused – who also happens to be Shirley Jones again in the movie! Also, it’s set in my home state of Maine.
The King and I (Rogers and Hammerstein): Amaaazing costumes in this film adaptation. Huge dresses. A refined British widow goes to “Siam” (modern-day Thailand) with her young son to be a governess for the king’s many children and ends up getting more involved with the king and his family than she ever intended
The Sound of Music (Rogers and Hammerstein): While it’s set in Austria, this musical is a huuuuuge American favorite. It stars the lovely Julie Andrews as the sweet, kind nun-turned-governess who slowly comes to love her employer and in the end goes with him and his children to escape from the Nazis. Not my personal favorite by any means, but a true classic of the American cinema. Also it’s like a million hours long, so be prepared.
The Music Man, (Meredith Wilson): This is my favorite musical EVER. Something about it is truly all-American. Set in a small Midwestern town where a smooth-talking traveling salesman comes to town to try to cheat the locals out of their money by getting them to buy instruments and uniforms for a marching band, and the only person who is smart enough to see through him is the local librarian, Marion, who’s also played by none other than Shirley Jones. Basically, this is what I hope my future life will be like: lots of small-town charm, librarian-themed jokes, and love in unlikely places.
My Fair Lady (Lerner and Loewe): Based on the play Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw, My Fair Lady is actually much more British than American, since it concerns a poor young Cockney flower girl learning how to speak “properly” in order to improve her lot in life. Still, the movie has Audrey Hepburn, which is always worth a viewing. Also some pretty great costumes.
Brigadoon (Lerner and Loewe): What could be better than regular old tap-dancing Gene Kelley? Gene Kelley in Scotland! This musical centers around two vacationers from Manhattan wandering off in the highland fog and being transported to Brigadoon, a magical land that continues to live far in the past. Of course, our hero falls in star-crossed love with a beautiful Scottish lass, and they have to decide which world they can make a future in.
Camelot (Lerner and Loewe): Another great Julie Andrews musical; she plays the legendary Queen Guinevere, but not in the movie version. You can hear her if you listen to the original soundtrack (also the incomparable Robert Goulet as Lancelot). The film is also pretty good. It takes the familiar story and setting of King Arthur’s round table and makes it into a musical that is somehow fun and depressing at the same time.
Gigi (Lerner and Loewe): Lerner and Loewe’s much less well-known project, you will love all the Parisian stereotypes that you’ll experience in Gigi, the story of a young French girl coming into adulthood and finding love for the first time. This was just a movie, not a stage musical, and it’s based (loosely, I’m sure) on a French novel.
Singin’ in the Rain (Brown et Freed): A full-on movie musical experience, Singin’ in the Rain is so self-referential that it’s sometimes hard to wrap your mind around. It deals with the beginning of sound technology in the American movie industry and how dramatically it changed things, and you get the treat of seeing a spry Gene Kelley dancing away and a super-young Debbie Reynolds receive her actual first kiss on camera. Also enjoy Donald O’Connor in (in my opinion) one of the most brilliant comedy scenes in movie history. Please try to forgive/ignore the completely gratuitous and weird modern dance sequence with the big billowy scarf.
An American in Paris (George Gershwin): Another shout-out to Paris. Honestly I don’t actually love this movie musical too much, since it’s a pretty loose plot around a collection of pre-existing (but wonderful) Gershwin songs, but I felt I had to include it since it’s about France from an American perspective.
Call Me Madam (Irving Berlin): In my opinion, this is a way under-appreciated musical. The movie stars the incredibly loud and bawdy Ethel Merman as a foreign ambassador, and of course deals with many hijinks that happen in the fictional foreign European country she’s in. My man Donald O’Connor is back in action in this one, and as hilarious as ever.
Chicago (Kander and Ebb): One of the few musicals that I actually like the movie version more than the original soundtrack. I thought the film version captured the snazzy but seedy atmosphere really well, and I can never get enough of the songs. They stay stuck in my head for weeks after I listen to them.
Grease (Jacobs and Casey): A hilarious and stupid musical and a hilarious and stupid movie with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Lots of fun and not a lot of substance, but 100% American, Grease “captures” the 1950’s high-school experience, and it’s a very fun and peppy movie to watch, even if the moral (“if the guy doesn’t like you, just change everything about who you are!”) is cringe-inducing.
Guys and Dolls (Frank Loesser): Now THIS is a movie to see. Even though the original version is better, never before and never again have I seen a better pairing than Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando as the two leads in this film. Sinatra can sing perfectly but can’t act to save his life. Brando is an amazing actor but can’t carry a tune at all. Together, it is perfect. This is another of my absolute favorite musicals ever – the story is heart-warming but serious, and the characters are unforgettable.
Kiss Me, Kate (Cole Porter): A pretty good movie adaptation of a pretty good musical. It’s about a failing theater company who puts on a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (called Kiss Me, Kate – super meta!), in which the two leads are also ex-spouses.
West Side Story (Bernstein and Sondheim): in my opinion it’s one of the greatest musicals (and movies) of all time. The perfect amount of hopelessly romantic, earnest, and vaguely literary (being based on Romeo and Juliet, of course). The film adaption is excellent. Fun fact: the actress who plays Maria in the movie had her voice dubbed over for her singing by the same singer who did the voice of Eliza in My Fair Lady.
Gypsy (Styne and Sondheim): A true show-biz story, also featuring Ethel Merman in the movie version, about an overbearing stage mother who pushes first one daughter, then another, into theater and performance, even at the expense of their family relationships.
Into the Woods (Stephen Sondheim): A clever and funny mash-up of all the classic fairy-tales. This is probably Stephen Sondheim’s most well-known musical, but EVERYTHING that man writes is genius.
Sweeney Todd (Stephen Sondheim): A super-sinister tale of revenge, murder, and cannibalism that is somehow also funny. A lot of people didn’t love the recent Tim Burton film adaptation, but Sondheim himself said that it was the best movie adaption of any of his shows. If you take it for what it is, it can be very enjoyable, and the music is absolutely stunning.
Sunday in the Park with George (Sondheim and Lapine): Sondheim’s masterpiece of musical theater. This show has everything – art and artists, light, sound, love, loss, family, nostalgia, time, change. There’s a great recording of the show starring Mandy Patinkin (you may know him as Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, but he’s also an amazing musical theater star) that I highly recommend.
Assassins (Stephen Sondheim): Talk about American musicals – this show follows the stories of the presidential assassins (and some would-be presidential assassins) and is a surprisingly accurate historical representation as well as a really great show. You’ll find a lot of marching-band motifs in the music and a serious dialogue about the “American dream.” Unfortunately I don’t think there’s a movie version anywhere, but if you can see a live show or get your hands on the soundtrack, it’s totally worth it.
Thanks Hannah for this great list! Which one is your favorite? Which one is missing?!