I don’t think of myself as a very musical person. I find people who claim to be “passionate about music” generally annoying, I don’t have any favorite bands, and I am stubbornly loyal to the music I loved as a 13-year-old (basically, The Lord of the Rings soundtracks and Mozart). So it came as a bit of a surprise to me that I have strong feelings when it comes to musicals. Okay, just certain musicals. When choosing a movie, I’m rarely in the mood for “a musical,” but I find I am often in the mood for these particular musicals, the ones with great storytelling, acting, characters, themes, and of course, energetic and memorable choreography/singing. So here’s my top ten.
10. Phantom of the Opera (2004): This movie came out when I was 16 and absolutely starving for a passionate, forbidden romance with a tall, dark stranger. That being said, I do think there’s a lot to enjoy even as an adult. The music is so dramatic and memorable, and the backdrop of the opera scene is very rich, colorful, and exciting to watch. As a teenage dancer, I also love the little bit of ballet in there. The singing and acting may not be the best that it could be, and Raoul’s hair will forever make me wrinkle my face in disgust, but this is still a solid stand-by film with plenty of mystery, seduction, and passion to fuel your romantic musical pining.
9. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) /The Wizard of Oz (1939): I couldn’t decide between these two movies, so here they both are. They both take me back to my childhood in a beautiful, fantasy, escapist kind of way, and I love them both for different reasons. To me, Gene Wilder gives the greatest performance of his life as Willy Wonka. He is eccentric, charming, endearing, mysterious, witty, and absolutely mesmerizing. However, I’m not in love with most of the music of the movie–the only song that really stands out to me still is “Pure Imagination.” As for the Wizard of Oz, I grew up watching this movie every Halloween for probably close to twenty years, so I definitely came to associate it with fun, candy, and the holiday spirit. The music is, of course, beautiful and enchanting. Everything about this movie has become so familiar and classic to me that it’s hard for me to find anything new to draw my interest. It’s like a favorite childhood lullaby that I enjoy hearing once in a while.
8. West Side Story (1961): I became awestruck with this movie as a teenager, and began watching certain parts of it over and over until I had them memorized. The dancing and choreography is just phenomenal–so much energy, emotion, and story poured into these pieces. “America” has to be one of my favorite musical numbers of all time, and the beginning of the movie establishes theme, mood, characters, and setting soooo well. The expert choreography actually makes the acting suffer by comparison. I always find myself way more interested in Bernardo, Riff, and Anita than in Tony and Maria, and therefore always find myself losing interest approximately 10 seconds after “the rumble.”
7. The King and I (1956): This was actually the last musical I came up with to complete my top ten list, and I am embarrassed by that because it is totally awesome. Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr are the absolute heart and soul of this movie, and the struggle, depth, and emotion they convey in their musical numbers is guaranteed to sweep me along every time. There is tons to love about this movie: the clashing of “civilized” and “barbaric” cultural mindsets and the way each comes to learn from and appreciate the other, the hilarious and yet enlightening “Small House of Uncle Thomas” play, the romantically thrilling “Shall We Dance” number, and Yul Brynner’s fantastic delivery of lines like “WHO WHO WHO?” and “I think your Moses shall have been a fool.”
6. The Music Man (1962): Have you ever noticed that bad boys in musicals tend to be extremely attractive? I know all sense and reason tells me Harold Hill is just a despicable character who deserves to be run out of town, but somehow every time I just want to forgive him and make him end up happily ever after with Marian all the same. I don’t love everything about this musical, but the parts I do love–Marian’s entire character/voice/personality/everything, the hilarious, judgmental town lady gossips, the “library choreography,” the catchiness of nearly every musical piece–I really do love.
5. My Fair Lady (1964): This is kind of a complicated musical for me. There’s a lot of very light-hearted bantering and humor, but there’s also some darker tones and troubling themes. The ending still feels unresolved to me, and certain parts (*cough*Eliza’s father*cough*) I cannot stand. However, I love the clever dialogue, the ongoing battle of wills between Eliza and Henry, and the development of each of these characters and their relationships with other people. I must also especially note Rex Harrison’s incredible acting talents in portraying someone both extremely intelligent/dim and likable/unlikable (why yes, I did have a crush on him when I first saw this), the wonderfully comic “Ascot Gavotte” (always cheers me up), the classic “I Could Have Danced All Night” (I believe every girl has lived or will live through this moment at some time in her life) and the gorgeous “On the Street Where You Live” (which I’ve had Matthew sing to me on request many times).
4. The Sound of Music (1965): What is there to say about this movie? It rekindles my love for and devotion to it every time I watch it. Beyond a doubt my favorite Julie Andrews role ever. I grew up watching this movie from a very young age, and over the years I find myself enjoying and appreciating different moments (even the “Climb Every Mountain” song, which I used to think was super boring as a kid, has taken on some very personal and poignant meaning). I could write a blog post on my top ten favorite moments from The Sound of Music, but I’ll just tell you that #1 would have to be when Maria and Georg dance the Austrian folk dance. I’m resigned to never being a governess or dancing in a rainy gazebo (that was a tough one to let go of, I admit), but it is still one of my lifelong dreams to learn and dance this dance.
3. Sweeney Todd (2007): I was reluctant to see this movie for a long time. I’m not a huge fan of gore and guts, and the main thing I heard about Sweeney Todd was that it was really super bloody. But last year Matthew convinced me to give it a shot, and I was absolutely and completely riveted by the masterful storytelling and musicality. Everything–costume, scenery, design, casting, acting, etc–works so well to emphasize the themes being explored, and as someone who always felt a little bit grossed out by Tim Burton, I was blown away by how much I felt Tim Burton had nailed it here. But the real star is the music. The music the music the music. It is beautiful, you guys. Every number feels like it’s been crafted to reveal insights about the characters and themes in the plot that you wouldn’t necessarily have picked up on if the song had been done in a different style. It is a dark story, but it is also beautiful, tragic, haunting, and speaks more deeply to me about the ramifications of hate and revenge than any other work of art I can think of. It is also bloody but not nearly as bloody as I had been led to believe.
2. Fiddler on the Roof (1971): The best word I can think of to describe this musical is timeless. I’ve been watching it my whole life, and it’s remarkable how the lessons and themes are always deeply relevant and applicable to my situation. It’s always an emotional roller coaster to watch the transformation of Tevye’s traditional, secure lifestyle and family in a complex, changing, modernizing world. The music is absolutely beautiful and excellent in conveying the feelings of the characters, the culture, and the conflicts taking place. I really can’t say enough good things about this musical. It speaks for itself. The only reason it isn’t #1 is because I am a flawed human being.
1. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954): This musical is pretty much the exact opposite of Sweeney Todd and my love for it knows no bounds. I have been known to watch this movie more than once in a week. I have watched it while doing the dishes, working out, and several times to make me forget the existence of January. It never fails to cheer me up and I will love it until the end of my days–nay, beyond. Consider this my formal request that my funeral be replaced with a screening of this film. The music is fantastically engaging, energetic, and fun, but includes a wide range of emotion and character development. The lyrics are catchy and clever (and yes, I include that one line about sleeping with sheep in that statement). The choreography and dancing are lovely to watch and the singing is fantastic (so good I hardly notice or care how low-budget and simple the sets are). The story is wonderfully over-the-top and ridiculous but also sincere, sweet, and very fulfilling. And, of course, there’s the men (“all as tall as church steeples!”). But besides all this, I find the story of Adam and Millie’s relationship very moving and inspiring. They are both such strong, stubborn, independent individuals, and their journey to mutual respect and discovering the meaning of love is empowering and eye-opening for both men and women.
Honorable Mentions: Into the Woods (I do love it but not as much as Sweeney Todd), Oklahoma! (to me, this is the textbook definition of a musical–a musical’s musical, so to speak), Mary Poppins (great movie, but it faded into my past and didn’t really “grow with me” enough to make my list at this stage), Newsies (it’s fun), Aida (okay, I seriously LOVE LOVE LOVE Aida and have half of the songs from the soundtrack memorized, but there just isn’t a good movie version out there yet that I’ve seen), Pirates of Penzance (again, I haven’t seen a great movie, but the play version of this is just phenomenal–it was the first musical I fell in love with on stage).