From Showboat to Mamma Mia! Our favourite stage-to-screen musicals

·8-min read
 (PETER MOUNTAIN)
(PETER MOUNTAIN)

Before he became Mr Hamilton (and one of the most successful writers on the planet), Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a gorgeous musical romance about a boy and a girl in a predominantly Latino neighbourhood of Manhattan, learning to love each another and the place they call home, just as the developers are circling.

In The Heights, first drafted in 1999 when Miranda was still at college, went on to become a hit on Broadway and tour all over the world, and now the adaptation, directed by Jon M. Chu and with a screenplay by Miranda’s original collaborator Quiara Alegría Hudes, looks like being yet another juggernaut. We’re totally overexcited, so in celebration, we’ve put together a list of our favourite stage-to-screen musicals.

Show Boat

It’s kind of astonishing that the original musical on which this film is based was first produced in 1927, an adaptation in its turn of Edna Ferber’s bestselling 1926 novel. With its sympathetic storylines of love across racial lines, family abandonment and alcoholism, the musical, which follows its characters through appalling and heroic behaviour from 1887 to 1927, was radical stuff. The 1951 film with Ava Gardner as heroine Julie made a few changes to the timeline, but it’s none the worse for that, and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man has continued to speak to generations of women and men in thrall to blokes who are all wrong. ND

Mamma Mia!

How can we resist it? (PUBLICITY PICTURE)
How can we resist it? (PUBLICITY PICTURE)

On the cusp of the millennium, a musical opened in the West End that combined a paternity mystery with the songs of ABBA. ‘How do you improve upon perfection?’, one might have asked at the time. The answer: turn it into a film, cast Meryl Streep in the lead role and kit everyone out in cotton trousers. The vocal talent of the male cast is somewhat wanting (one critic said Pierce Brosnan’s singing sounded like he was being subject to a prostate exam off-camera) but – don’t ask me how – that only adds to the experience. In 2018, a decade on, the gods of camp gifted us with the ultimate prize: a sequel that was even better. JT

Chicago

Pop, six, squish... (Buena Vista International)
Pop, six, squish... (Buena Vista International)

Following a series of high profile, expensive flops, ‘musical’ was very much a dirty word in Hollywood at the turn of the century - until Chicago came along and quickstepped all the way to the top of the box office, eventually bagging a Best Picture win at the Academy Awards (plus five other Oscars). The Fosse-inspired choreography is slick, the jokes are pitch black (gallows humour, literally) and the cast is killer. Catherine Zeta Jones and Renée Zellweger make a dynamic central duo as vaudeville star Velma Kelly and ingenue Roxie Hart, awaiting their sentences on Murderesses’ Row, Richard Gere plays a slimy, tap-dancing lawyer with the power to transform his clients into tabloid celebrities. KR

The Sound of Music

The Sound of Music came out less than 12 months after Julie Andrews made her film debut in Mary Poppins. That’s two career-defining, icon-making performances (as two very different nannies) in two consecutive years. The story of novice nun Maria, who ends up leaving convent life behind to teach seven charming kids to sing, marries their handsome father (Christopher Plummer) then flees the Nazis on foot across the Alps, proved such a hit upon its release, it stayed in cinemas for four and a half years. Much of the film was shot on location in Austria rather than on American sound stages, meaning it still looks stunning today, and just thinking about that opening shot makes me want to dash up the nearest hill and spin around, arms outstretched in joy. KR

Les Misérables

Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman as Fantine and Jean Valjean (Handout)
Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman as Fantine and Jean Valjean (Handout)

Tom Hooper’s take on Les Mis is the movie musical version of Marmite: viewers either tend to fall in love with it faster than sappy Marius and Cosette locking eyes across a crowded Parisian street or turn off as soon as Russell Crowe opens his mouth. We are flag-waving members of the former faction. Anne Hathaway’s I Dreamed A Dream (famously filmed in one take) is one for the ages, and the show’s set piece scenes like the battle at the barricade are even more epic on screen. Vive la revolution! KR

Dreamgirls

J.Hud’s film debut earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (PUBLICITY PICTURE)
J.Hud’s film debut earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (PUBLICITY PICTURE)

As far as film debuts go, it’s hard to beat Jennifer Hudson’s turn as Effie White in this glittering Motown extravaganza. She’d already found fame as a finalist on American Idol a few years earlier, but Dreamgirls (and specifically, her rendition of its 11 o’clock number And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going) announced her as a superstar perfectly capable of going toe to toe with a certain Beyoncé Knowles, who plays her friend slash rival Deena. Bey gets to showcase her vocals in turn on Listen, one of four new tracks written with the show’s original composer, Henry Krieger. KR

West Side Story

Its memory is forever marred now by objections to the fact that its central female character, a Puerto Rican girl named Maria, was played by Natalie Wood who, erm, was a brunette. But blase casting aside, this adaptation of a tragic New York gangland riff on Romeo & Juliet - scored by Leonard Bernstein and with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim - was an out and out masterpiece of filmmaking. Its colour, its camerawork and its hardworking cast grab your breath from the start and keep a hold of it until your head is spinning. You know what’s coming, but you’re rooting for these star-crossed kids every time. It’s so good, Steven Spielberg is remaking it. Good luck mate. ND

Grease

The original high school musical (PUBLICITY PIC,)
The original high school musical (PUBLICITY PIC,)

The gender politics are a mess and its cast of hand-jiving teenagers don’t look a day over 35 (what were they putting in the water at Rydell High?) but for singalong fun, it’s hard to beat the original high school musical, which started life on stage in a Chicago nightclub in 1971 before moving to Broadway (where John Travolta originally played a T-Bird, before getting promoted to Danny duties for the film version). The karaoke-friendly soundtrack is a crash course in 50s nostalgia, packing in everything from candy floss ballads (Hopelessly Devoted To You) to doo-wop (Beauty School Drop-Out) to rock and roll (Greased Lightnin’). KR

Annie

Is there a more terrifying chase scene in movie history than the one where Annie is frantically climbing a very long ladder pursued by the vicious Rooster? BUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN SHE GETS TO THE TOP, my small self fretted as she clambered higher (it was actually a bridge but my understanding was fuzzy). But it’s the sheer exuberance of the film that remains; the scrappy charm of the orphans, the Busby Berkeley flair of the dancing mansion staff, Carol Burnett’s piquantly sozzled performance as Miss Hannigan. And Martin Charnin and Charles Strouse’s songs are great. Tomorrow is nauseating but I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here is hard to beat for sheer can’t-believe-my-luck thrills and It’s a Hard Knock Life is a stone cold classic. ND

Funny Girl

Barbra Streisand is luminous as Fanny Brice (Handout)
Barbra Streisand is luminous as Fanny Brice (Handout)

This biographical comedy-drama was a perfect fit for its subject, the singer and comedian Fanny Brice, whose life was a more than usually extreme combination of the comic and the tragic. Adapted by Isobel Lennart from her book for the stage musical, it became the highest-grossing film of 1968 in the US, and Barbra Streisand, in the leading role, won a Best Actress Oscar. She is definitely the best thing in it - it’s a bit long, in all honesty, and as with a lot of biopics, gets bogged down in chronology, but she is absolutely luminous throughout. ND

Evita

Madonna wrote director Alan Parker a letter to beg for the role (PUBLICITY PIC)
Madonna wrote director Alan Parker a letter to beg for the role (PUBLICITY PIC)

Intense funeral dirges aside, the songs Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote for their musical Evita are a gift for a female performer. No wonder, then, that Madonna wrote a four page letter to the film’s director, Alan Parker, begging for the role of Eva Peron, the military dictatorship-ish tragic blonde Argentine icon. But did she have the range, darling? The queen of pop underwent vocal training to ensure that she did, and even bagged the song Another Suitcase Another Hall - usually sung by her husband’s mistress in the show - for herself. In an interview last year, Madge said she had “a few nervous breakdowns” during filming; we hope no one made her cry (for me Argentina). JT

Sweeney Todd

Johnny Depp in full goth mode (PUBLICITY PICTURE)
Johnny Depp in full goth mode (PUBLICITY PICTURE)

Was this peak Tim Burton? In 2007, the leading goth of the cinema world adapted Stephen Sondheim’s goriest musical, the tale of a murderous barber whose clientele end up being turned into pies. He cast regular collaborator Johnny Depp and then-wife Helena Bonham Carter as Sweeney and his accomplice Mrs Lovett. The film was well received - even by an originally sceptical Sondheim - and Depp, channelling a vitamin-D deficient Lord Byron who had skinned a badger for a wig, picked up an Oscar nomination for his performance. JT

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