The Very Best Musical Film Adaptations

It was inevitable that after becoming a record-setting, critically and publically praised, Tony Award-winning revelation of a musical, Hamilton was eventually going to be adapted for film. That’s the natural evolution of anything popular that doesn’t initially come in movie form, be it a comic book, 80s board game, or piece of poorly written fan fiction. It all ends up on film.

Making that leap with musicals in particular, however, is mighty hard. The stage is an entirely different environment than the screen, the physicality and energy giving way to something literally flat, and the intimacy of the theatre substituted for a cinema that may or may not involve people chewing popcorn and looking at their phones.

Cinematic history is littered with great musicals that just completely failed to translate. The Producers is one of the biggest smashes in Broadway history. When Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick did it on stage, it was great; when they reprised their roles on the screen, the film version was turgid and way too long. Rent, Nine, and Annie were all utterly unremarkable as well.

Then again, when it works — wow, it works. Here are our picks for the best musical film adaptations.

West Side Story (1961)

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The Leonard Bernstein classic is an enduring masterpiece that has been enjoyed on both stage and screen for decades, a staggering dual achievement indeed. What’s truly remarkable is that the film, made in 1961, has never been touched or attempted since — all the more reason to laud its achievement. Sure, it might seem a bit dated, but by re-imagining Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, placing it in New York City and adding music, it’s more or less reached its maximum dramatic potential. While we’re not against adaptations here and all that, it’s almost as if West Side Story was so perfect in and of its time that it simply can’t be redone. (Plus, it has the quintet to end all quintets.)

Les Misérables (2012)

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Putting aside the—let’s call it questionable—performance by Russell Crowe (he really tried), Tom Hooper’s award-wining Les Misérables was epic, stirring, and powerful, enhanced by a stellar cast and crew. Hooper looked at differences between the two mediums and decided that he wouldn’t let the film suffer from one of most adaptations’ biggest setbacks: not hearing people sing live. So as every advertisement and interview of the film let you know, the crew recorded the actor’s performances live, however painstaking it was to tape (in the rain, for example), and it made a huge difference. Eddie Redmayne became a revelation, and Anne Hathaway’s singular performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” was flooring and completely Oscar-worthy.

Chicago (2002)

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Another tricky obstacle to overcome when transitioning from stage to screen is the issue of choreography. It’s often difficult to find a logical, reasonable way for people to suddenly break into dance — let alone song. Chicago, though, allows for a perfect adaptation: a straightforward narrative about a woman accused of murder that jumps to a literal stage for its musical interludes. It’s a story about a story that becomes a show, and quite the entertaining one at that. So often movies seem afraid to actually let themselves be movies, but audiences have started to come around to films that embrace the limits and context of filmmaking. The successes of The Big Short, Deadpool, and other fourth-wall breaking stories show that all films don’t need to exist in some natural-realism vacuum.

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

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It took only a couple of years for The Rocky Horror Picture Show to go from stage to screen, but the show wasn’t particularly popular everywhere. While well-received in London, the stage production didn’t quite catch on in the States. The movie version sure did though, albeit not immediately. A cult-classic with unforgettable scenes, catchy songs, and oft-quoted lines, Rocky Horror is continuously revisited and beloved. The movie may even outdo stage productions — that’s how iconic this film has become.

Sunshine On Leith (2013)

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Jukebox musicals, in which some well-known band or era of song is tinkered with and put into a stage show that somehow coherently tells a story, are tricky and often underwhelming fare. Often, the best of them simply find audiences bouncing in their seats while waiting for the next anticipated song. However, there is one that stands above the rest, telling a simple and connected story with heart and humour. Sunshine On Leith premiered in 2013, adapted from the stage musical created in 2007 and based on the music of the Scottish group The Proclaimers. The result is elation, a lively and heartfelt film that is unabashedly fun and optimistic (and yes, flawed and silly) while still being sincere. It focuses on a reunion: two best friends return home from war, see their relationships with partners and each other going in different directions, as their families deal too with their own ups and downs. Perhaps the best part of this story about duty, dreams, and desires is the finale, where we all know the song that is to come, and it blows us away. Try keeping a dry eye.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.