The 5 Best Classic Musicals Adapted From Stage To Screen

By Maureen Lee Lenker, Classic Film Correspondent

One of the most timeless and delightful aspects of classic Hollywood moviemaking was the abundance of musicals.  Rising to popularity during the Depression and the Second World War when the country craved escapism and a confectionary dream on their screens, the “musical” became one of the most successful genres of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Musicals practically came to define certain studios output (the Freed unit at MGM; Fred and Ginger at RKO).  Many of the most iconic musicals were originally properties developed for the screen (even if now they have been re-adapted back to a stage setting, i.e. White Christmas, Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris).  But Broadway was also a font of inspiration – providing Hollywood with a bevy of talent, choreographers, and stage properties.

While some of Broadway’s most beloved properties resulted in lackluster adaptations (e.g. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific), there were also innumerable classics produced.  The true mark of a successful stage-to-screen adaptation is not merely whether or not it creates a faithful adaptation of the stage experience, but whether it transcends it – does the film take the material and make it belong wholly to the cinematic medium?  This is the mark of true greatness and here are five films we think excel at that.

5. My Fair Lady (1964)

For some, My Fair Lady might be a controversial choice for the list, given the rather dubious decision of Jack Warner to replace rising Broadway star Julie Andrews with the bigger name talent of Audrey Hepburn, who was dubbed in the role.  But despite the need for vocal replacement, Hepburn is magnificent, mastering Eliza Doolittle’s rough around the edges cockney flower girl and providing the perfect canvas for her transformation to a lady of grace and elegance.  The movie also wisely allows for Rex Harrison to recreate the role that composers Lerner and Loewe wrote for him.  But what makes this a true standout is its use of movie magic – the sets and costumes are luscious, over-the-top confections that bring Edwardian London deliciously to life. Hepburn stuns in Cecil Beaton’s gowns, particularly the black and white ensemble she wears to the horse races at Ascot.  The film makes use of all the extravagance at its disposal and it pays off in spades.

4. Grease (1978)

Some may argue that Grease’s 1978 release date disqualifies it from distinction as a classic film but its imagery, cast, and unforgettable score have etched themselves so indelibly on our pop culture psyche that it’s impossible not to include it.  The film not only delivers a romp that cashes in on all that movie magic has to offer (split-screens and real high school bleachers on “Summer Nights,” an on-location car-race, a senior carnival with actual amusement park rides), but it greatly improves on the original stage show.  It amps up Sandy’s role (and makes her a more interesting character) by having her attend the American Bandstand dance, and it adds some unforgettable songs, including “You’re the One that I Want.”  When watching a production of “Grease,” the absence of these things ensures that it can’t hold a candle to its celluloid version.  With its use of greased up cars and its candy-colored costumes, Grease pops off the screen and into movie history.

3. On the Town (1949)

When On the Town was made, MGM did something rare for a studio film and completely new for a musical – they shot scenes on-location, most notably the opening number New York, New York (on the streets of NYC).  The dockside and the landmarks of New York that three sailors on “leave” romp through gave American audiences a real glimpse of all the sights and sounds of New York City.  Unlike many of Gene Kelly’s films, which were developed specifically for the screen, On the Town was adapted from a hit Broadway musical that featured a Leonard Bernstein score.  With Kelly (and directing partner Stanley Donen) on board, the MGM overhauled the show for the film, maintaining only four of Bernstein’s original songs; and enlisting book writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write six new songs for the screen adaptation.  The musical film is the stuff of classic Hollywood magic – amazing talents in the dancing abilities of Gene Kelly, Vera-Ellen, and Ann Miller, the vocals of the likes of Kelly and Sinatra, and the comedic timing of Betty Garrett, Jules Munshin, and more.  It combined the awe-inspiring location shots with classically beautiful and evocative studio backdrops, and it elevated an experimental Broadway show with strong roots in ballet and opera to the stuff of Hollywood legend.

2. The Sound of Music (1965)

Like many of the films on this list, The Sound Of Music has become nearly impossible to thoroughly enjoy a stage production of the show, so indelible is the film version and the cast that brought it to life.  To see anyone portray Captain Von Trapp and Maria, except for Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews, feels almost wrong.  Despite many on-set difficulties, the pair created an unforgettable screen couple that continues to inspire and spread joy to all who watch the film.  Their chemistry and wit just sparkle.  One of the film’s chief delights is its extensive use of locations in Austria, which remain popular tourist destinations today.  The Sound of Music saved Fox after Cleopatra (1964) nearly bankrupted the studio.  It was one of the last gasps of the classic Broadway musical to be produced by the studio system.  It’s a fabulous bookend – a film that features all the location shooting of modern moviemaking and blends it with the winning formulas of classic Hollywood.  The score, written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, helps elevate it to sheer perfection.  And really, how can you create a list of musicals without including at least one Rodgers and Hammerstein picture?

1. West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story, which won the Best Picture, is the crème de la crème of Hollywood musicals.  It takes the brilliance of the stage musical and elevates it to an entirely new art form – shot in an inventive and exciting manner, which both invigorates the camera (instead of letting it sit static and observe the action in the proscenium) and captures all the energy and visceral organic nature of Jerome Robbins’ choreography.  West Side Story should be the case study for how to adapt a musical to the screen.  Robbins’ choreography, with its balletic influences but calls to the rough and tumble streets of New York it depicted, changed the face of Broadway; and Robert Wise filmed the action in a way that enhanced rather than diminished the film.  Actually filming much of the action on the streets of New York undoubtedly helped.  The film still throbs with a vital sense of youth and violence over fifty years after its debut.  

The cast is a mixing of old and new Hollywood with studio child stars Natalie Wood and Russ Tamblyn making a full transition to adult roles.  Exciting new talents George Chakiris and Rita Moreno gave Oscar-winning performances.  Here again the film betters the stage version, transposing song placement in the action to better fit the narrative flow.  And adding men into “America” to make it a true sparring-match battle-of-the-sexes (and enhancing the issue of young male aggression that runs throughout the film).  Naysayers will complain about the casting of the very Caucasian Natalie Wood as the Puerto Rican Maria (who was dubbed to boot), but her acting in the role is so heartrending that it nullifies any objections.  There’s rumors that Steven Spielberg is poised to remake the film, but for true lovers of classic Hollywood, this is one that feels untouchable.

Maureen Lee Lenker

Classic Film Correspondent, Chillin’ with Larry Magen

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, and freelance journalist. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Turner Classic Movies, BitchMedia, LA Weekly, and more.