Groundbreaking Musicals of the 20th Century and Their Film Adaptations

Over a hundred years of evolution have transformed vaudeville, burlesque, and operetta into the mature art form we know today as musical theater.

by Katie Devin Orenstein

Over a hundred years of evolution have transformed vaudeville, burlesque, and operetta into the mature art form we know today as musical theater. Certain shows in particular pushed the artform forward, deepening the nuance, complexity, and depth of musical content and form. Yet, interestingly enough, these unusual musicals did not have the same transformative impact on cinema, and most have become footnotes to their grander Broadway successes. Below are some of the musicals that transformed the medium, and their film adaptations. 

Show Boat

1927’s Show Boat was the first musical to explore dark, socially relevant themes. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein innovated the musical melodrama, with a story about workers on a Mississippi River steamship that deals with gambling, alcoholism, racism, and in particular, anti-miscegenation laws. It might not seem novel today, but in the 1920s, Broadway musicals were exclusively comedies, with shoestring plots just to tie the songs and comic business together, if they had plots at all. The musical opened December 27th, 1927 at the former Ziegfeld Theatre, has been revived on Broadway multiple times, and is perhaps best known for the song “Ol Man River.”

Show Boat was adapted into a movie not once, not twice, but thrice: by Universal Studios in 1929 and 1936, and by MGM in 1951, in Technicolor. 

Ava Gardner sings “Bill” in the Show Boat 1951 film.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

Porgy & Bess broke new ground in part because it was written as an opera, not a musical. Its Broadway premiere at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) on October 10th, 1935 was because its composer, George Gershwin, wanted to “appeal to the many rather than the cultured few,” as he wrote in an essay in the New York Times in 1936. The result is a groundbreaking “folk opera” (Gershwin’s words) about Black Americans that fuses operatic structures and musical theatre conventions like dance breaks and humorous subplots. For decades it was the only opera written for Black performers. While its lush romantic score has made it a mainstay in opera houses around the world, its story of drug addiction, rape, and murder features many negative stereotypes about Black people. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapted the show’s book for the 2012 Broadway revival, loved the music, and tried to “make the story just as great.”

It was adapted into a movie in 1959 with a stacked cast of Black Hollywood and Broadway trailblazers like Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, and Diahann Carroll, with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge in the title roles. It was to be legendary film producer Samuel Goldwyn’s final film. (The Goldwyn family has something of an affinity for groundbreaking musicals—Samuel’s grandson Tony Goldwyn is co-directing the upcoming Pal Joey revival.)

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis perform “I Loves You, Porgy” from the 2012 Broadway revival.

Pal Joey

When Pal Joey opened at the Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day 1940 it introduced something alien to the musical theater canon: cynicism. In the love triangle between a charming and slimy nightclub singer named Joey, his wide-eyed paramour Linda, and his rich, and married, lover Vera, no one ends up together in the end. Joey starts and ends the show a scoundrel, making him Broadway’s first anti-hero (Show Boat’s tragic couple reunite at the end, and Bess dies in Porgy’s arms. Joey gets out of his misdeeds unscathed but utterly alone.) Lorenz Hart’s witty, suggestive lyrics got now-classics like “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” shunned from radio broadcast in 1940. 

In this clip from the heavily sanitized Pal Joey film, Rita Hayworth performs “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” with the singing voice of Jo Ann Greer.

Notice the lyric discrepancies between the movie and this clip of Patti LuPone singing Hart’s original lyrics:

A group of people dancing

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the Rogers and Hammerstein Organization


Hammerstein wrote the lyrics for Show Boat, Rodgers composed Pal Joey; their first collaboration was guaranteed to be fascinating. On March 31st, 1943, at the St. James Theatre, Rodgers and Hammerstein opened the first musical to use music and dance not just to entertain but to tell the story: Oklahoma, a tragic yet hopeful fable of community cohesion and romantic desire in rural America. Agnes de Mille’s choreography was particularly innovative, staging farm girl Laurie’s inner torment and indecision as a dream ballet. Oklahoma’s incredibly sophisticated integration of text, music, choreography, and design created the modern musical form, influencing everything from My Fair Lady to Hamilton, Dreamgirls to A Strange Loop, and everything in between

Like Show Boat, Porgy & Bess, and Pal Joey, Oklahoma was made into a film in the 1950s. As with Joey, some sexually suggestive lyrics were excised, in order to abide by the Hayes Code, a conservative set of rules all film studios followed at the time. 

Compare the original text of “Kansas City”

With the film version:

Watch Tony-nominated choreographer John Heginbotham’s version of the “Dream Ballet” for the 2019 Oklahoma revival. Just like in the 1943 original, Laurie departs the stage and a dancer represents her inner psyche:

A Chorus Line

Backstage stories like Show Boat, Pal Joey, and Kiss Me Kate have been a constant presence on Broadway, but none have been as raw or honest as A Chorus Line. The first musical to be developed through a series of workshops, A Chorus Line set the industry standard, although basing the story on the actors’ life experiences remains unusual. It was also the first musical to run for over 10 years on Broadway. Streamlining the plot to just one afternoon cattle call audition for the chorus of an unnamed show, A Chorus Line might be most innovative in its seeming simplicity. Every character has the same objective: they “really need this job,” as Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s peripatetic score explains to us in the opening number. 

The 1985 film adaptation was directed by Richard Attenborough, and did not have the success that the stage show did. 

Donna McKechnie performs “The Music & The Mirror” in the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line. Slipping between dialogue and singing like this was pioneered by Oklahoma, as was choreographers Michael Bennett and Bob Avian’s ability to visualize Cassie’s pain and ambition through dance.

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