By Katie Devin Orenstein
Broadway-to-movie-musical adaptations first emerged after the arrival of ‘talkie’ motion pictures at the end of the 1920s. Studios competed with each other to produce the highest-budget, glitziest spectaculars, and MGM was particularly known for huge musical productions. The genre thinned out when the studio system lost its prominence in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but has been in something of a resurgence in the 2000s, and with the two-part Wicked adaptation coming next year, the big-screen musical adaptation is here to stay. There are far too many to count, but here are some of the best Broadway to movie musical adaptations of all time.
1. Cabaret (1972)
Set in Berlin during the rise of Nazi Germany, Cabaret is a classic Broadway musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb that opened at the Shubert Theatre in 1966 and was adapted into a movie in 1972. The film starred Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey and won eight Academy Awards, including Best Director for Bob Fosse and Best Actress for Minnelli. The film is known for its dark and gritty portrayal of pre-war Berlin and for its iconic musical numbers, and its Academy Award-winning rhythmic editing. In that same year, 1972, Bob Fosse also directed Pippin on Broadway and the Liza With a Z television special, and won the Tony and the Emmy–making him the only person in history to win three such awards in the span of one year.
Cabaret is on all rental VOD platforms.
2. Oliver! (1968)
Based on the classic Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist, Oliver! is a beloved West End and Broadway musical. It ran in the West End from 1960 to 1966, and in New York at the Imperial Theatre in 1963-64. It was adapted into a movie in 1968 by Carol Reed, an English director who had himself helmed a Broadway play in 1930, On the Spot. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and a special award for choreographer Onna White. It starred Mark Lester and Ron Moody as Oliver and Fagin, respectively. With memorable songs like “Consider Yourself” and “Food, Glorious Food,” Oliver! is a timeless classic that is still enjoyed by audiences today. You can stream Oliver! On MAX.
3. The King & I (1956)
Based on the true story of Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher who became the governess to the children of the King of Siam, The King & I was adapted into a movie in 1956. The film starred Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner and won five Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Brynner. It happens to be the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical that was turned into a movie the fastest – only five years between its Broadway premiere and film release (Oklahoma!, one of the duo’s prior Broadway hits, took 12 years to reach the screen.) It is also one of three films on this list in which the female lead’s singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon. The King & I is available for rent on VUDU.
4. Grease (1978)
Set in the 1950s, Grease is a Broadway musical that was adapted into a movie in 1978. It was a massive hit when it opened in New York in 1972, and ran at the Broadhurst Theatre and later the Jacobs, for 8 years. The film starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John and became a cultural phenomenon, inspiring countless imitations and becoming one of the highest-grossing movie musicals of all time. A parody of the naive and optimistic 1950s, it continues to be a huge crowd-pleaser decades later. The movie can be rented on all VOD platforms and the cult-classic sequel Grease 2 starring Michelle Pfeiffer and zero material from the original musical is on Paramount+.
5. Chicago (2002)
Set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, Chicago, another Kander & Ebb classic, was adapted into a movie in 2002, after the original 1975 Broadway production, and the 1996 revival that is still running as of this writing. The film starred Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere and won six Academy Awards, for editing, sound, costume design, art direction, Best Supporting Actress (for Zeta-Jones’ turn as Velma Kelly), and Best Picture after being nominated in nearly every category. The editing in particular follows Fosse’s strategy for Cabaret, with quick cuts in rhythm with the music. Its cynical portrayal of the justice system, originally written in response to the Watergate scandal, resonated with audiences in the wake of the tabloid trials of the 1990s. It is available to stream on HBOMax and Hulu.
6. West Side Story (1961 and 2021)
Jerome Robbins originally had the idea to translate Romeo and Juliet to ethnic gang violence in Manhattan’s West Side, and collaborated with Leonard Bernstein (music) and a young newcomer, Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) to create West Side Story. Robbins ended up not just directing and choreographing the 1957 Broadway production, but co-directing and choreographing its 1961 film adaptation as well, raking in a Tony and two Oscars. The film starred Natalie Wood (with the singing voice of Marni Nixon) and Richard Beymer, and won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. In 2021, Steven Spielberg, who had been mentioning in interviews his desire to do a musical for decades, directed a new version with a rewritten script by Tony Kushner. A handful of dancers even did both the movie summer 2019 and the 2020 Ivo van Hove West Side Story Broadway revival, faring far better than their counterparts from 60 years ago, since no one from Broadway appeared onscreen in the 1961 movie. Spielberg’s take on the material was nominated for 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. History rhymed when Ariana DeBose won Best Supporting Actress for the role of Anita, the same role for which Rita Moreno became the first Latina Oscar winner ever in 1961. The original film leaves Paramount+ at the end of May, and the 2021 Spielberg version is on Disney+.
7. The Sound of Music (1965)
Based on the true story of the von Trapp family, The Sound of Music was less successful than previous Rodgers and Hammerstein hits when it premiered on Broadway in 1959. It was the 1965 movie version that propelled it into a household name. The film starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins’ co-director on West Side Story, insisted it be shot on location in Austria, and the stunning Alpine scenery is almost another character in the film. (Fascinatingly, though, the film is not well-known in the Germanophone world.) It is currently available to watch on all VOD rental services.
8. The Music Man (1962)
Set in early 1900s Indiana, The Music Man is a classic Broadway musical that was adapted into a movie in 1962. The film starred Robert Preston and Shirley Jones and was a critical and commercial success, earning six Academy Award nominations and winning one, for Best Score. Preston was cast to lead the film as Harold Hill after originating the role on Broadway, much to the chagrin of Jack Warner of Warner Bros., who wanted to cast a bigger star. Preston got the part thanks to Cary Grant not only refusing it, but going out of his way to tell Jack Warner that Preston had been so good in the part on Broadway that he wouldn’t bother seeing it on screen without him.
The movie is on all rental VOD platforms.
9. My Fair Lady (1962)
Producer Jack Warner of Warner Bros. passed on Broadway’s original Eliza, Julie Andrews, and instead cast Audrey Hepburn, with the dubbed singing voice of Marni Nixon (the same singing voice of Maria in West Side Story a year prior). Hepburn found herself competing with Andrews and Mary Poppins at the Golden Globes. And when Andrews won, the first person she thanked in her speech? Jack Warner.
My Fair Lady was the longest-running and highest-grossing musical of its time, opening at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1956 and running until 1962. The My Fair Lady movie, with its Lerner and Loewe score and script based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, was nominated for 6 Oscars, and winning for Best Score. Rex Harrison, also an established film actor who survived making Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor, got to keep the part of Henry Higgins between Broadway and the film.
The movie is on all rental VOD platforms.
10. Funny Girl (1968)
The melodramatic fable of Fanny Brice’s rise to fame and tragic personal life, Funny Girl features songs by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne like “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “People.” It opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre in March 1964, and ran until 1967. Barbra Streisand starred, who had previously made a splash at age 19 as Miss Marmelstein in 1962’s I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Funny Girl was the highest grossing film of 1968, and was nominated for 8 Oscars. OnlyStreisand won for her performance as Fanny, crystallizing her film stardom – she has not appeared on Broadway since departing Funny Girl in December 1965. The film is a very rare instance of a Broadway star getting to reprise their stage performance on screen. The handful of other examples includes Robert Preston in The Music Man, Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, but no film has announced the arrival of a major star quite like Funny Girl. The current revival, playing at the August Wilson starring Lea Michele, is running through Labor Day weekend 2023.
Funny Girl is on Amazon Prime Video.