West Side Story

5 Essential Hollywood Musicals

August 29, 2008
by Michael Koegel
“If music be the food of love,” then the Hollywood musical is the dessert table at the banquet. From “The Jazz Singer” to “Chicago,” the musical is the quintessential American art form. Heck, even Woody Allen tossed his top hat into the ring—remember Drew Barrymore warbling her way through “Everyone Says I Love You”? Probably not. These five musicals, from the celebrated to the obscure, are worth savoring. But pace yourself, or you’ll get a serious sugar rush.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Considered by many to be the best musical to ever come out of Hollywood, “Singin’ in the Rain” is the gold standard. Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse and Debbie Reynolds—discovered by Kelly after she won a Miss Burbank contest—the Comden and Green screenplay is a well-written excuse to string a bunch of previously released music together, to fabulous effect. What does the song “Singin’ in the Rain” have to do with the film’s plot? Absolutely nothing: that’s why it’s such a guilty pleasure to watch. Turner Classic Movies agrees.

Gene Kelly was quite the perfectionist and taskmaster on the sound stage, both as director and star of the film. Debbie Reynolds said that the two toughest things she ever did were “Singin’ in the Rain” and childbirth. Donald O’Connor was hospitalized with exhaustion after the three days it took to complete “Make ’em Laugh,” his big song and dance number in the film.

West Side Story (1961)

With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story won 10 out of the 11 Oscars for which it was nominated. Set in the gritty Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan, this film was a radical reimagining of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as a turf war between two gangs. For  the 40th anniversary of the film’s release in 2001, NPR’s “Fresh Air”  interviewed the cast and featured snippets of the score.

From the opening notes of Bernstein’s finger-snapping prologue, the film manages to blend street fighting with ballet, that’s somehow cool, boy, real cool. Sondheim’s lyrics are clever and rapid-fire, especially in numbers like “Officer Krupke” and “America.” And with source material provided by Shakespeare, you know it’s got a decent story.

Cabaret (1972)

Bob Fosse’s film adaptation of “Cabaret” changed the tone of film musicals forever. No longer did characters just burst into song because the “the hills are alive” or because it’s raining and they feel like singin’ in it. Fosse deleted every song from the Broadway version of “Cabaret” that wasn’t motivated by the plot, leaving only the songs performed on the stage of the cabaret, and, of course, that chilling version of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” sung by a Hitler Youth at an outdoor rally. Fosse, Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey (whom Fosse was forced to cast or be fired) all deservedly won Oscars for their work.

Bob Fosse’s signature choreographic style
remains alive in both stage and screen versions of his work. With such films as “Cabaret,” “All That Jazz” and “Lenny,” Fosse was one of the rare musical theater directors to transfer his success to Hollywood. The 2002 Oscar-winning film version of “Chicago” featured his choreography 15 years after his death. (A little Hollywood musical trivia: Gene Kelly turned down an offer to direct “Cabaret” because he didn’t want to leave his daughters in L.A. while the film shot in Germany. )

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

“Little Shop of Horrors” is a campy throwback to the doo-wop 60s. A remake of Roger Corman’s 1960 B-movie, it features Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene and Steve Martin. The musical “Little Shop” had an earlier incarnation as an off-Broadway show with a bloodthirsty puppet who mercilessly ate the entire cast before the final curtain (surprisingly, the film has a slightly lower body count). The score includes such classics as “Suddenly Seymour” and “Somewhere That’s Green.” Composer/lyricists Alan Menken and Howard Ashman would later thrill hordes of children with Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Watch Roger Corman’s original “Little Shop of Horrors,” starring a grinning Jack Nicholson and available for free online.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a first-rate rock show that makes “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” look like, well, a Hollywood musical. Hansel, a young man living on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, meets an American GI and falls in love. The soldier convinces Hansel to get a sex change so they can marry and Hansel can move to America. Hansel becomes Hedwig, but the sex-change operation gets botched, and now Hedwig is left with “an angry inch.” Hedwig eventually becomes a second-rate rock star with a first-rate chip on “her” shoulder. The musical is an incredibly smart piece of craftsmanship, clever enough to reference both Plato and Farrah Fawcett, with a durable score that would fit seamlessly into any classic rock station.

John Cameron Mitchell
, who plays Hedwig, wrote the book; the music and lyrics are by Stephen Trask. The stage version is really a one-man(?) show, with Hedwig telling her story as the lead singer of a band with the same name. The film expands the story and creates the characters that Hedwig only speaks of onstage. The witty, David Bowie-inspired music will have you singing along with everyone’s favorite German transsexual glam-rock star who nobody has ever heard of.

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