Best Movie Musicals of the Past 7 Decades

Actress Angela Lansbury (C) in Mame.

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Angela Lansbury
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That’s Entertainment!

If you enjoy seeing actors suddenly burst into song and dance in the middle of a scene, chances are you've seen a movie musical or two. Most film musicals were adaptations of popular stage productions, with many taking full advantage of cinematic opportunities to include spectacular scenery and massive sets starring some of our favorite actors. One such musical theater icon, Angela Lansbury, was known for her ability to bring characters to life on the big screen, onstage, and TV. Lansbury, who died Tuesday at age 96, is best known for starring in the long-running mystery series "Murder, She Wrote," but her musical-film credits include "Bednobs and Broomsticks," "The Pirates of Penzance," and a memorable roll in one of Disney's most popular animated movies.

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Beauty and the Beast (1991)

'Beauty and the Beast' (1991)

Notable songs: “Beauty and the Beast,” “Be Our Guest,” “Something There”

One of the early animated films to use the voices of more recognized actors (including Robby Benson, Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and Jo Anne Worley), it also won a pair of Oscars for Original Song (“Beauty and the Beast”) and Original Score. Lansbury died Tuesday in Los Angeles at age 96, just five days shy of her 97th birthday. She was nominated for 10 Golden Globes, winning four, as well as 12 Emmy Awards for her role in "Murder, She Wrote." Other musical roles Lansbury starred in include "Gypsy," "Sweeney Todd," and "The King and I." In 1966, she won her first Tony for her role in the Broadway musical "Mame," and was honored in June with a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement.

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An American in Paris
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'An American in Paris' (1951)

Notable songs: “I Got Rhythm,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “‘S Wonderful”

Director Vincente Minnelli (Liza Minnelli’s father) weaves this comedy around the music of George and Ira Gershwin with box office draw Gene Kelly in the leading role. Along with some catchy tunes, there’s a 17-minute ballet finale that Variety called “a masterpiece of design, lighting, costumes, and color photography.” It won six Oscars, including best picture.

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Singin’ in the Rain
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'Singin’ in the Rain' (1952)

Notable songs: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Make ’em Laugh,” “Good Morning”

Producer Arthur Freed, hot off the success of “An American in Paris,” packaged some of his old songs from other films around a story that teamed Gene Kelly with Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds to create what the American Film Institute considers to be the best movie musical ever.

The Band Wagon
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'The Band Wagon' (1953)

Notable songs: “That’s Entertainment,” “By Myself,” “New Sun in the Sky”

MGM had a long history of musical films before Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, and Oscar Levant got together for this romantic comedy directed by Vincente Minnelli. It featured a dozen songs from various Broadway musicals with “That’s Entertainment” one of the few written for the film.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
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'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers' (1954)

Notable songs: “June Bride,” “Spring, Spring, Spring,” “Wonderful, Wonderful Day”

A best picture nominee with songs by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul, Variety said the show-stealing scene is “the acrobatic hoedown staged around a barn-raising shindig,” choreographed by Michael Kidd.

Guys and Dolls (1955)

'Guys and Dolls' (1955)

Notable songs: “Guys and Dolls,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”

Who would have thought Marlon Brando would ever star in a musical? Especially opposite Frank Sinatra. Despite lots of tension on the set, this adaptation of the popular Broadway show based on a short story by Damon Runyon would become the top grossing film of 1956 after its Christmas release in 1955.

Oklahoma! (1955)
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'Oklahoma!' (1955)

Notable songs: “Oklahoma!,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “People Will Say We’re in Love”

The first of several plays by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to be adapted to the big screen starred Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones. Fun fact: It was actually shot twice for different projection formats, creating two slightly different versions.

The King and I (1956)
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'The King and I' (1956)

Notable songs: “Getting to Know You,” “Shall We Dance,” “Whistle a Happy Tune”

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical about the romance of the King of Siam (Yul Brynner) and a widowed governess (Deborah Kerr) was a huge hit, scoring an Oscar for best actor for Brynner and nominations for best picture, director (Walter Lang), and actress (Kerr).

South Pacific (1958)
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'South Pacific' (1958)

Notable songs: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair”

TCM called Rodgers and Hammerstein’s World War II musical “visually stunning,” with Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor as the romantic leads. Ray Walston and Juanita Hall supply the comic relief.

West Side Story (1961)
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'West Side Story' (1961)

Notable songs: America,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere”

Rival gangs that dance and sing. How cool is that? Cool enough for this Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim musical to win best picture in 1961. Fun fact: Of the film’s five principal actors — including Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, and even Rita Moreno — George Chakiris was the only one to do all of his own singing, according to TCM. 

The Music Man (1962)

'The Music Man'; (1962)

Notable songs: “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Till There Was You,” “Shipoopi,” “Trouble”

Robert Preston reprised his role from the Broadway musical opposite Shirley Jones in this tale of a con man in small-town Iowa in 1912. Buddy Hackett steals some scenes, and watch for a very young Ron Howard in this best picture-nominated film.

Mary Poppins (1964)
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'Mary Poppins' (1964)

Notable songs: “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”

Julie Andrews won the best actress Oscar for her screen debut as the magical nanny with ample support from Dick Van Dyke. The film was nominated for best picture and best director (Robert Stevenson), and won best song for “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” 

My Fair Lady (1964)

'My Fair Lady' (1964)

Notable songs: “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”

A film based on a Broadway musical based on a play (George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”), it  won nine Oscars, including best picture, best actor (Rex Harrision), and best director (George Cukor). Audrey Hepburn’s voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, a popular ghost singer in musicals of the time.

The Sound of Music (1965)
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'The Sound of Music' (1965)

Notable songs: “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do Re Mi”

This may be the ultimate Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Nominated for 10 Oscars including a second best actress nod for Julie Andrews, it took home five statuettes including best picture. The American Film Institute ranked it fourth on its list of best musicals.

Funny Girl (1968)
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'Funny Girl' (1968)

Notable songs: “People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “My Man”

Barbra Streisand (in her film debut) and Omar Sharif tell the story of real-life Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice. The film was a box office smash, with Streisand taking home a best actress Oscar and establishing "People" as her signature song.

Oliver! (1968)
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'Oliver!' (1968)

Notable songs: “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” “As Long as He Needs Me,” “Consider Yourself”

The orphans (Mark Lester, Jack Wild, and company) are the focus of this film, but Ron Moody as Fagin steals the show. The film won five Oscars including best picture and director (Carol Reed). Moody was nominated for best actor and Wild was nominated for best supporting actor. Variety called it “a bright, shiny, heartwarming musical, packed with songs and lively production highspots.”

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1970)
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'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' (1970)

Notable songs: “The Time Warp,” “Sweet Transvestite,” “Super Heroes”

This cult classic featuring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Bostwick is full of nods to old science fiction and horror movies. Fun fact: The film is now owned by Disney, though not currently available on Disney+. Parental discretion is advised.

Fiddler on the Roof
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'Fiddler on the Roof' (1971)

Notable songs: “Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Sunrise, Sunset”

Director Norman Jewison described the film as “the story of a man and his God, and his problems with his five daughters,” according to TCM. That simple synopsis understates the richly textured film he produced, based on the hugely popular stage production. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, actor (Topol), and director. A remake is said to be in development.

Cabaret (1972)
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'Cabaret' (1972)

Notable songs: “Cabaret,” “Willkommen,” “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”

Variety called the film “literate, bawdy, sophisticated, sensual, cynical, heartwarming, and disturbingly thought-provoking.” Oscar voters handed it eight Academy Awards, including best director (Bob Fosse), actress (Liza Minnelli), and supporting actor (Joel Grey). It was also nominated for best picture, losing to “The Godfather.”

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
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'Jesus Christ Superstar' (1973)

Notable songs: “Everything’s Alright,” “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Superstar”

Director Norman Jewison’s second swing at a musical was a little more controversial, adapting Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera with largely unknown actors (Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, and Yvonne Elliman). Roger Ebert called the film “a bright and sometimes breathtaking retelling” of the stage production.

Tommy (1975)
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'Tommy' (1975)

Notable songs: “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It”

The Who’s classic rock opera — with a screenplay by director Ken Russell — stars the band’s frontman Roger Daltrey as the “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who plays some mean pinball. Elton John, Tina Turner, and Eric Clapton are also in the cast and Ann-Margret was nominated for an Oscar as Tommy’s mother. Roger Ebert said the film gives viewers “one glorious excess after another.”

Grease (1978)
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'Grease' (1978)

Notable songs: “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Summer Nights,” “You’re the One That I Want”

Variety said this film “has got it,” from the animated titles to “the rousing finale as John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John ride off into teenage happiness.” Audiences agreed, turning the film into a summer blockbuster and later a TV staple.

All That Jazz (1979)
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'All That Jazz' (1979)

Notable songs: “Bye Bye Love,” “Everything Old Is New Again,” “Take Off With Us”

Director (and famed choreographer) Bob Fosse’s dark, semi-autobiographical film had its critics — including one studio that considered it to be too self-indulgent — but still ended up with nine Academy Award nominations including two for Fosse (director and best screenplay), a best actor nod for Roy Scheider, and a best picture nomination.

Hair (1979)
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'Hair' (1979)

Notable songs: “Hair,” “Aquarius,” “Let the Sunshine In”

It took 10 years for director Milos Forman to get the chance to bring this story about New York City’s hippie subculture to the screen starring John Savage, Treat Williams, and Beverly D’Angelo, with choreography by Twyla Tharp. Roger Ebert said Forman “brings life to the musical form in the same way that ‘West Side Story’ did.” 

Fame (1980)
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'Fame' (1980)

Notable songs: “Fame,” “Out Here on My Own,” “I Sing the Body Electric”

Fun fact: One of the biggest scenes in director Alan Parker’s story about a group of students at New York’s High School of the Performing Arts was shot on the street in front of the school — because the production wasn’t allowed to shoot inside. It won Oscars for original song (“Fame”) and original score.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
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'Little Shop of Horrors' (1986)

Notable songs: “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” “Somewhere That’s Green”

Director Frank Oz adapted this campy story of a human blood-consuming plant from a 1982 off-Broadway stage production, which was itself inspired by Roger Corman’s 1960 film of the same name. Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, and Vincent Gardenia lead a cast that includes Steve Martin, Bill Murray, John Candy, and Christopher Guest.

The Little Mermaid (1989)
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'The Little Mermaid' (1989)

Notable songs: “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” “Kiss the Girl”

Disney already had a long history of animated musical films, but this one marks the first in a new string of hits for the Mouse and also scored a pair of Oscars for original song (“Under the Sea”) and original score. Variety says a live-action version is in the works.

Aladdin (1992)
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'Aladdin' (1992)

Notable songs: “A Whole New World,” “Friend Like Me,” “One Jump Ahead”

Robin Williams, famously improvising most of his lines as the Genie, opened the floodgates for A-List actors to work in animated films with this Disney blockbuster. Like its predecessors, the movie won Oscars for original song (“A Whole New World”) and original score. “Friend Like Me” was also nominated for original song.

The Lion King (1994)
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'The Lion King' (1994)

Notable songs: “Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”

And then there was the animated film that launched a franchise. With the voices of Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, and Nathan Lane, plus a score featuring music by Elton John and Tim Rice, the movie inspired a 1997 stage musical and a 2019 live-action version that has grossed $1.65 billion worldwide.

Moulin Rouge!

'Moulin Rouge!' (2001)

Notable songs: “Come What May,” “Your Song,” “Nature Boy”

Movie musicals of the ’30s and ’40s frequently found ways to incorporate established hits into the storyline. But this film gave that idea a twist, using modern popular music in a historical setting. It seemed to work, generating a best picture nomination and helping reinvigorate the movie musical.

Chicago (2002)
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'Chicago' (2002)

Notable songs: “And All That Jazz,” “Cell Block Tango,” “Razzle Dazzle”

A musical hadn’t won a best picture Oscar since “Oliver!” took the prize in 1968, but Rob Marshall’s version of the stage play ended that drought. Catherine Zeta-Jones also won for supporting actress and Renée Zellweger, John C. Reilly, and Queen Latifah were nominated, as was Marshall and the original song, “I Move On.”

Mama Mia! (2008)
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'Mama Mia!' (2008)

Notable songs: “Mamma Mia!,” “Dancing Queen,” “Take a Chance on Me”

ABBA may not be your cup of tea, but for fans of the group, there’s a lot to enjoy in this film version of the stage play, not the least of which is the all-star cast. Roger Ebert dismissed the movie, saying, “The plot is a clothesline on which to hang the songs.” But did we mention it stars Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth? 

Les Misérables (2012)
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'Les Misérables' (2012)

Notable songs: “I Dreamed A Dream,” “One More Day,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

If Rex Harrison could pretend to carry a tune, why not Russell Crowe? Anne Hathaway won a best supporting actress Oscar, and the film was nominated for best picture. Hugh Jackman, who really can sing — and showed off his skills in 2017’s “The Greatest Showman,” too, was nominated for best actor.

Frozen (2013)
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'Frozen' (2013)

Notable songs: “Let it Go,” “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” “Love is an Open Door”

Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen” was the basis for Disney’s 53rd in-house animated feature, starring the voices of Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel — who sung the Oscar-winning song “Let It Go.” It also won an Oscar for best animated feature and was followed by a Disney on Ice show in 2014, a Broadway play in 2018, and a sequel in 2019.

La La Land (2016)
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'La La Land' (2016)

Notable songs: “A Lovely Night,” “Someone in the Crowd,” “Another Day of Sun”

Variety said “La La Land” was “the most audacious big-screen musical in a long time, and — irony of ironies — that’s because it’s the most traditional.” Nominated for 16 Oscars, it won six including best director (Damien Chazelle), best actress (Emma Stone), and best original song (“City of Stars”). It was also nominated for best picture, and Ryan Gosling was nominated for best actor.

'West Side Story' (2021)

'West Side Story' (2021)

Notable Songs: "Maria," "One Hand, One Heart"

Remaking the 1961 classic, director Steven Spielberg made some important updates — aspiring Jets gang member Anybodys is no longer a tomboy but trans (and played by nonbinary actor Ezra Menas). Drugstore owner Doc was replaced by a female character, Valentina — a role played by Rita Moreno (Anita in the original). But what both have in common is that the role of Anita is Oscar bait no matter what year. While Moreno won for playing the role in the original, Ariana DeBose won the award for the role in this version.

'In the Heights' (2021)

'In the Heights' (2021)

Notable Songs: "96,000," "Carnaval Del Barrio," "Paciencia Y Fe"

Based on the Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda ("Hamilton"), this story about a Dominica community on the verge of gentrification and the struggles of those within it was a critical knockout. Rolling Stone gushed,  calling it "an aspirational immigrant story that hits most every mark of the genre, but flows and overlaps and grows dense in unexpected ways."