December 25 this year will be Christmas Day for theater geeks anticipating the release of Les Miserables. The musical is already being positioned as an Oscar frontrunner, thanks to its lauded director (Tom Hooper, who won Best Director for The King’s Speech) and an impressive A-list cast, including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Sacha Baron Cohen and an especially weepy Anne Hathaway. But will the film live up to its hype?
For every movie adaptation of a Broadway musical that wins awards and becomes an instant classic, there’s a poorly conceived film adaptation that should have stayed on the stage. Let’s take a look at the Top 5 Best – and Top 5 Worst – Movie Musicals adapted from stage plays. The Top 5 Worst are particularly disappointing since they’re all based on great shows that deserved much better.
5 Best: 5. Grease (1978)
Grease might not be considered brilliant cinema, but the film has become a staple of pop culture that picks up new fans each decade. Besides giving us one of John Travolta’s most memorable performances, the movie is arguably much better than the play it’s based on. The filmmakers wisely replaced the show's mediocre songs with catchy tunes like the duet “You’re the One That I Want," which topped the Billboard charts in 1978.
4. The Sound of Music (1965)
The Sound of Music gained popularity in recent years for its live sing-a-longs, but even the non-musical scenes are captivating. It’s easy to dismiss this Oscar-winning film as a happy-go-lucky children’s movie, but it’s truly a drama about love, politics and fighting for freedom of expression. Every number is a classic, and Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer’s performances are glorious without being over-the-top.
3. Chicago (2002)
This sexy, smart and funny adaptation is pretty much responsible for kicking off this modern renaissance of movie musicals. This 2002 adaptation of Kander & Ebb’s satirical take on fame, murder and the justice system was the first musical to win Best Picture since Oliver! took home the top prize in 1969. Awards aside, it’s just delicious fun watching Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger play jailbird baddies trying to top one another.
2. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
This is probably the best movie musical for people who love musicals and people who think they don’t. Directed by Frank Oz (yes, the man who created and performed Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Cookie Monster), it’s no surprise the film would incorporate brilliant puppetry when bringing a man-eating, soul-singing plant to life. But besides the catchy songbook and the impressive in-camera effects, the film is absolutely hilarious.
1. West Side Story (1961)
It isn’t just one of the best movie musicals of all time – it’s one of the best movies of all time. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s adaptation of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s modern-day Romeo & Juliet is top-shelf moviemaking: brilliant choreography, inspired direction, nuanced performances, tickling comedy, heavy drama and a timeless message about love and acceptance that is still relevant today.
5 Worst: 5. The Producers (2005)
Theater director Susan Stroman basically reprised the Tony-winning stage show when adapting this Mel Brooks musical for the screen, but what works in front of a live audience doesn’t necessarily work in a movie. Most of the gags don’t work, and everything is lit like we’re watching a recording of the play. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick’s shtick is identical to their performances in the show, but here they come off as cheesy and cartoonish.
4. Phantom of the Opera (2004)
If your Phantom is so hot that we would gladly have sex with him even without his mask on, you’ve got a problem. Still, turning a horrific masked boogeyman into a total hottie isn’t as unforgiveable as hiring Joel Schumacher, also known as the man who briefly ruined Batman, as the director of this Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation, which somehow manages to be both overblown and boring all at once.
3. The King and I (1999)
This animated adaptation is simply terrible, with racist Asian caricatures and flat, uninspired animation. The film was so bad the estates of Rodgers and Hammerstein have reportedly refused to allow their musicals to be adapted into any new animated features.
2. Rent (2005)
There were so many terrible choices made when adapting Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical to the screen, we can’t decide which is worst. Was it turning the song lyrics into flatly delivered dialogue? How about casting most of the actors from the original production in the same roles, despite them now being a decade older? Or was it hiring the director behind the Home Alone franchise?
1. The Who’s Tommy (1975)
It’s poorly directed, sloppily edited and its abstract non-sequiturs push aside the fairly straightforward story. Not even Elton John's memorable appearance as the Pinball Wizard or Tina Turner’s cameo as druggie prostitute The Acid Queen can excuse an entire sequence of Ann Margaret seductively covering herself in baked beans for no reason.