After much of a drought through the '80s and much of the '90s, movie musicals seem to be making a comeback. Chicago was a big winner at the 2003 Academy Awards show. This year, at least two more musicals hit the big screen: De-Lovely, a musical biopic based on the life of Cole Porter, releases to selected theaters this week, and in December, we'll see the much-anticipated cinematic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash-hit Phantom of the Opera. And in late 2005, Mel Brooks's classic musical comedy, The Producers, will be revived for the big screen.

Movie musicals have a rich history. They were one of the primary reasons for combining sound with film in the early days of cinema. In the '50s, just before rock came to prominence, the album charts were dominated by original cast recordings and film versions of well-known Broadway musicals.

To say that the movie musical is a uniquely successful art form is an understatement. Our top ten list below, which includes four honorable mentions, includes five Oscar winners and six Oscar nominees for Best Picture. The other three are indispensable classics in movie history.

In defining a "movie musical," it wasn't enough to have a movie that relied heavily on music—for example, Saturday Night Fever, A Hard Day's Night, or Flashdance. The music needed to contribute to the flow of the storytelling, not simply serve as the backdrop for lead actors. This includes Broadway adaptations, as well as original rock operas and animated features. Now, on with the show!

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Oklahoma! (1955)

In the '40s and early '50s, movie musicals relied heavily on the Hollywood styled song-and-dance numbers that were often a staple of MGM studios. Then Oklahoma! rose like a beautiful morning on the cinematic horizon, paving the way for large-scale productions adapting from the Golden Age of Broadway. Rodgers & Hammerstein's first score together remains a favorite in their prestigious career, blending Americana with pop opera sensibilities for a romantic cowboy Western. What seems old-fashioned today was actually cutting edge for its time, taking Broadway musicals into a new direction. Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones were so good as the leads—Curly McLain and Laurey Williams—they were cast again in the following year's film production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel.

Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Like the best musical movies released in the decade preceding it, Fiddler on the Roof offers a wide gamut of emotion, striking a careful and effective balance between comedy and drama. Set within a Jewish village in pre-revolutionary Russia at the turn of the 20th century, the film has a lot to say about respecting traditions while bending them for the love of family. Jerry Bock's touching score includes such standards as "Sunrise, Sunset," "If I Were a Rich Man," "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," and of course, "Tradition." It's highlighted by Chaim Topol's lovable performance as the troubled father, Tevye. The film tugs at the heartstrings, leaving room for laughter and tears.

The Music Man (1962)

As movie musicals began to take on weightier themes and stories in the sixties, The Music Man remains one of the final throwbacks to a time when musical theater was simpler and sunnier. Though nominated for Best Picture, some would say that the film's success is primarily dependent on Robert Preston's portrayal of the swindling Professor Harold Hill—a role he seemed born to play. To focus only on that, however, would mean ignoring Meredith Wilson's wonderful score, which includes such standards as "Goodnight My Someone," "Till There Was You," "Trouble," and the robust march of "76 Trombones." Balancing wit with sweetness, this movie perfectly captures the innocence of life in a small Midwestern town, and that may be why it's stolen so many hearts over the years.

Oliver! (1968)

This take on Charles Dickens's classic novel, Oliver Twist, is quite possibly the largest musical spectacle ever created. Check out the size of the production during "Consider Yourself" and see if you don't agree. The dark tale is told with earnestness and enthusiasm. The leads are all terrific, though Ron Moody is especially memorable, delivering a career-defining performance with his portrayal of lovable charlatan Fagin. Thoroughly British in sound and look, songs like "I'd Do Anything," "Where Is Love" and "Who Will Buy?" may not rank among the greatest Broadway standards. Nevertheless, this is a magnificent movie musical created with superior craft in nearly every department.

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

People today seem to respond to this classic film as either corny nonsense or a cinematic masterpiece, and admittedly, it's beginning to date itself. Nevertheless, this film is regularly included among the top movies of all time, placing in the top ten of the American Film Institute's list. Fitting, since it's about the film industry's transition from silent movies to "talkies." Gene Kelly's performance of the title number remains one of the best-known sequences in movie history. Despite few of the other songs becoming standards since the film's release, Singin' in the Rain remains the epitome of the MGM movie musicals from the '40s and '50s—charming, happy, and witty song-and-dance routines from yesteryear that have delighted audiences of all ages.

West Side Story (1961)

Updating Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to 1950s gang wars, West Side Story takes on issues of racism and street violence through the tragic tale of star-crossed lovers from different sides of town. Well-acted all around, especially in Rita Moreno's fiery performance of Anita, the film primarily succeeds on the strength of its music and dance. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are the masterminds behind the brilliant score that gave the world "Tonight," "America," "I Feel Pretty," and "Maria." The choreography by Jerome Robbins is equally breathtaking, underscoring the Puerto Rican ethnicity underlying the story. Many cite West Side Story as the greatest movie musical of all time. Say this much—it remains a definitive turning point and a milestone in the history of movie musicals.

My Fair Lady (1964)

Whether this film is superior or inferior to the original Broadway production of 1956 is a matter of great debate. Theater buffs will swear to the original soundtrack with Julie Andrews in the role of Eliza Doolittle. Film fanatics seem to prefer the beauty and acting of Audrey Hepburn (lip-synching to Marni Nixon, who also sang for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in The King & I). At least the appeal of the songs by Lerner and Loewe are indisputable, as is the outstanding performance by Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins (on stage and screen). On top of that, this romantic comedy—based on the classic George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion—somehow brings together chauvinists and feminists without making either side feel slighted, thus solving the oldest debate of them all.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The oldest and most enduring musical of cinematic history—yet surprisingly many forget that it is indeed a musical, and one that has often been reinterpreted for the stage. Everyone remembers the signature song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" as sung by Dorothy (Judy Garland). How about classics "If I Only Had a Brain," "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead," and of course, "Follow the Yellow Brick Road"? Now you probably can't get those songs out of your head, right? That's testament to this film's charm, using songs to further the magical story, thus creating a lasting impression on children (and stirring nostalgia in adults) for more than 65 years.

Chicago (2002)

A rather risqué and satirical musical geared for more mature audiences, Chicago deserves high marks just for the knockout performances and dazzling choreography. But it primarily earns its place because of the brilliant work by director Rob Marshall and screenplay writer Bill Condon. By inserting the vaudeville/burlesque musical numbers via the fantasy perspective of murderess Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) into a believable 1930s Windy City, they more effectively express the play's social commentary while giving audiences a bit of "the ol' razzle dazzle." The results don't simply translate this musical to the big screen—they improve upon it, creating a perfect fusion of theater and cinema that offers the best of both.

The Sound of Music (1965)

Robert Wise has directed classic films in the genres of sci-fi, horror, and war films, but chances are he will be most remembered for two movie musicals: West Side Story and this, perhaps the most beloved of theatrical adaptations. Is it because of favorite songs by Rodgers & Hammerstein like "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," "Edelweiss," and "My Favorite Things"? Or perhaps it's the wide scope of this wholesome story, which somehow manages to cover familial love, romance (young and old), crises of faith, show biz, and fascism—truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Along with sweeping cinematography and the magnetism of lead actors Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, it all adds up to a film that has profoundly affected audiences for nearly forty years, and will continue to do so for at least forty more.

Honorable mentions:

  • Mary Poppins (1964) is a magnificent family film whose musical qualities are often overlooked. With unforgettable performances by Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews (who won an Oscar for the title role), this is, hands down, the best musical Disney ever produced.
  • Grease (1978), a kitschy love letter to teenage life in the rocking '50s, featured leading actors John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John singing the '70s hit single "You're the One That I Want."
  • Beauty and the Beast (1991) is the best example of the '90s version of movie musicals—a string of animated Disney films. B&TB, the first animated film nominated for Best Picture, features the brilliant compositional talents of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman.
  • Moulin Rouge! (2001), a delightfully artful (and occasionally provocative) film, represents the future of the movie musical. A pop culture potpourri, it beautifully combines rock opera with Broadway-styled arrangements and choreography. It's not for everyone, but there's much to appreciate.