Broadway and Hollywood are two prevailing titans of the entertainment industry, so it makes complete sense that the two industries would borrow from each other throughout such an extensive, intermingled history. While some may argue that Broadway has been borrowing a little too much from Hollywood lately, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who said there have been too many musicals made into films — although some may be saying that soon, with “Cats” crawling into theaters any day now.
With the long Thanksgiving weekend coming up, this is the perfect time to watch (or rewatch) some of the biggest Broadway hits that made it to the big screen. These films are a testament to the magical power of Broadway, and also to the fact that star power does not directly translate into singing talent — no matter how many famous dramatic actors try to stretch their vocal chops in challenging musical roles.
Here are the musical movies to watch to turn you into a veritable theater nerd by the end of the Thanksgiving weekend!
This musical stars Meryl Streep and that is all you need to know to watch it. But if you must know more, “Mamma Mia” is, in our opinion, the only musical out there that gets away with being a jukebox musical. With its entire soundtrack based on the dulcet hits of iconic Swedish band ABBA, “Mamma Mia” is about 20-something Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who in preparation for her wedding on the idyllic Greek island of Kalokairi, secretly invites three of her mom’s (Meryl Streep) former flames (Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Pierce Brosnan) in hopes that one of them is her birth dad. If movies were food, “Mamma Mia” would be that perfect bowl of ice cream on a hot summer afternoon. The musical’s infectious bops and whimsical setting will have you smiling for the rest of the day. And at the very least, you get to make fun of Pierce Brosnan’s singing.
With its name literally translating to “the Miserable Ones,” the British-French operatic musical is no cheery Disney fodder. Based off of Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, “Les Miserables” condenses Hugo’s epic into following the life of prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he finishes up his sentence and looks to redefine his life. Meanwhile, France is caught in a sociopolitical rebellion and Valjean finds himself tossed in the middle of it all.
Almost entirely sung, however, “Les Miserables” may not be for everyone — but it is one of the biggest staples in a musical theater nerd’s repertoire. It is epic, it is grand and it is extremely long, but the music is gorgeous. Also, you also get to make fun of Russell Crowe’s singing.
“The Last Five Years”
If “Mamma Mia” and “Les Miserables” are the heavy-hitter films in Broadway’s Hollywood, “The Last Five Years” is that hip, unknown yet extremely popular indie film that becomes the gateway to other less mainstream musicals. It is a beautifully done minimalist musical that only has two characters, Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) and Cathy (Anna Kendrick), and follows their 5-year relationship, alternating between songs from both of their point of view. But there is a storytelling twist — the show starts with Cathy at the end of the relationship and works its way to the beginning, while it also simultaneously begins with Jamie at the beginning of the relationship working his way to its sad demise. Although the original stage production, which the movie is based on, never made it to Broadway, Jason Robert Brown’s cult classic was a short-lived hit off-Broadway — and lives on both in regional productions and every theater kid’s secret dream to play Cathy. Plus, it is almost a scientific fact that Jeremy Jordan’s stunningly gorgeous voice alone can impregnate you.
Ah, “Rent,” one of the biggest pioneers in the rock musical movement of the 1990s that ushered Broadway into the modern musicals we have today — even Renaissance man Lin-Manuel Miranda has cited “Rent” as one of his main sources of inspiration. No movie musical list would be complete without this culturally defining musical that launched Idina Menzel’s career to the Adele Nazeem we know and love today.
Very loosely based off of Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” “Rent” follows the lives of a group of starving artists in New York during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s. Somehow both angsty and heartbreaking, “Rent” was a watershed moment for modern musicals and still is a cultural icon. Somewhere out there, shocked at the departure from the classical musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein are rolling in their graves.
“The Sound of Music”
Speaking of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a list of movie musicals would also not be complete without at least one classic musical that predates Kim Kardashian’s birth. “The Sound of Music” has the rare honor of being both a theatrical and cinematic classic, with the movie having a legacy in its own right. The musical won 5 Tonys, including Best Musical and its film adaptation won 5 Oscars, including Best Film and Best Actor. Starring Julie Andrews, the woman everyone wishes was their grandma, “The Sound of Music” follows the free-spirited Maria (Andrews), a postulate sent to look after a strict former naval captain (Christopher Plummer) and his seven unruly children in Austria on the cusp of World War II. It is an epic love story that may be the only musical — on this list and beyond — more important in cinematic history than Broadway history.
So if you need a break from your family or something to watch other than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this weekend, pop on these films and let your inner theater nerd come out!
Julie Lim covers film. Contact her at [email protected].