Some favourite musicals on film

Continuing the theme of sharing stuff that I love, in the hope that you’ll give it a go (if you haven’t already)  and end up loving it too … welcome to a post about some of my favourite musicals. As usual, this is the edited highlights list, or we’d be here all day!

Interested in some viewing suggestions, or just want to compare notes? Read on!

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

This one’s a twofer, because it’s a musical and it’s science fiction. I know there are people who haven’t seen Rocky Horror and I think that if you’re one of them you should rectify the oversight immediately. This is a truly ridiculous, insane, off-the-wall piece of musical theatre. (It started out as a stage production, was translated to film, and is still performed on stage today, 41 years after its debut). It’s also not entirely strait-laced, so if you’re a very conservative type of person then you probably won’t enjoy it. Okay? You’ve been warned!

The story is simple. A bunch of aliens have been living the down-low life on Earth. Ostensibly led by Doctor Frank. N. Furter (the truly astonishing Tim Curry), they’ve drawn the disapproving attention of the powers that be on their home planet – thanks to Frank’s uninhibited, libertine approach to life. Enter Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), who end up on the aliens’ doorstop after their car breaks down in a storm. They’re given shelter in the isolated mansion … and whacky hijinks follow, with songs and dancing.

Rocky Horror is one of those musicals that you either get, or you don’t. It’s not something you can feel lukewarm about. As I said, the content is very adult. I remember the first time I saw it, at the movies, when I was at university, I sat there thinking: This is great, but I’m sure I should be offended. Possibly it’s a stain upon my character that I wasn’t … *g* … but there you are.

The music is fabulous, ranging from totally danceable – The Time Warp – to jaw-droppingly outrageous – Sweet Transvestite – and finishing up with poignant and haunting – I’m Going Home. The cast is enormously courageous, they all throw themselves into the chaos with absolute commitment. The opening sequence – enormous red lips against a black background, singing the iconic opening number Science Fiction/Double Feature – is truly memorable.

Although initially receiving modest box office returns, Rocky Horror eventually attained international cult status. Regular midnight viewings could be found around the world – I attended one in Sydney, years ago – where the audience dresses up, sings along, interacts with the film and comes equipped with certain props – like cigarette lighters and newspapers. There really hasn’t been anything else like it – no, not even the Sound of Music sing-a-long shows. And yes, I’ve been to one of those too. And I sang, and I didn’t need the subtitles. Sue me. *g*

Rocky Horror is a classic case of one role defining an actor’s career. Tim Curry is actually a multi-talented, multi-faceted performer. He can sing, dance, do comedy and drama … but his performance as the alien gender-bender Frank. N. Furter made such an impression, well, he never really managed to leave it behind. I mean, once you’ve seen him make his entrance in the film – that would be Sweet Transvestite – it is pretty hard to forget him.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an amazing piece of genre film-making, and a landmark entry into genre pop culture. Even if you end up hating it, give it a go.

Fiddler on the Roof

Yeah, okay, so I never claimed to be anything but eccentrically eclectic, m’kay? Another stage-to-screen adaptation, the film of Fiddler on the Roof contains some truly brilliant songs and sequences. Whenever I watch it, I find it hard not to leap up and start singing and dancing along with it.

Fiddler is the story of Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman in tsarist Russia. It’s about family and faith and love and courage in the face of oppression. Tevye isn’t afraid to challenge God when he thinks life is unfair, or speak up to defend his neighbours, or complain about the demands of providing for his wife and three daughters, or celebrate the small joys and victories of life. It’s uplifting and life-affirming and sad, too.

Tevye is played by acclaimed stage actor Topol (who might be familiar to fans of the campy Queen-scored film Flash Gordon). He’s magnificent. The other surprising piece of casting is a very, very young Paul Michael Glaser as hopeful suitor Perchik. Starsky and Hutch fans will immediately recognise Starsky in a very different environment!

Fiddler on the Roof won 3 Academy Awards – after being nominated for 8. It earned every one of them. This is a really, really lovely musical. Wonderful performances all around, great songs, great story.

The Pirates of Penzance

Okay, so it’s really only one particular production of Pirates that totally floats my boat. Again, it originated on stage, New York’s Broadway, and after a phenomenally successful run was captured on film in a semi-theatrical production that never fails to delight me.

Mind you, that could just be Kevin Kline in tight black pirate trousers and an unbuttoned white pirate shirt.

Yes! It’s Kevin Kline as the Pirate King! Yowza! He won the Tony for his performance on Broadway, and when you see him in the film you can understand why. He is mesmerising. Magnetic. And he can so totally sing and dance up a storm!

But the talent in this film is wall to wall wonderful. How about Linda Ronstadt (who shrugged and learned how to sing in a whole new octave. As you do.) as Mabel, and Angela Lansbury as the nursemaid Ruth, and Rex Smith as Freddy. Wow. Rex Smith. Not only is he drop-dead stunning in his pirate costume, he has one of the best voices in the business. Truly bone-melting.

Being Gilbert and Sullivan, of course the story is silly and the music is brilliant. That goes without saying. Do you need to know the story? No, but here’s a thumbnail: Freddy, who was accidentally apprenticed to a pirate by his dim nurse, has come of age and is about to leave the piratical life. Shortly after bidding his eye-patched and peg-legged companions farewell, he falls in love with beautiful young woman, Mabel. Then things go awry, because Gilbert and Sullivan, and suddenly Freddy finds himself torn between love and duty.

All the songs are fabulous, of course, but there is one piece in Pirates that knocks me over every time I either watch the film or listen to the Broadway soundtrack. Hail, Poetry is a full-on choral a cappella performance that really will send chills down your spine. Utterly, utterly beautiful.

This is a delightful romp, a froth and bubble frolic that will definitely put a smile on your face … even as you marvel at the magnificent vocals on display.

Greys’ Anatomy: Song Beneath the Song

This season 7 episode of Shonda Rhimes’s first television hit really polarised the audience: fans either love it or hate it. Me? I love, love, love it. And frankly, I don’t get the people who don’t.

Grey’s Anatomy has always used music to help tell its stories. There are quite a few artists (like Snow Patrol) who owe a huge upswing in their careers thanks to one of their songs being used in a Grey’s episode. So Rhimes and her production team came up with the idea to use music in a surreal way to tell a story about Callie and a car accident. In short, the accident and its resulting trauma are the device by which the production team explain the musical features of the episode.

Of course, this couldn’t have worked if serendipity hadn’t seen Rhimes casting a whole bunch of amazingly talented vocal artists who happened to great actors, too. Sara Ramirez, Chandra Wilson and Chyler Leigh are the stand-outs. Ramirez won a Tony for her performance as The Lady in the Lake in Spamalot and Wilson has a serious track record in musicals. Kevin McKidd and Justin Chambers also do a great job.

Any musical is inherently silly, when you think about it, so why people should get bent out of shape because of this surreal Grey’s episode mystifies me. Maybe it’s simply too off-the-beaten track. But really, it’s sad that some folk can’t relax and go with the flow.  Because the singing is sometimes sublime, always emotionally heartfelt, and I think it’s a ripper. Even if you’re not a regular Grey’s viewer and fan, you can make sense of what’s happening in the episode – and the singing is worth it.

Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Royal Albert Hall Celebration

Okay, so this isn’t a musical per se – it’s a kind of edited highlights concert of his career as a musical theatre impresario. But it still counts!

It must be pretty apparent by now that I’m when it comes to entertainment of all kinds I’m a populist. I don’t have much patience for elitism and snobbery – and that means I get very tired of people dissing Webber because he’s been so commercially successful. It’s the same as people who diss Agatha Christie or JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyers for their success. Really? Okay, so you don’t like their stuff. That’s fine. You’re entitled. But how does someone else liking their stuff make your life not worth living? Seriously. Get a grip and stop being so petty.

Anyway! This concert at Albert Hall is a ripper. The shows highlighted are: Whistle Down the Wind, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Evita, Starlight Express, Jesus Christ Superstar, Requiem, The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard.  It’s all great, but the standouts for me? Michael Ball’s performance of Gesthemane (Superstar) and Glenn Close’s turn as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

Gesthemane has to be one of the most difficult songs ever written for musical theatre. Michael Ball, one of the best musical theatre guys the UK has ever produced, is amazing. He has a beautiful voice and exquisite vocal control. Shivers down the spine time. And as for Glenn Close … it’s not the singing, because this one’s not about showcasing a great voice,  it’s her  fabulous performance as the faded and bitter silent movie star. She’s simply electrifying.

I grabbed this dvd on a whim while standing at the checkout of my local supermarket. I am so glad I did! Magical, memorable performances abound.

Doctor Horrible’s Sing-along Blog

Yeah, so this twisted brain-child of genre-meister Joss Whedon is the result of the Writers Guild of America strike a few years ago. It was originally produced as an online event and pretty much broke the internet when it went live. Subsequently it was released on dvd, with a soundtrack cd too.

Betraying my ignorance, I honestly had no idea about Neil Patrick Harris beyond Doogie Howser MD. I’m not a sitcom fan so I never watched How I Met Your Mother. I’d seen him in some drama guest spots but not much else that I recall. Anyhow – of course I grabbed Doctor Horrible because it was Whedon, and wow! That guy can sing up a storm! Performances all round are great. Nathan Fillion is suitably smarmy and Felicia Day is sweet. There are a couple of really catchy songs in the show, cleverly written, difficult to sing. This is a fun one.

Les Miserables: 10th Anniversary Concert at the Albert Memorial Hall

I think Les Mis is probably my top favourite musical. For me it has everything: great music, great lyrics, great drama with some comedy thrown in, and a really strong story. It’s so unlikely – the book it’s based on, by Victor Hugo,  is French, it’s depressing, it’s terribly old-fashioned … and yet Cameron Mackintosh’s production is transcendent. Go figure.

Further to my rant about elitism above, it should be noted that a whole bunch of snobby elitists rubbished this musical when it was first staged. But people power spoke and the rest is history. It’s truly an international phenomenon – a production is being staged, professionally or by an amateur group, somewhere in the world every day of every year.

This dvd is the first of two special anniversary concert releases. The second one celebrates the production’s 25th anniversary. While Alfie Boe makes an amazing Jean Valjean, I still prefer the 10th anniversary edition because of Michael Ball and Phillip Quast. The latter is an Australian actor who simply owned the role of Javert from the moment he first played it.

These concert productions of stage musicals are fascinating things – a way for people to enjoy the music without the producers having to find money for often hideously expensive staging costs. Of course there’s costuming and a little bit of stage-craft, but it is a concert.

There are so many fabulous songs – solos, duets, choruses – in this production. Heartfelt romantic ballads, comic turns, sorrowful ballads, rousing martial choruses: all memorable.

By the by, I do have the movie version of this musical, the one with Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe. It’s on my To Be Watched pile, and I will get to it at some point!

If you love great music, propelled by a great story, this dvd is a must have.

So there you have it. Some – but by no means all – of my favourite musicals on dvd. Now it’s over to you? Have you seen any of these? Do you love them too? What did I leave off that you think is the best?








2 thoughts on “Some favourite musicals on film

  1. My bad you said Les Mis already. Oh I forgot to add the one off Buffy episode “Once More With Feeling”. Maybe not some of the best singers but wonderful songs and a very brave and entertaining piece of television.

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