A-List: Five Best Musicals of All Time

By J. Don Birnam

September 3, 2014

Admit it. You just got multiple ear worms.

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We are essentially days away from restarting (yes, already) awards season. The Telluride and Toronto’s film festivals have started or are around the corner. Few things are more fraught with folly than trying to predict the Oscars – except, perhaps, trying to list the five best movie musicals of all time. Short of trying to pick one’s favorite movies of all time, picking musicals is folly both because of the sheer depth of choices and because so many of them are all-time classics.

There won’t be many rules for this one except to exclude animated movies. Many of those are, to be fair, musicals strictly speaking, but I’m going to limit this list to live-action musicals to make my task somewhat easier. Outside of that, all bets are off.

The only other preliminary thing to say is that there are, of course, many bad musicals. But we can save all of those for another list.

To be honest, this was my hardest A-List column to date. I had to research extensively to make sure I didn’t forget about a good musical. And the narrowing down process was excruciating. Many were left off. Indeed the list of honorable mentions is twice as long as the top five list itself.


For example, I love My Fair Lady and Chicago, both Best Picture winners, greatly. The former is a bit too slow in the middle and the latter a bit too slap-sticky to make the list. I also enjoy really kitschy modern musicals like Hairspray and Mamma Mia!, but have no illusion that these are outstanding all-around movies that should be included in an uber-competitive list. The same can be said for other guilty-pleasure musicals, such as Grease, Guys and Dolls, and Hello, Dolly. All of them are enjoyable on repeat to a true musical-theater lover, but probably best left off of a top five list in the face of stronger choices.

And what can I say of The Wizard of Oz or Mary Poppins? Each of them could easily be listed as the Best Movie Musical of All Time. And yet neither make my list for reasons that are hard to explain. Perhaps their more childish nature turned me off in favor of more adult fare? Surely, that’s an incorrect explanation, given the adult themes that run subtly and flawlessly through both classics, and that, conversely, there is an element of childishness in most musicals. Alas, the list is five and not seven deep, but these two are the last ones I had to cut out. Oh, and in case you’re wondering from the get-go, I’ve never been a huge fan of Singing in the Rain, so you won’t find that movie on this list.

Here is what I came up with in terms of the best musicals of all time.

5. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

This kitschy and hilarious musical from 1954 makes the list despite its completely unknown cast, mostly unknown director and choreographer, and stunningly dated story, on the strength of the songs and dance numbers alone.

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