The 1960s was the last great decade of the Hollywood musical. Although the genre has experienced a bit of a revival in recent years, most modern-day movie musicals are adaptations of long-running Broadway hits, often starring famous actors with iffy singing voices (“Les Miserables,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Mama Mia!”). Given that the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s were more or less a complete wasteland for musicals on film, the ’60s were indeed a prolific period, producing many classics of the form, even if many of them lost money for the studios.
So, in honor of the Paramount Theater’s screening of “West Side Story” tonight, here are the Top Ten Movie Musicals of the ’60s. This list is mostly limited to the traditional Broadway-type musical, the kind where the characters burst into song at regular intervals. It doesn’t include rock ‘n’ roll movies like “A Hard Day’s Night” or “Riot on Sunset Strip” (that’s another list entirely).
Some of the films that didn’t make the cut were largely responsible for putting the movie musical in mothballs by bombing at the box office: “Paint Your Wagon!” (Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin sing!), Francis Ford Coppola’s misguided adaptation of “Finian’s Rainbow,” and the Julie Andrews flop “Star!” all famously failed to connect with the audiences of the time.
Other also-rans include “Gypsy,” another case of casting famous movie stars (Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood) who couldn’t carry a tune; “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!” which was doomed to obscurity when Anthony Newley passed on recreating his iconic role in the West End/Broadway triumph, letting his understudy do the film instead, and “Viva Las Vegas,” the quintessential Elvis movie.
“West Side Story” screens tonight, Friday August 31st, at 7 p.m. at the Paramount Theater, 713 Congress Avenue in downtown Austin.
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J.M. Dobies, Austin Classic Movies Examiner Facebook Page
Mary Poppins (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965)
Some will complain that these film should be ranked higher, but I calls ’em like I sees ’em, folks. After being passed up in favor of Audrey Hepburn for the movie version of “My Fair Lady,” Julie Andrews was cast in the title role of “Mary Poppins,” the beloved Disney flick that combined live action with animation, opposite Dick Van Dyke, sporting a godawful cockney accent. Andrews then got the part of Maria in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” after Mary Martin created the role on the Great White Way. With singing nuns, nasty Nazis, and Christopher Plummer as Count Von Trapp.
Sweet Charity (1969)
Subtitled “The Adventures of a Girl Who Wanted to Be Loved,” Bob Fosse’s first film is visually dazzling, totally ’60s, and chock full of his signature choreography. Based on Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” the movie stars Shirley MacLaine as the hooker with a heart of gold (or “dance hall hostess with a heart of gold,” if you will). Featuring Sammy Davis Jr. as “Big Daddy.” Songs include “Hey, Big Spender,” “If They Could See Me Now,” and “The Rhythm of Life.”
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966): Director Richard Lester followed up “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help!” and “The Knack (And How to Get It)” with a madcap adaptation of this Broadway hit set in Ancient Rome. Zero Mostel leads a cast of old pros including Phil Silvers, Jack Gilford, Michael Hordern, and Buster Keaton. Michael Crawford and Annette Andre play the young lovers. Much to Stephen Sondheim’s chagrin, about half of the songs from the show were scrapped, but “Comedy Tonight,” “Lovely,” and “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid” made the cut.
Oliver! (1968) and Funny Girl (1968)
Two great musicals from 1968. Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” was a hit on the London and New York stage before being brought to the screen by Sir Carol Reed (“The Third Man”). The title role is played by an angelic Mark Lester, but the real stars of the film are the colorful supporting characters: Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, Ron Moody as Fagin, and Oliver Reed (Sir Carol’s nephew) as the villainous Bill Sykes. In “Funny Girl,” Barbra Streisand emotes for the ages as Fanny Brice, star of the Ziegfield Follies. The plot concerns her rise to fame and her ill-fated romance with gambler Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif). Babs shared the Oscar with Katherine Hepburn, famously saying to the statuette, “Hello, Gorgeous!” Songs include “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “People,” and “My Man.” Folowed by a lame sequel, “Funny Lady,” in 1974.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Two wildly colorful classics of French cinema from writer/director Jacques Demy and composer Michel Legrand. “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” is a visually stunning, bittersweet love story starring Catherine Deneuve, who also stars in “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” along with Gene Kelly, George Chakiris and her older sister Françoise Dorléac, who died tragically in a car crash around the time of the film’s release.
Bye Bye Birdie (1964)
Though more than a bit dated, to say the least, this send-up of rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis is still enormously entertaining. The stellar cast includes Ann-Margaret, Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, Maureen Stapleton, Ed Sullivan, and Paul Lynde (a hoot as the harried Harry McAfee). Jesse Pearson plays the title role/Elvis surrogate Conrad Birdie, whose rendition of “Honestly Sincere” is a comic highlight. Pearson never did another movie, but played a few TV roles, including “Johnny Poke” on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” recorded narration on a Rod McKuen LP, and wound up directing porn. Other songs include “Put on a Happy Face,” “The Telephone Hour,” and “Got a Lot of Livin’ to Do.” Followed by a made-for-TV remake and thousands and thousands of high school productions.
My Fair Lady (1964)
George Cukor directed this adaptation of the long-running musical by Allen Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, with Rex Harrison recreating his role as Professor Henry Higgins. Adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” the story concerns Higgins’s attempt to transform cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn, replacing the original Broadway Eliza, Julie Andrews) into a lady. Although Hepburn’s voice is dubbed by Marni Nixon (who also dubbed Natalie Wood in “West Side Story”), she is wonderful in the part. Songs include “On the Street Where You Live,” “The Rain in Span,” and “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?”
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967)
Robert Morse won a Tony Award in 1962 for his role as window washer turned executive J. Pierpont Finch, the puckish protagonist of this wickedly funny satire on American coroprate culture. Rudy Vallee, another holdover from the original Broadway production, plays J.B. Bigley. Rounding out the great cast are Michele Lee, Sammy Smith, Maureen Arthur, and Anthony “Scooter” Teague as Bud Frump. Original choreography by Bob Fosse. Songs include “I Believe in You,” “The Company Way,” and “A Secretary is Not a Toy.” In an inspired bit of casting, Morse can be seen these days as senior partner Bert Cooper on AMC’s “Mad Men.”
The Music Man (1962)
Robert Preston reprised his Broadway role as con man Harold Hill, who comes to a small town in Iowa to fleece the citizens, but stays because he’s fallen for Marian the Librarian (Shirley Jones). Co-starring Buddy Hackett, Paul Ford, Ronnie Howard, and the Buffalo Bills (the barbershop quartet, not the football team). Songs include “Til There Was You,” “Gary, Indiana,” and “76 Trombones.” Remade in 2003 by Disney, with a miscast Matthew Broderick, but the less said about that version, the better.
West Side Story (1961)
One of the greatest musicals of all time, and by far the best movie musical of the ’60s, the Oscar-winning “West Side Story” boasts wonderful music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, who co-directed with Robert Wise. While Natalie Wood may not have sung her part, she is excellent as Maria, opposite Richard Beymer as Tony. Also in the cast are Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris. Songs include “Tonight,” “America,” and “Jets Theme.”