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Ignore 'Cats' — these movie musicals are actually worth streaming

"In The Heights" and these other musical movies prove that not all films are lesser than their stage predecessors. – Photo by In The Heights Movie / Twitter

Any musical fan understands the pain of a failed movie adaptation of your favorite show. Films like “Cats,” “The Prom,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Into the Woods” are just a few examples of lifeless disappointments with mediocre singing and dancing from normally incredible A-list actors who find themselves unable to put the passion into the project that is required from a musical.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. There are plenty of wonderful movies that are faithful adaptations of their original source material and most importantly, they don’t feature James Corden.

Grease

“Grease” is such a good adaptation that some people may not even realize it’s not the original. When you talk about the musical, most people think of the movie, and it’s for a reason! Though it has a lot of problematic and outdated themes, I still find myself revisiting “Grease.” Because it’s such a well-known classic, it makes for the perfect hang-out movie to have in the background or sing-along with all your musical fanatic friends.

Hairspray

“Hairspray” is one of the few instances, even in this list, where I insist on listening to the film recording rather than the original Broadway one. The adaptation is colorful and fun, but what really makes this one stand out is the incredible performances.

John Travolta’s portrayal of Edna is what truly makes this adaptation special and worth rewatching. The part is usually played for laughs with a male actor in drag and a fat suit, but Travolta plays it genuinely. Edna’s arc of learning to be confident and love herself isn’t a joke but a heartfelt moment, and the relationship with Christopher Walken’s character, Wilbur, is sweet and moving.

In addition to that, the musical numbers feel alive in this film rather than stifled and limited like a lot of movie musicals do.

In the Heights

This adaptation was honestly a breath of fresh air for me. With movie musical adaptations in the last 10 years or so, we’ve been seeing dull movies with celebrities who can’t sing or dance to save their lives.

Due to that, I was so excited to see “In the Heights” filled with a talented cast and a lot of newer actors to film. The director of the film, Jon M. Chu, who also made “Crazy Rich Asians,” is known for his larger-than-life style which really translated well for this film. The movie is a colorful, imaginative and faithful adaptation to the original musical.

West Side Story

Both “West Side Story” adaptations were Oscar-nominated, critically well-received and are among my favorite movie musicals. I find that both were great but the original, while a classic, is problematic for a number of reasons.

Personally, the 2021 adaptation captivated me from the first moment. Despite a fairly wooden performance from Ansel Elgort, the film has a really strong and lively cast. I was worried this movie would just be another meaningless reboot, but Steven Spielberg had a vision for his interpretation and it shows.

He made the world both gritty and lively, colorful yet muted and manages to do something new with the source material while also paying homage to the original film. 

Sweeney Todd

“Sweeney Todd” is one of my favorite musicals, and this adaptation is what got me into the show itself.

Tim Burton was the perfect choice to direct this film — the world he creates is along the lines of his normal moody style, and his interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s bloody and gritty London blends well with this.

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are incredible scene partners and each give stellar, stand-out performances. Burton’s adaptation is definitely a bit more toned down from the stage production, which in my opinion, works for a film.

Many musical adaptations try to reach the energy of a show and fail, but the almost lifeless feeling of “Sweeney Todd” fits the world and the medium.

Movie adaptations can be controversial, especially for diehard fans. Even if an adaptation checks all the right boxes, there may be some fans who aren’t happy. But in my opinion, the movies on this list are some of the best. So whether you’re a long-term fan or a newbie to musicals looking for somewhere to start, these are my best recommendations.


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