1. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Plot Crunch: Transgender rocker Hedwig (pronounced Hedvig) tails a huge rock legend's tour, telling her life story and setting the record straight. All at once kitschy, irreverent, pensive and poetic.
Hedwig's a more recent obsession but it quickly ascended the ranks to my favorite musical. Hedwig will surprise you. The quirky art direction and over-the-top transgender lead will recall Rocky Horror, but in this movie you get kitsch and a sensitive character study. It's a coming of age story where you watch a lost soul become whole. Hedwig has it all: humor, catchy and eclectic songs with fascinating lyrics, and heart. Watch it if you haven't!
2. Little Shop of Horrors
Plot Crunch: Pathetic nerd Seymore lets a mysterious talking plant tempt him to commit heinous acts in exchange for fame, fortune, and protecting the love of his life.
Coming in at a very close second, Little Shop of Horrors is a lot like Hedwig in that it has a lot of heart beneath the kitsch. It says a lot about the writing and acting when you come to care about the characters in a musical this campy! It's a technical marvel and pure eye-candy, with expensive practical affects and the biggest sound-stage of its time putting it over budget. (Money. Well. Spent.) The plant, Audrey II, is timeless puppetry. He will always be convincing. Throw in songs by the genius team directly responsible for ushering in a new era for Disney's animation department (Howard Ashman and Alan Menkin would soon after compose the supernaturally catchy music for "The Little Mermaid") and you have one of the best musicals. Ever! Forever!
3. My Fair Lady
Plot Crunch: Accomplished linguist makes a bet that he can turn "squashed cabbage leaf" cockney flower girl Eliza into a proper, well-spoken lady.
Brilliant and timeless, this is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. Another film that should be required watching for everyone! The Edwardian period sets and stylized costumes are beautiful to behold. The performances are perfection, Rex Herrington is the biggest ass alive and we love him for it. Even without the original Edwardian era play's (Pygmalion) perfect (anachronistically feminist, even) ending intact "My Fair Lady" is surprisingly female empowering. Misogyny is played up for laughs and Eliza, our lead female, becomes her own independent woman, starting at the lowest rung of society and triumphing over her tormentor in the end. Another musical that delivers everything in spades: comedy (even some gallows humor), excellent songs, and strong character development.
Extra Damn Points for Dialog: I cannot help but laugh at Rex Herrington's impassioned insults hurled at Eliza. So cruel, so hilarious. Particularly, "You incarnate insult to the human language!"
4. Dream Girls
Plot Crunch: Girl band The Dreamettes make their break in show business, but have to become everything they once despised in exchange for super-stardom.
I seem to have trouble finding people who love Dream Girls as much as I do. If you were raised on Motown like me, this movie removes the glossy veneer to reveal the hard facts of showbiz. The editing is tight, the costumes and sets colorful, glamorous eye candy, but more than any other movie on this list, Dream Girl's strength is character. The ensemble cast is incredibly well-developed and their ups and downs feel real. Dream Girls is an immersive experience and a big crowd-pleaser movie. I will never get tired of watching it.
Plot Crunch: Wanna-be star Roxie Hart murders her lover and becomes a media sensation, the O.J Simpson of the 1920s, but with gams up to 'er eyeballs!
Hedwig's full of heart, Little Shop is a technical marvel, My Fair Lady has genius writing, Dream Girl's strength is character and Chicago is just pure spectacle. A Broadway staple before it went to screen, this movie is perfectly casted and directed. Every musical number dazzles, incredibly choreographed in a perfect throw-back to the era (owing a debt to the style of Bob Fosse). Chicago is one eye-gasm after another and pure entertainment. One tiny complaint is the characters. Though well-acted and perfectly cast, they're all (intentionally, and with one exception) extremely flawed, selfish, manipulative assholes. They're entertaining as hell and you even like them despite their crimes, but they deserve death sentences! And I'm not even for capital punishment, that's how shitty they are. They have it comin'!
6. The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Plot Crunch: Sexy Dr. Frankenfurter unveils his creation, a muscular blond Adonis to "relieve his tension" on the same night a virginal engaged couple get stranded at his castle. Chaos and hilarity ensues.
Turn off your brain and just enjoy, damn you! How can the kitschy-campiest of all musicals not make my list? With homages to many classic horror double features from the drive-in era of cinema in the opening song alone, this is my kind of flick!
Honorable Mentions: South Park Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, Burlesque (hilariously bad/good), Hairspray, The Wicker Man (an odd example as a horror/murder mystery movie musical that defies true genre), Singin' in the Rain, The Sound of Music. LOTS of animated versions but I'll just include live-action here.
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What are your favorite musicals? Do share in the comments, always looking for more to watch!