8 Classic Musicals You Have to See

From Top Hats and Showbiz to Gangsters and Forbidden Love

Ever since the advent of sound with "The Jazz Singer" (1927), the musical has been a popular genre that continually reinvents itself. Using song and dance instead of dialogue to convey a character’s emotions, musicals typically scale back on plot in favor of lavish musical numbers, striking choreography and stunning costumes.

Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and her daughter Liza Minelli were all turned into stars based on the popularity of their musicals. Whether set against the backdrop of historical events, contemporary times or even showbiz itself, musicals have always been rousing, escapist entertainment.

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"Top Hat" (1935)

Turner Home Entertainment

One of the best musicals ever made, not to mention the most memorable Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle, "Top Hat" is an enduring classic that has stood the test of time. Featuring exquisite dance numbers and unforgettable songs like “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)” and “Cheek to Cheek,” this partly screwball comedy starred Astaire as an American dancer who is mistaken by a wealthy woman (Rogers) on holiday in London for being the husband of a friend (Helen Broderick). The choreography is top notch, the songs timeless and the on-screen chemistry between Astaire and Rogers never better, making ​"Top Hat" their most successful film. Be on the lookout for Lucille Ball in a small role as a flower store clerk.

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"Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944)

MGM Home Entertainment

A nostalgic family-oriented musical full of charm and pleasant songs, "Meet Me in St. Louis" is set in turn-of-the-century St. Louis, where the patriarch (Leon Ames) of a prominent family aims to uproot them to New York City. His plans cause considerable consternation for the whole family, including his second oldest daughter, Esther (Judy Garland), whose romance with the boy next door (Tom Drake) is suddenly threatened. Directed by Garland’s future husband, Vincente Minnelli, with whom she had daughter Liza, "Meet Me in St. Louis" features a number of classic songs, including popular hits like “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

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"Singin' in the Rain" (1952)

MGM Home Entertainment

Despite only being a modest success upon release, "Singin’ in the Rain" has grown monumentally in status to become one of the most popular Hollywood musicals ever made. At heart a showbiz comedy, the film starred Gene Kelly as one-half of a famous silent era romantic screen pair who makes the transition to sound with ease, though his lovelorn partner (Jean Hagen) suffers from a shrill singing voice. Enter Debbie Reynolds to dub in her own vocals and complicate matters by attracting the amorous attention of Kelly. With songs drawn from the MGM catalog of lyricist and producer Arthur Freeh and Nacio Herb Brown, "Singin’ in the Rain" featured unforgettable numbers with “You Are My Lucy Star,” “All I Do Is Dream of You” and of course the title track, where Kelly famously splashed his way through the rain with an umbrella.

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"A Star Is Born" (1954)

A Star Is Born movie poster
GAB Archive/ Redferns/ Getty Images

The second of three – and counting – tellings of tragic love amidst showbiz ambition, George Cukor’s musical remake of 1937’s "A Star Is Born" starred a resurgent Judy Garland as a small-town girl who dreams of Hollywood stardom and gets just that when she makes the acquaintance of an alcoholic star (James Mason) two drinks away from a precipitous decline. He casts her in his next movie, which turns out to be a big hit and makes all her dreams come true. Both fall in love and get married, leading to her star rising and him plummeting into the depths of a bottle. Nominated for six Academy Awards, "A Star Is Born" contained top-notch musical numbers like “Swanee,” “Lose That Long Face” and “The Man That Got Away,” though behind the scenes Garland’s own struggles with alcohol and drugs nearly derailed production.

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"Guys and Dolls" (1955)

CBS Video

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and based on the popular 1950 Broadway show, "Guys and Dolls" was a rare combination of musical and​ gangster ​film that starred Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit, the proprietor of the best crap game in New York City. With the cops bearing down on him, he decides to move his game to Havana, Cuba, enlisting the help of high-stakes gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando). Meanwhile, Masterson is tempted to pursue an upright Salvation Army worker (Jean Simmons), only to fall in love, out of love and back again following their sojourn to Cuba. Songs like “Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” make for solid entertainment, though the casting of Sinatra as the gruff Detroit and Brando – this being his only musical – as Masterson caused some grumbles among the sticklers. Still, "Guys and Dolls" is a fun romp that ranks alongside the best musicals.

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"The King and I" (1956)

CBS Video

Based on the fictionalized biographical novel "Anna and the King of Siam," this adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 Broadway smash featured Yul Brynner in a reprisal of his popular role as the King of Siam and turned the stage actor into an overnight movie star. Co-starring Deborah Kerr as an American tutor who clashes first and later falls in love with Brynner, it was filmed in the 55mm CinemaScope widescreen format, putting on grand display lavish musical numbers that featured popular songs like “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You” and “We Kiss in a Shadow.” Winner of five Academy Awards, including Best Actor, "The King and I" was a huge hit with critics and audiences and lived on as one of Brynner’s most widely recognized roles.

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"West Side Story" (1961)

West Side Story Movie Poster
Movie Poster Image Art/ Moviepix/ Getty Images

One of the most popular musicals on stage and screen of all time, this retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" centered around street gangs in contemporary New York City was a landmark production that won a whopping 10 Academy Awards and became a major box office hit. Robert Wise’s adaptation of the 1957 Broadway smash starred Richard Beymer as a member of the white gang the Jets who falls into forbidden love with a Puerto Rican girl (Natalie Wood), who happens to be the sister of the head (George Chakiris) of their rival gang, the Sharks. As it happens in Shakespeare’s classic tale, their love is doomed to tragedy. With music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen ​Sondheim, and the original choreography of Jerome Robbins, "West Side Story" contains one timeless song after another, including “Maria,” “America,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere” and “I Feel Pretty,” amidst extraordinary dance numbers.

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"Cabaret" (1972)

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Actress Liza Minelli won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1972 for her performance in Bob Fosse’s stylish adaptation of the hit Broadway musical. Set during the decadent days of Berlin pre-Nazis, "Cabaret" starred Minelli as an unabashedly promiscuous nightclub dancer, Sally Bowles, whose nightly acts of shameless sexuality – which include the liberal use of a chair while wearing a bowler hat and calf-high boots during the famed performance of “Mein Herr” – serve as a perfect contrast to the encroaching fascism of Hitler’s Germany. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, "Cabaret" won eight, though it lost out on Best Picture to "The Godfather."