RT's Top Ten Certified Fresh Musicals

A Critic-approved list that will make you want to sing and dance.

by | July 6, 2010 | Comments

By genre description alone, musicals have brought more than their share of well-choreographed song and dance to the big screen over the years. But in addition to the catchy riffs and moves that have made their mark on pop culture, a number of musicals also represent some of the best reviewed movies of all-time. To recognize the genre’s spirit that is never short on celebration and spontaneous fanfare, we broke into a number of sweet synchronized dance numbers while compiling the top ten musicals that have been Certified Fresh (40+ reviews, including 5 top critics, with a 75% or higher Tomatometer score) here on RT. So journey with us from the mean streets of New York City, to the banquet halls of India, and even somewhere over the rainbow as we present RT’s Top Ten Certified Fresh Musicals!

10) West Side Story (92%)

Release Date: October 16, 1961

What It’s About: Long before Baz Luhrmann fixed his zoom lens on it, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet went urban and musical in this tale of two rival Manhattan gangs — the Jets and the Sharks — and the girl (Natalie Wood, playing a Latino) caught between them. As always, tough street duels can only be solved… through dance.

Critics Consensus: Buoyed by Robert Wise’s dazzling direction, Leonard Bernstein’s score, and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, West Side Story remains perhaps the most iconic of all the Shakespeare adaptations to visit the big screen.

Biggest Hit(s): Take your pick: besides the gangs’ “Jet Song,” “Dance at the Gym,” and the ballads “Maria,” and “I Feel Pretty,” the hits “America,” “Somewhere,” and “Tonight” are all listed in the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movie Songs of all time.

On the Charts: The soundtrack stands as the biggest-selling record in the U.S. in the 1960s. It spent an enormous 54 weeks at #1 on Billboard’s album charts across 1962-63, making it the longest reigning chart topper in U.S. history.

  • Legacy: West Side Story is still the most decorated musical in movie history, walking away with 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. In 1996, the AFI ranked the film at #2 on its list of the 100 Greatest Musicals, right behind Singin’ in the Rain. The famous stand-offs between the gangs have been referenced countless times in movies and pop culture, from Shrek and Anchorman to Kung Fu Hustle and Fantastic Mr. Fox, with perhaps the most famous riff being Michael Jackson’s recreation of the dance duel for his “Beat It” video. Leading man Russ Tamblyn later had a bizarro recurring role on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
  • Special Thanks: Relentless dubbing of non-singing actors, quaint period tolerance for white actors in obvious “tan face.”

9) Beauty and the Beast (93%)

Release Date: November 23, 1991

What It’s About: Based on the French fairy tale “La Belle et la Bete,” Beauty and the Beast tells the story of a prince who has a curse placed upon him that transforms him into a furry beast. He must love and be loved in return to restore his physical form and world back to its rightful form.

Critics Consensus: Enchanting, sweepingly romantic, and featuring plenty of wonderful musical numbers, Beauty and the Beast is one of Disney’s most elegant animated offerings.

Biggest Hit(s): “Beauty and the Beast”

On the Charts: The soundtrack has been certified 3x platinum in the U.S. after selling over 3 million copies. Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson’s rendition of the title track “Beauty and the Beast” made it to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1991, sold over 500,000 copies (Gold) in the U.S., and sold over 100,000 copies in Japan (platinum certification for Japan).

  • Legacy: Beauty is one of two animated films to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. The film won three Golden Globes, where it broke ground as the first animated film to win Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, and two Academy Awards, winning Best Original Song for “Beauty and the Beast” for both awards. The song “Beauty and the Beast” also won two GRAMMY awards. Two direct-to-video spinoffs, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997) and Belle’s Magical World (1998), kept feature length versions of the story going, and were followed up with stage and television productions of Sing Me a Story with Belle. A decade after its release, a special edition IMAX version of the film was released in 2002. After thirteen years of commercial success, the Beauty Broadway adaptation ended its run last year. Countless stories of love being more than just skin deep (looking at you, Knocked Up, Shrek, and others) may have been influenced by the tale. And just when it seems like the story might be losing a little steam, next year, Vanessa Hudgens stars in Beastly, a modern day version of the story set in New York City.
  • Special Thanks: Magical inanimate objects – including teacups, clocks, candle holders, and all the others that may have slipped Belle’s zany mind. A father confined to a looney bin with unmatched support for his daughter, ballroom dance teachers, climate controlled rose display cases, Jackie Chan (for providing voice of Beast in the film’s Chinese version), and the animator that designed the iconic yellow gown that made Belle one of Disney’s dreamiest princesses.


8) Monsoon Wedding (95%)

Release Date: August 30, 2001

What It’s About: Mixing elements of drama and comedy with a healthy serve of Bollywood and bhangra musical vitality, Mira Nair’s international hit follows a crazy week in the life of a Delhi Punjabi family, as the father tries to bring the far-flung clan together for his daughter’s wedding.

Critics Consensus: Monsoon Wedding is a colorful, exuberant celebration of modern-day India, family, love, and life.

Biggest Hit(s): Sukhwinder Singh’s bhangra rock “Aaj Mera Jee Kardaa [Today My Heart Desires]”.

On the Charts: The popular soundtrack record spent 46 weeks on Billboard’s World Music Chart in 2002.

  • Legacy: Monsoon Wedding took home the prestigious Golden Lion Award for Best Picture at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, and would go on to be nominated for a slew of international “foreign language” prizes the following year. While director Mira Nair transitioned awkwardly into Hollywood with the critically disappointing Vanity Fair (2004) and Amelia (2009), the success of Monsoon Wedding — with its cross-cultural mix of film genres — continues to resonate in the popularity of movies like Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. A musical based on the film is also in development and set to debut on Broadway next year.
  • Special Thanks: The late, legendary Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose qawwali song “Allah Hoo” is featured in the film.

7) Once (97%)

Release Date: May 16, 2007

What It’s About: A Dublin street musician (Glen Hansard) meets a Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová); together they make beautiful music while tiptoeing around the possibility of love.

Critics Consensus: A charming, captivating tale of love and music, Once sets the standard for the modern musical. And with Dublin as its backdrop, it’s fun and fresh.

Biggest Hit(s): “Falling Slowly,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up”

On the Charts: “Falling Slowly,” the liltingly bittersweet song that’s become synonymous with Once, wasn’t a huge chart success in the States (it peaked at #61 on the Billboard Hot 100). However, it was a bigger hit on the awards circuit — it was nominated for a Grammy (as was the whole Once soundtrack) and won an Oscar for Best Original Song.

  • Legacy: Is the term “realistic musical” an oxymoron? Not in the case of Once. A tiny Irish film shot quickly on a shoestring budget using non-professional actors, Once is a bewitching mix of lo-fi realism and rags-to-riches , hey-gang-let’s-get-the-band-together musical tropes. It’s also an intriguing romance and a whirlwind tour of the Dublin neighborhoods that don’t show up in Irish Tourism Board pamphlets. An indie sleeper that ended up winning an Oscar, Once is still a little too young to have left a lasting legacy. Still, it was a big enough deal to get a shout-out in The Simpsons, and American Idol contestant Kris Allen’s rendition of “Falling Slowly” helped propel him to victory.
  • Special Thanks: Mr. Tambourine Man. Hansard and Irglová are huge Bob Dylan fans, and have covered “Forever Young” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” in their live sets. It turns out the feeling is mutual; Dylan loved Once so much he got Hansard and his band (The Frames) to open several shows on his Australian tour.


6) The Nightmare Before Christmas (97%)

Release Date: October 15, 1993

What It’s About: Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon and Danny Elfman) is the main man in Halloween Town, but after accidentally discovering a new place called Christmas Town, he decides he wants to bring Christmas back home with him. He arranges to have Santa Claus kidnapped and plots to deliver all the gifts himself, but his plan backfires, and he must do everything he can to fix the mess he’s created.

Critics Consensus: A stunningly original and visually delightful work of stop-motion animation.

Biggest Hit(s): “This Is Halloween,” “What’s This?,” “Oogie Boogie’s Song,” “Sally’s Song”

On the Charts: The original soundtrack for The Nightmare Before Christmas only rose as high as #98 on the Billboard 200 list in 1993, but a 2006 2-disc Special Edition of the soundtrack featuring some cover versions performed by artists like Marilyn Manson and Fall Out Boy performed well, reaching #31 on the Billboard 200, as well as #2 on Top Soundtracks and #1 on Top Holiday Albums. In addition, a full album of cover songs by other popular artists was released in 2008, reaching the top of Billboard’s Top Compilation Albums.

  • Legacy: The Nightmare Before Christmas was a success upon its initial release, but it’s really found its place in subsequent screenings in 3D that take place every year leading up to Halloween, and it has achieved cult status. The Haunted Mansion Holiday at Disneyland appropriately features characters from the film, and the main characters’ faces have adorned everything from t-shirts to Halloween costumes to collectible miniatures to fine art. Take a few steps into any Hot Topic store at your nearest mall, and you’ll find all sorts of merchandise featuring the famous citizens of Halloween Town.
  • Special Thanks: The heathens responsible for creating Halloween, the heathens responsible for secularizing Christmas, and Tim Burton’s crazy, creative mind for coming up with the source material.

5) The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (98%)

Release Date: December 15, 1964

What It’s About: Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) are madly in love with each other. In a twist, Guy gets drafted to fight in the Algerian War! Genevieve, pregnant with Guy’s baby, enters a practical marriage with another guy. Guy returns from the war years later, but the umbrella store where Genevieve worked is closed and the girl is gone.

Critics Consensus: Jacques Demy elevates the basic drama of everyday life into a soaring opera full of bittersweet passion and playful charm, featuring a timeless performance from Catherine Deneuve.

Biggest Hit(s): “I Will Wait For You”

On the Charts: “I Will Wait For You” has made it onto the charts a several times due to it being a sentimental favorite for singers, including appearing on several Frank Sinatra Greatest Hits albums. When first released in 1967 as part of a single with Sinatra’s sister, Nancy, it hit #1 in New Zealand and the UK.

  • Legacy: Umbrellas launched the international career of Catherine Deneuve, one of cinema’s most enduring French actresses. She followed up with star-making roles in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Luis Bunuel’s Belle du Jour, culminating in an Academy Award nomination in 1992’s Indochine. The main musical number, “I Will Wait For You,” has been covered numerous times, including renditions by Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Cher, Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, and Liza Minnelli. One version by Connie Francis was used during the emotional finale to fan-favorite Futurama episode, “Jurassic Bark.”
  • Special Thanks: France and Algerian politics, cloud precipitation, Manufacturo Umbrella Manufacturing Co.


4) An American in Paris (98%)

Release Date: October 4, 1951

What It’s About: World War II vet Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) heads to Paris to make it big as a painter; finds himself embroiled in a song-and-dance-filled quadrangle with his lovesick patron (Nina Foch), a singer (Georges Guétary), and the singer’s fiancee (Leslie Caron).

Critics Consensus: The plot may be problematic, but such concerns are rendered superfluous by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron’s star power, the Gershwins’ classic songs, and Vincente Minnelli’s colorful, sympathetic direction.

Biggest Hit(s): Gershwin classics galore, including “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” “I Got Rhythm,” “‘S Wonderful,” “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” and “Embraceable You”

On the Charts: The soundtrack is sort of a Gershwin revue, meaning many of the songs were already standards (like “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You,” both of which date from 1930).

  • Legacy: As a tribute to the legacy of George Gershwin, An American in Paris was a stunning success, offering arguably the definitive version of his final song (“Our Love Is Here to Stay,” performed here by Gene Kelly) and a stunning rendition of “Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra.”) It also won six Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Score) against eight nominations, as well as an honorary Oscar for Kelly. Proof of its enduring appeal lies in its selection by the National Film Registry, as well as its repeated appearances on various AFI lists.
  • Special Thanks: Berets, beignets, red wine, the language of love.

3) Singin’ in the Rain (100%)

Release Date: March 27, 1952

What It’s About: It’s 1927 and Hollywood is making the uneasy transition from silent films to the era of the talkies. One studio is repurposing its latest blockbuster, The Dueling Cavalier, as their first talking picture mid-shoot, and the production’s shrill, un-recordable leading lady (Jean Hagen) is having none of it. The studio hires humble Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) to do a clandestine re-dub and leading man (Gene Kelly) starts to fall in love.

Critics Consensus: Clever, incisive, and funny, Singin’ in the Rain is a masterpiece of the classical Hollywood musical.

Biggest Hit(s): “Singin’ in the Rain”

On the Charts: A Mint Royale remix of “Singin’ in the Rain” made its way onto the #1 spot in the UK singles chart in 2005, as well as showing up in a VW Golf commercial.

  • Legacy: No other sequence defines the Hollywood musical era than Singin’ in the Rain‘s signature piece, a tender song of new romance by Gene Kelly in the nighttime storm. It’s been re-enacted countless times, ranging from the creepy (it’s A Clockwork Orange‘s official murder ballad), cute (Natalie Portman gives an apartment performance in The Professional), and exciting (Jackie Chan briefly re-enacts it while beating down dudes in Shanghai Knights). And the movie’s plot of shoehorning new elements into a movie mid-production sorta parallels our 3D crisis today, don’t it?
  • Special Thanks: That wacky movie industry, indulgent ballet sequences, Manufacturo Umbrella Manufacturing Co.


2) The Wizard of Oz (100%)

Release Date: August 15, 1939

What It’s About: Young Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) and her dog Toto are swept away in their Kansas home by a tornado and transported to the magical land of Oz, where she unites with a Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), a Tin Man (Jack Haley), and a Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) on a trek to the Emerald City. There, she hopes to meet the Wizard of Oz, who she’s told should be able to help her return to Kansas, but first, they must defeat the Wicked Witch of the West.

Critics Consensus: An absolute masterpiece whose groundbreaking visuals and deft storytelling are still every bit as resonant. A must-see film for young and old.

Biggest Hit(s): “Over the Rainbow” (winner of the Best Original Song Oscar that year), “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” “Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead”

On the Charts: In 2001, the RIAA, National Endowment of the Arts, and Scholastic Inc. together compiled a Songs of the Century list, and “Over the Rainbow” claimed the #1 spot. It also boasts the top spot in AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Songs list, which further included “Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead” at #82. Unfortunately, Billboard began publishing top singles charts in 1940, a year after the film’s release, so the original songs from The Wizard of Oz failed to make their marks there. Later cover versions of various songs from the movie have, however, climbed as high as #11.

  • Legacy: The Wizard of Oz was nominated for six Oscars at the 12th Annual Academy Awards and came away with two, both musical: Best Song for “Over the Rainbow” and Best Original Score. “Over the Rainbow” is also perhaps the most famous movie song ever, and as such, many artists have offered their own renditions of it over the years; a few, like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s ukulele version, have even become iconic in their own right. In 1989, the US Library of Congress’s National Film Registry recognized the film by selecting it for preservation in its permanent collection, and in 2007, UNESCO included it in its Memory of the World Programme, cementing its status as a cultural treasure.Aside from these prestigious honors, The Wizard of Oz‘s influence on pop culture can be seen in various forms, even to this day. The film spawned a sequel (1985’s cult classic Return to Oz), a cartoon, an African-American interpretation starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross (1978’s The Wiz), and a wildly popular book and subsequent Broadway adaptation (Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West), just to name a few. References to the film, its music, and its memorable quotes can be found everywhere; even the recent hit TV series Glee offered up a rendition of “Over the Rainbow” in one of its episodes. Lastly, we’d be remiss not to mention two of cinema’s most famous urban myths, which revolve around a possible Munchkin suicide captured on film and included in the movie (don’t worry; it’s not true) and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” which reportedly syncs perfectly with the film (that one’s arguable). In other words, this is the stuff of legends.
  • Special Thanks: Tornadoes, little people, Technicolor, stone masons specializing in golden bricks, and whatever L. Frank Baum must have ingested when he penned the source material.

1) A Hard Day’s Night (100%)

Release Date: Aug. 11, 1964

What It’s About: A reasonably well-known pop group from Liverpool must get to a London television studio for an important gig. However, the band is bedeviled by such nuisances as crazed fans and the bassist’s mischievous grandfather.

Critics Consensus: Despite its age, A Hard Day’s Night is still a delight to watch and has proven itself to be a rock-and-roll movie classic.

Biggest Hit(s): “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “And I Love Her”

On the Charts: In our era of niche markets and digital downloads, it’s difficult to fully comprehend the all-encompassing popularity of the Beatles; in early April 1964, they occupied 12 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart — including every slot in the top five. The soundtrack for A Hard Day’s Night was a particularly monstrous seller during the peak years of Beatlemania — it sold a million copies in its first four days of release, and “Can’t Buy Me Love,” a single from the album, sold nearly a million copies on the day it hit stores. The single “A Hard Day’s Night” won the moptops a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance by a Vocal Group in 1965, and, perhaps most importantly, A Hard Day’s Night is the best-reviewed film in the history of Rotten Tomatoes.

  • Legacy: Let’s put this in the simplest terms possible: A Hard Day’s Night changed pop music and cinema forever. A lofty claim, to be sure, but the Beatles’ cheerful, exhilarating, formally groundbreaking big screen debut remains a seminal document in rock history — never again could the Fab Four be dismissed as mere teen idols. Taking a cue from the French New Wave, director Richard Lester seamlessly melded the Beatles’ music with a montage editing style that set the template for every music video to follow. (A Hard Day’s Night‘s famous opening sequence — which finds the boys being chased down the street by hysterical fans — has been mimicked in films as diverse as Trainspotting and Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience.) And, in giving time to each of the Beatles’ personalities, the movie solidified the idea of a rock band in the public mind. A Hard Day’s Night was by no means the first movie featuring pop star — and , for better or worse, it wouldn’t be the last — but none have made a film of such sophistication and good humor.
  • Special Thanks: The principle actors. A Hard Day’s Night stars John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. It’s important to recognize the efforts of these four criminally under-heralded men, since the group’s name, “The Beatles,” is never uttered in the film.

Written by: Tim Ryan, Jeff Giles, Ryan Fujitani, David Chung, Luke Goodsell, and Alex Vo

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