Here are my favorite musicals in no particular order:
1. Carmen Jones – The African-American version of Bizet’s Carmen. This stars Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte and was adapted to film in 1954. Read more about the film in this post.
2. Showboat – Ava Gardner stars as Julie LaVerne, the young daughter of a Riverboat Captain. The 1951 film version tells the love story of Julie and a handsome gambler, however, their romance is threatened when it is discovered that Julie is part African-American and has been passing as white. Originally, Lena Horne wanted to play the part Julie LaVerne (the daughter of Riverboat captain), but because Lena Horne was a Black woman, the role was given to Ava Gardner. I’ve never seen the musical live, but I’ve watched the 1951 version and enjoyed it. One of the most notable songs from the musical is “Can’t Help Lovin that Man.” One of my favorite covers is Anika Noni Rose singing.
SEE Anika Noni Rose Showboat
3. Sound of Music (1965)- One of the most notable Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals starring Julie Andrews. It is set in 1930s Austria, during the last days before the Nazi occupation of Austria (the anschluss). Many of these songs have been popularized. This musical is aired almost every year around Christmas time. Favorite Song: Sixteen Going on Seventeen
4. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella– I remember watching this when I was little. It is the updated version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 musical, only with a multiracial cast. It is often referred to as “The Black Cinderella.” Imagine watching this version as a little African-American girl and finally being able to imagine yourself as the Princess who gets the Prince, with the lily white history of fairy tales, this musical really meant something to me. It was great to see such a beautiful adaptation of the classic Cinderella. It stars Whitney Houston and Brandy and this made-for-tv musical was a hit back in the day!
5. Oklahoma (1955) – Another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, which is set in 1906 Wild West. Laurey is a stubborn Southern Belle who secretly falls in love Curly, a wild cowboy, but will not admit her love to him. It is only after Curly wins Laurey over by rescuing her from Judd, a villainous character who nearly stabs Curly in a bid to win Laurey over. Lots of good songs in the musical, my personal favorite is “People Will Say We’re In Love.”
6. Hallelujah (1929)- The first All-Black Musical stars Nina Mae Mckinney as the beautiful and seductive Zeke. She sings Swanee Shuffle and does a dance, which was considered very sexy at the time. This film is available on amazon.com
7. The Color Purple – The musical based on Alice Walker’s novel. “God Is Trying to Tell You Something,” was one of my favorite songs.
8. The King and I (1956) – Another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic about a British teacher who moves to Siam (Thailand) and befriends the King. It is based off of the 1944 novel Anna and the King.
9. Dreamgirls – Originally a Broadway hit about an African-American girl group. It is loosely based on the lives of the Supreme’s and other Black performers like Donna Summers. It became a film in 2006 that starred Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson. Jennifer Hudson won an academy award for Best Supporting Actress. Anika Noni Rose, a beautiful and talented actress also had her breakout role in the film.
10. South Pacific (1949) – A musical that is kind of corny, but is set in South Pacific during WWII. It is the story of an American woman who falls in love with a Frenchmen and an American Marine named Joe Cable who falls in love with Liat, a Polynesian woman. However, Joe Cable is forced to confront his own prejudice when it comes time to marry and he decides he can’t be with Liat because she’s Polynesian. The story is about prejudice and how it’s “taught,” and not inborn to people. One of the most notable songs would probably be “Some Enchanted Evening.”
11. Stormy Weather (1943) – The beautiful Lena Horne stars in this All-Black musical, which features performers like Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers. It was released by 20th century Fox and features the song “Stormy Weather.”
12. Jane Eyre The Musical – Musical adaptation of the Classic Novel by Charlotte Bronte. I actually was in this musical, it was enjoyable.
13. Cabin in the Sky (1943)- A musical about sin, redemption and the power of forgiveness. Little Joe is a man who struggles with a life of gambling and infidelity, while his faithful wife, played by beautiful Ethel Waters, tries her best to forgive him and encourage him to turn back to the Lord. When Little Joe is in an accident and dies, he is forced to confront his sin, but is given a second chance to turn his life around. This is another All-Black musical and there are a lot of stereotypical portrayals of Black people, but the music (especially the Jazz) is great. It was actually considered very liberal for the time period.
14. Chicago – Musical about two murderesses who soar to stardom. It is set in the 1920s of Chicago, great music, great costumes, great performances. The film starring Catherine Zeta Jones won and Academy Award for Best Motion Picture in 2003.
15. West Side Story (1961) – Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece about the rival Puerto Rican and white gangs of New York who call themselves The Jets and The Sharks. Just when it seems the two will sides could never get along, a romance begins between Maria, the sister of a Puerto Rican Shark and a white Jet named Tony. It is a contemporary story of Romeo and Juliet.
I have always loved musical theater, but because it’s so expensive and difficult to get to Broadway, most of my favorite musicals come from film adaptations. You’ll notice something about my list: there are quite a few Rodgers & Hammerstein films. I never realized how much I enjoyed their musicals, yes some of them are corny…but they’re cute.
I also notice that there is a shortage of musicals with Black cast members. I have only seen a hand full of Black musicals and most of them are from the pre-civil rights era. Therefore, quite a few of the Black musicals have some stereotypical Black characters, particularly the Jezebel stereotypes of Black women. I also notice that most of the musicals that tell a love story have white leads. Whereas the Black Musicals almost always have some type of dysfunction going on between the Black man and the Black woman. However, many of the Black Musicals have great casts, great musical performances, lot’s of jazz and dance. It’s sad that so many of these Black Musicals aren’t as well known as they should be.