Musical movies have come back into vogue the past couple of decades, and with this renaissance have also come a reappraisal of the genre as a whole. In the days before music videos, MTV and remixes, musicals satisfied the needs of viewers to enjoy pop hits along with a story thanks to the medium of film. Unlike music videos, however, performers in musical film need to sustain a performance over a much longer runtime.
So then, what makes a great performance in a musical? For our purposes here, we’ve only included performers who did their own singing as well as acting without the help of autotune or having professional singers overdub their songs. Believe it or not, that doesn’t narrow the field much, and we could write a whole other list of “honorable mention” performances. Here though, we’ve singled out the best of the best, the kind of electric, iconic performances that will forever define a career, and that will forever enchant audiences. In an unranked order, check out the 15 Greatest Performances in Movie Musicals!
15. Julie Andrews, Mary Poppins
Andrews made one of the most auspicious debuts in cinema history as the practically perfect nanny of the title. Producer Walt Disney had a notoriously difficult time dealing with P.L. Travers, the author of the original Poppins books. In a testament to Andrews’ considerable appeal, however, both Travers and Disney agreed that they’d found the perfect actress for the role in Julie Andrews. Andrews had just become a Broadway star playing the lead in My Fair Lady when she caught Disney’s attention.
Mary Poppins isn’t exactly Tennessee Williams, but in a way, that makes the material even harder. Andrews has to avoid playing Mary Poppins as a caricature while still maintaining the whimsical feel of the piece. Somehow, she succeeds, playing the role with a twinkle in her eye and a Mona Lisa smile that never quite betrays what she really feels. Andrews snagged an Oscar for her performance in her first movie, and critics at the time claimed that sentiment for her not getting to repeat her role in the film version of My Fair Lady. Time has suggested otherwise: hers is one of the most beloved portrayals in history.
14. Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge
Director Baz Lurhman committed an act of cinematic madness in 2001, setting a 19th century story about a hooker and a writer in Paris, and having them sing modern pop songs. Moulin Rouge! exploded into theatres that summer, and quickly became a cult hit. The success of the film owed to Lurhman’s use of lush color and style, though the movie also could not have worked without the performances of two charismatic actors, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.
Kidman became the biggest star in the world, and scored her first Oscar nod for Moulin Rouge!, and while hers is the star part, the movie belongs to her costar. Ewan McGregor, best known at the time for Trainspotting and the Star Wars prequels seemed like an unusual choice for the lead in a musical. Not only did McGregor prove his considerable acting chops, he also wowed audiences with his thereto unknown ability to sing. As McGregor crooned out Elton John’s “Your Song,” he melted the hearts of viewers everywhere…a feat he continues every time someone pops in the DVD.
13. Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady
How does a composer pen songs for a character that has no real emotion, and relies on an almost computer-level analytical mind? Musical team Lerner and Lowe faced the same problem while writing My Fair Lady, their musical based on the Shaw play Pygmalion. Their colleagues Rogers and Hammerstein had tried to adapt the play themselves as a musical, before abandoning the concept. The two even advised Lerner and Lowe that the adaptation was impossible.
Lucky for us, Lerner and Lowe found a solution: Rex Harrison. The two wrote the part of Prof. Henry Higgins with Harrison in mind, working under the assumption that rather than sing, he could speak his songs on pitch. When Harrison repeated his stage role on screen, he continued the tradition, actually recording his songs live on the set! Perhaps that kind of spontaneity is what led him to give a magnificent performance, for which he won an Oscar. His Higgins rants and raves with cheeky wit, but underneath it all has a certain vulnerability that audiences identify with. While often cited as a love story, My Fair Lady is not a romance, as evidenced in Harrison’s work. Henry Higgins doesn’t want a wife. He wants a friend.
12. Liza Minnelli, Cabaret
Liza Minnelli became the first person to grace the cover of Newsweek and Time magazines at the same time, courtesy of her bold and belting performance in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. Minnelli plays Sally Bowles, a cabaret singer trying to break into film as an actress. She begins an unlikely romance with Brian Roberts (Michael York, never better) which plays out against the fall of the Weimar Republic on the eve of Nazism’s rise.
Maybe it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Minnelli comes from showbiz stock, the daughter of Oscar-winning director Vincente Minnelli and actress Judy Garland. Anyone who sees Cabaret also shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Minnelli won an Oscar for her work. Minnelli sings and dances as few others ever have in the movies, and she layers her characters with bits of girlish innocence, party animal outrage, and melancholy widow. Minnelli knows that the title song—the closing number—might sound celebratory, but it’s actually a foul cry of doom, a final scream for everything good in the world, and the dark fate before her. Seldom have the movies taken on Nazism with such unusual style, and seldom has any actor so embodied a character.
11. Rita Moreno, West Side Story
Richard Beymar and Natalie Wood might have the star parts in West Side Story, a directorial collaboration between Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins. The two directors would take home Oscars for their work, as would Supporting Actor George Chakiris and Supporting Actress Rita Moreno. Rarely in any film, let alone a musical, has the supporting cast so upstaged the leads.
In particular, Moreno steals the show. As Anita, a Puerto Rican street girl, Moreno blends fiery energy with bombshell sex appeal, dancing on rooftops and belting out her songs with athletic fitness. Even more impressive are her dramatic scenes, including an attempted rape. Moreno’s hysterics cut to the bone, signaling to viewers this ain’t Oklahoma. Watching Moreno is like watching an Olympic athlete take the stage. In West Side Story, she sings, dances and acts with as much stamina—and charisma—as any actor in a musical ever has.
10. Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz
Is any movie as watched and loved by generation upon generation as The Wizard of Oz? Indeed, the movie has become so embedded in pop culture, viewers often have a hard time recognizing it as magnificent as a whole, and as its parts. In particular, the acting goes overlooked, beginning with the film’s lead, Judy Garland.
Garland was already in her mid teens and showbiz veteran by the time she won the role of Dorothy Gale. Maybe that’s why there’s absolutely nothing showy or self conscious in her performance. She plays the part with absolute conviction, by turns a plucky heroine, and others, a frightened child. That she had one of the greatest singing voices ever also helps, as her leather lungs belt out standards like “Over the Rainbow” and “Off to See the Wizard.” Garland would go on to a long career in films and in concerts, and would give other brilliant performances in movies like Judgment at Nuremberg and A Star is Born. Yet she’d never escape her iconic status as Dorothy, at times to her chagrin. Then again, since she gave one of the finest performances ever, what else could she expect?
9. Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
A serial killer might not seem like the perfect subject for a musical, but composer Stephen Sondheim didn’t let that stop him from writing Sweeney Todd, a musical about a murderous barber, a ditzy baker and a city of cannibals. Thought the material worked on stage, few believed Sweeney Todd could ever become a movie, in part because few actors could make a proud murderer sympathetic.
But Johnny Depp could, and did so. Once upon a time, before he became synonymous with pirates, shtick and box office bombs, Depp established himself as an actor of incredible gifts. Sweeney Todd earned him a deserved Oscar nod, and while fans of the stage version continue to quibble with the film, Depp hits every right note (so to speak). He doesn’t feel a need to scream and belt through his songs. Rather, he whispers, utters and acts through maddened stares. More importantly, his dark eyes pour out sadness and regret. Depp’s Sweeney knows he’s damned for his revenge, even if he deserves it.
8. Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
2012 was the year of Anne Hathaway, having given two magnificent, high-profile performances. The first, as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises earned her splendid reviews and a new level of respect for the remarkable physicality of the role. The second, in Les Miserables, won her the Academy Award.
In the following four years, Hathaway became a punchline, with detractors attacking her for insincerity, overexposure and just plain nerdiness. She’s recovered since, and her highly-regarded role in Les Miserables has since re-earned its reputation as the highlight of the film. Hathaway’s work dominates the first half hour of the movie. As the fired factory worker, Fantine, who turns to prostitution to support her daughter, the actress provides the film with much-needed sincerity. Her big number “I Dreamed a Dream,” performed live on the set, melts even the hardest of hearts. Hers is one of the most soul-crushing stories in any musical film, and as Hathaway, gaunt, shorn and weeping, croons out each note, worlds collide in her eyes. Les Miserables could have used more of Hathaway’s charisma. Having given one of the great performances in musicals, Hathaway’s absence robs the film of dramatic power. With her character’s death in the first 20 minutes of the movie, Les Miserables becomes a downward slog begging for an ending.
7. Gene Wilder, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Sometimes, it takes years for the world to realize a film as a bonafide classic. The 1971 musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, based on the Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, came and went without much fanfare. It yielded decent reviews, but went unnoticed by the public, dying at the box office as a mediocrity. Only after the film played on television did it begin to find an audience. Much as It’s a Wonderful Life earned lion status thanks to frequent broadcasts, so did Willy Wonka emerge as a latter-day classic on par with Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz as a family staple.
At the center of the funny, surreal and quirky film, Gene Wilder reigns as the titular chocolate magnate. In his career, Wilder had the uncanny ability to play a character broadly for laughs while still coming off genuine. He uses that charm to great effect as Willy Wonka, coming off half mad while seeming to harbor some profound secret. Wilder plays the role with vigor and sarcasm, but for his final scene. Aboard his glass elevator, he confesses to young Charlie his secret—he’s dying. Only an actor of focus and concentration could pull off such an eclectic role, and Wilder does just that. In a career of treasured performances, his Willy Wonka is a crown jewel.
6. Ellen Greene, Little Shop of Horrors
Ellen Greene hasn’t exactly had a prolific screen career. Apart from a few odd performances, she’s confined her work almost exclusively to television guest spots, and to work on stage. She did, however, score one plumb film role in her career: Audrey, the ditzy blond heroine of Little Shop of Horrors. It helps, of course, that Greene had played the role in the original stage production. The producers of the Little Shop film had approached a number of other actresses—including Cyndi Lauper and Barbra Streisand—to play Audrey on screen, but with none accepting, Greene got to repeat her performance on film.
In short, it is a treasure. Greene speaks through a (presumably) affected squeaky lisp through most of the movie, though her songs betray her mighty voice and belting capacity. That choice is key to making the part work: Audrey is a repressed, depressed woman, who has never really found her true voice. Her relationship with the nerdy plant owner Seymour changes that, and for the first time, Audrey feels actual happiness. Greene explodes with passion in each song like some seismic cataclysm. Like so many other performers here, Greene brings emotional complexity to a role that could easily have been played in a superficial way. As she belts out the showstopper “Suddenly Seymour” though, viewers cannot deny: Greene has remarkable talent, and makes Audrey into a real person.
5. Tim Curry, The Rocky Horror Picture Show
How many actors begin a long and prestigious career on stage, screen and television by playing a horny transvestite? At least one: Tim Curry, the irrepressible character actor that heads up the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Curry had created the role of crazed alien scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the original stage version, and played the role on Broadway before scoring the film incarnation. With a naughty curl of the lips and a powerhouse voice that recalls Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, Curry ignited the screen while wearing fishnets and a corset.
Rocky Horror looms large over Curry’s career, in part because of the notorious cult that grew up around the film, and in part because he gives a damn fine performance. Critics often cite the enormous courage it takes for an actor to play a role like Frank. Curry himself insists that he approached the role just like any other, and that playing each moment with conviction makes the character work no mater how outrageous his behavior. Curry’s seductive cunning and cheeky wit make Frank-N-Furter into a monster of sorts, albeit a very entertaining one. It’s a testament to his gifts that viewers can’t decide if they want to meet Frank, be Frank, or are utterly terrified of him!
4. Gene Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain
Every now and then, a performer comes along that earns the title of genius. The movies have only seen a few—Chaplin, Woody Allen, Orson Welles…and Gene Kelly. Though he directed films, Kelley became known for his on screen genius, as an actor, singer and choreographer. Kelley performed some of the most stunning dancing ever—on screen, or anywhere else. His signature performance came in 1952 with Singin’ in the Rain.
Often cited as the greatest movie musical ever, Singin’ in the Rain also features Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse and Jean Hagen. The film parodies the Hollywood transition from silent movies to sound features, as well as songs like “Good Morning,” “Make ‘Em Laugh,” and of course, the title number. Kelly doesn’t just stop the show performing the title song and dance, he almost stops the whole of the film industry. Performed with a dangerously high fever, Kelly tap dances and swings on lamp posts like a gymnast. He matches his athletic singing and dancing with a simple, direct charisma that makes him a credible male lead. Kelly may not have even been nominated for an Oscar for his work, but he should have. His is one of the greatest performances in film.
3. John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
2000 & 2001 saw the reemergence of the big screen musical, with titles like Moulin Rouge! and Dancer in the Dark awakening the dormant genre, and injecting a modern sensibility into the style. This list would be remiss not to acknowledge Hedwig and the Angry Inch as one of the more innovative early 21st century musicals, and the lead performance by actor John Cameron Mitchell as one of the best in the genre.
In Hedwig, Mitchell plays Hedwig Schmidt, an East German transsexual rock singer still opining over her lost love, and her lost manhood. Hedwig isn’t a real transsexual; she only underwent gender reassignment as a means of escaping the Eastern Bloc. That doctors botched her surgery, leaving her without any genitals at all. Most of the film revolves around Hedwig trying to discover her “other half,” the cosmic lover that can bring her happiness. What she discovers though—and what makes Mitchell’s performance so memorable—is her own complexity. Hedwig isn’t looking for love so much as her own identity. The actor performs the role with soulful vocals, acid wit and wells of deep seeded pain. Cameron makes her believable and compelling every moment she’s on screen—which, for the record, is almost every moment of the movie. With cheeky humor and haunting brooding, Hedwig becomes one of the most real characters to ever grace the screen.
2. Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl
Audiences today know Barbra Streisand as a joke. The actress, one of a handful of performers to win an Oscar, Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award (see also, Moreno and Minnelli on this list), has of late earned headlines for her political views and very Jewish looks more than for her on-screen work. In a sense, that’s a crime—Streisand, for all her flaws, is an incredible talent, as her work in Funny Girl attests.
Funny Girl marked Streisand’s debut in motion pictures, repeating her acclaimed stage performance. The movie dramatizes the life and marriage of comedienne Fanny Brice to gambler Nicky Arnstein, and features hit songs like “People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “I’m the Greatest Star.” The latter number, in particular, is a show stopper like few others in movie history. Streisand, belting to the stratosphere, means every damn word of it, and by the end of the song, a good portion of the audience might agree with her! Her performance runs the gamut, and while her dramatic moments have resonance and power, Streisand excels even more so at comedy. She won an Oscar for her work, and in a testament to it, Funny Girl remains a little performed musical, not because of its quality, but because Streisand’s performance casts so long a shadow few other actors could ever hope to match her.
1. Ann-Margret, Tommy
Brit rock band The Who wrote their concept album Tommy as a mix of rock and opera—hence the oft-used term, “rock opera.” Director Ken Russell took the album and made it into one of the most outrageously berserk movies ever. Granted, he had help. Besides the incredible music, Russell employs a cast of actors and musicians that includes The Who, Elton John, Oliver Reed, Tina Turner, and Jack Nicholson…who even sings!
Yet one actor rules the film: Ann-Margret. Few performers have ever hurled themselves into a role with such abandon. And here’s the part that shouldn’t make sense: her role, as Tommy’s mother, demands she play her part as high camp, and as emotionally complex, two approaches at odds with one another. Yet, thanks to enormous talent—and maybe sheer will power—Ann-Margret makes the character work, pouring raw fury and feeling into her part. At times hilarious, and at others gut wrenching, she gives one of the best (and most underrated) performances ever, in a musical or otherwise.
Oh, and in one scene she swims around in baked beans and chocolate sauce. Possibly the biggest WTF moment in cinema, that alone is worth the Oscar nomination she scored!
Disagree with our picks? Did we leave out your favorite performance? Tell us in the comments!