The 25 best film-to-musical adaptations

Our top transfers from the silver screen to the Great White Way.

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  • 42nd Street (1980)

    42nd Street (1980)

  • A Little Night Music (1973)

    A Little Night Music (1973)

  • The Lion King (1997)

    The Lion King (1997)

  • Sweet Charity (1966)

    Sweet Charity (1966)

  • Little Shop of Horrors (1982)

    Little Shop of Horrors (1982)

42nd Street (1980)

42nd Street (1980)

5. 42nd Street (1980)
The quintessential manifesto of Broadway's show-must-go-on ideology, this backstage story of a plucky understudy who steps up to the lead at short notice—"Sawyer, you're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"—didn't make it to the Great White Way until 1980. The 1933 source film is an anti-Depression treatment best remembered for Busby Berkeley's extravagant choreography; the musical, directed by the masterful Gower Champion (who died on opening night), supplements the story with extra standards from the Harry Warren--Al Dubin songbook and massive cloudbursts of synchronized tap. 42nd Street's keystone tune, "The Lullaby of Broadway," is a paradoxically rousing paean to our nostalgic collective showbiz dream. And it's a dream that sometimes even comes true: In 1987, a teenage second understudy named Catherine Zeta-Jones went on one night as Peggy Sawyer in the show's London production—and came back, yes, a star.—AF

4. A Little Night Music (1973)
Not much was lost in translation when Stephen Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler turned Ingmar Bergman's wry 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer Night into a sparkling musical about old loves, young lust and romantic regret. Wheeler hewed closely to the original screenplay, and Sondheim's penchant for bruised and brooding emotional states served the material brilliantly. And early '70s audiences were highly receptive to a show that combined old-world sophistication and musical-theater wit. Still legendary is the original Broadway production, staged by Hal Prince at the top of his powers, gloriously designed by set wizard Boris Aronson and featuring a cast led by Len Cariou, Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold.—DC

3. The Lion King (1997)
Disney took a big risk in entrusting its hit 1994 cartoon to the visionary director-designer Julie Taymor, but the gamble has paid off gorgeously. Taymor takes a reactionary story about the natural right of kings, in which the circle of life itself is pitted against a queeny villain and his jive-talking ghetto pals, and transforms it into a celebration of color and movement. Through elegant puppetry, Taymor populates the stage with an amazing menagerie of African beasts in procession, flight and stampede; the movie's Elton John--Tim Rice score is newly surrounded by African rhythm and music. A few vestiges of Disneyland remain in the comic-relief scenes, but Taymor's bold approach expands a simple cub into the pride of Broadway, not merely a fable of heredity but a celebration of heritage.—AF

2. Sweet Charity (1966)
Charity Hope Valentine is the poster girl for the Broadway musical's signature state of delusional optimism. In Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957), the character is a prostitute played by Fellini's Chaplinesque wife, Giulietta Masina; the bittersweet Charity of the musical—originated by the ridiculously lovable Gwen Verdon, wife of director Bob Fosse—is a New York dance-hall hostess, with a well-used body but a virginal soul. (She has a heart tattooed on her upper arm, right where a sleeve would go.) Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields's classic score (which includes the neostandards "Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now") nails the boundless rhythms of city life and the limited dreams of people like Charity: a little tramp who's trampled down but always up for more.—AF

1. Little Shop of Horrors (1982)
A musical about a nebbishy florist and a wish-granting, bloodthirsty plant from outer space: Sounds crazy, no? But in Little Shop of Horrors, librettist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken took a humble 1960 B-flick and grew it to splendiferous bloom. Smarter, sweeter and darker than Roger Corman's film, this marvel of musical cross-breeding has it all: wit, heart, irony, edge, retro-pop zip and a Faustian zap of a moral. (In the musical's Venus-flytrap twist, love makes the world go bust.) "Suddenly Seymour" and "Somewhere That's Green"—both originally sung by the unique Ellen Greene as Audrey, the definitive hothouse-flower ditz—are standouts in Little Shop's generally outstanding score. This little show's smash Off Broadway run launched Ashman and Menken into their reinvention of the Disney animated musical, and planted the seeds from which three decades of musical theater have grown.—AF

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Users say

4 comments
David
David

Alright, own up. Who had the putrid taste to think Mamma Mia qualified as good, but that Toxic Avenger should be skipped over? Come on, out with it.

Sandee
Sandee

Oh God, how could I forget: My Fair Lady (from Pygmalion)

Sandee
Sandee

Oh you youg'uns have no sense of history: Oklahoma (from Green Grow the Lilacs) Carousel (from Lilliom) Purlie (from Purlie Victorious) A Little Night Music (from Smiles of a Summer Night) West Side Story (from Romeo and Juliet)