From the stage to the screen, musicals have shown us romance, rivalry, and more in larger than life technicolor.
Beautiful clothes. Graceful movement. Music to sweep you off your feet. There’s nothing like a Hollywood musical. It’s almost painful to watch the beautifully fluid movements across a vast stage. The exquisite music has you falling in love, exploring a new city, making new friends. And the costumes! Crisp, sharp suits on the men, elegant silhouettes on the women. It truly was another time, and it’s no wonder some people feel like the Golden Age of Hollywood has passed.
I’ve always loved musicals. I’ve always wanted to burst into song in the middle of the day, to dance down the street. I wanted to fall in love with the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein in the background, to have Gene Kelly toss me in the air, to have Fred Astaire literally dance circles around me. I longed to move with the grace of Cyd Charisse, to sing with the power and feeling of Judy Garland. And who didn’t want to see a dance-off between the rival gangs of New York?
We could talk all day about Kelly versus Astaire, the terribly underrated Danny Kaye and Donald O’Connor, the amazing costumes by Edith Head, the comedy of Oscar Levant. I could give you a list of movies to watch for each of them.
But instead, I’m going to share with you my favorites.
Meet Me in St. Louis: Countdown to the World’s Fair
When you talk about Judy Garland, most people think of The Wizard of Oz, or maybe Easter Parade, quite forgetting about the cheerful family musical that is Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).
Also starring the inimitable Margaret O’Brien, and the legendary Mary Astor, Meet Me in St. Louis is the story of the Smith family, their little dramas, a budding romance and an impending move, set against the excitement over the upcoming St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.
The Band Wagon: Break a leg
I could dedicate several essays to the beauty and grace of Fred Astaire’s dancing. Many fans might recommend one of his movies with long-time onscreen partner, Ginger Rogers. But I’ve always been partial to Cyd Charisse. Their long limbs fly through the air, their feet glide over tables and chairs, scarves and skirts and canes and hats flow as though extensions of their bodies. Together, they are the definition of poetry in motion.
The Band Wagon (1953) is one of three movies they did together. It’s this movie we have to thank for the scene with Cyd Charisse sitting on a stool, elbows resting on the bar, shedding her voluminous green coat to reveal a shimmering, tasseled red dress: the very definition of a dangerous temptress. Her smoldering eyes and dark hair may have had something to do with it. It’s this movie that has Fred Astaire playing the intrepid detective chasing the mysterious girl.
Brigadoon: Fall in love in the Scottish Highlands
Legend says Cyd Charisse’s husband could always tell which one she’d been dancing with. If she came home with bruises all over her body, it was Gene Kelly. There’s an athleticism to his energetic dancing, barely restrained power beneath the graceful movement.
You may have seen Singin’ In The Rain or An American in Paris, but Brigadoon (1954) is something else. How can you not fall in love with the beautiful Scottish accents? With the lush green landscape? With the magic surrounding the town? How can you not fall in love while picking heather on the hill with Gene Kelly? This movie makes even bagpipes and kilts romantic.
West Side Story: Romeo and Juliet in 1960s New York
Choreographer Jerome Robbins wanted to remake the story of Romeo and Juliet, but he wanted a contemporary take on the romance and rivalry of Shakespeare’s classic. So, why not New York in the 1960s, set against a backdrop of rival Street gangs?
West Side Story (1961) made snapping your fingers an act of war, and the dance-off a true battle. The costumes by Irene Sharaff punctuated hip sways and leaps in the dance hall; who can forget the Sharks in their sharp purples, and the Jets in shimmering gold. Sharaff, who had also worked on the Broadway production, sourced the jeans from Levi Strauss & Co., and shoes came from Keds and Capezio. And then there’s the impeccable dancing from Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. How could you not want to dance down the streets of New York?
Of course, there are other musicals. But these are simply unforgettable.