The streets of Manhattan are paved with show-tunes gold. Beginning with the Broadway melodies of… well… Broadway Melody (1929), musical films and the city so great they named it twice have danced hand in hand for decades. 

From Depression-era spectacles like Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) to golden-age MGM classics such as The Band Wagon (1953), and from Barbra Streisand’s turn as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968) to Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All That Jazz (1979), musicals on screen have always looked back to their Broadway theatre roots. More recently, the P.T. Barnum biopic and mega hit The Greatest Showman (2017) revelled in the city’s 19th-century circus theatrics – proving that the genre was alive and well again in the process, by becoming one of the highest grossing musicals of all time.

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It’s an old cliché to cite New York as a character, yet it’s undeniably a cinematic city with a unique screen presence all its own. With its well-known boroughs, modern architecture, landmarks, multi-ethnic communities and street food (pizza! pretzels! hot dogs! bagels!), the iconography of New York is bountiful. But from the dawn of the talkies onwards, musicals have also grappled with the dark underbelly of a city rich in complexities and conflict; the flipside to the glitz and shine of skyscraper escapism. 

As West Side Story, Stephen Spielberg’s remake of perhaps the greatest New York musical of them all, arrives on the big screen, we take a musical stroll from Yonkers down on to the bay…

42nd Street (1933)

Director: Lloyd Bacon

42nd Street (1933)

Perhaps the quintessential backstage musical, 42nd Street revived an already waning interest in the genre and saved the almost bankrupt Warner Bros from ruin. The plot revolves around the Depression-era rehearsals for a Broadway show and the dating lives of its troupe of dancers. The pre-Code era screenplay is filled with sexual innuendos and chorus line Manhattan sass from stars Bebe Daniels, Ruby Keeler, Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers. 

It’s the title number as the show closes that really dazzles and captures the unique drama of the city, showcasing Busby Berkley’s dizzying synchronised choreography for the first time with what became his signature overhead camera angles and kaleidoscopic visuals. With skyscraper sets and an array of “Naughty, bawdy, gawdy, sporty“ set-piece scenes, it’s a remarkable finale. 

On the Town (1949)

Directors: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

On the Town (1949)

Directed by choreography kings Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, this classic MGM romantic comedy romp stars Kelly alongside Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin as three sailors let loose in Manhattan for 24 hours, where they are desperate to take in the sights and perhaps find a date for the evening. Made even more thrilling by the film’s glorious location shoot – still rare for the era – the unforgettable opening number buzzes with their palpable excitement as they run around the city’s famous landmarks and go horse riding in Central Park, enthusiastically singing the movie’s most well-known song, ‘New York, New York’. 

With energetic dance sequences, a great collection of hummable tunes and fabulous comic timing from the leads, it’s an enjoyable ride around a wonderful town. But the fun really ramps up when the guys meet and fall for Vera-Ellen’s Ivy, Ann Miller’s Claire and especially Betty Garrett’s audacious, forthright cab driver Hildy. 

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Based on the broadway show by Frank Loesser, itself inspired by a short story by newspaper man Damon Runyon, this joyous musical comedy is set in the gambling underbelly of prohibition-era Manhattan. Frank Sinatra’s Nathan Detroit and Marlon Brando’s Sky Masterson have an unsavoury bet involving the wooing of prim missionary Sarah Brown (Jean Simmonds), while Nathan grapples with committing to his long-term girlfriend, Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine).

Despite its obvious Hollywood backlot set, this is a New York movie through and through. It’s all about the sinners, the dames, the gamblers, Lindy’s cheesecake and immensely catchy, quick-witted songs like ‘Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat’ and ‘Luck Be a Lady’. Despite on-set tension between Sinatra and Brando, they’re both on sparkling form, and Blaine is gloriously amusing as Adelaide – especially when her thick New York accent sobs out “A pursen can develop a caaawf” in the brilliant ‘Adelaide’s Lament’.

West Side Story (1961)

Directors: Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

West Side Story (1961)

Robert Wise and co-director and choreographer Jerome Robbin’s mighty and moving musical melodrama is the tale of Romeo and Juliet transposed to a sweltering Upper West Side. Tensions are high as the warring gangs cooly click their fingers amid balletic leaps around basketball courts and side streets. Filmed on a mixture of giant sound stages and gritty locations, there’s a tangible urban quality in every shot, framing the romance of the lovers against a backdrop of racial tension and tenement blocks. 

With a classic score by Leonard Bernstein, the unforgettable songbook by the late Stephen Sondheim includes the likes of ‘America’, ‘Somewhere’, ‘I Feel Pretty’, ‘Tonight’ and ‘Maria’. Whatever audiences will make of Spielberg’s new version, this 1962 best picture winner set a very high bar.

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Director: John Badham

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

The swaggering opening credits set the tone for John Badham’s 70s cult hit as Tony Manero (a pre-Grease John Travolta) struts around his Bay Ridge neighbourhood, his enormous lapels framing his open-shirted chest as he eyes up women and grabs a slice to the sound of the Bee Gees’ ‘Stayin’ Alive’. It’s a dance of two halves and, for a film that’s remembered as a fun disco classic, there are disturbing elements as the story of isolated youth and toxic masculinity reaches its boiling point.

As Tony dances the night away in the disco clubs of Brooklyn to escape his dead-end job and overbearing family, finger pointing to the sky in a white suit that would adorn posters in millions of student bedrooms, the Bee Gees’ thumping beats brought disco to the masses. Until overtaken in 1992 by The Bodyguard, Saturday Night Fever boasted the best-selling soundtrack album of all time.

Fame (1980)

Director: Alan Parker

Fame (1980)

A few years after his kids gangster hit, Bugsy Malone (1976), Alan Parker returned to the movie musical with another youth troupe. Set and filmed in the rough and crime-ridden Manhattan of the early 80s, Fame is a film in which you can taste the street fumes and fried onions in the air as the wannabe stars enter the New York High School for the Performing Arts.

This was the decade when the teen musical took hold, and Fame is the grizzled grandfather to a generation of high-school dance routines and coming of age tales. But here, there are darker themes than those of their glossier offspring, with plots around abuse, suicide and abortion keeping the students’ high hopes grounded. The title track halfway through fills 46th Street with colourful exuberance and youthful stage school desires, as the kids dance on cabs and let rip in a sea of leg warmers, leotards, ballet shoes and desperate, kinetic energy.

Annie (1982)

Director: John Huston

Annie (1982)

One of John Huston’s final films as director, Annie was a far cry from the brooding intensity of his 1940s noirs. With her unending optimism and beaming freckled face, the eponymous orphan (Aileen Quinn) sings her way from the Hudson Street Home for Girls into the 5th Avenue mansion of capitalist tycoon Oliver Warbucks (Albert Finney). Though the bustling Greenwich Village streets were filmed on the Warner Bros lot, there’s a stand out moment shot at the famous Radio City Music Hall for ‘Let’s Go to the Movies’, with the Rockette-like chorus girls evoking Busby Berkeley, with an elegantly staged dance routine.

The film is not without flaws: there are dubious plot elements and the bodyguard character, Punjab, is a racist mixture of ethnic minority stereotypes. But its exuberant charm and a bank of tunes including ‘Hard Knock Life’, ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Maybe’ still have the capacity to bring a smile and pull hard on the heartstrings.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Director: Frank Oz

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Before composer-writer team Alan Menken and Howard Ashman helped kickstart the Disney renaissance with The Little Mermaid (1989), they had an off-Broadway hit with the unlikely musical tale of a killer plant from outer space. Inspired by a Roger Corman horror film from 1960, the show was adapted for the screen by director Frank Oz in 1986, resulting in one of the funniest film musicals ever made.

Filmed at Pinewood studios, the story centres on a plant shop in New York’s Skid Row as Rick Moranis’s downtrodden shop skivvy Seymour bites off more than he can chew with man-eating succulent Audrey II, while secretly pining for Ellen Greene’s abused and fragile Audrey. Every song’s a winner, and Oz’s film boasts side-splitting cameos from 80s comedy kings Bill Murray and John Candy, not to mention Steve Martin as sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello.

Enchanted (2007)

Director: Kevin Lima

Enchanted (2007)

This postmodern fairytale pastiche is brimming with charm thanks to a winning performance from Amy Adams. When the evil stepmother of her one true love (whom she’d met that day) sends cartoon damsel Giselle to “a place where there are no happily ever afters”, she emerges from a manhole in live-action form, into the inhospitable heart of Times Square. Lost in the city, she meets Patrick Dempsey’s cynical divorce lawyer who shows her the positives of getting to know your partner instead of jumping into things – as well as the delights of a Central Park hot dog. 

The screenplay pulls off the near impossible task of both critiquing the old-fashioned patriarchal traditions of the Disney princess heroine and making a heartwarming film on the studio’s own terms. With lively routines such as ‘Happy Working Song’ and ‘That’s How You Know’, the songs are up there with the best of the Disney playbook, and the ensemble cast, including Susan Sarandon, Timothy Spall and Idina Menzel, are all having a ball. 

In the Heights (2021)

Director: Jon M. Chu

In the Heights (2021)

The long-awaited adaptation of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Tony award-winning ode to Manhattan’s Washington Heights provided a welcome summery tonic as the world emerged from one of its longest pandemic lockdowns. Musical theatre’s ubiquitous man of the moment, Miranda brought his signature mix of hip-hop beats, Latin rhythms, fast rap and Broadway show tunes to a film that’s light on plot but big on choreographed spectacle and warm-hearted charm.

The film met valid criticism for its lack of Black and Hispanic faces, and the narrative stakes are low. Yet director Jon M. Chu showcases the film’s Washington Heights locations with glowing style, and the spirited ensemble is full of characters to root for. With great performances, especially from charismatic lead Anthony Ramos, it’s an instant summer classic with a scorching soundtrack.

Originally published: 8 December 2021