The best musicals of all time

Best musicals: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Great musicals are some of cinema’s purest pleasures. Bangin’ tunes, on point choreography, soaring vocals, they have a way of uplifting our spirits in a manner many other movies just can’t. Between stage and screen, musicals come in all shapes and sizes, from beautiful animated movies, to dramatic action movies, and, surprisingly, even the occasional horror movie.

Such variety is wonderful, but it also breeds some anxiety. With so many, what are the best? After all, beyond the trappings of genre, you have to worry about the songs and performances, whether the leads can hold a tune or keep time. A poor musical potentially means a bad movie and a shocking soundtrack, and nobody needs that.

We’re not exactly classically trained at The Digital Fix, but we know a good hook when we hear one, and we definitely know about good movies. So, we’ve listed all the best musicals you can watch right this second. Across multiple styles of music, and eras of productions, we’re confident we’ve found something that’ll allow you to take your hair down and belt out the choruses.

What are the best musicals of all time?

  • Hamilton
  • The Lion King
  • Rock n’ Roll High School
  • Les Misérables
  • Repo! The Genetic Opera
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Rocky Horror Picture Show
  • Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds

Hamilton (2020)

Best musicals: Hamilton

The cultural phenomenon, captured at the peaks of its powers on Broadway. This hip-hop historical biopic about the life of Alexander Hamilton examines and re-contextualises American politics for a new generation. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also plays the lead, the songs balance learning about America’s founding fathers with getting caught in the rhythm.

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This version was put together by Thomas Kail, and the cinematography and sound mix capture all the energy and enthusiasm of the live show. You can feel the intensity of the performers and audience one in the same, bringing you right into the theatre. Outstanding.

The Lion King (1994)

Best musicals: The Lion King

Many Disney movies are worth noting for their blend of songwriting and dramatic storytelling, but it’s this 1994 classic that’s top of the pile. Some of the house of mouse’s finest animation is contained within the colourful characters and exuberant sequences, made all the brighter by the beautiful scenes of the fictional Pride Lands in Africa.

As engrossing as Simba’s journey to avenge his father and take the throne as king of the jungle is, it’s made all the better by the massive choruses. ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’, ‘Circle of Life’, and, of course, ‘Hakuna Mutata’, all cheerfully linger for weeks afterwards. Truly problem free.

Rock n’ Roll High School (1979)

Best musicals: Rock n' Roll High School

A punk rock musical sounds antithetical to either side, given musicals tend to be very staged and grandiose, and punk music is basically the opposite. But then this comedy movie from Allan Arkush about some kids who just want to be punk rockers proves the two can intermingle.

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When a huge Ramones fan, Riff Randell (P.J. Soles), is refused tickets to the band’s concert by her high school principal, a revolt breaks out, with the New York punkers at the forefront. All full of rebellion and distorted guitar, Rock n’ Roll High School shows sometimes theatre aficionados and punkers might have more in common than they think. Or perhaps The Ramones were just the absolute masters of short, fast, catchy songs.

Les Misérables: The Dream Cast in Concert (1995)

Best musicals: Les Misérables

Since debuting in London’s West End in 1985, there have been countless productions of the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s tome. None have quite the magic of this 1995 iteration. Colm Wilkinson takes on the role of Jean Veljean, with Michael Ball, Lea Salonga, and Judy Kohn among the supporting cast.

At two-and-a-half hours, it’s a commitment, drawing from a novel that’s famous for its length. But Wilkinson’s emotive, commanding presence, and the glorious scale of the presentation are so gripping you’ll hardly feel the time pass. Produced by Cameron Mackintosh, who’s also orchestrated definitive versions of Miss Saigon, Oscar!, and Mary Poppins, it’s perhaps the best work he’s leant his name to, and that’s saying something.

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

Best musicals: Repo! The Genetic Opera

Body horror science fiction movies are not the easiest things to blend songs into, and yet Darren Lynn Bousman managed to do just that in very convincing fashion. In the near future, organ failure is running rampant, and transplants come at a premium. If you miss your payments, the body parts are carved back out of you.

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Gruesome, right? The songs make it into a gothic fairytale about the endless, crushing weight of capitalism, as constructed by Japanese musician Yoshiki. Answers the question “What connects Anthony Stewart Head to Paris Hilton?”

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Best musicals: The Nightmare Before Christmas

In 1993, Henry Selick and Danny Elfman defined mainstream gothic culture with their macabre stop-motion animation. Drawing from a story conceived by Tim Burton, in a mystical land where public holidays are different towns, Jack Skellington wanders from Halloweentown to Christmastown. Mystified by all the festive cheer, he incidentally causes Santa Claus to be kidnapped, potentially ruining Christmas.

It’s joyous, weird, horrifying, and full of earworms (and actual worms). Elfman’s bouncy score perfectly complements Selick’s jaunty sets and moody cinematography. Is it a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie? We can tell you it’s a bloody good musical, and that’s that.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Best musicals: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Tim Curry crooning through ‘Sweet Transvestite’ is the kind of thing that makes life worth living. Jim Sharman’s anarchic big screen take on the ’70s musical is filthy, erotic, provocative, strange, and a thousand other descriptors all rolled into one. Rock n’ roll, jazz, blues, aliens, a haunted mansion, Meat Loaf, it’s all here, in a trim hundred minutes.

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To get the most out of it, it’s recommended you track down a screening somewhere. Generally look for the dankest cinema you can find, and work from there. Failing that, watching at home is just as warm and mischievous. Now, it’s just a jump to the left…

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (2006)

Best musicals: Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds

The scale of Jeff Wayne’s alien invasion here is a sci-fi spectacle in and of itself. Lasers, holograms, giant machines, it’s stunning and electrifying, and speaks to the way musical theatre can enrapture us within the story. Guitar riffs clash with soaring orchestral melodies as the menacing tripods scour for survivors, with recurring vocal harmonies interwoven with narration for the plot.

The 2006 version has all the electricity of being the first time the show formally toured around the world, but a later 2012 re-recording has Liam Neeson narrating. Both are great, and by the end of either you may very well look at the stars a little bit different after.

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Anthony McGlynn

Staff writer

Updated: Sep 04, 2021


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