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Scene and Heard: Classic movie musicals an alternative to new juke-box genre

Analise Lipari | Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Movie musical of yore, we hardly knew ye.

This Friday, “Across the Universe” enters theaters, the latest in a recent surge of movie musicals. “Across the Universe” takes its cues from one of history’s most storied bands, the Beatles, by using their catalog of songs as the basis for its score.

These crazy times, they are a-changin’.

With “Jersey Boys” resurrecting the Four Seasons and “Movin’ Out” glorifying Billy Joel, “Across the Universe” is the latest in growing trend of musicals using a performer’s library as the source for their music. Which is fine if you like the original band or you’re dying to see “Hanson: The Musical” (God forbid).

For the rest of us, who miss the movie musicals of old, we can either choose to satisfy our addictions with newer, more traditional shows like “Wicked” and “Hairspray,” or we can stroll down memory lane with our VHS tapes. As a huge fan of nostalgic sing-a-longs, I’d pick the latter.

So, to prepare you for your soon-to-occur marathon of classic musicals, here’s my top 10 list of recommendations. May you, too, find that bursting into song at passionate moments in life is normal, rather than a sign that you should see a therapist.

10. “Calamity Jane” (1953): What’s great about this film is seeing Doris Day and Howard Keel at the height of their movie musical careers. “Calamity Jane” is chockfull of the good stuff – a spunky heroine, a love-hate romance and classic songs like “Secret Love.”

9. “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944): Released during World War II, “Meet Me in Saint Louis” is a surprisingly topical musical romp that touches on American anxiety in times of uncertainty and change. The film takes place during the 1904 World’s Fair and showcases the versatility and real talent of a post-Yellow Brick Road Judy Garland.

8. “An American in Paris” (1951): Winning an Oscar for Best Picture is no small feat, but “An American in Paris” makes it look easy, with the effortless fun of Gershwin and the talents of musical vet Gene Kelly. S’wonderful, indeed.

7. “My Fair Lady” (1964): Star Audrey Hepburn caught a lot of flack for playing this film’s lead, Cockney flower girl Eliza Dolittle, rather than original Broadway star Julie Andrews. She holds her own in this classic, though, opposite Rex Harrison.

6. “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971): There’s something deeply affecting about the bittersweet blend of “Tradition” and the encroaching future in this musical tale of a Russian Jewish family at the dawn of the 20th century. Plus, the songs, such as “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” are so gosh-darn catchy that you can’t resist.

5. “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952): There’s a reason why this film was named American Film Institute’s top musical, and it’s the powerhouse trio of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor to “Make ‘Em Laugh” in this sweet tale of “talkies” in the 1920s.

4. “The Sound of Music” (1965): Julie Andrews is ridiculously awesome. ‘Nuff said.

3. “South Pacific” (1958): Controversial for its time, this underrated classic deals with complex issues like racism, war and death. Unexpected, especially coming from a musical with lines like “I’m as corny as Kansas in August.”

2. “Oklahoma!” (1955): The first Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration, “Oklahoma!” is gloriously and unabashedly optimistic. Leads Shirley Jones (yes, of “The Partridge Family”) and Gordan MacRae carry this mood-lifting musical, which features lovely songs like “People Will Say We’re In Love.”

1. “West Side Story” (1961): This Best Picture winner is nothing short of a modern classic. Plus, it’s my favorite, which is reason enough to give it a try.

So kids, here’s to hoping that these ten films are reason enough to keep you kickin’ it old school. Or at least out of the arms of Hanson.

The views expressed in Scene and Heard are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Analise Lipari at [email protected]