The 5 Best Musicals That Are Based on Movies

You can never have too much of a good scene.
June 20, 2018
9 mins read

Recently, all four of the 2018 Tony nominees for best musical —“Mean Girls,” “Frozen,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “The Band’s Visit” — were based on movies or television shows, which should come as no surprise because the big screen has consistently been a source of inspiration for the stage.

When well-known movies are made into musicals, the familiarity of the titles can encourage even casual theatre fans to give the shows a chance. While some Broadway adaptations were flops, such as the 1988 production of “Carrie: The Musical,” which infamously closed after only three days, others have used the addition of music to elevate their source material to a much more complex plane.

These five musicals not only honor the movies on which they are based, they also succeed in their own right as popular and entertaining musicals.

1. “The Lion King”

Disney has had many spectacular stage musicals based off of their movies, but only “The Lion King” has been continually playing on Broadway for the past 20 years. Transforming animated animals into puppets for the stage could easily have been seen as cheesy, but the artistic work that has gone into creating the animals is unparalleled. Seeing giraffes, elephants, antelope and more gather on stage for “The Circle of Life” immediately transported audiences to another world.

All of the iconic songs from the 1994 film are included, as well as powerful new additions. Mufasa’s death in the movie is emotional enough on its own, but hearing Rafiki tell Simba that Mufasa lives on in “He Lives in You” will give you chills.

Also, just like the original movie, the show is perfect for the whole family. Little kids are amazed at the sight of seemingly real animals walking across the stage, while the older crowd gets to see a nostalgic favorite brought to life before their eyes. The colorful and heartfelt musical proved that Simba isn’t just king of Pride Rock, but king of Broadway as well.

2. “Hairspray”

Many people might be familiar with the 2007 movie “Hairspray,” based on the 2003 musical of the same name, but most don’t realize that both of which were based off of a 1988 movie. The differing versions of the story may be hard to keep straight, but there’s no denying this is one of the funnest musicals out there.

While the story centered on teenager Tracy Turnblad as she follows her dreams of dancing on TV, which resulted in some upbeat tunes and impressive dance numbers, the show also managed to include some poignant moments through its story about civil rights with powerful songs, such as “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Even though it’s set in the 1960s, the themes regarding individuality and discrimination remain relevant today, with the empowerment of characters of different sizes and races being as important a message as ever. It’s rare that a musical makes you think hard about social issues and simultaneously get you on your feet dancing to the beat, but “Hairspray” pulls it off seamlessly.

The final number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” perfectly embodies the show’s mix of high energy and thematic content. Plus, it features Harvey Fierstein’s iconic performance as Edna, so it’s definitely worth a watch.

3. “Legally Blonde”

Omigod you guys! If there ever was a girl power movie that deserved a musical adaptation, it’s this one. Elle Woods already had a huge fan base, thanks to Reese Witherspoon’s performance in the 2001 movie, but Laura Bell Bundy captured the beloved character just as well on stage, while adding the feat of belting her heart out.

Laura Bell Bundy managed to bring an entirely new depth to the iconic Elle Woods character on the stage. (Image via Eugene Magazine)

Wood’s classic pink wardrobe provided the opportunity for some impressive onstage quick-changes, and the “bend and snap” movie scene was practically begging to become a musical number. Nearly every song in this show is laugh-out-loud funny, but there’s a few numbers included that will have you reaching for tissues as well. The musical restored the feminist themes from the original movie, as Elle realized she doesn’t need a man to define her and proved herself as a lawyer.

Plus, it showcased the power of theater’s performers with the female ensemble jumping rope through the entirety of “Whipped into Shape,” while still singing without skipping a beat. Plus, because MTV recorded the entire production, you can gather all your sorority sisters and sing along anytime you want.

4. “Billy Elliot”

The 2009 best musical Tony winner, “Billy Elliot the Musical,” is based on the 2000 film “Billy Elliot” and is full of Cockney accents and unbelievably talented children. Both versions follow the young titular Billy Elliot as he trained in ballet during the British coal miners’ strike in the 1980s. A movie that already featured impressive dance sequences became a natural choice to turn into a musical, and Elton John’s music is concurrently uplifting and heartbreaking.

The talented young boys who played Billy wowed audiences around the world, especially with the show’s climactic ballet solo in “Electricity.” Like the movie, the musical tackled the stereotypes surrounding male dancers and the restrictive societal views of masculinity. The additional dance numbers that the musical featured, ranging from ballet to tap, prove definitively just how much training and skill is needed to become a male dancer.

Not to mention, “Billy Elliot the Musical” is where current “Spider-Man” actor Tom Holland made his acting debut, so superhero fans should all be grateful for that.

5. “Waitress”

The talented singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles got to introduce this year’s movie-based musical nominees as host of the Tony Awards thanks to her work writing the music and lyrics for this touching show. While the 2007 movie “Waitress” isn’t as widely known as some of the others on this list, Bareilles’ involvement in the musical created buzz from the very get go.

The story follows Jenna, a waitress who pours her feelings into the pies she bakes, as she tries to figure out how to deal with an unwanted pregnancy — it’s guaranteed to tug on anyone’s heartstrings. The show features a trio of strong female characters, not to mention some seriously funny men in supporting roles.

Bareilles is a master of capturing emotion in songs, and the journey that her protagonist goes on throughout the show culminates beautifully in a show-stopping ballad entitled “She Used to Be Mine.”

And, like “The Lion King,” this show is currently showing on Broadway, so it is definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area. Just make sure you know where the nearest bakery is, as this musical will definitely leave you with a craving for pie.

Carly Ristaino, Union College

Writer Profile

Carly Ristaino

Union College
English and Political Science

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Don't Miss