Here's a list of great performances that does not include Ethel Merman in Gypsy,
Angela Lansbury in Mame, or Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. More's the pity, for those three ladies did not get to make the movies and recreate the roles that made them legendary on stage; other, less capable performers were given these plum assignments. But there have been a goodly number of musical theater performers who were given the opportunity to show the nation and the world through the medium of film just why they got Tonys and/or tons of applause for creating some memorable musical performances.
How does one determine the 50 Best Musical Stage Performances Reprised for Hollywood? Here were the rules I followed: Anyone who recreated on film a role he or she originated on a Broadway or a London stage--even in a revival--was eligible. Anyone else who took over a role--even if it happened only weeks into the run, as when Michele Lee succeeded Bonnie Scott in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying--was not considered. What's more, I only included movies that were released in theaters, not taped or even filmed performances earmarked for television. (That can be another list entirely!)
As always, I expect a lot of arguments and "corrections" from all of you out there. Good! Let me know what you think; you know where to find me.
1. Robert Preston (The Music Man): Ya got no trouble from me in naming him at the top of the list.
2. Yul Brynner (The King and I): He was great, terrific, stupendous, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
3. Gwen Verdon (Damn Yankees): Much more than just a little brains and a little talent.
4. Zero Mostel (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum): Few people like the film, but what Mostel does right before he's about to say the sooth is unique enough to make us thankful.
5. Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl): So she's the fifth greatest star.
6. Judy Holliday (Bells Are Ringing): Okay, the lady is a little chubbier than she needs to be, but the warmth and charm are what's most apparent, especially in the way she says, "He needs a mother."
7. The Marx Brothers (Animal Crackers): Here's where they really came into their own.
8. Joel Grey (Cabaret): While this characterization has lost a lot of its luster since the Alan Cumming rethinking, let's remember what galvanized us in the late '60s, the '70s, and points beyond.
9. Ethel Merman (Call Me Madam): All those theories that "The Merm" wasn't right for movies seem to be shattered by this performance.
10. Ron Moody (Oliver!): He wasn't part of the original Broadway cast, but he's the guy who made Fagin work in 1960 in London, and Americans had to wait eight years to see how special he was.
11. William Daniels (1776): This performance doesn't work as well on screen as it did on stage, but it's still pretty mesmerizing.
12. Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Show): One of the main reasons those midnight audiences returned for more and more.
13. John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch): Nice to have someone new, and terrific, on the list.
14. Lotte Lenya (The Threepenny Opera): To see that fascinating face in its youth is justification alone.
15. Ethel Waters (Cabin in the Sky): What bubbly warmth she exhibits when delivering "Takin' a Chance on Love."
16. The Marx Brothers (Cocoanuts): Terrific, though their material is better in Animal Crackers
17. Phil Silvers (Top Banana): This might have been higher on the list had they let him do "A Word a Day" with Rose Marie--who would have made the list, too, under those circumstances.
18. Myoshi Umeki (Flower Drum Song): Especially when she does the joke about the two extra-terrestrials.
19. Marilyn Miller (Sally): While I appreciate that Turner Classic Movies uses the song "Look for the Silver Lining" to introduce many of its films, I'd like it so much more if they used Miller's rendition rather than that anonymous male voice.
20. Nancy Walker (Best Foot Forward): And to think that when the authors were creating her part for the Broadway production, they didn't even give her character a name. She sure got one in the movie, though.
21. Robert Morse (How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying): Matthew Broderick could have learned a lot from the way Morse turned and look at the camera with quiet delight when things suddenly went his way.
22. Jimmy Durante (Jumbo): What elephantine talent!
23. Bea Arthur (Mame): Especially the august way she takes her curtain call after the operetta debacle.
24. Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady): Maybe he was a little bored with the part at this point, but there's still a lot of greatness there.
25. Ray Bolger (Where's Charley?): There's a moment in the "Better Get out of Here" dance where he suddenly lifts himself up so effortlessly that you'd swear it's a special effect.
26. Kevin Kline (The Pirates of Penzance): He is a pirate king and it is, it is a glorious thing to watch him swashbuckle.
27. Al Jolson (Big Boy): An in-your-face performance, sure, but a hint of what made him the idol of millions.
28. Eddie Cantor (Whoopee!): Not to current tastes, but still quite endearing, especially when he does the felicitous title song.
29. Helen Morgan (Show Boat, 1936): Though not all of her charisma comes through, enough does.
30. Victor Moore (Louisiana Purchase): He turns on a dime from a slightly befuddled fellow to one of great character.
31. Desi Arnaz (Too Many Girls): No wonder Lucy fell in love with him while working on this picture.
32. Ethel Merman (Anything Goes or, as some TV prints call the film, Tops Is the Limit): The show's so changed that The Merm is a bit at sea in more ways than one, but the vivacity is there.
33. Howard DaSilva (1776): Finally, we get to hear him sing his songs, which we didn't on the cast album because he was ill at the time of the recording.
34. Marilyn Miller (Sunny): A chance to see one of the earliest superstars of musical theater.
35. Paul Lynde (Bye Bye Birdie): Why can't today's comedians be like he was, perfect in every way?
36. Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady): Love it when he explodes with laughter right in Professor Higgins' face, unaware that his breath might not be at its sweetest.
37. Eddie Foy, Jr. (The Pajama Game): The perfect person to introduce the soft-shoe and the show we're about to see.
38. Ray Walston (Damn Yankees): Those were the good ol' days when we had him in musicals!
39. Carol Haney (The Pajama Game): Shirley MacLaine couldn't have done it better.
40. Stubby Kaye (Guys and Dolls): When you see a guy turn in a performance like this, you have to smile--nicely-nicely, of course.
41. Jessie Matthews (Evergreen): Too bad the lady went (literally) crazy some years later and her life and career were ruined.
42. Vivian Blaine (Guys and Dolls): A little broad, even for the broad she's playing, but still charming.
43. Kay Medford (Funny Girl): Though the part was whittled down from the Broadway show, she still managed an Oscar nomination. Bet she would have won had they let her sing "Who Taught Her Everything?"
44. Jack Gilford (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum): Love the supercilious way he says "Of course" when Philia says she's a virgin.
45. Stubby Kaye (L'il Abner): Especially for the grandiose way he introduces Senator Jack S. Farnsworth.
46. Nathaniel Frey (Damn Yankees): Love him in Fosse's baseball dance when he nonchalants (to use a hallowed baseball expression) catching a ball.
47. Alice Pearce (On the Town): Yeah, I had to be reminded that she created Lucy Schmeeler on stage, too.
48. Juanita Hall (Flower Drum Song): She shows a great deal of love for her sister's husband and two nephews, even when she doesn't agree with them.
49. Ivy St. Helier (Bitter Sweet): To be honest, I haven't seen her in this, but two extraordinarily bright friends insist that the way she does "If Love Were All" warrants her making the list. I'll accede.
50. Reta Shaw (The Pajama Game): I would trust her with any musical comedy role--maybe even Harold Hill.