Beyond the golden age of 1930s Hollywood, the 1960s was the most fertile decade for high-quality cinematic musicals. For example, four of the ten Academy Award Best Picture Winners were musical adaptations, including such iconic titles as West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Oliver!
By the end of the decade, personal and intimate auteur filmmaking began shifting the paradigm in Hollywood, all but ending a decade largely defined by big-budget family-driven musicals. With intermittent resurgences coming in the decades to follow, it finally seems like the musical genre is poised for a major comeback in the wake of the success of La La Land and The Greatest Showman – but which are the best classics?
Updated on August 1st, 2021 by Amanda Bruce: It seems that every decade has an iconic musical that latches onto the pop-culture consciousness and won’t let go. The 1970s had Grease; the 2000s had High School Musical. The 1960s musicals, however, were all stellar. The best musicals from the ’60s each deserve their chance to be remembered, and most of them are available to stream online for subscribers to the biggest services like Disney+.
12 Rodgers And Hammerstein’s Cinderella (1965)
Today, when most people think of the Rodgers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella’s story, they think of the 1997 version starring Brandy and Whitney Houston. The truth is, however, that there have been many versions before it. The 1965 version was also a made-for-tv movie version of the story.
It followed the 1957 film version and several successful stage productions. A few scenes were changed to help the movie run more smoothly, though the songs remained intact, and they definitely worked. The special aired eight more times after its debut through 1974. It also held the honor of being the highest-rated (non-sports) special to air on CBS until 2009!
11 Hello, Dolly! (1969)
Inspired by the 1964 stage musical, Hello, Dolly! starred Barbara Streisand in the title role. It follows the matchmaking character on a trip to New York while she tried to find a new wife for a “half a millionaire.”
While the movie didn’t blow box office numbers away, it did receive a handful of Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and won for Best Score. Critics also didn’t love it when comparing it to other 60s musicals, but over fifty years later, it’s one of the classics.
10 The Music Man (1962)
- Available to rent on iTunes and Youtube
The Music Man was nominated for six Oscars total, including one win for Best Score. The film revolves around Harold Hill, a world-class hustler and grifter who poses as the bandleader of a juvenile band in small-town Iowa.
As Hill begins swindling the locals of their money to pay for musical instruments and other provisions for a boy’s marching band, he hides the fact he has no knowledge of music whatsoever. To help sell his ruse, Hill depends on the real music teacher, Marian Paroo, though she doesn’t realize the truth right away.
9 Mary Poppins (1964)
Julie Andrews was one of the biggest movie stars of 1960s musicals, with her Oscar-winning performance as Mary Poppins solidifying her status as an all-time great. The film won four additional Oscars, including wins for Best Score, Original Music, Film Editing, and Visual Effects.
The film follows Poppins, a nanny with magical and mystical powers who uses music to take two unloved children on a life-changing adventure. The beloved and timeless tale was remade in 2018 with Emily Blunt in the title role.
8 The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964)
Acclaimed French filmmaker Jaques Demy made a bevy of cinematic musicals throughout the 1960s, Lola and The Young Girls of Rochefort among them, but none top his 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Every line of dialogue is sung in lyrical form, amounting to one of the most colorfully unique musicals of all time.
The story follows Guy and Genevieve, two lovers separated by impending war. With Guy set to be deployed, Genevieve is left with a difficult decision that could very well paint the rest of her life. The film scored a total of five Oscar nods.
7 The Producers (1967)
- Available to rent on Prime Video and Vudu
The legendary Mel Brooks won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his hilarious musical comedy The Producers. Star Gene Wilder was also nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Produced on the stage several times since 1967, the film follows a desperate theater producer who concocts a scheme to make as much money as possible by deliberately producing a critical and financial failure. When the plan backfires spectacularly, the offensive “Springtime for Hitler” play becomes a surprising runaway hit.
6 Funny Girl (1968)
Barbara Streisand rose to prominence as the star of several 1960s musicals. In William Wyler’s Funny Girl, Streisand won her first of two career Academy Awards, although she shared the award with Katherine Hepburn for The Lion In Winter.
The episodic musical comedy follows the personal and professional life of Fanny Brice, a famous comedienne and nightclub entertainer who rises from the clubs of Vaudeville to one of the Zigfield Follies’ most beloved performers. The film logged an additional seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.
5 A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Richard Lester’s musical documentary A Hard Day’s Night radically altered how Hollywood perceived the big-screen musical. The non-fiction, non-narrative film opened the world up to the zany personalities of the Beatles’ Fab Four.
The black-and-white film traces two days in the life of The Beatles ahead of a widely televised concert performance. It features several of the group’s early hits and gives insight into their own personal quirks and peccadilloes. The film nabbed Oscar nods for Best Music and Best Original Screenplay.
4 The Sound Of Music (1965)
One year after winning Best Actress for her portrayal of Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews starred in The Sound of Music, the Best Picture Winner of 1965. The influential musical film won five total Academy Awards, including Best Director for Robert Wise.
Andrews stars as Maria, an exuberant Austrian woman who forgoes her life as a nun to become a caretaker for seven unruly children in the 1930s. When she takes the job, she is met with rudeness by the seven unhappy children, whose mother is dead and whose father spends much of his time away. Slowly, Maria imbues the children with a sense of euphoric delight through uplifting songs.
3 Oliver! (1968)
The loose musical adaptation of Charles Dicken’s classic tale Oliver Twist won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Art Direction, Score, and Sound.
Directed by Carol Reed, Oliver! finds the famed titular orphan running away from his adoptive mortician father en route to joining a street gang of boyish thieves. Once he joins the group, Oliver acts on his worst impulses with the devilish help of an older and wiser mentor, Fagin.
2 My Fair Lady (1964)
Winner of eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, George Cukor’s My Fair Lady boasts a 95% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes to match its 95/100 Metascore.
Audrey Hepburn stars in the film as Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower seller who is turned into a radiant socialite by Henry Higgins, a stuffy and arrogant speech teacher. While they butt heads with each other at first, Henry and Liza form a meaningful bond as the latter climbs the ranks of societal beauty and is pursued by dashing suitor Freddy.
1 West Side Story (1961)
- Available to rent on iTunes and Prime Video
Four years before he won a Best Director Oscar for The Sound of Music, Robert Wise achieved the same feat for his work on West Side Story, the best musical of the entire decade. The film won a total of 10 Academy Awards.
Loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the film focuses on the unrequited love between Tony and Maria, two potential mates from opposite sides of the tracks. With musical numbers that express the human experience in America, a giant battle between rival gangs The Jets and The Sharks takes place for ultimately neighborhood supremacy. It’s one of the most beloved 60s musicals.
10 Movies Where The Hero Became The Villain