How These 8 Golden Age Broadway Shows Influenced Today’s Movie Musicals

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Photo Source: Courtesy Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization/Lionsgate

For more than two decades, the streets of Broadway were paved with gold. Bookmarked by blockbuster “book musicals” “Oklahoma!” (1943) and “Fiddler on the Roof” (1963), the Golden Age of theater cranked out critically acclaimed box office hits one after another, thanks to composing legends such as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and Bock and Harnick.

Musicals from the era seamlessly blended book, music, lyrics, and choreography to support the story. It’s no surprise why these timeless shows are still revived today, most recently “Camelot” (2023), “Oklahoma!” (2019), “Carousel” (2018), and “Hello, Dolly!” (2017). They’re sophisticated, witty, and downright hummable, featuring complex characters and themes.

And their influence extends beyond the stage: Elements of Golden Age musicals can be seen on screen in many contemporary movie musicals. “The Music Man” walked so “The Greatest Showman” could run. (Coincidentally, both have been played by Hugh Jackman!) Backstage takes on the impossible task of narrowing the list to an elite eight. 

“Oklahoma!” (1943)

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II’s first-ever collab blazed the trail for every Golden Age musical that followed. Just as the musical is a quintessentially American art form, “Oklahoma!” is a quintessentially American musical set in a new frontier. Charismatic cowboy Curly and surly ranch hand Jud vie for the affections of feisty farm girl Laurey. Hammerstein famously wrote the lyrics first, which ensured that every song had a purpose. Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) took a page from the musical with its opening number “Belle,” written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Like the “Oklahoma!” classic “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” the song propels the plot and peeks into characters in an efficient five-minute runtime. Meanwhile, the climactic “dream sequence” in the Oscar-winning “La La Land” evokes the “Oklahoma!” dream ballet.

“South Pacific” (1949)

With their musical set on an idyllic island during World War II, Rodgers and Hammerstein took aim at the country’s racism without compromising their signature style. “South Pacific” swept the 10 Tonys it was nominated for, including all four acting honors—a feat that’s never been repeated. Sure, the lush score is chock-full of instant classics like “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Bali Ha’i,” but it’s the lesser known “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”—during which Lt. Cable reckons with his ingrained prejudice—that surely left audiences with something to think about as they filed out of the Majestic Theatre. “South Pacific” arguably paved the way for thought-provoking, educational entertainment like the 2002 musical “Hairspray” (and its 2007 movie-musical adaptation), evidenced by Motormouth Mabel’s rousing “I Know Where I’ve Been” during a protest for racial equality in Baltimore.

“Guys and Dolls” (1950)

Gamblers and gangsters and showgirls—oh my! With a witty book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, a toe-tapping score by Frank Loesser, and big, flashy production numbers, “Guys and Dolls “remains an all-time crowd-pleasing musical comedy. (C’mon, even non-theater nerds have heard of “Luck, Be a Lady!”) Fast-forward 40 years to 1990’s “Dick Tracy, starring Warren Beatty and Madonna, which also featured zoot-suit mobsters, sultry showgirls, and memorable songs (by Stephen Sondheim, no less). And let’s not forget 2003’s Oscar-winning “Chicago,” which boasts several splashy dance sequences.

“The King & I” (1951)

In a show-stopping, stage-clearing number from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s influential classic, the curmudgeonly King of Siam warms up to British schoolteacher Anna as she teaches him to polka (“Shall We Dance?”). Disney paid homage in 1991 with Belle and the Beast’s ballroom waltz. Opposites attract? A tale as old as time.

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“West Side Story” (1957)

“Romeo and Juliet”…but make it modern day and in the middle of a dance-heavy gang war. A tall order, for sure, but it’s hard to fail when you assemble some of the greats of American theater: Jerome Robbins’ direction and choreography, Leonard Bernstein’s music, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (his first Broadway show), and Arthur Laurents’ book. “Maria,” “Tonight,” “America,” and “Somewhere” became ingrained in the great American songbook, covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand to the Muppets. Unlike most Golden Age musicals, this one…did not have a happy ending. A star-crossed fate that also befell Satine (Nicole Kidman) in 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!” and Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) in 2018’s “A Star Is Born. “The Lion King” (1994) followed suit with a very Shakespearean story. Meanwhile, “I Feel Pretty” influenced Emma Stone’s “get-ready” dance number “Somewhere in the Crowd” from “La La Land.”

“Gypsy” (1959)

This big, brassy burlesque fable is the mother of all Golden Age musicals. A star vehicle for Ethel Merman as the ultimate stage mom, Jule Styne and Sondheim’s score boasts standard after standard—“Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Let Me Entertain You,” “Some People,” “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”—but it’s the 11 o’clock number, “Rose’s Turn” that’s challenged future movie musicals to out-diva that showstopper (see Jennifer Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You” in 2006’s “Dreamgirls, Fantasia Barrino’s “I’m Here” in 2023’s “The Color Purple,” and Cynthia Erivo’s “Defying Gravity” in the upcoming “Wicked” adaptation.)

“The Sound of Music” (1959)

Despite cynics calling it “overtly sentimental” and “saccharine,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final collaboration—a musical based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp—was an immediate smash. Mary Martin won a Tony for playing nun-in-training-turned-governess Maria, who wins over the stern, widowed Captain von Trapp and his seven children through song. In fact, this seminal show won over the entire world with its indelible standards, arguably the most enduring of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songbook: “Do-Re-Mi,” "My Favorite Things,” “Edelweiss,” “Climb Ev'ry Mountain,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” and the title song. The 1965 Oscar-winning film (starring Julie Andrews) shot it into the cultural stratosphere. Other global hits that embraced their unabashed sentimentality: Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic phantasmagoria “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) and Timothee Chalamet in the sweet candy-coated “Wonka” (2023).

“Fiddler on the Roof” (1964)

The 1960s may have ushered in the age of the “concept musical” (“Hair,” “Cabaret,” “Company”), but at least the Golden Age went out with a bang with “Fiddler. It smashed all box office records and was the first to play more than 3,000 performances—the longest-running show on Broadway for years. Bock and Harnick’s score included standouts like “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “Sunrise, Sunset.” Although the musical may have seemed super-specific to a Jewish community surviving in a tiny Russian village, focusing on a family facing real issues in an ever-changing world gave it universal appeal. Similarly, “Once” (2007) resonated with audiences from all cultures and backgrounds, despite being set in Ireland.