After counting down a list of 365 movies and a catalog of 50 film scores, I’ve decided to find a nice round number for my future lists – 12! Top tens are everywhere so I’ll go two steps better and make every list a dozen. Lots of good things come in twelves: eggs, doughnuts, apostles, months, Gilbreths (look it up).
For my first Top Twelve, I’ll keep to the musical theme of my last list and recount my top musical numbers from musical films. This is not to say that these are necessarily the best songs, though some are. Rather, I consider a musical number to be the full package of a song: the vocals, the choreography, the cinematography, the physicality of the actors, the overall spectacle of the performance. All of these factors add up to pure entertainment, scenes I could watch anytime. (No animated songs this time; that’s another list and shall be told another time.) It does help that I love musicals in general, and of course this list is the product of personal preference, keeping everything to one song per musical. Let me know what you think, whether you agree or not so much. Let the listing commence!
- “America” – West Side Story (1961)
As popular as it is, West Side Story has never really grabbed me as one of the great musicals. It’s not that I dislike it; I just find it overrated. Nevertheless, I love the song “America,” sung by Oscar winner Rita Moreno and her Puerto Rican compadres. “America” turns a domestic argument over the pros and cons of a new home into an ingenious, toe-tapping debate. Full of witty rhyming come-backs and Latin flair, this is the highlight of the whole film.
- “That’s How You Know” – Enchanted (2007)
As the centerpiece of Disney’s enchanting crossover into live action, “That’s How You Know” puts Amy Adams in the spotlight, while spanning the whole of Central Park. Despite this being the supposed real world, plenty of performers and pedestrians join her like in an animated musical, proving Giselle’s infectious appeal and musical joie de vivre. Patrick Dempsey’s stern confusion is the perfect counterpoint to all the sincerity around him.
- “I Want It All” – High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)
I may be in the minority, but I really love the High School Musical films, perhaps because they came out when I was in the perfect tween age demographic. The musical numbers are their key strength, thanks to director/choreographer Kenny Ortega, and I had plenty to choose from. This over-the-top theme, in which Sharpay and Ryan dream big, blows them all away and includes visual cues from other Broadway musicals. While I like the second film best overall, this is proof that HSM reached its big-screen potential with the third film.
- “Me Old Bamboo” – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Dick Van Dyke probably wasn’t going to find any film to compare with Mary Poppins, but I think he came close with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, at least in the music department. The film overall isn’t nearly as good, but the musical numbers (written by the Sherman Brothers) have the same energy Van Dyke brought to Poppins (and without the fake accent). When his Professor Potts stumbles into a carnival show, he tries at first just to keep up, but eventually leads the whole troupe in some lively choreography while singing the catchiest song about sticks you ever heard.
- “Simon Zealotes” – Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Simon the Zealot has always been depicted as one of the lesser apostles, but Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar put him in the spotlight for one exuberant song. The zeal of Larry Marshall’s Simon is unmistakable as he goes nuts with a collection of worshipping dancers. Even if he thinks Christ has come to fight Rome, his ballyhoo becomes a genuine song of praise sure to get stuck in your head, while it brings out the head-banging side of my VC.
“Make ‘em Laugh” – Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
“Singin’ in the Rain” – Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
A tie here may make this list a baker’s dozen, but in a film full of memorable song-and-dance scenes, these two both rise to the top. “Make ‘em Laugh” is enough to lighten the heaviest moods, and Donald O’Connor’s manic energy is exhaustively entertaining. I’ve heard he had to go to the hospital after filming the scene, and I believe it. On the other hand, Gene Kelly is the star, and the title number is just too iconic to ignore. Classic to the last puddle.
- “Step in Time” – Mary Poppins (1964)
Dick Van Dyke once more takes the stage in the most vigorous number from Mary Poppins. Bert and his crew of chimney sweeps take to the roofs of London to prove their superior choreography. There’s no real reason for all the rooftop hullabaloo, but it’s impressive to watch, and no matter what P.L. Travers said in Saving Mr. Banks, it cemented Van Dyke as “one of the greats.”
- “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” – Hello, Dolly! (1969)
Sorry, I couldn’t find a video with the full number, but it’s my favorite part of Barbra Streisand’s inimitable Hello, Dolly! The vibrant dance steps and chipper ensemble wind through the streets of Yonkers as all the main players head to New York to fulfill their dreams. Even robots in 2805 will be humming this tune, according to WALL-E, and I’m glad that Pixar reintroduced this classic number to a new generation. Don’t take my word for it; go enjoy the movie for yourself.
- “Barn Dance” – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
While I don’t remember much of the film itself, it’s hard to forget this centerpiece of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. No lyrics necessary, just a country dance with some of the best gymnastics in any musical, as the Pontipee brothers in their colorful shirts fight for their chosen women in an epic dance-off.
- “Who Will Buy?” – Oliver! (1968)
When young Oliver Twist (an adorable Mark Lester) wakes up in a fancy home after knowing only hardships in his life, everything takes on a magical zest. The enticing cries of the street vendors overlap brilliantly, and everyone cavorts with the joy of a new day, from frilly schoolchildren to maids and handymen. It’s hard to top “Consider Yourself” earlier on, but “Who Will Buy?” carries the real wow of the film.
- “One Day More” – Les Miserables (2012)
Silence, all you Les Mis haters! “One Day More” acts as the culmination of all the exceptional music that came before. Every character’s theme is fused into a rousing ensemble piece to prelude the next day’s battle. Any vocal weaknesses are covered by the power and quality of the group performance (including Russell Crowe), and even the irritating Thenardiers’ tune adds to the overall impact of this magnificent song.
- “Do-Re-Mi” – The Sound of Music (1965)
Nothing could beat the greatest song from the greatest musical ever (just follow the link below). Julie Andrews as governess Maria teaches the von Trapp children how to sing and awakens their dormant musical talent. The streets of Salzburg are an ideal setting for their romp, and the backdrop of the Alps is glorious. Topped like a cherry with that unparalleled high note at the end, this classic scene is easily the king of all musical numbers.
Runners-Up (in alphabetical order by movie):
“Dear Mr. Adams” – 1776 (This funny number expertly melds humor and history. “Homicide! Homicide!”)
“Think” – The Blues Brothers (Aretha Franklin is amazing when her man threatens to walk out on her to join the band.)
“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” – Ella Enchanted (Silly but fun ending for a silly but fun movie.)
“The Lady’s Got Potential” – Evita (The film’s montage brings to life all the political turmoil of a rocking song.)
“If I Were a Rich Man” – Fiddler on the Roof (Tevye’s conversation with God becomes an amusing what-if daydream in his barn.)
“Never” – Footloose (Yes, it’s a musical, and Kevin Bacon and his stunt double are awesome dancing in the famous warehouse scene.)
“Don’t Rain on My Parade” – Funny Girl (Barbra Streisand at her early best.)
“You’re the One That I Want” – Grease (A catchy duet when Sandy and Danny come together at last.)
“Stick to the Status Quo” – High School Musical (The best song of the first film; still better than anything in Grease, IMO.)
“Work This Out” – High School Musical 2 (A Stomp-influenced kitchen scene with fun choreography.)
“Superstar” – Jesus Christ Superstar (More mocking unfortunately than “Simon Zealotes,” but still a groovy hit.)
“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – Mary Poppins (The longest word deserves a fun animated/live-action ditty.)
“76 Trombones” – The Music Man (An exemplary finale for Professor Harold Hill.)
“Consider Yourself” – Oliver! (An early showstopper spanning the streets of London.)
“Masquerade” – The Phantom of the Opera (A perfect example of the winning opulence of Joel Schumacher’s film version.)
“Get Back” – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Billy Preston’s surreal version of this song is even better than Paul McCartney’s, IMHO.)
“The Lonely Goatherd” – The Sound of Music (One of the most entertaining puppet scenes ever.)
“Follow the Yellow Brick Road” – The Wizard of Oz (Dorothy’s introduction to Oz is magical and iconic.)