With eager audiences always hungry for more, Hollywood is continually looking for new sources of inspiration. Few have proved quite as attractive as Broadway, whose musical output has been providing fodder for silver screen hits ever since Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer in 1927.
If you look at box office numbers directly, the standout adaptation is 2008’s Abba-tastic romcom spectacular Mamma Mia!, which pulled in no less than $609, 881,238 at the box office alone, but, of course, it’s easier to make millions now than it was in the past just because of inflation. Adjust for that and the picture looks rather different, with the mid-20th Century revealed as a golden age for musical theater and musical cinema alike. These are the big hits with tunes you probably still can’t get out of your head.
The Sound of Music
An enduring family favorite, making the top five even before we adjust for its 1965 release date, Robert Wise’s take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic made $163,214,286 in its time, equivalent to $286,214,286 today, and held the box office record for highest-grossing movie for several years. Winning five Oscars, it went on to find new fans as a staple of seasonal television.
My Fair Lady
Adapted by the great George Cukor from Lerner and Loewe’s massively popular show, itself based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, a take on the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, this 1964 hit made $72,000,000, which adjusts to $652,654,154 today. Helping to make Audrey Hepburn a star, it won eight Oscars and enjoyed further success after being restored in 1994 – as well as inspiring dramatic hit Pretty Woman.
Although it debuted in Chicago, it was Broadway where Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s show found its natural home, and from there that it found its way to Hollywood under director Randal Kleiser, with stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Released in 1978, it made $181,813,771, or $602,892,685 in today’s money, and subsequent re-issues have seen it become even more successful, appealing to teenagers in every generation.
West Side Story
Another tale of teenagers falling in love and trying to find their way in a messed-up world, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s show fared even better on the screen than on the stage when it was released in 1961, making $43,700,000, which translates to $533,899,997 now. It won ten Oscars and has since gone on to tour as a form of movie/theatrical hybrid, frequently screening with live orchestral accompaniment.
Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1949 Broadway hit, which tackled issues around racism with the sweetener of romance, was adapted for the screen by Joshua Logan in 1958 and made $36,800,000, which adjusts to $456,211,764 today. Its soundtrack album became a record-breaking bestseller. In 2005, a long lost three-hour version of the print was rediscovered and restored, since when it has become a popular collector’s item on DVD.
Fiddler on the Roof
This witty little show by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein has proven to be an enduring Broadway favorite, most recently revived by the prolific producer Louise Gund. It was made into a movie by Norman Jewison in 1971 and went on to enjoy the same kind of popularity in movie theaters, making $83,300,300, which adjusts to $408,170,029. With 300 extras and violin solos by Isaac Stern, it remains one of Hollywood’s most spectacular adaptations.
When Julie Stein and Bob Merrill’s musical was adapted for the big screen by William Wyler, it went without saying that its star, Barbra Streisand, would go with it, and the 1968 hit made $58,500,000, equivalent to $376,454,194 today. Streisand saw it as a watershed moment, allowing a Jewish woman to be seen as intelligent, talented and capable of delivering comedy. She was praised for her comic timing and won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
The King and I
By now you may have spotted a trend in this article – attach the names Rogers and Hammerstein and you’ve got potential movie theater gold. This Tony and Oscar-winning hit proved to be no exception, making $21,300,000, which adjusts to $359,118,000, when it was adapted by Walter Lang in 1956. Though some fans were disappointed that it didn’t include every song from the stage production, it won a legion of new admirers.
Have there been any bigger successes? The picture remains complicated. Perhaps the biggest cinema box office profits overall have come from Les Misérables, simply because it has been adapted so many times. With Ladj Ly’s Oscar-nominated version still touring theaters, it’s well on track to bring in $800,000,000 between them. Still, if we come to look at this subject again in a decade’s time, it seems likely that The Hills are Alive will still be ringing in our ears.