Whenever a studio announces a new movie musical, musical lovers like me tend to wait with a mix of delight and worry. Some years, the only new movie musicals are primarily aimed at children, but 2021’s roster offered a full buffet with stories of all kinds. Though I can’t tour you through every 2021 option here, here are four samples of the year’s best, brightest, and strangest movie musicals.
In the Heights (June 2021, Theaters/HBO Max)
Lin-Manuel Miranda first began composing In the Heights in college, earning the soon-to-be Hamilton creator his Broadway debut and his first Tony award back in 2008. Over a decade later, Miranda and cowriter Quiara Alegría Hudes updated the show for the screen, condensing some plotlines for time and reworking others to reflect current events.
I first listened to the musical’s original cast album during a long, dull summer of retail work. The library CD lived in my old, persnickety car almost all July, and I drove to and from shifts with the stories of Usnavi’s neighborhood rumbling through the speakers.
I found myself missing much of the richness of the stage version in its film adaptation, since the movie cuts, condenses, and demotes several plotlines. But overall, In the Heights is an enthralling experience. The story bursts with color, humor, and life, even while exploring heavy themes of racism, gentrification, and grief. The characters (especially Gregory Diaz IV’s Sonny) are complex and charming, and the musical numbers match the music beat-for-beat with energy and creativity. In the Heights is the perfect summer story, with plenty of themes to ponder while you hum “96,000” for the sixteenth time.
Standout Musical Number: Olga Merediz’s “Pacienca y Fe,” set in a glowing subway station, surrounded by a sympathetic-then-menacing ensemble. Tragic, beautiful, and unforgettable.
Cinderella (September 2021, Amazon Prime)
Amazon Prime might have hoped to create this generation’s definitive version of the fairy tale, but I truly don’t know if Cinderella’s creators dreamed of much beyond making a lot of money. According to promotional interviews, James Corden shared an idea for a jukebox Cinderella musical with this movie’s creators, who loved the idea enough to assemble a slapdash playlist of songs that barely relate to the story. If the chorus of the song vaguely fits the situation, the characters will sing it: the whole kingdom sings “Rhythm Nation,” the stepmother and stepsisters belt out “Material Girl,” and the prince and Cinderella dance to “Perfect.” Though I admit that jukebox musicals aren’t my favorite part of the genre, many members of the subgenre (e.g., Mamma Mia!, Moulin Rouge) have managed to create more compelling stories than this.
When not featuring rather-random song selections, the movie spends its time shouting WE. ARE. A. FEMINIST. MOVIE. rather than creating a sensible story or comprehensible dialogue. For example, the film gives its Prince Charming a sister, Princess Gwen, who would be a far better ruler than her older brother. But of course a girl can’t rule the kingdom. Instead of showing Princess Gwen’s gifts or even building our empathy for her struggles, the film relies on lines like this: “You’re literally refusing to let me have a seat at the table.” Once or twice, a line like this could be clever; when used multiple times, eye-rolling is inevitable.
Some of this Cinderella is pleasant. Most of it is tolerable. Occasional moments are nightmare-inducing. If you’re looking for a musical version of Cinderella, please watch the 1997 TV version featuring Brandy and Whitney Houston. If you’re looking for a strong, independent Cinderella story, please watch 1998’s Ever After featuring Drew Barrymore. Just please, please spare yourself the torment of viewing James Corden’s full-sized head atop a CGI mouse’s tiny body.
Standout Musical Number: “Dream Girl,” one of Cinderella’s few original songs, performed by Idina Menzel with such flair that I wished her Evil Stepmother had a better home than this muddled mess of a movie.
Tick, Tick, Boom! (November 2021, Netflix)
While much of this film’s buzz has revolved around Andrew Garfield’s shocking singing talents, this movie is far, far too good to only be remembered for that reason. Tick, Tick, Boom! is based on the semi-autobiographical musical by Jonathan Larson–who died of a heart aneurysm just before the success of his now best-known work, Rent. The story opens with Jonathan facing the terrifying prospect of turning thirty in 1990, not knowing whether his latest musical workshop will succeed or fail. When Jonathan’s not waiting tables at the Moondance Diner, he’s writing and writing and writing. His friends are struggling, and his relationship is crumbling.
I won’t reveal much more of Tick, Tick, Boom!’s story for you—it’s better to let you watch it unfold, song by song. But I will tell you that this movie kept reminding me again and again of what we do here at the post calvin. Tick, Tick, Boom! is a story about mentorship, about encouragement, about what it means to grow up into your friendships, your creativity, and yourself. In ways small and big, the writing we do here helps us figure out how to do that—in the shadow of turning thirty.
Standout Musical Number: “Sunday,” a cameo-studded tribute to the magic of musical theater that only grew in resonance after the news of Sondheim’s passing, just about two weeks after Tick, Tick, Boom! premiered.
West Side Story (December 2021)
2021’s West Side Story faces a very different challenge than the other movie musicals I’ve discussed: how do you live up to and live beyond an acclaimed predecessor? Back in 1961, a film version of WSS racked up numerous Oscars and spent weeks on the musical charts. The movie was—is—both absolutely gorgeous and deeply flawed. It features groundbreaking cinematography and performances, and it features less-than-authentic acting (multiple characters were portrayed in brownface) and singing (multiple actors did not do their own vocals).
While 2021’s West Side Story is not perfect, it is a compelling picture of how to film a remake with artistry and beauty. The script has been updated for the present day by expanding contexts and nuances that the story already suggested. The performances are staggeringly incredible: Ansel Elgort (Tony) sticks out not for being embarrassingly bad—à la Russell Crowe in 2012’s Les Miserables—but for being just good, compared to the spectacular Rachel Zegler (Maria), Ariana DeBose (Anita), David Alvarez (Bernando), and Mike Faist (Riff).
For me, the best musicals pair heightened emotions with heightened visuals, and West Side Story does just that. The finger-snapping gang members are still rather ridiculous but not any more than our central lovers meeting one night and marrying the next afternoon. If the emotions of the story feel honest and true—even if the specifics of the story are absolutely insane—I’ll be captivated by every moment.
Standout Musical Number: “America,” gloriously freed from its 1961 rooftop set to dance in the streets of New York. The lyrics are still incisive and clever (“Life is all right in America / if you’re a white in America”). Paul Tazewell’s costumes are spectacular and eye-catching (those yellow-and-red dresses!). A lyrical and visual powerhouse.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.