Essays · Movies

Which Came First? 8 Movie Musicals and Their Adaptations

Our enjoyment of popular movie musicals is one that seems to never fade away over time. But which came first: the musical or the movie?
Singing In The Rain
By  · Published on August 17th, 2018

Musicals seem to never fail at making us laugh, cry, and sing our hearts out, often making for a fun and light-hearted film viewing experience that almost anyone can enjoy. But while we often watch them through our screens, this isn’t necessarily their original form. Many movie musicals are adaptations of productions initially made for the stage, but a handful of them are also ones that were first written for the screen.

Here’s the lowdown on some of the most popular movie musicals and whether the movie or the live musical came first:

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

What came first?: The movie

Most fans of musicals will likely already know that the first form of Singin’ in the Rain was Gene Kelly and  Stanley Donen’s iconic film. Not only did it become revered in the realm of musicals, but is considered a landmark classic film in general, is a constant reference in pop culture even today. The film was adapted for the stage in 1985 and its original run on Broadway lasted for nearly a year.

West Side Story (1961)

What came first?: The musical

Basing its premise on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is about the rivalry between two gangs of differing ethnic backgrounds and the star-crossed lovers that are caught between it. Another musical to hold a certain status of iconicity, this story is one that started out as a live production. Opening in 1957, the musical was critically acclaimed, and its film adaptation released only a few years later didn’t trail far behind, also receiving plenty of acclaim. The film was nominated for a whopping 11 Academy Awards and ended up winning 10 of them.

Grease (1978)


What came first?: The musical

Grease originated as a live musical production in the early ’70s, earning much interest due to what was considered its vulgar and raunchy nature at the time. At the time it closed in 1980, it had been the longest-running Broadway show in history and is still the 15th longest-running show today. The film adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was both a critical and commercial success, earning consistent references in pop culture in the years following. The soundtrack to the film in particular performed extremely well, becoming the second-highest selling album that year, and earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for its track “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” which was not a part of the original stage production.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

Moulin Rouge

What came first?: The movie

Baz Luhrmann’s unique 2001 film is campy, eccentric, and fun, and possesses so much of the director’s signature style that it isn’t too difficult to believe that the film was this story’s original form. Following a young poet (Ewan McGregor) who falls in love with a cabaret actress (Nicole Kidman), the musical is filled with cover versions of contemporary pop songs. The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and won 2. The film was only adapted for the stage very recently, opening in Boston on July 10, 2018, and is expected to move to Broadway in 2019.

Hairspray (2007)


What came first?: The movie

Technically speaking, Hairspray originated as a John Waters film in 1988 that became a cult classic, but while the film may feature dancing, it is not a musical. However, the film was adapted for a live musical production in 2002. The show was a success, earning 13 Tony nominations and winning 8 of the awards. One of the resulting outcomes of the show’s success was its adaptation into a film in 2007 starring Nikki Blonsky, Zac Efron, Michelle Pfeiffer, and John Travolta. The film was both a critical and commercial success, dealing heavily with themes of racial segregation and discrimination.

Mamma Mia! (2008)

Mamma Mia

What came first?: The musical

While the film adaptation is strongly beloved by many, Mamma Mia! actually began as a stage musical, opening in 1999. The show solely features music from the repertoire of Swedish pop group ABBA, making it fairly unique production in terms of its musical numbers. The musical was adapted into a film in 2008, starring Amanda Seyfried and Meryl Streep. Audiences get to delight in the fun of watching Sophie (Seyfried) invite the three men who could potentially be her father to her wedding, without the knowledge of her mother (Streep). The plot combined with an array of ABBA songs and an idyllic setting on a Greek island, it’s no wonder viewers came back for a sequel in 2018.

Les Misérables (2012)

Les Miserables

What came first?: The musical

The story of Les Misérables first originated with a novel about the French Revolution by Victor Hugo, published back in 1862. The novel was considered one of the most important stories of the 19th century and was further popularized when it was adapted into a live musical in 1980. It is easily one of the most well-known musical theatre productions, and while the novel had been adapted into several film versions, there were no film adaptations of the musical for years. However, in 2012, Tom Hooper released his film adaptation of the musical starring Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, and Anne Hathaway, the latter winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Fantine.

La La Land (2016)

La La Land

What came first?: The musical

Damien Chazelle’s award-winning fan favorite may not be a stage musical yet, but a live production is highly likely to come to fruition in the years to come. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, this charming musical follows two struggling artists caught between achieving their dreams and pursuing their love. Chazelle has noted that La La Land actually draws much inspiration from the previously mentioned Singin’ in the Rain, and his direction makes the artistic vision necessary to pull off this film become fully realized. It proved worthwhile, becoming one of the most nominated films for the Academy Awards in history. I wouldn’t be surprised if a stage adaptation isn’t too far off.

These are only some of the incredibly influential musicals that either began as or were adapted into the medium of film and goes to show the magnificent power that lies in bringing these two artistic forces together.

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I write about film and occasionally other stuff. Xavier Dolan enthusiast. Trying to read books before seeing their film adaptations and sometimes succeeding.