Living in ‘La La Land’: 10 Best Book-Based Musicals

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in ‘La La Land’/Image © Lionsgate

The new original film musical “La La Land” twirls in the bright colors and grand cinematic footsteps of classics such as “Singin’ in the Rain.” It also presents a contemporary dilemma: Can love survive between two ambitious and talented Los Angelenos?

Ryan Gosling plays Sebastian, a jazz musician with a day job in a 1980s cover band and a hankering to open his own club. Emma Stone is Mia, an actress frustrated after six years of auditions and a regular gig at the counter of a studio-lot coffee shop. Among the hills and landmarks of the City of Angels, they keep crossing paths, sparring, singing and dancing before love literally sweeps them off their feet during a magical date at the Griffith Observatory. (Seriously. They dance in the stars.)

Writer-director Damien Chazelle, who helmed the Oscar-winning “Whiplash” (2013), adds homages to beloved musicals like “An American in Paris” (1951) throughout, but with the poignant “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964) as an influence, he also forecasts a bittersweet ending. “The idea was to take the old musical but ground it in real life where things don’t always exactly work out,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.

Musicals tend to have a sunny reputation, thanks to family ones such as “The Wizard of Oz.” But onscreen love seems never to run smoothly, even when set to music. So with that, here are ten book-based musicals that hit a melancholy note, either in the final act or along the road to happiness.

“West Side Story” (1961)
William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was the inspiration behind “West Side Story,” the 1961 multiple Academy Award-winner. The film transplanted the star-crossed lovers (Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer) from Verona to New York City amid racial tension and feuding street gangs.

“Fiddler on the Roof” (1971)
Arranged marriage and marrying within one’s faith are two traditions the daughters of a Jewish Ukrainian milkman (Topol) rebel against while dealing with political upheaval in 1971’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” This Oscar-winner for Best Musical Score is based on the fictional memoir Tevye and His Daughters by Sholem Aleichem.

“Les Misérables” (2012)
Victor Hugo’s nineteenth-century novel about ex-convict Jean Valjean and his struggle for redemption inspired a sung-through Broadway musical and the 2012 film “Les Miserables,” which earned Anne Hathaway an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Living under a new identity, Valjean (Hugh Jackman) grows to care for a destitute woman (Hathaway) fired from his factory as well as her daughter while trying to stay ahead of a ruthless policeman (Russell Crowe).

“Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944)
Sally Benson’s novel of vignettes about a year in one family’s life before the 1904 World’s Fair became this film, which launched star Judy Garland’s holiday standard “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Garland plays older daughter Esther, smitten with the guy next door (Tom Drake), whose initial idea of a compliment is that her perfume reminds him of his grandmother.

“42nd Street” (1933)
Chorus girl Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) catches the eye of a Broadway show’s juvenile lead (Dick Powell) and ends up replacing the star at the last minute in this toe-tapper with elaborate choreography by the famed Busby Berkeley. The original novel by Bradford Ropes includes a same-sex romance cut from the film.

“Guys and Dolls” (1955)
Damon Runyon’s short stories inspired a Broadway musical and this film, which cast Marlon Brando as gambler Sky Masterson, who falls for female missionary Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) in spite of himself. Sky’s buddy Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) has his own troubles, both in outwitting the cops and appeasing Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), his fiancée of fourteen years.

“The King and I” (1956)
Yul Brynner won an Oscar as King Mongkut of Siam, who forms an unusual friendship with a British widow (Deborah Kerr) serving as the live-in governess of his children. The play is based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon.

“Man of La Mancha” (1972)
Peter O’Toole plays writer Miguel de Cervantes, his most-famous creation Don Quixote, and Quixote’s alter ego Alonso Quijana in this musical adaptation of Don Quixote de la Mancha about a delusional knight errant. Sophia Loren is Aldonza, a server and sometime prostitute at the local inn with whom he becomes enamored and renames as the lady Dulcinea.

“Cabaret” (1972)
The rise of the Third Reich in Berlin provides the background for the romantic entanglements of nightclub singer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), a British writer (Michael York), and a rich playboy (Helmut Griem) in this multiple Oscar-winner, loosely adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories.

“The Sound of Music” (1965)
It’s hard to imagine a single downbeat moment in this feel-good Oscar winner about Maria (Julie Andrews), a novitiate nun who becomes a governess for widower Baron von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and his seven children. But that hiccup appears once the baron’s jealous girlfriend (Eleanor Parker) notices their burgeoning feelings and convinces the naïve Maria that she’s somehow broken her holy vows. Maria flees the household in shame, only for the kind Mother Abbess (Peggy Wood) to set her straight.