The 11 Best Movie Musicals Set in New York City
From 'West Side Story' to 'Hamilton,' these classics are streaming now
En español | Musical fans rejoice! June 11 marks the theatrical and HBO Max release of In the Heights, the new film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning Broadway musical about life in the tight-knit Dominican community of Washington Heights. It's the latest in a very long line of New York City–set musicals that showcase the thrumming energy, frenetic pace and multicultural beats that make The City That Never Sleeps sing. With Broadway reopening in September, you'll have all summer to catch up with these Big Apple musical movies and filmed live performances that you can watch from home.
West Side Story (1961)
One of the greatest works of American art in any genre, this musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet — with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (now 91) — trades out Renaissance Italy for 1950s New York, and Manhattan's Upper West Side becomes the battleground for rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Based on the 1957 Broadway hit, the film adaptation nabbed 10 Oscars, including best picture, the most ever for a movie musical. Rita Moreno (now 89), who won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as Anita in the 1961 film, will return this year in a new adaptation by Steven Spielberg (74).
Most NYC musical moment: With its deceptively catchy Latin rhythms, it's easy to forget how insightful the song “America” is about the ups and downs of being a newly arrived immigrant in a city like New York.
Watch it: West Side Story, on Amazon Prime Video
On the Town (1949)
In this high-energy Technicolor musical, which first originated on Broadway in 1944, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin star as three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in New York City. MGM studio heads wanted to film the whole movie on a studio back lot in Hollywood, but codirectors Kelly and Stanley Donen convinced them to splurge on a few on-location shots — which is why you'll see the sailor trio on the Brooklyn Bridge, at Rockefeller Center, in Chinatown and even riding horses in Central Park.
Most NYC musical moment: No song more perfectly captures the Big Apple than “New York, New York,” and it even comes with its own geography lesson — we bet you'll never forget that “the Bronx is up, but the Battery's down.”
Watch it: On the Town, on Amazon Prime Video
Hello, Dolly! (1969)
Set in an 1890s New York of horse-drawn carriages and giant feather hats, this musical farce (directed by Gene Kelly) stars Barbra Streisand (now 79) as the brassy matchmaker Dolly Levi, who travels from Yonkers to the big city to find a wife for “half-a-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) — though she might have other plans in mind.
Most NYC musical moment: The show-stopping title tune, which features an appearance by Louis Armstrong, takes place in the fictional Harmonia Gardens restaurant, which is based on the palatial Gilded Age establishment Lüchow's.
Watch it: Hello, Dolly! on Disney+
Funny Girl (1968)
Hello, Dolly! makes for an excellent double feature with this other Streisand-starring Broadway adaptation that came out the year before and won Babs her first Oscar. Streisand stars as real-life comedian Fanny Brice, as she works her way up from the tenements of the Lower East Side to the vaudeville stage with the Ziegfeld Follies.
Most NYC musical moment: One of the most triumphant shots in movie history occurs as Streisand belts “Don't Rain on My Parade” from the deck of a tugboat just as it passes by the Statue of Liberty.
Watch it: Funny Girl, on Amazon Prime Video
Most stories about the American Revolution are set in either Boston or Philadelphia — where 1776 takes place — but Lin-Manuel Miranda's groundbreaking hip-hop musical focuses the attention on what happened in “ye olde” Big Apple during those fateful years. Today, you can still visit historic sites that served as settings in the play: Hamilton Grange, where Alexander and his wife, Elizabeth, move in the song “It's Quiet Uptown"; Fraunces Tavern, where Hamilton and Aaron Burr have a fateful meeting before their duel; and the Trinity Church Cemetery, where he's buried.
Most NYC musical moment: In the R&B-tinged song “The Schuyler Sisters,” the line “History is happening in Manhattan / And we just happen to be / In the greatest city in the world” always brings down the house during live performances.
Watch it: Hamilton, on Disney+
Newsies (1992) and Newsies: The Broadway Musical (2017)
If you thought the first secretary of the treasury was an obscure historical figure to base a musical around, check out this 1990s Disney extravaganza about the newsboys’ strike of 1899. The film starred a very young Christian Bale (now 47) as one of the strike leaders, Robert Duvall (now 90) as Joseph Pulitzer and Ann-Margret (now 80) as a vaudeville performer who helps the boys. Originally a flop, the movie gained a cult following, and it went on to spawn a Tony-winning Broadway musical — an underdog story befitting this ragtag team of strikers.
Most NYC musical moment: Although it was filmed on a studio back lot, “Seize the Day” is one of the best dance numbers set on the streets of New York since West Side Story.
Watch it: Newsies (the original film) and Newsies: The Broadway Musical on Disney+
Set in and around the gritty East Village, this rock ‘n’ roll remake of Puccini's La Bohème was like a bolt out of the blue when it premiered in 1996, tackling such topics as AIDS, homelessness and sexuality, and picking up both the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony for best musical in the process. It stayed on Broadway for 12 years, making it the 11th longest-running Broadway show of all time, before being adapted into a 2005 film starring many of the original cast members, including Taye Diggs (now 50) and Idina Menzel (now 50).
Most NYC musical moment: Set in the Life Café, which sadly closed in 2011 after 30 years, the song “La Vie Bohème” is a toast to all the things that make downtown bohemian living so special: “To Sontag, to Sondheim, to anything taboo / Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham and Cage / Lenny Bruce, Langston Hughes, to the stage / To Uta, to Buddha, Pablo Neruda, too."
Watch it: Rent, on Starz on Amazon Prime Video
Based on the classic Little Orphan Annie comic strip, this John Huston–directed musical stars newcomer Aileen Quinn (who turns 50 later this month) as the title orphan, who must deal with the sad reality of Great Depression–era New York — and the cruelty of orphanage manager Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett, now 88) — before being adopted by America's richest billionaire, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks (the late Albert Finney). Annie was later remade in 1999 and 2014 — if your day could use a trifecta of “Tomorrow."
Most NYC musical moment: The song “Let's Go to the Movies” culminates in a visit to Radio City Music Hall, which also happens to be where the film premiered.
Watch It: Annie (1982 version), on Starz on Amazon Prime Video; 1999 version on Disney+; 2014 version on Amazon Prime Video
42nd Street (1933, 2018)
The prototype for all backstage Broadway musicals to follow, this best picture Oscar nominee — ranked 13th on the American Film Institute's best musicals list — follows a young ingenue (Ruby Keeler) who arrives from Allentown, Pennsylvania, and becomes a star when a new musical's leading lady breaks her ankle the night before opening. The movie, which is filled with choreographer Busby Berkeley's dazzlingly kaleidoscopic production numbers, was adapted into a Broadway musical in 1981, and the 2001 production won the Tony for best revival of a musical.
Most NYC Musical Moment: In the pull-out-all-the-stops finale performance of the title tune, Berkeley's famous chorus girls hold up painted boards to create the New York skyline.
Watch it: 42nd Street (1933 movie), on HBO Max, and 2018 filmed stage version on Broadway HD
Oliver & Company (1988)
Grab the grandkids for one of Disney's lesser-known animated films, a cutesy kids movie that answers the question: What if we moved Oliver Twist from Victorian-era London to 1980s New York — and replaced everyone with dogs and cats? The cast includes Joey Lawrence (now 45) as the orphaned tabby cat Oliver, Bette Midler (now 75) as the spoiled poodle Georgette, Cheech Marin (now 74) as the feisty Chihuahua Tito, and Billy Joel (now 71) as the street-smart terrier-mix gang leader Dodger, who sang the Golden Globe–nominated song “Why Should I Worry?”
Most NYC musical moment: The film opens with the song “Once Upon a Time in New York City,” performed by Huey Lewis (now 70), as the camera pans over the skyline. To accurately recreate the scenery, Disney turned to a database kept by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architecture firm behind One World Trade Center and this year's Penn Station redesign.
Watch It: Oliver & Company, on Disney+
Much like the original 1968 Broadway musical, this cinematic adaptation by director Miloš Forman follows a tribe of anti-war hippies (led by Treat Williams, now 70) in Vietnam War–era New York City and features scenes filmed in Central Park and Washington Square Park — coincidentally, just a few blocks away from where Hair first premiered off-Broadway at the Public Theater.
Most NYC musical moment: The Central Park–set opening number “Age of Aquarius” was choreographed by Tony winner Twyla Tharp (now 79) and features dancers from her company.
Watch it: Hair, on Pluto TV (free)
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.