The essential musicals of 2021: “West Side Story,” “Encanto,” “In the Heights” and more

Left: Bo Burnham in "Bo Burnham: Inside" and Camilla Cabello in "Cinderella." Center: Andrew Garfield in "Tick, Tick... Boom!" Right: Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez in "West Side Story" and Melissa Barrera in "In the Heights."

2021 may not have been a year worth singing about, but it was certainly a year with no shortage of singing.

Movie musicals were a massive trend this year, from big showy theatrical events like "West Side Story" and "In The Heights" to smaller but no less impactful streaming fare like "Tick, Tick... Boom!" and "Everybody's Talking About Jamie." The year even got a defining misfire thanks to the bizarrely cast musical boondoggle "Dear Evan Hansen" — and as any musical theatre fan would tell you, the flops can be just as fascinating as the smash hits.

Those titles make up just a sliver of this year’s music-filled movies and specials, which also include a fantastic concert documentary, a pioneering pandemic special, a filmed Broadway stage performance, a musical TV show and tons and tons of Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

Here, in no particular order, are the musicals that defined 2021. 

Steven Spielberg’s "West Side Story" (in theaters now)


Rachel Zegler as Maria in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Remaking an iconic Hollywood classic is a steep proposition. Restaging a new version of a popular stage show is slightly less daunting. For his new take on "West Side Story," director Steven Spielberg sort of splits the difference — he pulls from the beloved 1961 movie musical as well as the original Broadway stage show, while adding a few new elements of his own. This is "West Side" as you’ve seen it before, and also as you haven’t. The result is an earnestly old-fashioned movie musical that dazzles in so many ways. The choreography is truly breathtaking and it’s worth heading to a theater just to hear Leonard Bernstein’s soaring score played by a full orchestra in surround sound. Rated PG-13. 156 minutes. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Featuring: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Josh Andrés Rivera.

Read Caroline Siede’s full review of "West Side Story."

WHERE TO WATCH: In theaters now.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s "In The Heights" (HBO Max)


Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in "In the Heights."

Before Lin-Manuel Miranda became a household name with "Hamilton," he burst onto Broadway with this vibrant ode to the Latinx community in Washington Heights. "In The Heights" blends a contemporary setting with an old-fashioned musical sensibility to carve out its own unique place in the musical theater canon. And the long-anticipated movie adaptation from director Jon M. Chu ("Crazy Rich Asians") is just as vibrant and twice as big. Filled with innovatively staged numbers and a charismatic cast of up-and-comers, it’s a musical treat as satisfying as an ice-cold piragua on a hot summer day. Rated PG-13. 143 minutes. Dir: Jon M. Chu. Featuring: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits.

WHERE TO WATCH: Steaming on HBO Max and VOD. 

"Encanto," with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (in theaters now)


Mirabel Madrigal struggles to fit in a family where everyone has been blessed with magical powers - everyone but her. Determined to prove she belongs within this extraordinary family, she strives to contribute in meaningful ways—denying to everyone,

While most 2021 family films understandably made their debuts on streaming platforms, "Encanto" aimed to welcome families back to the megaplex with a theatrical-only release. Set in a magical village in Colombia, this lushly animated flick follows the one non-magical member of a family blessed with superhuman abilities. Featuring toe-tapping songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a story that evokes the South American tradition of magical realism, "Encanto" expands the grand Disney tradition to include a whole new kind of family. Rated PG. 109 minutes. Dir: Jared Bush, Byron Howard. Featuring the voices of: Stephanie Beatriz, María Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Mauro Castillo, Wilmer Valderrama,Alan Tudyk.

WHERE TO WATCH: In theaters now. On Disney+ Dec. 24.

Camilla Cabello in "Cinderella" (Prime Video)


Camila Cabello and Billy Porter star in CINDERELLA Courtesy of Amazon Studios © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

If cinematic adaptations of classic stories reflect the time in which they’re made, filmmaker Kay Cannon’s musical "Cinderella" embodies a bleak present. Unwilling to deviate from its narrow lens of girl-boss feminism, this "Cinderella," arriving courtesy of Amazon Studios, feels like an algorithm rather than entertainment. Practically every element, in particular the limited titular performance from singer Camila Cabello, falls flat. "Cinderella" is motivated only by a vague sense of "girl power," and that would be tolerable if the end result weren’t so broad and bland. ... Every generation should get the ability to tell its own story. But this new "Cinderella" is difficult to enjoy when it resembles a watered-down version of braver adaptations, and when its primary update to the source material suggests that your real worth as a woman is determined by how much wealth you can accumulate. Rated PG. 113 minutes. Dir: Kay Cannon. Featuring: Camila Cabello, Billy Porter, Idina Menzel, Nicholas Galitzine, Pierce Brosnan, Minnie Driver, Maddie Baillo, Charlotte Spencer, James Corden.

Read Roxana Hadadi’s full review of "Cinderella."

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Intense comedy special "Bo Burnham: Inside" (Netflix)


Bo Burnham in Bo Burnham: Inside. (c) Courtesy of Netflix 2021.

Nobody turns anxiety into art like Bo Burnham. The comedian released the defining comedy special of the year with this absurdist, surprisingly moving musical fantasia he recorded alone in his guest house during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, it’ll maybe even make you feel a little less alone during this strange phase of life — and it will definitely make you rethink your Instagram choices. Rated TV-MA. 87 minutes. Dir: Bo Burnham.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Netflix.

"Tick, Tick... Boom!" and yet more Lin-Manuel Miranda (Netflix)


tick, tick...BOOM! (L-R) ANDREW GARFIELD as JONATHAN LARSON in tick, tick...BOOM!. Cr. MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX © 2021

Lin-Manuel Miranda also made his directorial debut this year, with this heartfelt passion project that tells the real-life story of "Rent" creator Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield). "Tick, Tick… Boom!" actually started life as a semi-autobiographical stage show written by Larson himself. And Miranda refashioned the material into an even more overt biopic, one that’s infused with love for Larson’s work and a deep understanding of the challenges of writing a musical. 

While Broadway aficionados will be thrilled by the cameos and Easter eggs tucked inside this love letter to musical theater, "Tick, Tick… Boom!" also tells a universally relatable story about the cost of pursuing a creative career and the fear of growing up and falling behind. Yet the single biggest reason to check it out is the career-best performance from Garfield, whose bombastic physicality and impressive singing voice bring Larson to life with a fiery, prickly passion worthy of a man who changed the face of American musical theater forever. Rated PG-13. 115 minutes. Dir: Lin-Manuel Miranda. Also features Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Vanessa Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Mj Rodriguez, Judith Lightand Bradley Whitford.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Netflix.

Ben Platt in "Dear Evan Hansen" (VOD)


Ben Platt as Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen, directed by Stephen Chbosky.

The year’s biggest musical misfire, "Dear Evan Hansen" stumbled by trying to recreate the magic of the Tony-winning stage show in the more grounded world of cinema. The attempts to make 20-something star Ben Platt look like a nerdy high schooler somehow only made him look older. And removed from the emotion of a live performance, the story of a kid claiming to be best friends with a recently deceased classmate — a pretense that garners him a new family and a girlfriend — just felt kind of creepy. The singing sounded great, though! Rated PG-13. 137 minutes. Dir: Stephen Chbosky. Also featuring: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Danny Pino, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams.

WHERE TO WATCH: Available to rent or buy on VOD.

Underrated gem "Everybody's Talking About Jamie" (Prime Video)


Max Harwood and Lauren Patel star in EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE Photo: John Rogers © Amazon Content Services LLC

An underrated gem in the slate of 2021 musicals, "Everybody's Talking About Jamie" is inspired by the true-life story of a 16-year-old British schoolboy who decides he'd like to become a drag queen. With catchy songs pulled from the hit West End stage show and a cast of tremendously likable British actors, it's a funny, sweet, feel-good anthem to being yourself. Newcomer Max Harwood shines, Richard E. Grant turns in another stellar performance and the heels are toweringly high. Rated PG-13. 115 minutes. Dir: Jonathan Butterell. Featuring: Max Harwood, Sarah Lancashire, Richard E. Grant, Lauren Patel, Shobna Gulati, Sharon Horgan. 

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Broadway triumph "Come From Away" (Apple TV+)


Jenn Colella in "Come From Away." Photo: AppleTV+.

As Broadway reopened, Apple TV+ released a captivating live film recording of the Tony-winning musical — a performance captured with a live audience, the first to return to the theaters of the "Great White Way." The musical, set on Sept. 11, 2001, and during the week that follows, centers on Gander, a small town in Newfoundland that found itself the unexpected home of some 7,000 stranded air travelers whose planes were rerouted after the attack on the World Trade Center. It’s a true story — an inspiring one — but one that’s clear-eyed about the complexities of the event and its aftermath. Expect woe and warmth in equal measure, drawn out by a marvelous cast. Rated TV-14. 106 minutes. Dir: Christopher Ashley. Book and score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Featuring: Jenn Colella, Emily Walton, Petrina Bromley, Paul Whitty, others.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Apple TV+.

Song-filled series "Schmigadoon!" (Apple TV+)


Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key in "Schmigadoon!" Photo: AppleTV+.

Musicals weren’t just for the movies this year. This delightful Apple TV+ series is both a love letter to and satire of classic Golden Age musicals like "Brigadoon," "The Music Man" and "Carousel." While on a backpacking trip during a rough patch in their relationship, doctors Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) find themselves trapped in a magical town where every day is a musical. Unable to leave until they find true love, they’re at least treated to stand-out supporting performances from musical theater legends like Aaron Tveit, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cummingand "West Side Story" breakout star Ariana DeBose. Rated TV-14. 6 episodes. Also featuring: Fred Armisen, Dove Cameron, Jaime Camil, Jane Krakowski.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Apple TV+.

Adam Driver in "Annette" (Prime Video)



It was a big year for fans of the cult pop/rock duo Sparks. First, Ron and Russell Mael were the subjects of director Edgar Wright’s first-ever documentary, "The Sparks Brothers." Hot on its heels came "Annette," directed by French auteur Leos Carax ("Holy Motors") from a score, story and screenplay by the Maels. It’s... well, it’s a lot. Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver play a revered opera singer and a controversial shock comic, respectively; their love story fascinates the world and also produces a child, the titular Annette, played by a puppet. Unsettling and captivating in equal measure, this daring film isn’t for the faint of heart — but those willing to brave the journey will find buried (and not-so-buried) treasures.

RATED R. 140 minutes. Dir: Leos Carax. Featuring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell, Angèle.

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Amazon Prime.

Questlove’s "Summer of Soul" (Hulu)


Nina Simone performs at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, featured in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Concert documentaries might not technically be musicals, but there were so many good ones this year that it felt worth acknowledging them on this list. While Apple TV+‘s "The Velvet Underground" documentary and Disney+’s "The Beatles: Get Back" series found success by zeroing in on a single band, "Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)" takes an approach that’s simultaneously broader and more focused. Featuring incredible never-before-seen footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, this documentary showcases stunning performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone, all while examining American history through the lens of Black culture. It’s both a celebration and a reclamation, and one of the best films of the year. Rated PG-13. 117 minutes. Dir: Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson

WHERE TO WATCH: Streaming on Hulu.

"Game of Thrones" star Peter Dinklage in "Cyrano" (In theaters Dec. 17)


Haley Bennett and Peter Dinklage in "Cyrano."

"Game of Thrones" star Peter Dinklage puts his own unique spin on the classic swashbuckling romantic drama, "Cyrano de Bergerac." This time around, he sings! Based on a 2018 stage musical adaptation that Dinklage also starred in, this take on "Cyrano" adds a sweetly melodic touch to the age-old story about how our insecurities can be our own worst enemies. Odds are you’ll have to wait a few weeks to see this one, but expect stellar performances and an unusual score from Aaron and Bryce Dessner of acclaimed rock outfit The National. Rated PG-13. 124 minutes. Dir: Joe Wright. Also featuring: Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Bashir Salahuddin, Ben Mendelsohn

WHERE TO WATCH: In limited theatrical release Dec. 17; opens wider starting Jan. 21.

Our critics pick the best of the year


Bo Burnham in "Bo Burnham: Inside" and Andrew Garfield in "Tick, Tick... Boom!"

Allison Shoemaker’s pick: "Bo Burnham: Inside" The lifelong musical theater nerd in me rebels at the very notion, but the best musical of 2021 was a comedy special. Give or take an "Evan Hansen," this was a great year for musicals, from the wild weirdness of "Annette" to Spielberg’s titanic re-imagining of "West Side Story." But writer-director-star Bo Burnham made a movie that’s the emotional equivalent of holding one’s hand over a candle flame. It’s wickedly funny, surprising, strange — and most importantly, an honest encapsulation of the uncanny world we all stepped into in March 2020. 

Caroline Siede’s pick: "Tick, Tick... Boom!" Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut isn’t just a charming musical in and of itself, it’s also a musical about why musical theater matters. Rather than try to turn an already great stage show into a movie, Miranda smartly focused on elevating a so-so stage show into something more profound. That savvy act of adaptation mixed with Andrew Garfield’s career-best performance makes this one feel like a heartfelt gift to musical theater lovers everywhere. 

More musicals — streaming for free on Tubi!

Gypsy (2015): Like "West Side Story", "Gypsy" also features a book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by the legendary Stephen Sondheim. Working with composer Jule Styne, the trio tell the story of Mama Rose, the ultimate show business mother. And this 2015 production filmed live at London’s Savoy Theatre lets Oscar-nominee Imelda Staunton ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") chew the scenery with the best of them. TV-PG. 142 minutes. Dir: Lonny Price. Also features Peter Davison.

Guys and Dolls (1955): There are many reasons to watch this classic movie musical, from the iconic costuming to the fabulous dance numbers, but two rise above the rest. First: It’s a chance to watch Vivian Blaine sniffle through the comic masterpiece "Adelaide’s Lament," a performance that repeatedly brought down the house when she originated the role on Broadway. Second, and even more importantly: Perhaps you, dear reader, will be the one to solve the mystery of why the folks at MGM decided to give Marlon Brando the singing role and Frank Sinatra the acting role. TV-PG. 159 minutes. Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Also features Jean Simmons and Stubby Kaye.

Sweet Charity (1969): The legendary Bob Fosse made his feature directorial debut with this adaptation of the Broadway musical he had previously directed and choreographed onstage. Shirley MacLaine stars as a struggling taxi dancer with a heart of gold. She’s a veritable "Brass Band" and, best of all, you don’t have to be a "Big Spender" to watch. Rated G. 148 minutes. Dir: Bob Fosse. Also features Sammy Davis Jr., John McMartin, Ricardo Montalban, Chita Rivera and Ben Vereen.

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About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).

About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.