Let’s throw out a hypothetical scenario: you’re cruising Netflix or – can it be true – the kid’s section of your local video store and you think to yourself, “holy smokes, there are a lot of movies and TV shows for our kids to watch! If we work through this entire collection we will have them entertained until they leave for college!”
While this may be true on the surface, realistically there are a number of factors that are going to get in the way of this plan. For example, while it is true there are hundreds of titles, and thousands of hours of archived television, it’s pretty easy to see that at least 90% of it is garbage. If you’re not going to be picky just go ahead and set them down in front of the TV right now and just let them soak up whatever is being thrown at them.
If you’re reading this, however, I presume you’re trying to dig through the garbage to find the gems or, if you’re anything like us, you’re looking to find stuff that you can actually watch with your kids without going into saccharine shock and/or vomiting before expiring after your third episode of iCarly.
One thing you’ll notice as you quickly go through several viewings of the gems you can actually stomach is that you’re running out of suitable content a lot faster than you were expecting and you’re going to have to branch out into other genres if you’re going to keep the munchkins happy.
To that end, there are certain adult musicals that will actually fit the bill quite well for keeping the kids entertained while helping you to maintain your sanity.
#5 – Grease
I was never really a big fan of Grease even though it sparked a significant 50′s revival in the 80′s when I was in high school. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea I don’t think anyone would argue that the musical numbers are a lot of fun. As with any of these movies it gives you an opportunity to talk to your kids about a different time and how strange things used to be.
There are concerns, however, depending on the age and worldliness of your kids. It’s rated PG-13 for strong sexual content, teen smoking and drinking, and language. Some, or a lot, of it may go over the kids heads but you’ll find yourself cringing as each off-color reference comes flying out at you.
As an alternative I was considering Hairspray (the movie of the musical based on the John Waters 1988 original) but it was too recent to fit my self-imposed criteria of “old” musical. Even though it’s based on a John Waters film and musical (try not to think about Pink Flamingos) it’s reasonably clean for a younger audience, has some great music, and carries good messages about integration and tolerance. As an added bonus, John Travolta in a fat suit can be fun to explain, “That’s Danny from Grease!”
Since I’m indiscriminately grouping movies set in the 1950′s and 60′s I want to toss in That Thing You Do. While it’s not technically a musical it is a great movie about music and the energy of rock and roll in the 60′s. Our favorite scene is when they first hear their song on the radio and freak out. It captures the excitement of a moment like that better than any other movie we’ve seen.
#4 – My Fair Lady
I always jump at any opportunity to engage the kids in discussions of rigid class systems and women’s independence. As a result, Pygmalion often comes up as a topic of conversation, along with Rex Harrison’s singing – seriously, is he singing or just talking to music? Henry Higgins would have been a great part for William Shatner.
But I digress. The kids really enjoy it, especially the early parts of Eliza’s training where they have a lot of fun with her cockney accent. Our daughter often requests “the scene where she has the marbles in her mouth!” The movie slows down for them considerably in the second half and Higgins misogyny is annoying so it’s far from perfect entertainment but as one of the all-time classics it’s hard to deny it a place on the list.
#3 – Sound of Music
After college when the Wife and I were backpacking through Europe we watched this at one of the daily screenings in the youth hostel in Salzburg, Austria, which is a surreal experience because you walk outside and there is the fountain where Julie Andrews was just dancing and singing a few minutes before. If you haven’t watched The Sound of Music in Austria I can highly recommend it.
We rolled this out when the kids were younger – although we would stop it right after the family performed at the music festival and before the chase started. Explaining the moral ambiguity of Fritz dancing and singing with Liesl in one scene and then becoming a Nazi is a discussion we chose to save for later.
However, before the war gets in the way there’s lots of singing and dancing. A welcome addition to being able to watch the movie at home is the trend toward Rocky Horror Picture Show-like sing-alongs. Here in Seattle the 5th Avenue Theater has been doing an annual Sound of Music sing-along that can be great fun for the whole family – if that’s your thing.
#2 – Hello Dolly
We watched this one recently and while there was grumbling about Dad forcing them to watch an old movie before we started they actually perked up and really enjoyed it in the end. A large part of the enjoyment was based on the broad and entertaining musical numbers, the absurd behavior of Cornelius and Barnaby – as well as most of the other characters, and the colorful staging.
However, what may have proved more entertaining for us was mocking most of what was going on. We are a cruel family.
Tommy Tune is a ridiculously tall stick insect whose physical freakishness was enhanced by the choreography which seemed to consist mostly of the dancers walking around like they had a hook on the back of their pants lifting them up on their toes. It’s as if Gene Kelly wanted people to mock the film. Walter Matthau didn’t do us or his career any favors by trying to sing, and the 60′s, well, it was all just so silly. On the positive side, Louis Armstrong is scary to watch singing.
#1 – Singin’ in the Rain
Ok, so Gene Kelly made a hash of Hello Dolly even though it is perfectly adequate children’s entertainment. Singin’ in the Rain was the old timey musical that gave me the idea for this post in the first place. The Wife and I were going to watch it because we remembered it as being amusing and we thought the kids would get a kick out of the eponymous musical number. Not only did the kids enjoy it – they LOVED it – so much so that they went back and watched it several times. They also started singing Moses Supposes His Toeses Are Roses way more than I was comfortable with.
In addition they now understand how hard it was for some actors to make the transition from silent to sound. When they watch Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton they now ask, did that guy make sound movies? Did that girl make sound movies? I then have to explain the difference between movies made in 1919 and 1927.
So that’s my list. There are plenty of other old musicals I might add; I’m particularly fond of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I briefly thought about adding Funny Girl but our daughter didn’t care for it. I intentionally left off The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and others specifically because they are already targeted at kids or based on children’s books. They are awesome and will save your bacon on a rainy day but once you’re chim chim chereed-out you’ll need something that can appeal to your grown-up side.
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John Kubalak is a writer, teacher, volunteer coordinator, raconteur, and scalawag. He does not publish science fiction under the pseudonym Jonathan Black but he does publish a monograph on fatherhood, The Eclectic Dad. He has a son, a daughter, a beautiful wife (and a little dog too!) who are adorable, maddening, zany, and brilliant all at the same time.