The 30s were known for being a tough time. After the roaring 20s entered the Great Depression, which meant people didn't have much time or financial resources.
However, it's well known that hard times can bring great art, so there were still a number of beautiful musical performances.
Here's a list of the best musicals from the 1930s.
Musical Movies of the 1930s
Some of the following musicals started out as shows and were adapted into a film, while many were originally created for the film.
1. The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz is a 1939 film about a young female character named Dorothy Gale.
Due to a tornado, Dorothy is swept from her home in Kansas to a mysterious and magical new world called The Land of Oz, then has to find her way to the Wizard to get home and grant her new friends' wishes.
2. Swing Time
Swing Time was released in 1936 and is considered one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' best films.
The movie tells the story of a tap dancer named Lucky, who is challenged to prove himself to his fiancé's father, then falls in love with a dance teacher.
It features several classic musical numbers, including “Pick Yourself Up,” “A Fine Romance,” and the anthemic finale, “The Way You Look Tonight.”
3. Top Hat
Top Hat is a 1935 musical film about an American dancer in Britain who accidentally falls in love with a model while there.
The film stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in another collaboration. It contains classic numbers such as “Cheek to Cheek,” “Heaven,” and “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails.”
4. Gold Diggers of 1933
As the title suggests, this film was released in 1933. Gold Diggers of 1933 is about a rich composer who helps unemployed performers by creating a play they can act in.
It stars Warren William, Joan Blondell, and Ginger Rogers and has timeless tracks like “We're in The Money” and “Pettin' in the Park.”
5. 42nd Street
42nd Street, also released in 1933, is a musical about a musical!
The leading lady of a musical breaks her ankle and can no longer perform. So another younger and less experienced artist takes over and becomes the star of the show.
There's lots of singing, but the highlight of this film is Ruby Keeler's tap dancing.
6. The Gay Divorcee
Released in 1934, The Gay Divorcee is another Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film.
In the film, a woman who is getting a divorce believes that there's a man flirting with her to help her lawyer expedite the divorce.
It's a comical, highly entertaining musical in which both stars were praised for their dynamic performances.
7. Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs
The first feature-length animated film released in 1937, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, a classic tale of good versus evil.
The film follows the story of Snow White, who is pursued by her evil stepmother and taken in by seven Dwarfs who keep her safe.
The film is a musical and Disney's first animated feature film, with iconic songs like “Heigh-Ho” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.”
8. Love Me Tonight
In this 1932 musical, a tailor from Paris, France, poses as a baron in order to get money from an aristocrat, but in the meantime, he falls in love with a young princess.
Love Me Tonight was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald.
It was a huge success and is considered the first major “talkie” musical.
9. The Merry Widow
Another film starring Chevalier and MacDonald is 1934's The Merry Widow.
The movie follows the story of a count who falls in love with a wealthy widow but must convince her that he loves her and not just her money while her small kingdom tries to win back her allegiance.
It's an intriguing storyline for the times and proved to be a classic success.
10. Follow The Fleet
Follow The Fleet is about a sailor who hopes to rekindle a former romance while he's on a ship.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are the stars of this 1936 film, and together they dance up a storm in the memorable numbers “Let's Face The Music and Dance,” “We Saw The Sea,” and “I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket.”
11. One Hour With You
One Hour With You is a 1932 musical about reigniting the flames of an almost broken marriage.
In this film that stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, both spouses believe that the other is attracted to other people, so they two decide to go on an outing together to give their marriage another chance.
It should be no surprise by now that Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dominated many of the top film musicals in the 30s, and Carefree was another one of their successful collaborations.
In this 1938 film, a psychiatrist accidentally falls in love with a woman he's meant to be nudging toward another man.
13. The Smiling Lieutenant
The Smiling Lieutenant is a 1931 film about a charismatic lieutenant forced to marry a princess who is quite socially awkward.
The lieutenant is actually in love with a violin-playing girl and tries to keep her on the side, so it's a bit of a scandalous film.
14. Show Boat
Show Boat is a musical film from 1936, based on a theater production from the 20s, about a young woman becoming the leading lady of a showboat.
Although her father is the captain of the showboat, her mother objects to this pursuit, but she moves forward with it anyway.
Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson, and Allan Jones are the stars of this iconic film.
15. Curly Top
Curly Top is a 1935 Shirley Temple musical about an orphaned girl who is adopted by a wealthy man.
Shirley Temple was already known for starring in “Bright Eyes” the year prior, so Curly Top was an instant hit. Curly Top is perhaps most popular for the iconic song “Animal Crackers in My Soup.”
Musicals in Theater During the 1930s
The musical theater scene saw great successes in the turbulent decade of the 30s, with shows like Porgy and Bess, Anything Goes, and The Cradle Will Rock taking over the stages.
16. Porgy and Bess
Porgy and Bess is a 1935 musical that blended jazz, folk, and opera and starred an all-African American cast, which is why it didn't do as well with audiences of that time but is now seen as a legendary production.
Porgy and Bess are about a disabled street beggar named Porgy who attempts to save Bess from an abusive partner and dangerous drug dealer.
The most popular tune is “Summertime,” which was covered by Ella Fitzgerald in 1968.
17. Anything Goes
Anything Goes, produced by Cole Porter, was a 1934 show about a stowaway on an ocean liner who is unknowingly brought to the attention of the public eye.
It was adapted into a movie in 1956 and starred Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Ethel Merman.
Additionally, theaters continue to perform this spectacular show until this day.
18. The Cradle Will Rock
The Cradle Will Rock is a 1937 musical about the corruption of capitalism and labor exploitation.
This show was written by Marc Blitzstein and produced by Orson Welles.
It was a daring production, so much so that it was temporarily shut down due to its controversial content. It was later revived in 1960 and then again in 1989.
19. Babes in Arms
Babes in Arms is a 1937 coming-of-age show that follows Mickey and Judy, two kids who attempt to put on a show to make some money after their vaudeville parents are left without work. It quickly became a film in 1939 starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.
The original Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart production features political, anti-racism, and other important undertones, but there was a rewrite in the 50s to depoliticize it.
It still has an intriguing plot, as well as songs like “Johnny One Note,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “The Lady Is A Tramp.”
20. Me And My Girl
Me and My Girl is a 1937 musical farce about Bill Snibson, an uncouth Cockney who learns he's the heir to an earldom and has to learn how to act like a gentleman to inherit the title.
The show was originally a success in England but wasn't adapted for Broadway until the 80s.
It was later made into a movie in 1939 starring Robert Newton, and the film version is still entertaining audiences today.
21. You Never Know
You Never Know another Cole Porter musical with Jazz Age music, first performed in 1938.
It's about a wealthy married couple and their various missteps in travel with unexpected consequences.
It was one of many successful Cole Porter musicals and had a very intriguing plot, dissimilar to many of the other musicals at the time, with a more standard “accidental love” plot line.
22. Very Warm for May
Very Warm for May is a musical composed by Jerome Kern.
It was on Broadway in 1939 and received mixed reviews from critics, yet it has several memorable tunes like “Nobody Else But Me” and “Make Believe.”
The original plot involves a society girl named May Graham escaping the threat of gangsters and hiding with an avant-garde summer stock troupe, but it was changed to remove the gangster scenes.
23. Knickerbocker Holiday
Knickerbocker Holiday is a 1938 musical about Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch Governor of New Amsterdam (now known as New York City), who falls in love with a woman named Tina.
This show is known for having one of the most beautiful ballads ever written, “September Song,” and has been performed numerous times since its debut.
It was adapted into a movie in 1944 starring Nelson Eddy, and it continues to delight audiences today.
24. Leave It To Me!
Leave It To Me! is a musical comedy from 1938 by Vinton Freedley, with music produced by Cole Porter.
It's about an American traveling in Russia who encounters trouble and love along the way.
The show has been readapted throughout the years, but not to the extent of its original Broadway debut.
25. Pins and Needles
Pins and Needles is a 1937 musical comedy about the struggle of union workers in New York City during the Great Depression.
It features various sketches and songs about labor injustices with a comedic spin.
It's a show that likely resonated with its viewers while simultaneously lifting their spirits.
26. On Your Toes
On Your Toes is a show written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
It was first performed in 1936 and followed the story of Frankie, an American dancer who falls for a Russian ballerina and mixes highbrow culture with jazz.
It has remained popular since its debut and was even adapted into a movie in 1939 starring Vera Zorina, Eddie Albert, and Alan Hale.
Jumbo is another Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical from 1935. It's about a circus that's run by husband and wife team Pop and Lili.
The show features some of Rodgers and Hart's most beloved songs, including “Little Girl Blue,” “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” and “My Romance.”
It was also adapted for film in 1962, starring Doris Day, Stephen Boyd, Jimmy Durante, and Martha Raye.
28. Pardon My English
Pardon My English is a 1933 musical comedy that satirizes the prohibition era.
The setting is Dresden, Germany, and instead of banning alcohol, the plot is about the German government banning soft drinks in order to promote the sale of alcohol.
It's quite a funny idea and even funnier to watch!
29. Fine and Dandy
Fine and Dandy is a Broadway musical from 1930 by Kay Swift and Paul James.
It was specifically created to fit the persona of performer Joe Cook and features several improvised moments.
The musical number that's probably the most recognized shares the same title as the musical “Fine and Dandy,” but other numbers include “I'll Hit a New High” and “Wedding Bells.”
Best Musicals From The 1930s, Final Thoughts
The 1930s was a decade of great musicals that have been readapted in many different forms over the years.
But we're sure no re-adaptation can possibly compare to the sheer joy of experiencing these shows during the 1930s.
From the lighthearted story of Jumbo to the social commentary of Pardon My English, there's a variety of musicals from the 1930s that are honored until today.