Meryl Streep isn’t afraid to prove her vocal prowess on the silver screen. She has sung in several blockbusters, and here is our ranking for her top seven movie musical performances.
The 23-time Oscar-nominated actress behind modern classics like The Iron Lady, Julie & Julia, The Devil Wears Prada, and Doubt boasts her fair share of memorable leading roles. Though Meryl Streep often takes on high-stakes dramas, she’s adept at all genres — shifting seamlessly from comedy to drama to suspense and even flexing her vocal prowess in movie musicals. Streep is no stranger to belting a c5 as her vibrato shines through in tunes like “It’s Not About Me” from The Prom. So, to celebrate the living legend’s 74th birthday on June 22, let’s rank her best movie musical performances.
7. ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ | 2018
Meryl Streep has a teeny-weeny role in Mary Poppins Returns as cousin Topsy, but her one number, “Turning Turtle” is a highlight in the 2018 sequel. She sings this song with an exaggerated, intentionally obscure Slavic accent, hinting at her larger-than-life persona existing outside the confines of the natural world — and its suppressive geographical limitations. Where is this wacky woman even from? Viewers theorize about her origin, as she performs with melodramatic facial expressions, wide-eyed wonder, and a playful flair indicative of her harmless instability.
The “world is turning turtle,” she laments, as she faces “upside down day” every Wednesday. She also loses her way throughout the song, finding time to comment on Tolstoy’s “gift of gab.” Streep effortlessly captures the character’s unpredictable and flighty nature, escaping into this confused cousin with a penchant for play — and a little assist from the costume department.
6. ‘Death Becomes Her’ | 1992
Meryl Streep plays Madeline Ashton in the camp classic Death Becomes Her, and she utterly embodies her character’s obsession with youth and beauty — her determination to remain ageless in the face of a misogynistic Tinseltown. She performs the movie’s opening number, “I See Me” in character — in character. Like a dream within a dream, she’s playing Madeline Ashton playing the lead in the Broadway musical Songbird. “I See Me” may be the most narcissistic and vain musical number ever written— perfect for hinting (not-so-subtly) at Madeline’s inner vanity. “I see me” she sings, “actress, woman, star and lover, sister, sweetheart, slave, and mother…and I like what I see.”
With a white feather boa wrapped around her neck (resting ever-so-gently over one shoulder) and a shimmery turquoise dress, she skips around the stage, staring at her reflection with an elevated chin. She dances with reckless abandon, putting on a show for those in the audience who deem her old news. Streep escapes into this narcissistic performer with a knack for rudeness and an unwavering air of pretension.
5. ‘Ricki and The Flash’ | 2015
Ricki and The Flash may not be the best movie on this list, as the predictable narrative leaves much to be desired, yet Streep fully flexes her vocal abilities in the film. She takes on covers of pop hits like “Bad Romance” and rock classics like “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” She’s able to recreate that raspy spunk inherent to rock performers like Ann Wilson (Heart) and Joan Jett, while also serenading listeners with a sultrier and smoother tone for hits like U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
She becomes a woman whose dreams of rock n’ roll life are in her past, but ever-so-present in her demeanor. Not only does she act the part (and look the part), but she changes her voice — both while singing and talking — to deliver a sort of gravelly and airy sound inherent to a rocker who’s been at it for decades.
4. ‘The Prom’ | 2020
Meryl Streep’s character in The Prom, Broadway star Dee Dee Allen is — in the simplest terms — a hoot. Dee Dee is in need of a little social awareness. She needs a little good PR. She means well, but she’s so out of the loop and hopelessly self-serving. You can’t even hate her for it, though, because her over-the-top personality wins you over.
In this movie, Meryl sings a song titled “It’s Not About Me,” during which she mostly talks about herself and the need for “softer lighting,” while insisting she is present to help an adolescent girl who’s been discriminated against for her sexual orientation. She is a “liberal democrat from Broadway” who has come to save the day…just make sure “you Instagram it.”
Meryl Streep’s vibrato and vocal range shine through in this number, as you cannot “silence a woman who’s known for her belt.” She also sings “The Lady’s Improving,” which is a fast-paced number that shifts quickly from high notes to low ones, and Streep’s voice is a perfect match for the song’s tongue-in-cheek message. Streep blows the roof off the house in this musical more than once. If she didn’t become an actor, she could’ve easily had a career as a singer.
3. ‘Postcards from the Edge’ | 1990
Meryl Streep snagged an Oscar nomination for her performance in Postcards from the Edge — based on Carrie Fisher’s semiautobiographical memoir of the same name. The film is about Fisher’s relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds. Meryl plays Suzanne Vale (the Fisher character) and Shirley MacLaine plays Doris Mann (the Reynolds-like mother).
Streep flawlessly conveys her character’s vulnerability and inner turmoil — as well as her fraught relationship with her mother — when Mann asks her to sing at her birthday celebration. Suzanne picks a slow song, her chin titled downward, as she gazes at the onlookers (and her mother) with a look of desperation, frustration, and feigned enthusiasm. Mann hints at her to remove her jacket while performing, and a side smirk crawls across Suzanne’s face. She continues singing — vocally commanding, yet emotionally dampened.
Nothing is ever good enough for her star of a mother. She should sing more, but perform according to her mother’s wishes. Every facial expression Streep carries in this scene is piercingly reflective of a mother-daughter duo who love one another but do not always like one another.
Later in the film, she performs “I’m checking out,” and it’s a more realized Suzanne. She comes in soft and slow, but then holds her chin up high to belt the film’s closing number. Her mother looks on from up above with pride and wonder. Her daughter has found her own voice. Her daughter has cemented her stance, and she’s here to perform. It’s a top-notch performance that is as vocally impressive as it is emotionally intense.
2. ‘Into the Woods’ | 2014
Meryl Streep’s take on The Witch in Into the Woods is dark and creepy, but then eyebrow-raising and poised. She is wise but wicked. She is all-knowing and all-powerful. Pessimistic and distrusting of humankind. Her transformation from the hunched-over witch with ratty hair and dirty fingernails to the beautiful sorceress corsetted and in full make-up is not just physical but psychological. She carries an air of superiority during both “The Witch’s Rap “and “Last Midnight.” However, during the first number, she is still cursed, and her delivery is unrefined and wild. She is condescending, yes, but fear-striking in her unpredictable and violent movements.
In the opening of “Last Midnight,” when she is beautiful again, she boasts a more polished and graceful demeanor. Her shoulders are back. Her movements are almost ballet-like. A flick of the wrist and a nod of the head and her air of superiority becomes one of disdain and dismissal.
She takes on the character’s transformation — portraying the before and after so well that she was nominated for the Oscar. Not to mention, Sondheim songs are no easy feat. They’re often tongue-twisting vocal showdowns. And, this is the musical’s larger-than-life final number. And Streep delivers. She builds to the long and high notes vocally and performatively, reaching the peak of crazed aggravation before sinking into the ground. It’s an incredible performance that relays The Witch’s inner turmoil and complex morality, as well as her unsteady psychological state via brief musical moments and poignant dialogue.
1. ‘Mamma Mia’ | 2008
Meryl Streep performing “The Winner Takes It All.” Need we say more? Streep’s performance in Mamma Mia goes from lighthearted and fun to heartbreaking and introspective. Her take on Donna Sheridan is timeless and ever-so-relatable to any of us who had a fun youth we look back on with both wonder and surprise. Did I really do that? Am I still that person? Can I retain all the great aspects of the young adult I was, while still adhering to the mature adult I am? What if old heartbreakers come back to carry me away? Will I be able to withstand the pain of pouring salt into old wounds?
The choreography in numbers like “Mamma Mia” perfectly complements Streep’s body language and facial expressions, as she “suddenly lose[s] control.” She’s filled with wonder and hope, but hesitance, and it all comes through in her darting eyes and unsteady hands. In the way she bites her lip and walks tip-toed across the roof.
Yet, later, during “The Winner Takes It All,” her eyes are fixed. Her hands are clutched around her heart, as she comes into a place of awareness. She grapples with the pain. Though past emotions linger, bubbling to the surface with the heartache of a bygone era, her mind is made up. She carries a heart and head in opposition with gravity and nuance. She remembers the blissful old days, but cannot handle playing the game again. Her voice cracks when it should, waivers when it should, and rises with intensity when it should. Each vocal choice perfectly parallels the emotion at hand throughout the difficult number.
She holds love and loss simultaneously. She carries desire and fear at once. She holds dreams against danger. It’s a tear-jerking performance in a movie that often leaves you laughing, Yet Meryl’s Donna never feels inconsistent. She is just fully realized — she is both the Dynamo who dances on stages in disco attire and the woman trying to run a hotel on the brink of implosion. She is not who she once was. Rather, she remains who she has always been (with a bit more wisdom at her disposal).