Who would have thought 30 years ago Meryl Streep would become the musical diva of our age? Maybe those who watched her bashfully (and beautifully) sing “You Don’t Know Me” in 1990’s Postcards from the Edge. But largely she was associated with the serious dramas of the ‘70s and ‘80s that won her two Oscars (and saw her nominated for three more) by the time she was 35: Kramer vs. Kramer, The Deer Hunter, Sophie’s Choice. Sober-eyed tearjerkers all.
But an amazing thing happened in the 21st century, didn’t it? Streep, the First Lady of the Academy Awards stage, reinvented herself as the prima donna of the musical-comedy. Sometimes that includes performances so rich that they sing even without any lyrics, such as the imperious Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. But often they come with music and verse too, be it ham-fisted kitsch like Mamma Mia! or something as ambitious as playing the Witch in an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
And today she’s back on the musical big screen—or at least the one in your living room—via Ryan Murphy and Netflix’s The Prom. It’s an all-out musical extravaganza where Streep transcends into her best self: a reigning diva of Broadway. So join us as we use the occasion to count down her greatest cinematic solos.
10. “Changing Lives” in The Prom
For whatever faults The Prom might contain, the Netflix film’s vicious satire of celebrity vanity and performative social action is not one of them. And rarely is that better felt than in Meryl and James Corden’s first big number “Changing Lives.” As a pair of tone-deaf Narcissuses, Streep’s Dee Dee Allen and Corden’s Barry Glickman put on a hell of a show, singing from the lights of 44th St. to the glitzy interiors of Sardis about how being a Broadway star is basically the same thing as Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Is it a great song? Not necessarily. Is it great to hear Streep exclaim she only wants to hear a review if it’s a rave or mixed-to-positive while downing champagne? Absolutely.
9. “Super Trouper” in Mamma Mia!
We know everyone has thoughts about Mammia Mia! and where its qualities (or sometimes lack thereof) lie. But Meryl Streep’s performance as Donna is inarguably one of its great strengths. Her matriarch of an idyllic little Greek island seems a far cry from the apparent free spirit and hellraiser she once was. Yet in “Super Trouper,” her young daughter (Amanda Seyfried) gets a glimpse of the dynamo Donna once was (and secretly still is) as she takes the disco stage alongside Julie Walters and Christine Baranski.
The trio still make the ‘70s excess of their outfits work, crooning about last nights in Glasgow and reawakening that magic for the next generation. Even Donna’s tuneless exes in the back get swept back in time. It’s sweet, and one of several Mamma Mia numbers to appear here.
8. “Goodbye to My Mama” in A Prairie Home Companion
One of the best films mentioned on this list, A Prairie Home Companion was director Robert Altman’s final film—and the movie appears aware of this. Nowhere is that more tangible in this heart-wringing ballad written in the tradition of early 20th century Country and Western music by Garrison Keillor. An ode to a childhood long gone, and both an aspiration and understated fear about seeing a lost mother again on the other side, the song is an elegy realized in soulful duet by Streep and Lily Tomlin. It harkens the Angel of Death backstage, but in isolation it’s still plenty heartbreaking.
7. “The Winner Takes It All” in Mamma Mia!
We said there’d be more ABBA. And here it is with “The Winner Takes It All,” Streep’s single actual solo. In this moment director Phyllida Lloyd knows exactly where to put the camera, capturing the postcard beauty of a Greek isle at sunset as Meryl sings her heart out, and smashes Pierce Brosnan’s for good measure. Appealingly melodramatic, and with perfect high notes for Streep’s range, the scene puts this Oscar winner in the movie equivalent of a romance novel cover. And who doesn’t want to open that?!
6. “It’s Not About Me” in The Prom
Again rarely does The Prom’s satire land better than in its opening number… but Streep’s big solo “It’s Not About Me” is that rare exception. Strutting into an Indiana PTA meeting in a red mink and extravagant mood, Streep’s Dee Dee introduces herself by belting that she’s here after reading three quarters of an article to ask, “You bigoted monsters, just who do you think you are?” And it’s all downhill from there for her argument, and uphill for our entertainment.
Hijacking a vulnerable teenager’s platform to whine about a New York Post notice and to demand soft lighting and a rainbow coalition of colorful streamers for her Insta-ready moment, Streep is given permission by The Prom to make everything about her. More, please.
5. “Stay with Me” in Into the Woods
Attempting to sing Sondheim is a challenge few take up lightly. With his typically complex lyrics, myriad key changes, and sharp musical bridges, Sondheim has thwarted many a movie star who’s tried. Streep is not one of them. As the villainous and somewhat misunderstood Witch of Into the Woods, Streep dominates the film as an antagonistic force who sees all the other fairy tale archetypes for the schmucks they are.
But that does not include her adopted daughter Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). As the daughter the Witch never had, Rapunzel is kept secluded away in the woods, but it’s for her own protection. Written years before Tangled, a mother’s fanged psychological warfare and pleas to “stay with me” from the danger in the world is as haunting as it is toxic. And it’s Streep’s best moment in Disney and Rob Marshall’s ambitious, yet bloated, movie adaptation.
4. “Dancing Queen” in Mamma Mia!
Yes, it’s that song and that scene: ABBA’s most overplayed earworm brought to treacly life with maximum cheese, including slow-motion shots of Meryl Streep jumping on a bed and skipping along a Greek coastline. Look over there! Why is that old fisherman playing a piano in the water?! And over here! Where did the hundreds of locals on this tiny, largely uninhabited island come from?!
It doesn’t matter! You know from the first time you heard Streep and company belt this that you sang along. You probably still do, joining in at the parade of empowered women, from ages two to 92, who’ve been liberated by the joy of their youth, now or remembered. As they dance badly across the world’s grooviest pier, it plays as loud; as camp; and as a goddamn delight.
3. “My Minnesota Home” in A Prairie Home Companion
Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin’s other major duet in A Prairie Home Companion, “My Minnesota Home” reworks Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” to give it a Lake Wobegon tenor. It is also the sweetest showcase for Streep and Tomlin’s chemistry, both as singers and human beings. The give and take between the pair, and then Streep’s rousing vibrato during the final chorus, has the air of genuine inspiration and real pleasure. Here are two performers finding harmony together on the stage and before our eyes. It’s big hearted and irresistible.
2. “I’m Checking Out” in Postcards from the Edge
Meryl’s first major musical moment came during the grand finale of director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Carrie Fisher’s wonderful little dramedy. Loosely and nakedly based on Fisher’s own relationship with her movie star mother Debbie Reynolds, Postcards from the Edge is a revealing and sometimes blunt exercise in getting things off a writer’s chest. And one thing Fisher really wanted to clear the air about was her mother’s desire to push her toward musical performance. While Fisher resisted in her own life, she allows the fictional Suzanne Vale (Streep) to give in to mother Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine).
In doing so, she also gives into herself and sings this full-hearted rendition of “I’m Checking Out.” A country hymn to the bitterness of living in the heartbreak hotel, the song allows Suzanne (and hopefully Carrie) to bury some pain, and for Streep to reveal her formidable stage and screen presence in front of a microphone. It is probably the rawest and most intelligent performance on this list.
1. “Mamma Mia” in Mamma Mia!
Among Meryl Streep’s many songs in Mamma Mia!—including a few we did not put on this list, believe it or not—it’s her rendition of the movie’s title song that works best. Imbuing the tune with an infectious playfulness, and leaning into the impatience that pours from ABBA’s lyrics, Streep pounces around the screen like a cat who’s just spotted a bird… or at least three turkeys in the shapes of her exes (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård).
As she creeps and creaks around their goathouse (don’t ask), debating whether to sneak another peak, the film finally makes sharp use of a movie’s ability to edit together imagery: We cut between Streep, the exiled suitors, Donna’s daughter and friends, and even an honest to Zeus Greek chorus of extras sticking their heads into the frame to chastise Streep. Not that she can resist her curiosity, nor do we resist watching it. In fact, we want to egg it on as Streep rolls around in overalls and crosses herself before embracing the next crescendo.