The question of whether Meryl herself is a good singer is subjective, has been tackled thoroughly elsewhere, and is not something I want to weigh in on because various Meryl stan accounts are already mad at me for being snarky about The Prom. The more interesting question is which Meryl characters are supposed to be good singers in the universes they inhabit. Meryl loves to sing, but she also loves to play women of variable singing abilities, presumably because that keeps things interesting. So, if one were to hold a Meryl character-only reality singing competition, which Meryl would win? In the name of both science and camp, it’s time to find out.
Meryls Who Sing But It’s a Musical So That Doesn’t Count
The Witch, Into the Woods; Cousin Topsy, Mary Poppins Returns
For our study to work, we’re going to have to exclude the Meryl characters who sing because they are in a musical but are not supposed to be singers in and of themselves because the quality of their voices isn’t relevant. The Witch from Into the Woods pops up and terrorizes James Corden and Emily Blunt in song because that’s what happens in Into the Woods, but the quality of the Witch’s voice isn’t an aspect of her character because singing is just how she communicates. She should just be good, or at least good enough for Sondheim to sign off on this project. The same goes for Meryl’s performance with Patti LuPone’s War Paint accent as Cousin Topsy in Mary Poppins Returns, which haunts me, but is not eligible for our ranking.
Singing ability: Fundamentally unknowable.
Meryls Who Deserve Honorable Mentions
Mary Louise Wright, Big Little Lies Season Two
Screaming is not necessarily melodic, but it is loud, so I have to respect it.
Singing ability: AAAHHHHHHHHHH!!
Roberta, Music of the Heart
No singing, but she’s pretty good at the violin and inspiring the youth.
Singing ability: Playing the violin and inspiring the youth is kind of like singing.
Meryls Who Are Bad Singers on Purpose
Florence Foster Jenkins, Florence Foster Jenkins
A whole movie about a woman who just loves to sing but isn’t very good at it and then inadvertently attracts a camp audience. Meryl got an Oscar nomination, which is one of her less-loved nominations, but to be fair, carefully not hitting the right notes is hard work.
Singing ability: Flop queen.
Based on Nora Ephron’s fictionalized account of her divorce from Carl Bernstein, Heartburn includes a scene where Meryl and Jack Nicholson sing every song they can think of about babies after discovering she’s having a baby.
Singing ability: It’s not technically perfect, but it’s so, so cute.
Helen Archer, Ironweed
This very sad movie about Depression-era drifter includes one big musical performance from Meryl as a glimmer of light and joy. Unfortunately, it turns out that it’s just a fantasy, and when we cut back to reality, we see that Meryl has been imagining both her reunion with Jack Nicholson and her musical talent.
Singing ability: Great in fiction, unfortunately not great in reality.
Ricki, Ricki and the Flash
A tough call because much of this movie is just Jonathan Demme loving filming Meryl Streep performing rock songs, so to the film audience, we have to assume that Meryl’s performance as Ricki is supposed to be enjoyable (and it is!). But in the world of the movie, Ricki is supposed to be a fairly unsuccessful rock star who’s left behind her family in pursuit of a dream that didn’t really pan out — also she’s a Republican, just a wild thing to remember about all this. So, unfortunately, we’re gonna have to say that, canonically, Ricki falls on the lower side of our talent scale.
Singing ability: At least she has a true fan at her favorite bar in Ben Platt.
Madeline Ashton, Death Becomes Her
When we first see Meryl in this camp classic, her glamorous diva Madeline Ashton is starring in a musical version of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth that, according to the people leaving the theater, is just awful. In keeping with this, Meryl gives us a taste of Lauren Bacall doing Applause, overacting like hell in a number written by Robert Zemeckis’s longtime collaborator Alan Silvestri. Just go all in and make a musical, guys!
Singing ability: The voice isn’t too bad, but Madeline Ashton really needs to find better material.
Meryls Who Are Good Singers, But It’s Surprising
Suzanne Vale, Postcards From the Edge
Meryl, playing an analogue for Carrie Fisher, spends much of the movie being belittled by her mother Shirley MacLaine, playing an analogue for Fisher’s mother Debbie Reynolds. But by the end, she starts to break free on her own and expresses herself by way of a performance of “I’m Checkin’ Out.” The scene relies on the idea that we’re not used to Meryl or her character really embracing her singing talent, and also it slays.
Singing ability: Show ’em, Suzanne!
Donna, Mamma Mia! and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
A fascinating test case for our study here. While Donna spontaneously bursts into ABBA songs in order to express her emotions throughout the Mamma Mia! series, we know that, in addition to managing a hotel, she’s supposed to also have a career as a singer. That’s where the ABBA outfits in the credits come from! (Does ABBA the band itself not exist in this universe? That’s too sad to contemplate.) As to evaluating the quality of Donna’s vocal ability, that’s harder to say: We know her career probably wasn’t as big as her mother’s because her mother is Cher, but she has a ton of stage presence because when Lily James plays the character in Godfather II–esque flashbacks, she can pull off kissing the teacher.
Singing ability: Her heart’s in hotel management, but her lungs are up to it!
Meryls Who Are Just Good Singers
Yolanda Johnson, A Prairie Home Companion
One half of a country duo with Lily Tomlin, Meryl is here to sing country and flirt with Garrison Keillor, which is incredibly uncomfortable in retrospect considering the numerous allegations of sexual harassment against him.
Singing ability: Everything else aside, the character’s supposed to be pretty good.
Dee Dee Allen, The Prom
Compiling this list, I realized that Meryl often likes to sing in movies, but she rarely likes to play people who are supposed to be incredible singers themselves. Maybe that’s less interesting to play or would pose more of a challenge. Either way, she really went for it with The Prom, singing in character as Dee Dee Allen, a Broadway star who’s supposed to have two Tony Awards and be a famed beltress in the vein of Patti LuPone or Beth Leavel, who originated the part on Broadway. Her 11 o’clock number is “The Lady’s Improving,” supposedly the song that made her career in a musical called Swallow the Moon, which is about a circus or something.
Singing ability: Enough to make Keegan Michael-Key fall in love with her, which is all that really matters.