Anyone who knows me could tell you that I am quite the fan of musical theatre. Sure, it has its moments of being frivolous and, at times, unoriginal (cue most jukebox musicals and certain movie-to-stage adaptations) but there have been moments of greatness in musical theatre. The following is a list of 25 of my personal favorite musicals. This list is more based around the word FAVORITE rather than BEST…although BEST does slightly play a factor. It would be a somewhat different list if I were strictly basing it on the best from a written standpoint. Sentimentality and entertainment value will play a factor here just as much as I my admiration for how well they are structured and performed.
I will list the name of the musical, the year of which it had its big premiere on or off Broadway, and then the composer(s) and the book writer. This list has been known to change and get its selection moved around over the years, so this list could very well be different if you ask me come springtime. Also, I will probably be spoiling some of these musicals as well so if for some reason you don’t want spoiled, you’ve been warned.
I am going to do two separate posts, so in this, I will post my#25-#11 selections and then tomorrow, I will post my top 10 along with a special honorable mention.
#25-City of Angels (1989) Coleman & Zippel/Larry Gelbart
What made CITY OF ANGELS quite remarkable at the time was its use of the multi-world staging of Technicolor of the real world and then Black & White for the movie world. I feel like this musical often comes up on “Why hasn’t this been revived yet?” lists…and honestly, I do often wonder the same thing. I do think a lot of factors come into play as the show isn’t exactly a commodity that is remembered by the general population anymore so big names may be required for it to succeed. There is also the fact that the show’s design could make for a very expensive production cost which in today’s theatre world might not be the smartest decision. It is also a show where if you don’t have the right cast or you don’t stage it just right, it can fall apart. It’s a pretty delicate show, and there are aspects of it that aren’t perfect but it does contain a pretty strong book by Larry Gelbart that is the main core of the piece.
#24-Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1998) Stephen Trask/John Cameron Mitchell
As you will see by my list, the more modern sounding pop/rock scores won’t have much of a hold on my list. The music in HEDWIG is quite good and works quite well as a mixture of a rock concert meets musical theatre, however for me, what makes Hedwig work so marvelously is the work of John Cameron Mitchell’s libretto. His strings of one-liners, his character arch, and how free and brave it all comes across all made for truly one of the best performances I think one could’ve ever witnessed on a stage. I got to see him in the role when he came in as a replacement during the Broadway revival and it was pretty much a religious experience, but at the very least, if you missed him, you should seek out a bootleg or watch the movie version which was very well done.
#23-Chicago (1975) Kander & Ebb/Fred Ebb
Time does a lot of artistic endeavors. One of the biggest examples of this has to be CHICAGO. When it opened in 1975, it was fairly well received but not exactly beloved by the masses. In fact, the following month, any major success it could’ve received was overshadowed by the phenomenon known as A CHORUS LINE. Eventually CHICAGO closed two years later while A CHORUS LINE ran until 1990, becoming the longest running musical up to that point. CHICAGO eventually got revived at City Center and after such a rapturous response, it got transferred to Broadway where it won the Best Revival Tony, got made into a movie which won Best Picture at the Oscars, and it is STILL running today officially becoming the longest running American musical on Broadway unseating A CHORUS LINE. Divine justice?Perhaps, but here’s the deal: A CHORUS LINE is a very good show, too but in many ways, what made it special at the time doesn’t seem as innovative today …and that is a little unfair, but for me, I feel like the libretto can be quite hokey at times. When it comes to CHICAGO, I feel like it was ahead of its time in many ways. The show sort of glamorizes the whole media obsession with the bad guy, or in this case, the bad girls. We are strictly talking about people have MURDERED other people as our main protagonists and yet we find them incredibly charismatic and we find joy in watching them mess with the system. While the current Broadway revival has lost a lot of its appeal due to being the scaled-down version, I think a lot of the original’s value and also the movie version (despite some issues with how much I care about Roxie with Renee Zellweger’s interpretation) show how deliciously catty and dark and fun CHICAGO can be.
#22-Next to Normal (2010) Brian Yorkey & Tom Kitt
One of the more current musicals on my list (another will becoming up soon) and a lot of the reason I include it is because it is another show that dealt with a tricky subject but made it work remarkably well. While I don’t always listen to the score that much, I am definitely struck by the content and the story and the performance opportunities it gives its players. The basic outline is a bipolar mother addicted to Valium (which happens to be her favorite color) and she sees hallucinations of her dead teenage son. That’s just a very bare bones synopsis, but for some reason, I don’t feel too compelled to go more into it. I think NEXT TO NORMAL is a musical that everyone needs to see and experience with not much knowledge going in. I do want to add it is one of those rare musicals that gives a great leading showcase for a female actress, which is always a major plus.
#21-The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1986) Rupert Holmes
The man that forced “The Pina Colada Song” into the world can actually write good music and an entertaining libretto. Who knew? It just goes to show you that you really never know what talents can be hidden inside someone. DROOD was based on the unfinished manuscript of a novel that Charles Dickens hadn’t completed before he passed away. This ends upbecoming a gimmick that is actually quite fun as the story revolves around the murder mystery of who actually killed Edwin Drood…but we don’t know as Dickens never finished it. Holmes came up with the idea of writing several multiple endings and songs for each of the characters to act out and then by way of audience participation, they could vote on who they wanted to be the killer. It certainly was successful at the time and even managed to win Best Musical, but the OBC recording went out of print quite some time ago and it seemed to only be done regionally on a semi-frequent basis. It was refreshing to see the show get a revival back in 2012 but the show still doesn’t seem to get much discussion as it should. With a cast filled with many quirky and oddball characters, it is an absolutely fun show and is perfect for enlightened and talented regional theatres to tackle.
#20-Kiss Me, Kate (1949) Cole Porter/Bella Spewack
After writing many musicals that were filled with his witty little ditties and were as frothy as a champagne fountain overflowing on New Year’s Eve, Cole Porter put his skills to the test and succeeded marvelously when he tried his own hand at his score being firmly integrated into the story. KISS ME KATE is also a show-within-a-show as we follow two temperamental performers in a love-hate relationship as they perform in Shakespeare’s classic comedy THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. There is a certain maturity and warmth that Porter bring to light in his work that was rarely seen before this while also still having his bracing wit and sly salaciousness peering through (particularly with the character of Bianca). It was definitely one of the true masterworks of early musical theatre that focused on true storytelling.
#19-Merrily We Roll Along (1981) Stephen Sondheim/George Furth/James Lapine
-Get ready because you are going to be seeing A LOT of Mr. Sondheim (aka God) on this list. I have often considered MERRILY as the most underrated score in Sondheim’s canon. While it has a lot of his quirky style, there is a certain old-time brassy showtune quality that isn’t often apparent in his work that I really enjoy. MERRILY is well known for bombing big time back when it premiered on Broadway in 1981. Sondheim and Furth and director Hal Prince had trouble deciding exactly what they wanted to achieve and how to do it. The main premise of the show revolves around two friends who end up becoming composers and their other friends in their lives. The catch is that the show is told in reverse from 1980 going back to the late 50s when they graduate from high school. This structure gives the show an incredibly interesting symmetry because by the time we get to the end of the piece, we feel so saddened by watching these relationships knowing that they will one day fall apart. Prince cast a lot of young actors/actresses in the roles which had mixed dividends as a lot of them couldn’t really grasp the first part of the show when they were playing middle-aged. The musical was such a failure that it ended up leading Sondheim and Prince never to work together again after they changed the musical landscape in the 70s, and Sondheim almost quit the business to focus on novel writing. In the end, MERRILY developed a strong cult following and various rewrites have helped the show succeed in stronger ways. The best production was a recent revision directed by British actress Maria Friedman that took a lot of both Furth’s original text and added elements of the Lapinerevision that had been done in the early 90s. As it stands, MERRILY is a delicate musical that doesn’t always work but when it does…it is truly a wonderful experience.
#18-The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005) William Finn/Rachel Sheinkin
-Few shows are as infectious and joyous as SPELLING BEE. Originally developed off-Broadway out of improve exercises, this little quirky gem of a musical revolved around a small-time spelling bee. We have the participating kids (played by adults), the real estate agent who was once a former victor herself, a Vice Principal who would rather be anywhere else but there, a convict who is doing community service, and a couple of stage parents. The other fun gimmick that worked really well was inviting audience participants to participate in the spelling bee which led to some fun dynamics. William Finn is certainly one of the more distinctive composers to have ever lived and this is certainly him at his most joyful. The whole show he is basically writing great character song after great character song until he punches us in the gut with the beautiful and rather touching THE I LOVE YOU SONG. When I first saw this musical, I knew little about it other than the fact it was written by a composer I loved and was directed by one of Sondheim’s former partners…I left it much happier than when I was before I saw it and became one of its biggest fans.
#17-The Light in the Piazza (2005) Adam Guettel/Craig Lucas
Coming out in the same year as SPELLING BEE, these two musicals represent what a shame it is that they lost Best Musical to SPAMALOT. While SPELLING BEE was the more entertaining piece, PIAZZA was a stunningly glorious one that was lush, romantic, and compelling. Telling the story of a North Carolinian mother and daughter who travel to Florence, Italy to visit the sights she once saw on her honeymoon, we get treated to some of the most beautiful operatic songs to have ever been sung on a Broadway stage. Victoria Clark and Kelli O’Hara and the rest of the ensemble were absolutely sublime. The big event of the musical is when the mother Margaret is conflicted when her developmentally disabled daughter Clara falls in love with an Italian man named Fabrizio, and she isn’t sure of what that will mean for the future while she also battles some of her own personal demons. By the time we reach the end, we get a glorious 11 o’clock number in which Victoria Clark sings “Fable”; most of these kinds of numbers are known for their intensity or their belting…very few, if any, are as vocally stunning on an operatic level as this one.
#16-How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1961) Frank Loesser/Burrows, Weinstock, & Gilbert
Much like MAD MEN (in which HOW TO SUCCEED’S original Finch, Robert Morse also played a role), this musical is a great snapshot of early 1960s society right between the stuffiness of the 1950s and before the takeoff of the hippie culture of the late 60s. Based on an actual book and told completely in a satirical tone, HOW TO SUCCEED revolves around J. Pierrepont Finch, a window cleaner who reads said book and finds a way to go from being a window cleaner to a bigwig within the company, all while having a young receptionist fall for him and having a conniving competitor nipping at his heels. Frank Loesser was a wonderful composer and despite being primarily known for writing the legendary GUYS & DOLLS, this is probably his best work in my opinion along with his epic THE MOST HAPPY FELLA. The score is quite humorous and biting and it has quite the bouncy quality that captures that era so perfectly. In recent years, after revivals in 1995 and 2011, some people have questioned the show’s staying power. While that is fair, I think it can only really be done if you jump in with complete abandon and do it with full early 60s flair. It won’t work everywhere and I have seen productions fail, but when done well, it is certainly a great satirical and humorous take on corporate America.
#15-Fun Home (2015) Tseori & Kron/Lisa Kron
The most recent candidate on my list is FUN HOME, which was based on cartoonist Allison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name. The musical, which is only one act of about 100 minutes in length, acts as a memory piece as the adult Allison (referred to in the script as Big Allison) looks back over her life where we see Small Allison and Medium Allison. The primary core of the piece is her relationship with her perplexing and somewhat volatile father, who was a closeted homosexual in a loveless marriage and how that affected their family. FUN HOME is one of those rare musicals that could’ve also worked as a straight play; while the score isn’t exactly one I can sit down and listen to in full, it serves the piece really well while watching it and the songs are incredibly honest and real. Don’t necessarily seem overly clever nor did Lisa Kron try too hard to be flashy…smart move on her part. The original Broadway production (I missed the off-Broadway version) was spectacular and the cast was pitchperfect. It was an experience I will always treasure and it was a true joy to see it win the Best Musical Tony even though it still closed a lot sooner than most winners end up doing.
#14-South Pacific (1949) Rodgers & Hammerstein/Oscar Hammerstein II/Joshua Logan
Some of the more purist musical theatre fans would probably criticize me for not having as much of the supposed Golden Age of musicals on this list. Frankly, while I understand the value that Hammerstein gave to the world of musicals (not to mention mentoring Sondheim), I feel like the true heights of musical theatre weren’t reached til later on when people built upon his work and some of their contemporaries. As it stands, after starting a formula with OKLAHOMA and improving upon it with CAROUSEL and taking bold strokes with ALLEGRO, the achieved their best work overall in SOUTH PACIFIC. There are problems with the piece, especially with the racism angles and certain lyrics of Hammerstein which kind of hit the point over your head multiple times, but the recent 2008 revival proved the show can work powerfully even still. In the end, it comes down to the score for me more than anything. “Some Enchanted Evening”, “A Wonderful Guy”, “Happy Talk”, “This Nearly Was Mine”, among others are all simply classic musical theatre material.
#13-The Fantasticks (1960) Schmidt & Jones/Tom Jones
There was a time that I considered THE FANTASTICKS my favorite musical so it made quite the drop. Truthfully, I think in some ways the musical hasn’t exactly aged well…which is funny when it ran for nearly 42 years originally and then for just over a decade in a run that ended fairly recently. I think the legend of THE FANTASTICKS kept it running more than anything else. Having said that, I include the show here for one major reason: the score. I absolutely adore this score and think it is absolutely beautiful. There is also a certain sentimental attachment to the show in which I saw a production at a fairly young age and took the music (particularly the fairly hilarious but audacious song “It Depends on What You Pay”) and it just seemed so charming. I guess you can say this is going to be my true guilty pleasure of this list.
#12- Nine (1982) Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit
One of the luckiest musicals ever has to be NINE. When it opened on Broadway in 1982, it was on the last day of the disastrous 1981-1982 season in which only one musical found great success: DREAMGIRLS. While that particular musical isn’t on this list, I actually consider it the better written show libretto wise. So why do I include NINE here? I do love the score and I am definitely influenced by my love of its source material, which was Federico Fellini’s film 8 ½ .
NINE opened at the last minute as a Nederlander production. At the time, five Broadway theatres were being torn down to make way for the infamous Marriot Marquis Hotel as part of the plan to clean up Times Square. The Nederlander’s competition, The Shubert Organization, seemed to be okay with the destruction of these theatres and a lot of their publicity managers put that to their advantage as many were appalled by this decision. Also, NINE was a musical that struck many as artsy and innovative…and while that is true, it could also be considered self-indulgent. NINE is a show that I do love but can also understand why others take issue with it. Musicals often need great scores and this one has a lush score by one of our greatest composers, Maury Yeston. The characters are great, too. Our leading man, Guido, is a complex character and gives its actor a lot to work with, while the many women around him get their own great showcases as well.
#11-Assassins (1990) Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman
I said you were going to see a lot of Sondheim, but as you can see, it is going to be primarily confined to my top 10 (he IS God after all). There are often discussions about what truly makes good source material for a musical, but sometimes, the topics you least suspect end up working miraculously. If anyone has proven that odd subject matter can make for good musicals, it is Sondheim. ASSASSINS recently had a production put up at City Center for their Encores program and it is certainly a musical that would be polarizing to some, but it stands out in today’s culture due to all of the political unrest between conservatives and liberals. The title says it all; this show is about assassins, but not just any assassins. These are the successful and almost successful assassins who sought out to kill various Presidents of the United States. A very dark and abstract topic, to be sure, and it is told in just as abstract a fashion as if all of these various assassins are together in some other dimension in which they can all interact despite some of them having lived centuries from each other. The tone of this piece is satirical and darkly comedic, but it has its moments of chilling us while also letting us peer into the mindset of some of these madmen and even madwomen! Just for an example, Victor Garber played John Wilkes Booth in the original off-Broadway production in 1990. When he sings about why he killed Lincoln, you feel his passion and his own personal anguish in a way that makes you realize how he truly believed he was doing the right thing…even though we know he committed a truly horrific act. Musicals like ASSASSINS prove that you can find gold in the most subversive of subject matter.
And that is what we have so far! As I stated, tomorrow I will post my top 10 and I will also include a special honorable mention of a certain opera that many consider to be a borderline musical as well.