As stated yesterday, I am now going to list my top 10 favorite musicals. If you missed yesterday’s post, I listed my favorites from #11-25. I just want to add again that I consider this list truly based on the word “favorite” rather than best. Some of my top choices, including my #1 choice, wouldn’t be my vote for the best musical ever written. In relation to that, I said that I was going to bring up another production as an honorable mention of sorts. That will be the 1935 opera PORGY & BESS. Some have classified it as a musical as well but I decided to leave it off this list. In his two books (Finishing the Hat & Look, I Made a Hat) that go over his career & his lyric writing, Sondheim often expresses his admiration for PORGY & BESS stating that the best lyrics he has ever seen came from this piece, particularly those credited to the man who wrote the original source material, DuBose Heyward. One could say that PORGY & BESS is incredibly problematic and that promotes offensive racial stereotypes…and that may be true to some extent, but this opera was incredibly important in that it gave many African-American singers a chance to perform in a legit dramatic show all on their own and they got to ACT as well as SING. Musically, they had perhaps the greatest modern composer of our time leading the way, George Gershwin. At its original four hour length, PORGY & BESS is a stunning piece that deals with death, drug addiction, rape, and disabilities…which certainly wasn’t overly appealing to audiences back when it premiered in 1935. There was a recent revival on Broadway that starred Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald that was fairly well received and even managed to win the Tony for Best Revival in a mild upset over the closed production of Sondheim’s FOLLIES. Sondheim himself basically criticized this PORGY revival as director Diane Paulus and her team trimmed pretty much HALF of the show out of the running time and yet still headlined it as “The Gershwins’ PORGY & BESS”. This production certainly wasn’t bad but a lot of the power was lost due to the streamlining of the material. Despite the original 4-hour length, PORGY & BESS might be the greatest piece of dramatic musical performance ever written.
And now, I give you my top 10!
#10-Gypsy (1959) Styne & Sondheim/Arthur Laurents
I almost feel like I HAD to include GYPSY. It seems to be the go-to answer when people talk about the greatest libretto ever written for a musical. That is probably true, at least based any of the musicals I’ve come across. For a story that spans the amount of time that it does, it is actually incredibly well structured and doesn’t feel long or dragged out. Laurent’s libretto gives many of the characters a chance to shine while also giving us the ultimate beast of a stage mother and quite possibly the greatest role for a woman in musical theatre: Rose. With a fantastic score with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Sondheim (because Ethel Merman was too afraid to take a chance on another young composer…thanks Ethel), the musical is certainly the pinnacle of the mid-20th Century musical era. All of the elements that were set in place by the R&H musicals and then tweaked by the likes of Cole Porter and Harold Arlen and their collaborators are in complete peak form here. Is there a more sought after female behemoth of a role than Rose? Some might come close but in terms of age range, it seems to be the King Lear of musical theatre and the ultimate role for a woman of a certain age…and understandably so.
#9-Company (1970) Stephen Sondheim/George Furth
God peers through once again. Here’s a shocker for you…there was once a time where I wasn’t exactly the biggest fan of Sondheim. GASP! I know…I hope you can catch your breath from this abrupt and shocking news. That phase didn’t last long as I was pretty into his work by the time I was a senior in high school. However, the first musical of his that I loved pretty much instantly even though I am not sure why was COMPANY.In many ways, COMPANY is the first time we truly get to see Sondheim in the way that we all know Sondheim today. After only being a lyric writer and then writing scores for FORUM (which was very traditional in style) and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE (which sort of hinted at his future style), COMPANY was the birth of the full-out concept musical. There is no wonder it premiered with mixed reviews at the time despite its Tony success. It had a non-linear storyline, a leading man who wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted and couldn’t commit to anything and a score that is quirky and abstract and, at least based on the original production’s orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, sounded incredibly of its time. It may not be as a polished a score as Sondheim would often soon provide nor is the libretto often amazing (some of the scenes do get a little bit hokey dialogue wise), but the show is very ripe for interpretation as evidenced by John Doyle’s 2006 revival in which the cast played their own instruments in a very minimalist but elegant setting and the current West End production in which Bobby becomes a female Bobbie and some of the genders of the other characters have changed.
#8-Little Shop of Horrors (1982) Menken & Ashman/Howard Ashman
There aren’t many other artistic properties that I find absolutely amazing and very well done on so many levels while also having a lot of personal sentimentality mixed in for good measure. Continuing the trend of subject matter that is somewhat questionable for a musical, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is a prime example of a musical that manages to balance itself on a fine line between bad camp and good camp. It was based on a low-budget Roger Corman movie from 1960 about a very meek and awkward flower shop employee named Seymour who comes across a very bizarre plant that resembles a Venus Flytrap. This basic outline becomes the plot of a musical that was adapted by eventual Disney legends Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. The final result is a musical that is amazingly sweet and hilarious and also seems surprisingly honest and human despite the ludicrous man-eating plant from Outer Space. The early 60s inspired score is phenomenal with Menken writing some of his catchiest melodies and Ashman, who also wrote the fantastic libretto, contributing some pretty strong lyrics. The roles of Seymour and Audrey are absolute showcases for anyone who has the honor of playing them while Mr. Mushnik and Orin Scrivello(especially if it’s a version where that actor gets to play all the other various characters that come through) are great roles for character actors. Also, you have the street urchin roles which showcase three (or four depending) lovely ladies who act as theGreek Chorus and get some killer vocals. The musical is also remarkable in that it doesn’t have a happy ending…everybody dies…and it is truly remarkable and tragic…but it almost just seems to be part of the fun. I am a former Seymour and getting to play the role was something I will always cherish and this is a musical that has a special place that many musicals don’t have.
#7-Fiddler on the Roof (1964) Bock & Harnick/Joseph Stein
Some have considered FIDDLER to be the proto-type for the “Concept musicals” that eventually became associated with Sondheim. I can see that logic to a degree, but FIDDLER is certainly more traditional at its core. In fact, “Tradition” is its whole point to begin with. In an opening number that perfectly introduces its themes and its characters and its setting, FIDDLER is shows right off the bat that it is a true masterwork and a force to be reckoned with. Led by Tevye, we get to peak into the lives of the residents of the village known as Anatevka. The archaic sensibility is that the women are paired with men in arranged marriages, often set up by Yente the Matchmaker. A lot of what FIDDLER first tackles his how Tevye ends up breaking the tradition by secretly allowing his two eldest daughters to marry whom they want rather than whom they were expected to marry. The show also gives us what may be the greatest “I Want” song in all of musical theatre: “If I Were a Rich Man” while also giving us a song that has since become played at many a wedding since: “Sunrise, Sunset”. It even sort of playfully takes a stab at the corny Dream Ballets that are often associated with R&H musicals by having Tevye tell his wife Golde a fake dream in order to convince her that their daughter Tzeitel shouldn’t marry Lazar Wolfe the butcher but rather the tailor, Motel. Everything about FIDDLER is basically a masterclass at how to tell a story in a musical, and even a song that is relatively bland like “Now I Have Everything” is at least relatively pleasant rather than downright bad. Even though I love a lot of musicals, sometimes I do often wonder if I would call a lot of them “masterpieces”…I don’t have to question that with FIDDLER, it is definitely among that list.
#6-Sunday in the Park with George (1984) Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine
He’s baaaaack…and fair warning; Sondheim makes another appearance after this! SUNDAY is often considered an important show when showing how an artist works, and while it literally involves art in terms of painting in this case, the same could be said for any artistic process. Sondheim himself has often talked about how working on SUNDAY was a very personal process for him and you can see a lot of this in the songs that focus on Seurat at work: “Color & Light”, “Finishing the Hat”, “Putting it Together”, and “Move On”. The main premise of the show revolves around real life Pointillist painterGeorges Seurat, but in a fictionalized story about how he came to paint his most famous piece: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. Sondheim was coaxed out of his planned retirement by James Lapine, who was primarily known only as an off-Broadway playwright who often directed his own work. They were inspired by this painting and created a story in which they brought all of the characters from the painting to life, including the most prominent figure as a love interest for Georges, whom they appropriately name Dot. While Act One takes place in 1884, Act Two takes place in 1984 in which the actor that played Georges now plays his grandson George who is also an artist whose work has both its fervent fans and vocal detractors. A lot of what makes SUNDAY stand out for me is the connection to the artistic process and how one views it and what you can take from it. The Act One finale called “Sunday” might be Sondheim’s most beautiful work and it never fails to send chills down my spine and can often cause me to get misty eyed, and it is thrilling to watch his painting come together. In the end, art isn’t easy. He says it as a repeated lyric during the famous song “Putting it Together”. It stood out to me in its blunt but simple simplicity and in such a way that it even became my OkCupid username and also, if you haven’t noticed, my blog name. SUNDAY definitely had a profound influence on me.
#5-Falsettos/The Marvin Trilogy (1979/1981/1990) William Finn/James Lapine
Marvin is an important character to musical theatre and to theatre in general. He was a leading character that was a homosexual…and he even gets a lover on top of it all. The Marvin Trilogy is based around three one-act musicals: IN TROUSERS, MARCH OF THE FALSETTOS, and FALSETTOLAND. The latter two were combined (along with one song from IN TROUSERS) to make a production on Broadway called FALSETTOS which opened in 1992. The main premise is Marvin recently divorced his wife Trina in order to be with his younger and rather aloof lover Whizzer. This ends up causing a lot of strain on Trina and their young preteen son Jason. Things become even more bizarre when Marvin’s therapist, who ends up treating Jason as well, falls for Trina and they end up getting married. The Act Two portion (which is FALSETTOLAND) adds in two lesbian lovers, which was a first at the time and is still rarely ever seen on Broadway, aside from FUN HOME; planning for Jason’s bar mitzvah; finding love again after Marvin and Whizzer originally split up; and then the discovery that Whizzer has AIDS. While there had been plays such as THE NORMAL HEART or AS IS that discussed the AIDS crisis, Finn & Lapine were the first to musicalize it and it works surprisingly well emotionally without seeming cloying or over the top. It has its moments of humor while also being incredibly heartbreaking. For what it deals with and in the way they deal with it (primarily sung through almost like a modern pop opera), FALSETTOS is a truly lovely and important work.
#4-Cabaret (1966) Kander & Ebb/Joe Masteroff
The 1960s were a fascinating time for the arts. While American cinema was relatively floundering in the early 60s and television was fairly saccharine as well, the theatre was the place where most art was truly adult, and even then, there were some boundaries. I feel like CABARET was the first show to truly bust open those boundaries with his grime and sleaze and rather sinister and cynical tone. Based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel GOODBYE TO BERLIN which then became the play I AM A CAMERA, I feel CABARET was the next major stepping stone in being able to show audience’s what could be done in a musical and that it could be successful. You have a very wild leading lady by the name of Sally Bowles, who is a drinker and a partier that regularly sings at the sleazy Kit Kat Club and a rather sinister narrator of sorts that is that Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Club. The musical takes a darker turn as the Nazis (certainly not the kind you’d see in THE PRODUCERS) begin to take power and then we get the piece de resistance: the titular song in which Sally sings at the club about how we all need to enjoy life but it is sung with darker subtext: she is pregnant and she doesn’t want the baby…and by the end of the song, it is conveyed that she has decided to have an abortion. While it isn’t said explicitly due to censorship of the times, it is still a very dark turn for a musical to take but it is done extremely well. Many of the Kander & Ebb staples are born within this show in such a way that this, along with the very similar in tone CHICAGO, are so identified with them that many often forget they wrote more traditional works too such as CURTAINS and WOMAN OF THE YEAR and FLORA THE RED MENACE…not to mention the iconic “Theme from New York, New York”. The musical eventually became a film in 1972 which surprisingly was great in its own right even though it eliminated the characters of Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz and smaller subplots (a rare example of a movie still working immensely well even on different terms from its source material) and it managed to win 8 Oscars and was the last truly great film musical until LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS was released in 1986 and then when the genre made a full comeback with their own CHICAGO in 2002. CABARET was also my favorite musical at one point and I still obviously highly admire it for what it achieved and how they made it work.
#3-Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979) Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler
I might be entertained by some of his other musicals more but in terms of pure scope and content and how well Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler made it work, SWEENEY TODD gets my selection as my favorite Sondheim musical. The 2007 movie version by Tim Burton was fine on its own terms and introduced the story to modern audiences plus THE OFFICE did a whole episode where Ed Helms’ character Andy is cast as Anthony in a regional production. SWEENEY TODD has become another musical that was received with polarizing results at the time but had enough support and clout to win Best Musical. It legendarily had a good half of its audience leave at intermission at its first performance. Why? Well, I guess people weren’t accustomed to a show about two crazy individuals who are about to start killing people and putting them into meat pies. Yes, murder and cannibalism are the theme du jour in SWEENEY TODD and it makes for true gothic horror but also darkly comedic and sadistic hilarity at times. Sweeney Todd is actually our lead character’s alias; his actual name is Benjamin Barker. He was sentenced on a trumped up charge by the jealous and evil Judge Turpin who sought to have Barker’s wife and daughter for his bidding. It is believed that his wife Lucy is now dead while his daughter Johanna is the ward of the Judge. He learns this from Mrs. Lovett, a rather abrasive pie shop owner who almost instantly confesses her attraction towards Barker/Todd. Todd’s quest for revenge and Lovett’s lack of customers and good food supply lead them to killing people to service the pie shop. Due to not wanting to have novels as blog posts (and I feel like I already did that with my last posting yesterday), I am often vague on the synopses of a lot of these musicals so please forgive me. I feel like in the case of some show, like this one, I am doing a disservice with describing them. The last thing I will say about SWEENEY is that it has an opening number that sets the eerie tone so perfectly, and by the time you get to the finale, you are almost baffled by how much you laughed and how frightened you also were.
#2-She Loves Me (1963) Bock & Harnick/Joe Masteroff
The romantic comedy is a genre that can be cliché-ridden and hopelessly sappy, but when they are done well, they can be absolutely delightful. After a lot of darker themed musicals on this list, it might be surprising that a fluffy musical ranks this high but I firmly believe that SHE LOVES ME is the finest of the fluffiest, whipped creamy musicals we could possibly get. Its source material, a Hungarian play called PARFUMERIE, has been adapted several times as movies such as THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME, and most famously, YOU’VE GOT MAIL. In the case of SHE LOVES ME, it sticks with the original setting of a Hungarian Parfumerie in 1934. It revolves around a series of clerks and their boss throughout a good portion of the year, particularly Georg Novack and Amalia Balish, who despise each other. What they don’t know is that they are secretly pen-pals who share a lot of common interests and pretty soon a date is planned…but a series of events complicate things. There are also subplots involving the boss, Mr. Maraczeck finding out his wife is having an affair with who he assumes is Georg at first but turns out to be another clerk, the cad Mr. Kodaly, who also tries wooing another clerk, Ilona. We also have the bumbling middle-aged Lladislov and the youthful energetic Arpad rounding out the team. Those who know the story from YOU’VE GOT MAIL will get the basic idea, but in many ways, the show does follow a lot of similar romantic comedy tropes. Why do I love it so much then? A lot of it is the setting, the particular characters, the libretto is humorous and charming, and the score is absolutely beautiful and witty and breezy. SHE LOVES ME is one of those musicals where I usually find the most people adore it that knows it; only rarely have I ever met anyone that disliked it. The worst I have heard is that some find it boring or just typical and predictable. Maybe I sort of get that, but I also feel too engrained in my love to fully understand it. If there was ever a musical that truly leaves me feeling so happy and enchanted and ready to walk on air after seeing it or listening to the score, without a doubt, SHE LOVES ME will always win.
#1-Ragtime (1998) Ahrens & Flaherty/Terrence McNally
Anti-climatic much? How many times have I talked about RAGTIME and how much I love it? A thousand times on Facebook doesn’t seem like too much of an exaggeration. There are certain things about RAGTIME that I do find problematic, such as certain lyrics:
“We’ll go down south (go down south)
And see your people (see my folks)
Won’t they take to him
Like cats to cream
-WHEELS OF A DREAM
There is also the tendency of Stephen Flaherty to write songs that all end with a big flashy long note or Terrence McNally’s libretto getting a little preachy or heavy-handed in Act Two, but despite these issues, RAGTIME has always been a show that I have a strong affection for and that I find to be incredibly powerful and extremely well done; when it works, it works on a magnificent level. The source material was E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling 1975 novel which also became a fairly good though not as faithful film in 1981. Set at the turn of the 20th century, it focuses on three particular people of three different groups: Mother, a wealthy white woman in New Rochelle, NY; Tateh, a Latvian immigrant coming to America with his young daughter; and Colehouse, a black pianist from Harlem who is longing to find his lover Sarah. While there stories are all drastically different, we watch as the narrative leads them all to cross paths. In a similar trope that I feel like could be more known to others as a “Forrest Gump” gimmick, is this material features many celebrities and historical figures of that era crossing through the lives of those in the material. Many people questioned if RAGTIME could work on stage due to the amount of story and characters that were in the original novel. While certain plot points and characters are shafted or nixed, it is actually impressive how well the opening prologue achieves in setting up the scene and the characters. RAGTIME is a sentimental favorite as it was the first Broadway show I ever saw but I also feel the production was stunning based primarily on the cast which was led by the late Marin Mazzie as Mother; Peter Friedman as Tateh; Brian Stokes Mitchell as Colehouse; Audra McDonald as Sarah; Mark Jacoby as Father; Steven Sutcliffe as Younger Brother; Judy Kaye as Emma Goldman; and Lynette Perry as Evelyn Nesbitt. When the show opened, it was put into the brand new and massively large Ford Center for the Performing Arts, which is now called The Lyric Theatre. The show managed to sell remarkably well in that massive space but due to that size and the scope of the set and large ensemble, the show closed after two years without ever recouping. A lot of that also was due to the scheming accounting techniques of the infamous impresario/producer Garth Drabinsky. Many suspected it would become the American version of LES MISERABLES…and in a way, it definitely is that based strictly on the scope of the material (and it is better in my opinion). As I mentioned before, this list is based more around personal favorites rather than BEST. If this were a BEST list, RAGTIME would probably remain though not as high; it has enough fantastic merits to warrant it but I do feel other shows were better either libretto or lyric wise. I still can’t help but love this musical though. It began a journey in many ways for me and I still go back to listen to it often.
So, that’s my list! Hopefully you enjoyed reading it. If you have anything to say, please feel free to comment below.