Monday, January 17, 2011

The Top Ten Musicals of All Time

Been in a couple discussions lately about what would make the list of the best (or, perhaps, most important) theatrical musicals. "Sweeney Todd" and "West Side Story" of course make the list, but what are the other candidates I'd put on my list, and why?

Definitions first. Bernstein's "Mass" does not make the list, as despite the multimedia elements it is a concert piece, not a musical. Nor can "Turandot," the most nearly perfect grand opera; an Opera is a different beast. Thus, too, "Porgy and Bess" must be passed over, as its heart lies with the opera and not with the stage musical.

And definitions for the list. Those considered must first and foremost be entertaining. They must contain all the elements that the musical theater brought together; a strong book, a clever libretto, memorable tunes and solid musical grammar. And they must be stage-able; they must be pieces that work on the stage, within the four walls of the theater and the frame of the proscenium arch (even if they break both, as does the second "Candide" or, to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, "Starlight Express."

This is also not the list that is otherwise known as the "Holy Thirteen"; those musicals that everyone has heard of -- those musicals that, especially if your theater is dependent on subscribers, you are going to be doing over and over again. I shouldn't have to quote THAT list. "Annie," "Sound of Music," "Oliver," "King and I" know how it goes.

Well, without further delay, here are the thoughts I have at the moment:

"Sweeney Todd" : Perhaps the greatest stage musical ever written, although its greatness might come at the cost of full accessibility. But then, if accessibility were the primary measure, "Annie" or "High School Musical" would win. "Sweeney" is above all intensely musical, a mature development of the forms; combining tour-de-force combining of melodic lines in the way pioneered by "West Side Story's" incredible "Quartet," with memorable tunes, with advanced harmonies and late 20th-century innovations in orchestration, with classical emotional writing in the Viennese Grammar and solid vocal writing that would not be out of place in a light opera, with lyrics with the word-play of Cole Porter but that reach for the honesty of emotion of Bernstein at his finest. If Rogers and Hammerstein first evolved the form of the musical theater, and Kander and Ebb explored and extended its vocabulary, "Sweeney" is where Sondheim shows that he is the heir to the tradition; fully understanding the work of those who went before even as he builds upon it.

It is also a solid book; a tight, elegant plot, scenes fitted so closely and efficiently there is no gap, no mis-step in the unfolding of the many plot-lines. It is intelligent without being post-modern, self-aware without ever being self-mocking. It does what it sets out to do without ever having to hide behind the wink and the nod of "Oh, we're not really trying to be serious about this."

And for all the melodrama it is emotionally sincere. These are real people, though people of an operatic (or Greek Tragic) stature. And the most despicable of them is still understandable, even a potential object of pity -- but more importantly, of self-recognition. It is, more than anything, a musical that always operates on multiple levels at once; and yet, never slights one so that another may be revealed.

"West Side Story" : Never again would Bernstein and Sondheim meet in collaboration. Somehow, something struck between the ability of Bernstein to capture an idiom musically and bring out both the intensely honest emotion and the most aching harmonies from it, and Sondheim's ability to fit language to music with words that always did four things at once while never seeming busy, something came out that would never be seen again. The most nearly perfect musical, "West Side Story" is brutally honest in its emotional backbone, infectiously energetic in its music, simple and efficient in the mechanics of its plot. Some of the power has to derive from the "Romeo and Juliet" it uses as its dramatic skeleton, but many others have gone to that well with far less engaging results.

The street toughs are perhaps too prettified, and the gang violence is, today, curiously quaint. At least, unlike "Madame Butterfly" (or the musical-theater equivalent, "Miss Saigon,") the characters do not walk with a self-imposed blindness towards their fate. They strive, they struggle against it, and they even, at least in some small sense, win over that fate. This is not a musical that celebrates surrender.

Well, those two are a natch. But what else might make the cut? What else might I nominate?

"Candide" : Incredible music, on a strong literary back, but there is something just a little cold about the whole affair. Candide and Cunagonde are just a little too much presented to be laughed at, not with. One pities them, but one does not identify with them. And few musicals can carry off rape without being wince-inducing (at the least). "Man of La Mancha" perhaps (more on that later). "Fantastics" gets a pass, though; besides the in-your-face nature of it that allows you to laugh it off, the "Rape Ballet" is clearly celebrating something rather more consensual.

On the other hand, it is refreshing to have a musical that so carefully avoids making an arbitrary happy ending. At the very end of the show, following the amazingly lovely "Make Our Garden Grow" the sheep with the golden fleece falls over dead. Few musicals would dare end on such a darkly comic note.

Fortunately, we don't have to decide on these merits. "Candide" is more of an operetta than a musical, and can be dismissed on that ground alone.

"Showboat" : Should probably sneak in just on the grounds of being a pioneer (but, then, that might be grounds to let in "Rent" as well, as the first musical to really stand up and say "The heck with voice training. Ethel Merman is dead and we've entered the electronic age. So cast a bunch of pretty-looking 20-something non-singers and put headset microphones on them.") Also gets credits for being an American Musical that takes a good hard look at race -- and in a generation that wasn't quite so prepared to see it talked about. Of course, it also premiered in a generation that wasn't ready, outside of Broadway. to see "Old Man River" sung by an actual African-American.

Good music, of course (can't get on the list without it.) Like so many of the great musicals, contributed songs to the great list of jazz standards (but, then, so did "Babes in Arms," the Mickey Rooney "Let's put on a show! We could use the barn!" musical; giving us "My Funny Valentine," "Johnny One-Note," and "The Lady is a Tramp!")

"Carousel" : Rogers and Hammerstein at the top of their form. They had always made an effort to learn the musical idioms and the patterns and rhythms of speech of the places they set their musicals in. In "Carousel," the dialect of the New England fishing village setting comes through quite clearly, and adds immeasurably to the context of the story. It is one of the most bittersweet of classical American musicals, carrying a sense of loneliness and loss throughout its length. That, and the dramatically necessary slaps (worse of which is that the girl receiving the second must say of it that "it felt like a kiss,") makes it a difficult show to do these days.

It also manages somehow to combine both a fantastical and quite non-denominational view of religion (the scenes with the Starkeeper following Billy's death) with an uncomfortably missionary anthem at the climax (the moving full-choral reprise of "You'll Never Walk Alone.")

An odd show, not done enough, in some places pedestrian and ordinary, but the whole oddly lingers in the mind in a way that makes it a good candidate for the list.

"Cabaret" : Too often, the seamy nightclub antics of "Cabaret" are taken as excuse to put the cast in sleazy outfits, as if showing a little fishnet and black lace on stage is being "dangerous." It allows the production to pretend they are taking risks and shaking up their audience, when all they are doing is a little cheap flash; the musical has much more dangerous things to say, about the ways fascism and conformity and the creation of outsiders can take over a society, about the need for personal responsibility no matter where your citizenship lies or what race or creed they are dragging away that day, and the perpetual outsider status of the theater itself, that survives always as the court jester before the seats of power, mocking them while also mocking itself, taking their blows and giving them the spectacle they want so as to continue to survive -- and hoping that maybe, every now and then, someone in the audience will really listen. (To "...catch the conscience of a king.")

"Cabaret," like "Chicago," is victim of the curse of Bob Fosse; where you leave the theater mostly remembering the length of Liza's Minelli's legs. It does not help "Cabaret" that the protagonists are self-absorbed, insular in their "it can't happen to me" attitudes, and ultimately futile in their attempts to understand, much less effect, what is happening around them.

Another conceit that bedevils far too many productions of "Cabaret" is that the dramatic portions of the play can be played as if part of the presentations at the Kit-Kat Klub. This boxes-within-boxes idea infects production teams with its post-modern self-referential-ism, but few manage to transcend the empty cleverness of this game to give the dramatic material the weight it needs; the feeling you must have of the danger to Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz, and the helplessness of Cliff faced with the self-destructive nature of Sally Bowles.

(This is as good a point as any to mention that I am writing most of this from memory; character names and dialog and the names of songs will probably be jumbled or mistaken here and there.)

"The Secret Garden" : another oddity of idiom. I found the rustic English speech patterns and the musical motifs seemingly taken directly from local songs charming, but someone with more familiarity with the source might find them cloying. Also, the short Indian motifs provide an intriguing touch that might also be taken as cheap exoticism; not helped by the "rah rah The Raj" attitude expressed by several characters, no matter how true it is to the time and place.

Also, like a surprising number of American musicals, it requires virtuoso singing and extensive acting from a very young performer. At least "Peter Pan," inheriting the "Pantomime" tradition, can cast a mature female singer instead of a hypernaturally talented little boy.

Secret Garden inherits from its book a Garden Labyrinth (not maze) of cycles within cycles, death and rebirth, winter and spring, sickness and health, estrangement and forgiveness. It also has, to my ear, some of the most spooky and powerful choral moments in all-too-brief snippets; "It's a maze of ways," or "there's a heart that beats in silence" or "the master hears the whispers on the stairways dark and still."

"The Wizard of Oz" : To the torment of designers and technicians this remains a perennial favorite -- especially since the RSC version, other competing versions, or the Baum books themselves are always forgotten in favor of "Let's make it just like the film." It is a fun, fantastical little story, with rambunctious songs, that can stand up to the indifferent tech and struggling actors of a typical grade school production; as long as it is done in good spirit it will remain fun to watch.

Still, the long shadow of the movie is always there; one can never be sure if you are enjoying the young singer before you, or dreamily remembering the prior-to-her-self-destruction Judy Garland and that magical moment when sepia-tinted Kansas made way for early but oh-so-vibrant Technicolor.

When you get right down to it, its a bunch of incidents strung together with a bunch of unrelated songs. As fondly remembered as it is, it really can't be seriously considered as one of the great musicals.

"Phantom of the Opera" : The first problem with "Phantom" is with Sir Andrew himself. It is perhaps fashionable among theater circles to hate Lloyd-Webber. It is more understandable when you realize "Phantom" is still playing on Broadway but Sondheim is all but unknown to the non-theater world.

This invites a comparison that does not flatter one of them. Compare, say, when Raoul sings, "No more talk of darkness, forget these wide-eyed fears; I'm here, nothing can harm you..." with the comparable song in "Sweeney"; as Toby sings "No-one's gonna harm you, no-one's gonna dare..."

Raoul's song is sung straight. The lovers are temporarily safe, the male hero comforts the wide-eyed and innocent heroine. So straight, indeed, that one is tempted to play Raoul as a parody of male fatuousness. He does come across, the whole story considered, as a bit of a brick. In short, though, the song is one of easy, simplistic emotionalism, with a faux-heroic theme in a major key.

"Sweeney" does this and more. One can honestly -- the show always makes this possible -- salute Toby's young heroism, even as one realizes just how unfit he is for his self-selected hero's role. When he sings confidently "..I've got ways," you know he is lying to himself to boost his own self-esteem and flagging courage. Actually, it is this awareness Toby carries of how powerless he really is, and yet his attempts to still do what he thinks is right, that makes his character far more heroic than any handsome Vicompte.

Raoul sings his song to a suitable damsel. Toby sings to a lady many years his senior, on whom he has developed an unhealthy and even slightly Oedipal fixation. His brave words are betrayed by the reality about him; the bloody engine of vengeance that is Sweeney will not be stopped by so slight an obstacle. And the real evil is hidden right before Toby, in the stout form of Mrs Lovett. Sweeney's evil burns pure in the heat of revenge, but her evil is mundane and mercenary (but ever-so-frugal!) Sondheim twists the knife by having her sing the same song back to Toby....while feeling around for a suitable weapon.

Still, Phantom has slickly memorable tunes, and although the lyrics are mostly meaningless tish there are a few clever lines -- the entire "notes" scene is wonderfully fun, and I am surprised more theater people don't respond to the sentiments of "What a way to run a business!" Dramatic organ music, a challenging vocal role for the true male lead of the piece, and excuse for many spectacular set-pieces and special effects make for a memorable night at the theater.

And yet...and yet.... the book is inefficient. Characters and scenes come and go, starting something, dropping it, coming back later, leaving loose ends everywhere. Scenes are crammed in sideways and endways like airline carry-on baggage that's been tossed through by customs and quickly repacked, and the dramatic arcs fail utterly to build and sustain properly. What can you possibly say of a "Phantom" story that puts THE signature moment of the story -- the falling of the chandelier -- before the end of the first act? (Yeah, yeah, Sondheim makes the entire second half of "Into the Woods" about what happens after "they live happily ever after" -- but that was the intent in the book and was clear from the first moment of the show.)

When all is said and done, if it was not for the inexplicable romanticism over the self-absorbed and conveniently all-powerful stalker at the heart of the story, "Phantom" would fail to hold interest as a piece of theater.

"Sound of Music" : It's one of the Holy Thirteen. It has kids (but no animals). It takes liberties with history. And everyone loves it. It is, as a friend of mine in the business has said, "A charming family musical -- with Nazis." (One of the historical liberties becomes more blatant when you realize Von Trapp was Captain of U-boats. Oh, plus the great escape over the mountains? They took a train.)

One has to separate the philosophy of a song from its musicality. You can't vote in "Sound of Music" because you agree with the romanticism of "Climb E'vry Mountain," any more than you can reject "1776" and the powerful "Molasses, to Rum" (to Slaves) because you disagree with the sentiments of the singer.

"Annie" : Another Holy Thirteen, and worse. It is hard to avoid a musical with so many children in it, because children have parents and friends, and parents and friends fill seats. And everyone loves the show. And it's meaningless fluff chock full of feel-good messages. At least it's good-hearted fluff (and, as in so many things, the viliains get the best lines and the best songs.)

It is also for it's own good fortune not looked at too closely. A single orphan lucky enough to escape the Depression with not so much as a missed meal because she makes a sugar daddy of a war profiteer....well! The one thing the show gives the production team an excuse for is to go wild with Art Deco....maybe a little of the hovel in the Hoovertown and bleak orphanage, but after that it's all guilding and chrome and streamlining, Dusenbergs and movie marquees and dining rooms the size of basketball courts. One wonders if some production team will chose to take one more step towards fantasy and make a Steampunk New York for "Annie," with clockwork maidservants and dirigibles overhead. Or give a more realistic depression-era surrounding; which, oddly enough, seems to happen in the film adaptations (the ones you would think would reach instinctively for glitz.)

Again, though, you have to separate material from message. The audience can't help but root for and cheer the spunky little adolescent and her mysteriously infrequent dog (as staged, Sandy shows up just long enough for the audience to sweat whether the dog will own up to training and run towards the actress, or follow instinct and wander off in some other direction.) Bereft of that, there's not enough here to make a great American musical.

"Annie" also takes a flirt with old-time radio that it fails to carry through on. There are several distinct episodes celebrating the glory days of radio, but despite the fourth-wall break that is "Tomorrow" (when Annie sings it in the radio show, she is actually supposed to be, well, singing it) it doesn't make for an actual through-line. It becomes just more name-dropping, like the mention of Al Capone late in the second act.

"Man of La Mancha" : a clever framing device, though one taking liberties with history (again), lets the writers pull a positive ending from the bleaker one the original novel presents. A broad dash of Flamenco, although having nothing to do with place or period, make the music interestingly different. And the central rape is almost redeemed by dramatic necessity -- a good will most productions squander by abusing and terrorizing their Aldonza on stage to the full extent the local mores will allow. The play-within-a-play framework is so clearly presented as to make for no confusion on the part of the audience; refreshingly, as against the attitude too many writers appear to have that confusing and audience is hard and therefore they should feel proud when they accomplish it. And the songs are humorous and memorable; "Hail, Knight of the Doeful Countenance!" But does it truly do anything so well, or so differently, as to ensure its placement on the list?

"Anything Goes" : can you have a list without Cole Porter? He must get on just for his cleverness with lyrics. The jazzy score should be a win as well. And of course for sheer age it must win some sort of seniority. There are older shows, and plenty, but it has survived.

"The Fantastics" : A smart show, but it wins a place on the strength of representing a sub-genre in theater; minimalism, the presentation of ideas without the burden of fancy scenery (indeed, some shows might not survive at all without the massive sets and fancy special effects to wow the audience that their bloated scripts call for.)

"Chess" : The show that could only play in New York. No other theater crowd would dare go out to see a show that right on the marquee boasts that it is about a pastime of intellectuals. America, after all, where they had to change the title of the first Harry Potter book -- the public wasn't about to read something with the word "Philosopher" on the cover!

In a way it fails at this lofty goal; the Russian player Anatoly is the only major character in the musical to embrace the game of chess for itself. For the others, chess is only the way they prove themselves to the world, get the worldly goods they feel they deserve, or wrestle with their internal demons. Nor does chess itself nor any game particularly come across; for all that is shown of the game and its philosophies and peculiarities it might as well be badminton.

But, then, that depends on the production. Attempts have been made -- although this both turns it into an expensive multimedia extravaganza, and makes for an even longer evening. Few of the songs are as brisk as "One Night in Bangkok" and -- as is so in many operas -- one finds oneself wishing the characters would stop singing and get counseling for their problems instead.

"Miss Saigon" : This Pinkerton escapes responsibility for his actions by jumping on a helicopter. The musical does not escape so lightly; it is weighed down and eventually crushed by the weight of that damned helicopter. If it gets a place in the list, it is for this; as a forerunner and template for those musicals where the entire thing circles tightly in the orbit of some giant unwieldy set-piece; flying car, sinking ocean liner, singing plant.

The mixed message of Cris's guilt-free escape is abetted by the largely negative picture of the Asian characters -- with the major exception of Kim, who is much more of a survivor than poor Cho-Cho-san (until the play goes out of its way to demand its desired tragedy and her less-than-fully-motivated suicide). The best message in the show is Cris's shocked outburst "This isn't supposed to happen! We are Americans!" But this message of responsibility is undercut in the same way "Cabaret's" is; ultimately, the show teaches the futility of trying to escape, whether it is the quagmire of Vietnam or the long shadow of Puccini.

"Guys and Dolls" : Damon Runyon characters, Frank Loesser music and lyrics, and even the shadow of Sinatra can't dim the enjoyment of tight harmonies and catchy tunes and a plot that moves like a well-oiled machine. It is almost the sui generis of the American Musical. Not quite the perfect musical; Adelaide's Lament grates (as does her voice; this show is deep in the heart of that strange tradition that had one "heroic" couple -- Curly and Laurie would be the model in "Oaklahoma," and one comedic couple, with the same brassy, nasal-voiced red-head seemingly cast as the distaff of the pair in every musical of the period), and although Sky turns out to be a gentleman after all Sarah's alcohol-induced lessening of inhibition is a bit quease-inducing. But on the other hand it opens with "Fugue for Tinhorns" -- a perfect marriage of high art and low comedy.

And this essay has gotten far too long. I've barely brushed upon the shows I've mentioned, and there are major shows I have not touched upon at all; from "King and I" (suspect history, White Man's Burden from the distaff side, and all), "Wicked" (another sufferer of post-"Rent" scoring, with much of its strength in a source material it hadn't the skill or courage to use more of) or "Kiss Me, Kate" or "Urinetown" or "Pacific Overtures" or.....

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