I have been involved with theater for a long time. I was brought to Broadway at a young age and my family frequented the Mechanic Theater and the Lyric Opera House quite a bit. I even saw Oliver! at a West End London theater at age twelve. I went through a period where I hated musicals because some of them are poorly written. RENT especially made me hate musicals for years and I instead embraced Shakespeare and the theater I attended was the kind without singing and dancing. I eventually went to school for theater but Rutgers never did musicals, instead focusing on acting. In my short career in professional theater I worked on a few musicals but a lot of them weren’t very good or were for kids. Still, there are a few musicals out there that I still like. Here’s the top 11.
1 Annie Get Your Gun
To this day I can’t remember when I was exposed to this musical. I’m fairly certain we didn’t do it in High School because we rarely did anything this cool in school. I am reasonably sure I didn’t see the movie version (which is excellent) until later. I must have seen the show live at some point then. I doubt it was at the Mechanic and I know I didn’t see the Broadway revival. According to the internet I could have seen it at the Kennedy Center which actually seems likely. Regardless, I love this tale of a strong-willed woman getting lost in the world of the show business and then finding herself and her strength again. The songs are all catchy as hell and there were many times that the entire soundtrack was blaring through my headphones in my late teens.
2 Guys and Dolls
I remember where I first saw this musical. I first saw Guys and Dolls at the Ritz Theater in Haddon, New Jersey. The theater’s pretty small but when I went to Camp Shohola, they did an annual live theater trip where you could go and see a show with your fellow campers. I was blown away by the music and the characters but at the same time I had to play it cool because I didn’t want to seem like a theater nerd in front of the boys. We were in the back few rows but the place is small enough that you’re still very close. The score is lively and the show has some pretty good messages about managing your expectations of life and what it means to be in a healthy relationship. It’s basically a Shakespearean comedy of misunderstandings modernized and set to an excellent Jazz score. The movie version is pretty good as well as you would think it would be since it stars Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. Of course, Marlon Brando singing is a little… you know what? He’s fine.
3 Singin’ in the Rain
I’ve only seen the movie version of this musical but it is really excellent. As I’ve mentioned on my blog before, the musical is formed by stealing good songs from earlier, inferior musicals. Of course, I have no problem with this because they took the songs and refurbished and repurposed them for a good cause. The musical is both a tribute and sometimes almost a parody of musicals from the twenties and thirties. However, the plot is way funnier and much better constructed than any 30’s musical I have ever seen. Gene Kelly is basically the human personification of dance and did the Singin’ in the Rain dance number in one take with a 103 degree fever. The young Debbie Reynolds is amazing and more than matches the skill and enthusiasm of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. It really feels like more than just a love story even though the love story is pretty central to the plot.
4 George M
This musical celebrates the loud and passionate personality of George M. Cohan who was a famous composer and star on Broadway after a successful vaudeville career. Cohan was a famous composer but I don’t think I can point to a lot you would recognize. He wrote a lot of patriotic tunes and love songs in an energetic ragtime style. By all accounts, Cohan was a brash and energetic go-getter although this musical kind of exaggerates things. Historically accurate or not, this movie follows the meteoric rise of George Cohan as he rises through the ranks of the Vaudeville circuit all the way to Broadway. The music is mostly extremely patriotic as Cohan wrote a lot of his lyrics between World War I and World War II. One of the things I love about the musical is that it’s about one man’s life and career and not another love story.
5 Little Shop of Horrors
I was always pretty surprised when I saw science fiction enter anything close to mainstream. When I was younger, most people tended to shy away from science fiction which was right up my alley and what I discussed with my friends while people gave us odd looks. Geeky things remained geeky until lately but back when Little Shop was made, it was pretty unique. First, it has a very unlikely protagonist who starts off pretty weak-willed and physically unimposing. Second, it involved the threat of a killer plant that wants to eat people and take over the world. So there’s that. Throw in a lot of catchy doowop style tunes and unexpectedly you have a really good musical. The movie version was excellent but on further review I was disappointed they didn’t stick with the musical’s original ending.
6 The Music Man
I have a special place in my heart for tales of liars and conmen eventually redeeming themselves while being impossibly charming and entertaining. This musical has all of that plus the somewhat alien (at least to me) concept of living in a small town. The three main songs from the show are Trouble, 76 Trombones and Goodnight, My Someone. Trouble has reached far into the pop culture consciousness and was even parodied pretty early on by The Simpsons (Monorail). The remaining two hits actually share a lot but I don’t want to ruin it for you. I never saw a stage version but the movie version hits the spot. I wasn’t expecting the movie to actually be touching but it kind of swerved me.
7 Bye Bye Birdie
Another musical that I have not seen on stage but the movie version is too good to pass up. Of course, I’m talking about the 1963 version starring Dick Van Dyke who was strangely the king of quirky movie musicals around that time. It also has Paul Lynde playing a straight man but we’ll just scoot on by that. The musical largely capitalizes on the super fame of musicians like Elvis Presley and even mirrors Elvis’ getting drafted. It has some really catchy lyrics and bouncy music that’s hard to get out of your head. Dick Van Dyke is on fire and this performance makes me wonder why he was ever criticized for things like Mary Poppins (even with his silly accent). There are two love stories but both are balanced by a story about getting caught up in fame and rumor mills.
This is a gritty little, intimate musical about Germany during the lead up to World War II. It also happens to be about relationships, prejudice and sexual politics. The show is intercut with musical numbers and clever satire performed at a cabaret called the Kit Kat Club in Berlin. The whole story takes place in Berlin during a turbulent time in history but also a turbulent time in a young writer’s life. The show is raunchy and funny and tragic and very messy. I was first introduced to the musical through the movie version which is excellent. I later got to see the revival with Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming and it was much more amazing live. Below the playful surface there is a powerful show that is definitely worth a watch.
The signature song All That Jazz is a pretty good summation of the musical style and the visual style of this show. This is a very presentational show that feels like the characters are putting on a show for you rather than each other. Considering that most of the characters are in prison, it’s almost like they are trying for the court of public opinion. The score and songs are heavy on what I call White People Jazz that really works. I didn’t see the show until the Broadway revival. I can’t remember who the female leads were but Billy Zane was in it and he was great. The show has no love story and is instead about the nature of guilt and public perception. The movie version is ok but it loses a lot of the excitement from the stage version’s presentational style.
10 Fiddler on the Roof
This was the very first musical I worked on and also the first live theater production I worked on voluntarily. This musical is very epic in scope and has a handful of love stories but it all forms a tapestry of what it is like to be Jewish in a small town in Russia in the early 1900’s. I saw a high school version where I grew up in Baltimore long before I saw any professional actors in the roles. I have to say, and I might be biased, when I finally saw Zero Mostel in the movie version, I thought our production was pretty damn good. The musical is very much structured around Zero Mostel’s acting style but it’s a great show. It’s only at the bottom here because the second act is so sad.
11 Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
This is kind of a silly little musical built around Dolly Parton. The plot is literally about a whorehouse in Texas that is endangered by the moral authority when all Dolly wants to do is make a little money. It’s the strangest sort of tale about the little guy taking on the big guy that I’ve ever seen. The music is some of the catchiest country twang that I’ve ever heard which makes sense with Dolly Parton being involved. I first saw the movie version in preparation for working as a spotlight operator for a summer stock production. Believe me, there’s nothing that can prepare you at age 16 to see a whole bunch of your female classmates pretending to be prostitutes on stage. (And yes that’s how I’m ending this post)
Tags: Annie Get Your Gun, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Bye Bye Birdie, Cabaret, Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof, George M, Guys and Dolls, Little Shop of Horrors, Musical, Singin in the Rain, The Music Man, Top 11