So, there was a little fill in the blank questionnaire going around on Facebook about a month ago about musicals — a genre I love. I didn’t fill it out, partly because of the Sondheim thing (keep reading, you’ll see what I mean), and partly because a friend of mine urged her fellow playwrights not to bash anyone publicly — after all, you might end up working with them someday. (She coaches young people who are auditioning for big Broadway shows like Matilda, Fun Home, School or Rock, etc.) While I doubt that Lin Manuel Miranda is ever going to call me so we can talk over a cool new idea he has, that he just needs a little writing help with, I get that putting bad vibes out into the universe and ridiculing theater creators publicly is probably a bad idea. So, you know. I’m doing it here.
To be fair, I’m also doing it in a forum where I can explain my decisions a bit more fully. So. . .with a few edits and elaborations, here’s my personal list of musical hits and misses. But let’s start out on a happy note:
Musicals I love:
Dear Evan Hansen. This is my current musical obsession. I saw the show in January in NYC before the cast album came out and I’ve been listening to it non-stop ever since. The story is original, the music is both super accessible and incredibly poignant, and the characters broke my heart. Special kudos to a show that gives two different moms really important and interesting parts to play in a story that essentially focuses on teenage angst. It’s relatable, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s what I’m rooting for at the Tonys this year. #teamdearevanhansen #youwillbefoundwithallthetonys
Hamilton. Well, yeah, me and everyone else in the known world. I was fortunate enough to see this in NYC before the cast album came out also — with all the original cast. It was extraordinary, for all the reasons that people have been writing about — non-stop — since LMM gave us the first taste of the show at the Whitehouse. (Thanks Obama!) I love the research, I love the poetry, I love the references to other musicals, I love that one of the key points in the musical involves punctuation, and I love that a hip hop musical is a thing. I love singing along in the car, complete with what I believe to be hip hop-esque hand gestures. I love the excitement and the controversy its caused, the fact that educational outreach has been a big part of the show, and that multicultural casting is NEVER going to be an issue again. And for the record, I think Ron Chernow (who wrote the Hamilton biography the musical is based on) is the luckiest SOB walking the earth. I mean, can you imagine being him? What a ride.
Musicals I cherish:
The Sound of Music. This was the first musical I learned by heart. This record was in heavy rotation at my house (yes, RECORD) with Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There was much dancing and acting out scenes from all of these, but especially The Sound of Music. I am still a tiny bit bitter that I never got to play Liesl onstage. At least I had all those afternoons in my living room, twirling to “Sixteen going on Seventeen.”
Fiddler on the Roof. This is the first community theater musical I was ever in, and one of the best musicals ever written. I learned so much, I had so much fun. . .I fell in love for the first time with the guy who played Perchik. “Sabbath Prayer” still gives me goosebumps.
Guys and Dolls. The first and only time I played a lead in a musical, I was Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. Again, the music is sublime — and there are so many great parts! The characters are cartoony, but in the best way. And who doesn’t love “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” or “My Time of Day”? Especially with a charming Sky Masterson.
Musicals I think are overrated:
Oklahoma. Yawn. I know it was groundbreaking at the time. . .Maybe I just haven’t seen a great production, but the bottom line is I don’t care if the farmer and the cowboy are friends or not. And “I’m Just A Girl Who Can’t Say No” is. . .problematic these days.
Kinky Boots. How did this mess get nominated for 13 Tony Awards? And one of them for best book? Are you kidding? I like Cindy Lauper and I love fierce drag queens but that does not make up for the sloppy, incoherent story and cardboard characters.
Sunday in the Park with George. For me, the costumes are the best part. The rest is a group of unhappy people who become more unhappy over time, and sing about it in atonal ballads. The story doesn’t transport me and I don’t find the music compelling. (I know, I know, this is treason in some circles.)
The Producers. I get the joke. It’s funny to think about making a musical about Hitler. I don’t think it’s funny for two hours. Maybe if I saw Nathan Lane do it.
Musicals I think are underrated:
City of Angels. Killer songs, a really funny book, and a nice send up of the detective story genre. . .and yes, I know this violates my rule about putting the author in the story, but it’s done in such a clever way that I totally excuse it. Written by Larry Gelbart, one of the comic geniuses behind all the really good MASH episodes, it’s witty, lightning fast, and cynical about both men and Hollywood. I love it.
Chess. Unfortunately this show has a million permutations because when the Cold War ended the creative team kept messing with it, instead of letting it stand as a period piece. So I stand by the version I saw in 1989, and the cassette tape of the show’s songs I memorized as a sophomore in college. Yeah, it sounds very 1980s. Yes some of the characters sound whiny. I still love it. I love the intricate melodies, the big ballads, and the star crossed lovers caught in international politics. And “One Night in Bangkok" still rocks my world.
Finian’s Rainbow. I have no idea how this would play now, and I admit it’s been decades since I saw the movie, but I love the music. I love the idea that a bigoted Southern fat cat is turned black, to understand what it’s like to live as an African American. And you know, leprechauns are always amusing. With amazing songs like “How are Things in Gloccamora,” “Look to the Rainbow,” “If This isn’t Love,” “Old Devil Moon,” and “The Great Come and Get it Day” I’d love to see a revival. Or just watch the 1968 movie again with Petula Clark and Fred Astaire.
Musicals I used to like, but have a hard time watching now because they are hopelessly racist and/or sexist:
South Pacific. Oh, where to start? Bloody Mary as the happy little brown person, island chotchke salesman and madame, whoring her daughter out to be married off to a GI, while she’s high on beetle nuts? And just what is the boar’s tooth celebration? Yes, “You Have To Be Carefully Taught,” is poignant and the idea of a white woman adopting multi-cultural children was interesting in the 1950s. . . But enough with the chorus of nurses as bikini clad bombshells. Aren’t they cute as they assert their independence while washing their hair? No.
My Fair Lady. I remember thinking of this show as a wonderful love story. I don’t think of it that way anymore. There’s no logical end for the play except for Eliza to leave, and she doesn’t. “On the Street Where You Live,” is enchanting, but Freddy doesn’t understand Eliza or love, really. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face,” is gorgeous, but it isn’t enough to humanize Henry Higgins. It just makes him sound more like the spoiled child he is.
Annie Get Your Gun. A white girl sharpshooter in a cowboy hat singing “I’m an Indian Too” as she dances around with Sitting Bull and a whole tribe of braves? No. Great vehicle for Ethel Merman. Let’s leave it at that.
The King and I. I was actually in this one, as a chorus member/dancer. And I sang “Western People Funny” with a horrible Asian accent and I smeared tan pancake makeup all over my arms and legs to make it seem like I wasn’t a lily white girl from the Midwest. Ugh. It has some lovely songs and you have a cold heart indeed if you don’t like watching Anna and the King walz in “Shall we Dance?” But it’s a love letter to Imperialism and once again portrays brown people as those who need to be educated and civilized. Beautiful dresses or not. . .I gotta say no to this from now on.
Return to the Forbidden Planet
The Full Monty
Million Dollar Quartet
All of these are silly and wildly entertaining. I’m happy to give my brain the night off to just sit back and enjoy when watching these, especially Return to the Forbidden Planet, which manages to mix great vintage pop songs with a send up of ’60s science fiction movies and the plot of The Tempest. I mean, come on. Oh, and in the production I saw, the cast played all their own instruments. And there is a robot on roller skates. There’s even audience participation. Yes, I really love this show.
Also, seeing Million Dollar Quartet was the first time I understood the appeal of Elvis Presley. Totally get it now. Although I think I’ll always be more partial to the man in black, Johnny Cash. Swoon.
Musical I Sob at:
Fun Home. From the moment I heard “Ring of Keys” this musical had my heart, but the father –daughter dynamics of “Telephone Wire” tore it to pieces. And the original staging at Circle in the Square was incredible.
Dear Evan Hansen. As a mom of boys who don’t quite fit in, as a mom who watched her husband drive away one February day, as someone who has had a “words fail” moment or two, this musical was a revelation. It also affected me so deeply that I couldn’t listen to “So Big/So Small” for months without bursting into tears.
Ragtime. The end of Act I when Coalhouse yells “Noooooooo!” after Sarah has been accidently shot by the president’s bodyguards. . .that sound ricochets inside my head until tears form. Her funeral songs, where the characters talk about reaching a day of justice make my heart hurt.
Musicals that keep me laughing:
The Book of Mormon. I just got to see this for a second time and it is singularly entertaining in an “oh my God, I can’t believe they just said that,” kind of way. Unafraid to offend every audience member on some level, irreverent about anything and everything, it is none-the-less one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. And bonus! Underneath all that shock-comedy is a very sweet story about making connections with people who aren’t like you, set to some incredible music. Yes, I believe.
Hamilton: Thank God for Lin Manuel Miranda and his top-notch brain, is all I have to say. The more you listen to it, the better it gets. Once you read the “Hamiltome” you realize this complicated, multi-layered, genius musical is even more complex than you could imagine. I often take comfort in the fact that it took LMM a year to write “My Shot.” But then I realize how amazing it is and wonder how he got it done so quickly.
Musical whose songs I skip around on:
Miss Saigon: Some of these songs are golden and some are just too much for me. I don’t need to hear any more about the children called “Bui Doi,” but I love “The Heat is on in Saigon” and the Ellen/Kim duets “Room 317” and “I Still Believe.”
Man of La Mancha. I can’t stand “Impossible Dream.” I mean I really hate it. But there are lots of other great songs in there, especially “We’re Only Thinking of Him,” “Little Bird,” and “Aldonza.” Great stuff.
Evita. I have only seen the Madonna movie version, but I really dug it. I could listen to “Good Night and Thank You,” “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You,” “Rainbow High” and “And the Money Kept Rolling In,” on repeat for hours. Many of the other songs, not so much.
Spring Awakening. There is something irresistible about teen angst and first love, even for those of us who have teenagers of our own. The angry, lustful, rebellious songs in this show captivate me, like “Mother Who Bore Me,” “The Dark I know so Well,” and “Totally Fucked.” I can leave behind the song “Left Behind.”
Musicals I just can’t listen to anymore:
Phantom of the Opera
Groundbreaking, incredibly theatrical, filled with love and loss, these musicals weren’t just bigger than life, they were epic. They were transformative when I saw them as a teen/college student. They are also so emotionally and musically inflated that when the bubble bursts, you’re left with melodies you wish you could erase from your brain.
I have seen productions of both Les Mis and Phantom after a two decade hiatus, and found them more enjoyable than cringe-worthy, but I don’t ever want to hear “The Music of the Night” again.
Musical I can listen to on repeat:
Rent. This has actually morphed into a seasonal musical event for me. It begins at Christmastime and ends there the following year, so every December I dig it out and play it in rotation with my other holiday faves. And yes, with the exception of “Seasons of Love” I think I could listen to it for days at a time.
Musical I am most excited to see:
West Side Story. I want to see a super hot production that really puts me in the room with Tony, Maria, Anita and Bernardo. I adore the movie and have watched it many times. The music is ridiculously good. But the only time I’ve seen this show live, it was a lackluster touring company and the whole story fell flat. I’m desperate to see a production that seethes with sex and hate and the idea that “there’s a place for us.” Perhaps when Karen Olivo is finished in Hamilton, she can resume her role as Anita.
Musicals that everyone loves except me:
A Little Night Music
Sunday in the Park with George
Into the Woods
Okay, I bet you’re seeing a pattern here. I admit it. . .I just don’t dig Sondheim. I go see them. I give them a chance. But the plots are convoluted, the characters are unhappy and the music is frequently off-putting to me. I respect the fact that many, many other people think he’s a genius. But this is not my idea of a good time at the theater.
Musicals I hate:
Starlight Express. Yes, I actually saw this in London, complete with a track that ran all the way around the perimeter of the theater so the poor actors on roller skates (pretending to be trains) could have an actual race for the shows’ finale. It sounds dumb when you hear the plot. Trust me, it’s worse in person.
Crazy for You. I paid a lot of money to see this in London with a friend, and I’m still bitter about that. It actually stands in for a whole genre of musicals that are like cupcakes or meringue —pretty, sweet, empty and unsatisfying. Jam packed with gorgeous people and costumes, they are filled with enormous dance numbers with simple little plots that don’t amount to much. It’s all fluff. It’s like seeing the Rockettes with a little dialogue in between. If that’s your thing, great. It’s not my thing. Ugh.
Musical versions of movies, just on principle. Do we need Footloose the Musical? Or The Addams Family? Or The Bodyguard? Now I know I just said I liked Legally Blonde and The Full Monty. . .but can those recycled vehicles be the exception and not the rule? Can they be better/different/more than the movie instead of just an expensive, overblown, safe, substitute for it?