Thursday, April 29, 2010

The 30 Best Musicals

OK, so I’m a straight guy who likes musicals…shoot me! I just feel that it is a unique art form that began in America and has produced some of the best songs ever written, from composers/ lyricists like Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Lerner & Lowe, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, Jerry Herman, Kander & Ebb, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Schwartz, Marvin Hamlisch, William Finn, Andrew Lippa, Jonathan Larson, Joe DiPietro, Jason Robert Brown, Elton John, and Adam Guettel.

It’s hard to rank musicals because they vary greatly based on the era in which they were first produced. Instead, I will attempt to list chronologically the musicals that were the best and most important. Your choices may be different, but here are mine:

(1943) Oklahoma: While it may seem corny today, this Rodgers & Hammerstein show launched the “modern” era of musicals by combining diverse musical styles, a complete story line, and dances intended to move the story forward. Based on the play “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs, this show features tunes including “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” and the title song.

(1954) Peter Pan: By filming the stage version of this show and broadcasting it on TV every year in the 50s and 60s, this show did more to popularize Broadway musicals than any before it. A musical version of a play by J. M. Barrie, it featured one of the greatest stars Broadway has ever know in Mary Martin. With music by Mark “Moose” Charlap and lyrics by Jule Styne, classic songs include “Never Never Land,” “I’m Flying,” and “I Won’t Grow Up.”

(1956) My Fair Lady: It was an ambitious idea to turn George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” into a musical, but it worked, especially given the talents of Rex Harrison and a young Julie Andrews. The Lerner & Lowe score includes “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “On the Street Where You Live.”

(1957) West Side Story: Perhaps the best musical of them all, Arthur Laurents wrote the book for this show that took Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and set it on its ear with amazing songs combining the music of Leonard Bernstein with the lyrics of a young Stephen Sondheim, including “Maria,” “Tonight,” “America,” and the remarkable “Tonight Quintet.”

(1959) The Sound of Music: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s last great musical (book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse) was a triumph onstage and a huge movie success. Although most of us are more familiar with the Julie Andrews version, the original Broadway cast, starring Mary Martin, was in many ways more simple and pure. Besides the title song, it features “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” and “Climb Every Mountain.”

(1960) Oliver: Based on Dickens’s Oliver Twist, this was the first hugely successful musical to come from Great Britain. The songs by Lionel Bart include “Where is Love,” “Consider Yourself,” and “I’d Do Anything.”

(1962) Stop The World - I Want To Get Off: Another British musical, this featured the amazing work of Anthony Newley, who both co-wrote the book and songs (with Leslie Bricusse), and starred in the show, belting out great numbers like “Gonna Build a Mountain,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “What Kind of Fool Am I.”

(1964) Funny Girl: Launching the career of Barbra Streisand, who won both the Tony and the Oscar for the lead role of Fanny Brice, this comedic musical was based on a book by Isobel Lennart with songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill including “I’m the Greatest Star,” “People,” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”

(1965) Man of La Mancha: Cervantes’s Don Quixote may be the most popular and respected works ever written in Spanish, so converting it to an English-language musical required a bit of dexterity by Dale Wasserman and musical integrity by Mitch Leigh & Joe Darion. Others have played the role, but Richard Kiley owned it. Songs include “I, Don Quixote,” “Dulcinea,” and “The Impossible Dream.”

(1966) Mame: This Jerry Herman musical, based on Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, and converted into a musical play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, introduced Angela Lansbury to most of the Broadway-going public (although she had previously appeared on Broadway in “Anyone Can Whistle”). It featured liberating songs like “It’s Today,” “Open a New Window” and the title song.

(1968) Hair: Not so much a great play as a happening, Hair galvanized the American psyche and produced several top ten hits. James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot composed and penned a musical that featured rock & roll, drugs, nudity, and offensive language, and it shook up Broadway. Songs include: “Aquarius,” “Hair,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “Where Do I Go?” and “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In).”

(1970) Jesus Christ Superstar: Although Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote this after “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” they recorded it first, as a rock opera. Originally condemned by the Catholic church and scorned by the religious right, it is a fairly straightforward retelling of the Synoptic Gospels while drawing on Fulton J. Sheen's Life of Christ. Great songs include “Pilate’s Dream,” “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Gethsemane,” and the title song.

(1975) A Chorus Line: Michael Bennett based this show on actual interviews he had audiotaped with dancers. He then enlisted James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante to write the book and Marvin Hamlisch & Edward Kleban to write the songs. After months of testing, what emerged was an amazing musical about the lives of dancers in a Broadway chorus line. Songs include “At the Ballet,” “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love,” “Nothing,” “What I Did for Love,” and “One.” The touching 2008 documentary, “Every Little Step,” describes the development of this musical masterpiece.

(1979) The Falsettos Trilogy: This is actually three musicals—“In Trousers” (1979) “March of the Falsettos” (1981), and “Falsettoland” (1990)—all by William Finn and all dealing with the life of a gay man and his relationships with those around him, including his son. They feature some amazing dialogue and outstanding songs including “Love Me for What I Am,” “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” “I Never Wanted to Love You,” “Holding to the Ground,” and “What Would I Do.”

(1982) Cats: Although not the most coherent play, this musical, based on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, contains the outstanding ballad “Memory,” performed amazingly by Betty Buckley. The music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with additional lyrics by Trevor Nunn, also includes “Jellicle Songs For Jellicle Cats,” “Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat,” and “Mr. Mistoffeles.”

(1983) La Cage aux Folles: Based on the 1973 French play and movie of the same name by Jean Poiret, this musical features amazing Riviera-style, gender-bending dance numbers and outstanding Jerry Herman songs including “Song on the Sand,” “I Am What I Am” (performed amazingly by George Hearn), the title song, and “The Best of Times.”

(1986) Les Misérables: Alternately rousing and emotional, this musical based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel with music by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer, contains some of the most memorable scenes ever staged, including those for “At the End of the Day,” “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Master of the House,” “Stars,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” “On My Own,” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”

(1990) City of Angels: This is one you have to see to believe. In the book by Larry Gelbart, a shy, somewhat reclusive screenwriter pens film noir movies about a daring detective, including characters based on actual people he knows, so the same actors play the characters in his life and in the movie scenes. The writer’s scenes are lighted in full color while the detective’s scenes are lighted and the characters garbed in black and white. On Broadway, there were more than 60 set changes…the most visual play I’ve ever seen. In addition, the excellent musical numbers by Cy Coleman and David Zippel include “With Every Breath I Take,” “You’re Nothing Without Me,” and “Funny.”

(1996) Rent: It took me some time to warm up to this rock opera based on Puccini's La bohème, but the songs by Jonathan Larson are outstanding, and “Rent” shook up Broadway the same way that “Oklahoma,” “West Side Story,” and “Hair” had done before it, tackling difficult issues like homosexuality, AIDS, and the disillusionment of a new generation. Great songs include “One Song Glory,” “Tango: Maureen,” “La Vie Bohème,” “Seasons of Love,” “Take Me or Leave Me,” and “What You Own.” However, the real tragedy was that Larson died of an aortic aneurysm days before its opening.

(1996) Ragtime: The book by Terrence McNally was based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow about three families from very different backgrounds and how their lives intermingled amidst triumph and tragedy. It’s a big show and a beautiful story that in many ways relates the history of the American experience. Musical numbers by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens include the title song, “Wheels of a Dream,” “Sarah Brown Eyes,” and “Make Them Hear You.”

(1996) I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change: This little off-Broadway gem by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts features scenes and songs about love from young dating to meeting at funerals, and everything in between. Featuring only four actors, it is delightful for anyone who has ever been in love, with songs including “I Will Be Loved Tonight,” “The Baby Song,” and “Shouldn't I Be Less In Love With You.”

(1997) Songs For A New World: More of a loosely structured song cycle than a traditional play, the show consisted of four performers and the songs of Jason Robert Brown. It sounds simple, but these are very good songs, including “Opening: The New World,” “The River Won't Flow,” “Stars and the Moon,” “I'd Give It All For You,” and “Hear My Song.”

(1997) Children of Eden: With Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Schwartz completes the trio of the most prolific musical songwriters of the last 40 years, and this show, although never making it to Broadway, is among his best. As scripted by John Caird, the show explores the relationships between parents and children, drawing on stories from the Book of Genesis. The songs include “The Spark of Creation,” “A World Without You,” “Lost in the Wilderness,” and the title song.

(1998) Parade: With a book by Alfred Uhry and songs by Jason Robert Brown, this is not your standard song-and-dance musical. Rather, it tells the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager who, in 1913 Georgia, was wrongly accused, tried, and convicted of raping and murdering a thirteen-year-old employee. The real-life case led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. With a cast headed by Brent Carver and the amazing Carolee Carmello, songs include “Do It Alone,” “This Is Not Over Yet,” and the outstanding duet, “All the Wasted Time.”

(2000) Aida: Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang, adapted Verdi’s opera into this musical with songs by Elton John and Tim Rice. It tells the story of an ancient Egyptian love affair that was never meant to be. Elton John’s music in this show was among the best and most interesting since Bernstein’s West Side Story. Clearly the cream of the Disney musicals, it featured a great cast including Heather Headley, Adam Pascal, and Sherie René Scott, and includes “Every Story Is a Love Story,” “My Strongest Suit,” “Elaborate Lives,” “The Gods Love Nubia,” and “Written in the Stars.”

(2001) Urinetown: There are not enough actual musical comedies on Broadway, but this show was among the funniest. Written and composed by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, this tells the absurd story of a world where water is scarce and people must pay to urinate. What ensues is a hilarious show that makes fun of itself, with excellent songs including “Follow Your Heart,” “Run, Freedom, Run!” and “I See a River.”

(2003) Wicked: As scripted by Winnie Hozman, this story of the Wicked Witch of the West is based on Gregory Maguire’s book that draws on character’s from Frank L. Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. With show-stopping performances by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, it features songs by Stephen Schwartz including “No One Mourns the Wicked,” “Popular,” “Defying Gravity,” and “For Good.”

(2005) Billy Elliot: Lee Hall wrote this show as well as the 2000 movie on which it is based. He also shares songwriting credits with Elton John. Premiering in London in 2005, this musical features superb choreography by Peter Darling through which much of the story is told. Songs include “The Stars Look Down,” “Electricity,” and “Once We Were Kings.”

(2008) In The Heights: Originally written and staged by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes as a senior thesis project at Wesleyan University, this show tells the stories of Dominican immigrants in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Combining Latin beats, superb tunes, and intelligent rapping, this is a beautiful musical filled with positive energy. Songs by Miranda (who also starred in the show) include “It Won't Be Long Now,” “The Club,” and “When You’re Home.”

(2009) Next to Normal: I have yet to see this show, but the score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey is outstanding. The story concerns a mother who struggles with bipolar disorder and the loss of her son, and the excellent songs include “Maybe,” “I’m Alive,” and “I Am the One.”


  1. The modern Musical is one of America's greatest gifts to the world, along with jazz and rock & roll. But I'm shocked that a list of 30 great musicals includes only one Sondheim creation, and one to which he only wrote lyrics.
    "de gustibus non est disputandum" and all that, but if you must bow to public tastes in including a Webber musical (gasp), at least include one for which the music was created by the greatest writer of Broadway musicals of the last half of the 20th century.
    No "Sweeney Todd"? No "Into the Woods"? No "Assassins"?

  2. To John's comment, while I think many of Sondheim's songs are exquisite, I find it difficult to listen to that much dissonance for an entire show. I know I'm in the minority here, but I feel that "Sweeney Todd" and "Into the Woods" become tedious, and the entire premise for "Assassins" is abominable. If I was going to include a Sondheim musical, it would be "A Little Night Music" or "Sunday in the Park with George." However, while his body of work revolutionized Broadway, I can't think of a particular play that was either amazing or singularly important.