Thursday, September 13, 2012

The 25 Best Musicals of All-Time

The other day I told you that I would be sharing with you my favorite Broadway Musicals of All-Time.  It's a question that has been asked of me for years and years.  And because of that, I felt it appropriate to share with you the many musicals that I love that didn't make my Top 25.  I needed you to see how hard this subject is for me.  I have loved Musicals for years and there are just too many that I adore to narrow it down to a select few, but I did it.  As hard as it was, I did it.  I managed to pull together and rank my 25 favorite Musicals.  And while you may not completely agree with my rankings or my opinions, each of these shows have very good reasons for making it onto this list.


25. Godspell
The mixture of Religion and Musical theatre was a popular theme in the 1970s (Jesus Christ Superstar opened in New York the same year as this Off-Broadway hit!).  Stephen Schwartz' folk rock-inspired show was always a favorite in my household growing up.  The songs are simple yet complex and they perfectly reflect the feeling of the period (which was about love, peace and understanding).  Below is an appearance of the original Off-Broadway cast on the Today show (back when Barbara Walters was the co-host!).

24. Cabaret
Whether it is Harold Prince's groundbreaking original 1966 Broadway production or Bob Fosse's sleek and seductive 1972 film version, this Musical must be mentioned when you talk about Broadway greatness.  The Kander and Ebb landmark show is still one of the most popular Musicals (especially in colleges!).  Songs like the smashing opener "Wilkommen" (see the 1998 revival below) or the catchy title number (most famously performed by Liza Minnelli on film!) have made this show the innovation that it is.

23. Oklahoma!
It was the first show Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote together and it changed the face of Musical theatre.  No show before it had combined memorable songs, fully-developed characters, a complete plot and masterful choreography.  And because it is set against the backdrop of the Western territory in the early 20th Century, it is a true piece of Americana.  Below, see Hugh Jackman in the London revival singing the powerful title song.

22. 1776
I love this show.  It is always enjoyable to me (especially around the Fourth of July!).  Who ever thought that a show about the creation of the Declaration of Independence would be a fantastic Tony-winning hit?  Sherman Edwards' spritely songs and Peter Stone's smartly written libretto make each of these men (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, etc.) relatable and still keep that iconic aura they have had in our eyes.  Below, most of the original Broadway cast reprised their roles in the 1972 film version.

21. The Music Man
Meredith Wilson's masterpiece about a con man who manages to dupe a small Iowa town into funding a boys' band (that doesn't really exist!) is a classic in every way.  Much like its leading man "Prof." Harold Hill, the Musical takes the audience on a ride that ultimately we are the better for taking that ride.  Below, original star Robert Preston sings "Ya Got Trouble" at the 1973 Tony Awards as part of a celebration of the best award-winning Musicals.

20. Jersey Boys
I normally do not care for what are termed as "Jukebox" Musicals (Mamma Mia! really annoys me even if it has Meryl Streep!).  But this 2005 Tony-winning show has been one of the most interesting recent hits.  Its structure is definitely not a "traditional Broadway Musical," but it feels more like Musical in the same way the Oscar-winning biopics Coal Miner's Daughter or Ray are "Musicals."  It is both extremely enjoyable (each time I've seen it, everyone is on their feet by the finale!) and fantastically innovative (thanks both to the brilliant direction of Des McAnuff and the sharp libretto co-written by Marshall Brickman who also helped Woody Allen write Annie Hall.).

19. The King and I
Rodgers and Hammerstein were the gods of Broadway in its Golden Age and this show was part of their creative peak.  In adapting the true story of Anna Leonowens and her tenure as the tutor to the children of Siam's King Mongkut, they created a relationship that (although very sexually charged, especially in the "Shall We Dance" number below) was about two people from different sides of the world who came to respect each other as equals.  That is the kind of good character development that makes great Musicals.

18. A Chorus Line
For most of my life, this show had the honor of being the Longest Running Broadway Musical.  Michael Bennett's show about dancers who strive to nail that important audition was (in a way) Broadway's first "reality Musical."  Even though the dancers on stage had character names, they were basically playing versions of themselves (to varying degrees).  The fantastic choreography and the charming score (by the late Marvin Hamlisch) made this musical so popular that it was a phenomenon all its own (and ten times better "reality" than you would get on Jersey Shore or any of the Real Housewives shows!).

17. Guys and Dolls
This show comes right from the heart of Broadway (in particular Times Square!).  Damon Runyon's stories about gamblers and their gals that run around Times Square were light-hearted and charming enough to entice producers into turning it into a lavish Broadway Musical.  It is one of the most successful titles and one of the most revived shows in Broadway history.  Below, Stubby Kaye reprised his Broadway role in the 1955 film version and sings one of my favorite songs in the show, "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat."

16. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
One of Stephen Sondheim's most popular and most enduring works is also one of his most intense.  I mean who writes a musical about a guy who takes revenge on the society that wronged him by slicing their throats and having them baked into meat pies?!?!  And yet with Sondheim's masterful score and under Harold Prince's innovative direction, Sweeney Todd has become one of the most important shows of the last 40 years.  Below, original star Angela Lansbury alongside George Hearn play the leads and sing about the fun they'll have putting people into pies!

15. Oliver!
Just like Oklahoma! and The Music Man brought Americana to the rest of the world (through their hit London productions!), this show was basically London's response.  And it became one of the biggest hits on both sides of the Atlantic in the early 1960s.  Lionel Bart's clever score and the well-developed use of Dickens' characters (like Fagin, Nancy and The Artful Dodger) have made this Musical version of Oliver Twist one of the most lovable hits (especially among schools, thanks to the use of children in prominent roles!).

14. Chicago
Had it not been for this show's smash hit revival in 1996 (followed by an Oscar-winning film in 2002!), this one would have drifted right into obscurity.  But the Kander-Ebb-Fosse collaboration is bold, brassy, sexy, confrontational (at times) and (most importantly) jazzy.  It may have been too dark and sardonic for audiences who were enamored with A Chorus Line back in the late 1970s, but it provides a commentary on our culture and our media that has definitely become more prevalent over the last 30 years.  Below, original stars Chita Rivera and the late Gwen Verdon perform the finale of the Musical with Fosse's original chic choreography.

13. Man of La Mancha
When it comes to Musicals, one theme is always dominant: Dreams.  And in this show, the lead character is a man who follows his dreams.  Sure, he's a crazy old coot who thinks he's a knight and mistakes windmills for dragons; but his faith in his dreams make him one of the most inspirational characters ever.  Based on the literary classic Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, this Musical's structure is inspired both by its literary roots as well as the 1960s approach to theatre (which was mostly inspired by the Meisner method acting techniques).  It uses a "play within a play" motif where the actor playing Quixote is actually Cervantes himself trying to showcase his work and defend his writings.  The score (by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion) has some of the most beautiful songs including "Dulcinea" or "I, Don Quixote" or the timeless "The Impossible Dream" (sung below by Brian Stokes Mitchell in a 2003 revival of the show).

12. Evita
The same year he directed Sweeney Todd to great acclaim, the hit Harold Prince had directed in London the year before opened on Broadway to a massive (at the time) advance in ticket sales.  Evita was one of the most highly anticipated shows of the late 1970s.  Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's gargantuan rock opera about the wife of Argentinian dictator Juan Peron was (like Jesus Christ Superstar) first an extremely successful rock concept album that topped the charts with singles like "Don't Cry For Me Argentina."  With Prince's guidance, it became a theatrical wonder and a box-office smash.  I fell in love with this show at a very young age (my parents adored this Musical!) hearing the Original Broadway Cast album which featured the phenomenal Patti LuPone in the title role alongside the brilliant Mandy Patinkin as the Brecht-like narrator Che (see both of them below performing at the 1980 Tony Awards).

11. The Sound of Music
Thanks to the extremely successful 1965 film version, this Musical is one of the most popular shows in theatrical history.  It also is one of the most poignant as it served as the last Musical that Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote together (due to Hammerstein's death from throat cancer in 1960 eight months after the show opened on Broadway).  And as their last endeavor, it is one of their best scores.  So many songs in this show are just brilliant ("My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and of course the iconic title song!).  Below, the 1998 revival cast performs a medley of songs at the Tony Awards.

10. Gypsy
The same year The Sound of Music opened on Broadway, this show business gem was also running to sold-out crowds.  The star power of Ethel Merman combined with an amazing score (by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim) made this Musical a very popular hit.  It has been revived four separate times on Broadway, has had several notable regional and tour productions, two (somewhat) well-received film versions and has been named by several critics as the "greatest Broadway Musical."  Interesting to note that each major revival has (in some way) incorporated the original choreography by the legendary director Jerome Robbins.  It just goes to show the mark that man left on his shows (but more on that in a bit!).  Below, watch clips of Patti LuPone in the most recent Broadway revival.

9. Sunday In the Park With George
This one is truly a personal favorite.  I was first introduced to this show by my mother who showed me the PBS American Playhouse telecast that showcased the Original Broadway production.  Stephen Sondheim's hauntingly beautiful and rich score was just marvelous to hear especially when sung by the likes of Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.  Whenever I hear a song from this show, I think about watching that telecast with my mother and how it was through her (and my father!) that I fell in love with Broadway Musicals.

8. The Producers
There are very few Musicals that have made me literally laugh out loud.  And when I say "laugh," I mean an endless stream of gut-busting full-out laughter.  And of course that kind of laughter has to come from someone like Mel Brooks.  The Musical version of his amazing 1968 comedy is so hilariously brilliant and it is truly a pure "love letter" to Broadway and the traditional style Brooks must have loved growing up.  Below, Nathan Lane leads the Broadway cast in a hilarious medley of the shows best songs.

7. The Lion King
When I talked about the stage version of Beauty and the Beast, I (slightly) compared it to a theatrical show at Disneyland and how it was primarily a version of the film on stage (with fantastic sets and costumes).  But with The Lion King, director Julie Taymor found a way of innovating animated animals and planting them in front of a live audience.  Using masks, puppetry and elaborate costumes, Taymor expands the imagination of everyone who comes to see the show.  It also helps that the score from the film (Elton John and Tim Rice's songs and Hans Zimmer's instrumental score) are used to brilliant effect.  The show is still one of the biggest box-office hits on Broadway after almost 15 years and shows no sign of stopping.

6. Fiddler On the Roof
Another show introduced to me by my parents (it's a particular favorite of my father's!).  This landmark Musical based on Sholem Alecheim's Tevye stories is not just about a Jewish family in a Russian/Ukrainian village.  It is about community and adaptation and (dare I say it!) "Traditions."  The genius of Jerome Robbins' original staging and choreography is always honored in every production and utilized in some way (see below the 2004 revival).  The show is synonymous with "traditional" Broadway.

5. Wicked
The rank of this one probably surprises a lot of you, but there is a reason.  When I first heard about this show, I was about to graduate from college and could not afford to go see the out-of-town-tryout that was right here in San Francisco (even though I wanted to, I was just too busy!).  But I did hear some good things about it and heard it would be opening on Broadway later in the year.  However, that summer and early fall ended up making it one of the worst years in my life.  First, in July my Grandmother died after years of battling the effects of a stroke; and then, in October my Mother passed away suddenly from medical complications.  It was right before Halloween, which is when this show opened on Broadway.  That Thanksgiving, I needed to get away and went to New York.  I managed to get tickets to this show (with its Original Cast!) and I immediately fell in love with the Stephen Schwartz score and the brilliant staging by Joe Mantello.  It was the show I needed at that time in my life.  It made me realize everything was going to be alright.  It was like my Mother and Grandmother wanted me to see this show which has since become one of the most "Popular" shows of the last decade.

4. Les Misérables
This show is beloved in my family.  Everyone who has seen it says that they were just mesmerized and moved by this Musical.  Like many shows before it, a Musical version of Victor Hugo's long literary masterpiece seems like insanity.  But with a rousing, haunting and inspirational score and memorable characters (from lead Jean Valjean to the tragic Fantine to the treacherous Thenardiers), the show has become one of the biggest hits worldwide.  It even is (finally!) getting a film version released later this year directed by Oscar-winner Tom Hooper and starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway.  It cannot surprise you that I will be seeing it the day the movie opens at my local movie theater!

3. The Phantom of the Opera
Les Miz and this one are almost tied, but this one slightly wins out because I felt that Harold Prince's staging was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen in my life (even though I was only 13 at the time I saw it!).  It is considered one of the most unabashedly romantic Musicals in Broadway history.  Andrew Lloyd Webber's haunting and majestic score wins me over every time I hear it.  And I've already mentioned how I felt about Mr. Prince's genius staging (I mean, he has helped make Opera accessible to the masses!).  Below, watch as original stars Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman showcase one of the most memorable scenes in the show at the 1988 Tony Awards.

2. West Side Story
One of the biggest landmarks in Broadway history just had to be on this list no matter what.  Jerome Robbins' powerful and enigmatic adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set against the backdrop of 1950s street gangs is and will forever be a remarkable masterpiece.  With a fantastic and almost symphonic score by Leonard Bernstein (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, his first Broadway credit!) and a moving libretto by Arthur Laurents, the characters literally leap into your hearts (thanks to Robbins' brilliant choreography which he created with the help of his co-choreographer Peter Gennaro).  It was bold and innovative and yet, at the same time, it was traditional and theatrical.  There is truly nothing like it.

1. My Fair Lady
This really cannot be that much of a surprise.  I know this show backwards and forwards.  I know every line, every song, every orchestration and even every shot of the film.  Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's brilliant Musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion is beautiful in every way.  It has two of the best leading characters in Broadway history and it features gorgeous sets and costumes (if the production is done right!).  And the score is filled with amazing songs like "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On the Street Where You Live" and Higgins' final soliloquy "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."  Each in their own way are among my favorite Broadway songs (that's a list I can never do, by the way!).

So there, I have done it.  I have given you my Top 25 Broadway Musicals.  It was difficult and even painful at times, but I have answered the question most people have asked me for most of my life.  Are any of these your favorites?  I encourage you to tell me your favorite and what you love about it (even if it's not on this list!).

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