"The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen": Everything Goes to Hell in the Second Act
Musicals where the characters stagger off at the end of the show to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives
Bucking the stereotype that musicals are mindlessly upbeat and cheery, here is a list of shows where pretty much everything collapses in the second act. In these shows, no one gets redeemed or reconciled at the last minute (e.g., as in Company, when Bobby finally decides that being married is better than being single, or in Jelly's Last Jam, where Jelly Roll Morton finally accepts his black roots). No, these characters who leave the stage are survivors, sometimes dazed, sometimes philosophical. Maybe they learned a lesson or two, but they'd rather not have. Some of these musicals have quite the body count, too!
***Thanks to friendly reader Mark for catching some errors and omissions!***
Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Music and lyrics by Carol Hall)
Miss Mona and her girls have been displaced, but the real tragedy is that of the sheriff, whose friends pretty much turned on him in order to close down the Chicken Ranch. The girls sing about moving on in "A Hard Candy Christmas" (which BTW is not a Christmas song, despite its inclusion on A Broadway Christmas), but I guess the sheriff is SOL. BODY COUNT: No humans, but the Chicken Ranch is kaput, though I guess it got resurrected in the sequel.
Billion Dollar Baby (Music by Morton Gould, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)
Although this is an upbeat musical, it ends with the stock market crash of 1929 and one of the characters, an instantly penniless billionaire, scrambling on hands and knees for jewelry that his new wife had been throwing to the wedding guests. If this sounds like a weird way to end a show, you're right; this is one of those minor Comden & Green shows that displeased audiences when it first came out (apparently audience members remembered the Crash all too well) and only now has had a cast recording (of a1998 off-Broadway revival). BODY COUNT: None; one guy is seemingly killed at the end of the first act, but he was only wounded.
Cabaret (Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb)
Along with Fiddler on the Roof, this has probably the best and most effective downer ending in musicals, where a whole bunch of people you've grown to like are massively screwed over by both their own behavior and events beyond their control. The revival makes it clear that none of the principals who remained in Germany--including the Emcee and the entire Kit Kat Klub band--will survive the war. BODY COUNT: None on stage, unless you consider Sally's unborn baby a character. By inference, everyone except Cliff.
Camelot (Music by Frederick Loewe, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner)
Guenevere has been screwing around with Lancelot, so Arthur is going to burn her at the stake, but he leaves an opening for Lancelot to come in with knights loyal to him to rescue Guenevere. Ultimately, half the Round Table ends up fighting the other half, demolishing the ideal of Camelot once and for all. The only glimmer of hope Arthur can manage at the end is to exhort a young boy to remember what Camelot stood for. BODY COUNT: By inference, most of the knights, Arthur, and Mordred. Guenevere and Lancelot end up in separate religious orders, so they might as well be dead.
Carmen Jones (Music by Georges Bizet; adaptation and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II)
As in the opera, Carmen Jones is stabbed to death at the climax of the show by Joe (aka Don Jose), who kills her in a jealous rage because she prefers Husky Miller the boxer (aka Escamillo the bullfighter). BODY COUNT: Carmen Jones.
Falsettos (Music and lyrics by William Finn)
Actually, the first show in this collection, March of the Falsettos, is pretty upbeat at the end; it's the second show, Falsettoland, where everything goes to hell because Whizzer contracts a mysterious wasting disease (mysterious back in the early 80s, anyway). BODY COUNT: Whizzer, mebbe Marvin later. We'll assume Marvin didn't schtup his ex-wife after he left her for Whizzer.
Fiddler on the Roof (Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick)
The classic ending: Despite enduring every challenge they face during most of the show, the Jewish citizens of Anatevka are forced to leave the village because the son-of-a-bitch Tsar doesn't want them there any more. Although they endure this edict with some stoicism, their way of life has been destroyed. Even the Fiddler on the Roof climbs down and joins the exodus. BODY COUNT: None; the Cossacks are fairly tame in this show.
The Golden Apple (Music by Jerome Moross, lyrics by John Latouche)
This legendary flop musical, just recently reissued on CD, is a retelling of the Odyssey as set in turn-of-the-century Washington state. Ulysses and his men venture off to see the big city before returning to their small town of Angel's Roost, and during their ten-year odyssey, everyone but Ulysses gets killed or otherwise rendered inert in sly and mostly funny ways. (At one point, a crazy lady scientist shoots one of his men into outer space, but she has no way of bringing him back.) Sadder and wiser, Ulysses straggles back to his faithful Penelope. BODY COUNT: All of Ulysses' companions.
Golden Boy (Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams)
In Act 1, boxer Joe Wellington's star is on the rise, though he's falling under the influence of Eddie, a shady racketeer; his family disapproves of his fighting; and he's in love with Lorna, the mistress of his fight promoter, Tom Moody. In Act 2, Lorna professes her love for Joe but finds she can't leave Tom, which devastates Joe. Later, Joe fights so hard that he kills his opponent. He breaks down in front of Lorna, then races out, and we are told that he was killed when he crashed the Ferrari given him by Eddie. There's a cheerful story for you. BODY COUNT: Joe and Lopez (his opponent).
Into the Woods (Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Although the nice guys (as opposed to the "good guys") end up prevailing, their numbers are sorely depleted, some of them have been orphaned or left homeless, and their forest is a trash heap. They've learned a bunch of lessons they didn't want to learn, and they have to pass these lessons on to the next generation (the Baker's baby) so that these mistakes won't be made again. BODY COUNT: The Baker's Wife, Red Ridinghood's grandmother, Jack's mother, Rapunzel, the Giant, the Giant's Wife, the Narrator, and, I think, the Baker's father. The Witch vanishes but is probably not dead.
Little Shop of Horrors (Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman)
The most comically downer ending in this list. The movie changed the ending, but in the stage show, Audrey II ends up eating Audrey and Seymour, and then it and its brethren take over the world. BODY COUNT: Everyone!
Lost in the Stars (Music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Maxwell Anderson)
Based on Cry, the Beloved Country, this affecting story deals with a "colored" preacher, the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, whose son, Absalom, kills a white man and is sentenced to hang when he tells the truth about the murder (his associates lie and go free). The final scene takes place just hours before Absalom is hung. Although there are stirrings of brotherhood as the racist father of the murdered man makes his peace with Rev. Kumalo, the fact remains that Absalom is going to die. BODY COUNT: Absalom and his victim.
Mack & Mabel (Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman)
I don't know how the updated book is going to end, but the original one has Mack singing to Mabel after she's dead of a drug overdose. Ew. According to Jerry Herman, this wasn't even close to reality; Mabel married another man and lived another seven years after she split from Mack. Herman begged Gower Champion not to use this ending, but Gower insisted. BODY COUNT: Mabel.
Mata Hari (Music by Edward Charnin, lyrics by Martin Charnin)
This musical is unique on this list in that it has two parallel stories, both with downer endings. The Mata Hari story ends with her being shot by firing squad despite her likely innocence (it's rumored that she was framed to cover up the generals' incompetence); the story about the horrors of war ends with the Young Soldier singing "plaintively of the waste and carnage of war." BODY COUNT: Mata Hari; Rudick, an expendable spy whose death supposedly proves that Mata Hari is a traitor; and millions of French and German soldiers.
Parade (Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown)
This one is a huge downer: The characters work incredibly hard to get Leo Frank pardoned, and his sentence is in fact commuted to life in prison rather than death. However, bastard rednecks drag him out of his cell and lynch him anyway. BODY COUNT: Leo Frank and the girl he supposedly killed.
Passion (Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Another classic downer from Sondheim. This offbeat and difficult love story concerns Fosca, an ugly and sickly woman, who fixates on the handsome soldier Giorgio. By sheer strength of passion, by giving her whole self to him, she makes him love her--but her love takes its toll on Giorgio's health; he has a breakdown and ends up in a sanatorium. Fosca, whose illness was exacerbated by her passion for Giorgio, dies three days after they make love. BODY COUNT: Fosca.
Rags (Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz)
As if being a dirt-poor Jewish immigrant to the United States at the turn of the century isn't tough enough, the main characters have to endure the loss of teenage Bella in a sweatshop fire just as her boyfriend Ben is starting to succeed in life. Rebecca Hershkowitz is so radicalized by Bella's death that her husband Nate leaves her because he fears she will damage his burgeoning political career. The characters endure, damaged but defiant. BODY COUNT: Bella and all her unfortunate coworkers.
Street Scene (Music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Langston Hughes)
One day in the life of a handful of tenement inhabitants on a scorching hot day. A drunken, brutal, racist man discovers his wife in the arms of another man and murders them both, then is hauled off by the cops. Also, a poor family is evicted from an apartment. Ethan Mordden calls this show "The most breathtakingly heartless stage picture til Cabaret and Follies." BODY COUNT: The wife and lover. Also, in murdering his wife, the husband also apparently murders "beauty."
Sunset Boulevard (Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton)
We all know the tragic plot and its ending: Norma Desmond's dreams of making a comeback in the movie she wrote are shattered, and the young screenwriter, Joe Gillis, with whom she fell in love, is leaving her for his girlfriend. Out comes the gun, bang!, and Norma walks down the staircase to the waiting police, believing she's in a new de Mille movie and ready for her close-up. BODY COUNT: Joe, and maybe Norma, if she gets the chair.
Sweeney Todd (Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Because there are some secrets within this show that I don't want to reveal if you're unfamiliar with the score, all I'll say is that at the end, only three of the principals are left standing, and only two of them are entirely intact. However, the ending is not quite the ultra-downer that it could have been because all the bad folks get their comeuppance. BODY COUNT: As above, plus an unknown number of Sweeney's victims.
Sweet Charity (Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields)
Poor Charity--she finally meets a man who falls in love with her, but the jerk is too much of a prude to sustain the relationship when he finds out what she really does for a living. In the stage production, he pushes her into a pond (the orchestra pit) and leaves; in the movie, he leaves as they're about to apply for a marriage license. Although she bravely and cheerfully (and, IMO, mindlessly; I think this is a stupid ending) lives "hopefully ever after," her life has essentially vanished--I don't know about the stage show, but in the movie she lies to her friends at the dance hall, so that she can never go back. BODY COUNT: None.
Titanic (Music by Maury Yeston, lyrics by Peter Stone)
Not a hard one to include ;^) Everyone in the audience knows what's gonna happen to the ship. At the end, the bedraggled survivors sing a few lines of a hymn to their lost loved ones, and then reprise the main "Titanic" song about it being a floating city, which I think was supposed to be a song of farewell to the ship. Not my idea of a satisfying wrap-up to the action. BODY COUNT: 1,517 souls, including nearly all of the male characters and a handful of the female ones.
Urinetown (Music by Mark Hollmann, lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis)
Although the music is cheerful and the good guys beat the bad guys, Officer Lockstock (the narrator) points out that the reign of the bad guys at least kept clean water in the drought-stricken town. The reign of the good guys results in the river drying up and everyone getting sick. BODY COUNT: Bobby Strong; Caldwell B. Cladwell; Hope Cladwell; tons of people hauled off to Urinetown; and who knows, maybe the poor dehydrated townsfolk as well. Hail Malthus!
West Side Story (Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Another classic downer ending; though the two gangs briefly unite to haul off Tony's body, you know this temporary brotherhood isn't gonna last. BODY COUNT: Tony, Bernardo (Maria's brother and the leader of the Sharks), Riff (the leader of the Jets). Maria is reported dead, but she's not, of course.
Zorba (Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb)
Actually, things start to go to hell at the end of the first act, when Pavli, obsessed with the Widow, commits suicide when he sees her embracing Nikos. The second act is a litany of tragedy: Nikos's mine, which is being reopened and has raised the villagers' hopes for work, is too decrepit to use; the Widow, blamed for Pavli's death, is herself stabbed; and Hortense, the French madame that Zorba was going to marry, dies of an illness. Zorba's response to all this is to dance in order to overcome his grief, and the general theme of the show is "death is a part of life." BODY COUNT: As above.
Follies (Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
With all the versions out there, I'm not sure what the official ending of the show is these days. The original ending had the characters connecting with their spouses after Ben's breakdown and recognizing that for better or for worse, they had one another. The new American ending had them expressing appreciation for their spouses, which was kind of dishonest, since the characters had spent the better part of the musical hating their spouses. Apparently, the British ending was even more upbeat/dishonest, and that version will never be performed again. BODY COUNT: None, though the theatre is about to become a parking lot.
Merrily We Roll Along (Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
This beloved flop musical would definitely qualify for "full" status if it didn't tell its story backwards. It starts out with the three main characters old, jaded, and hating one another, and ends with the characters 25 years younger and looking towards the future. Although there is a framing device of the graduating class of 1980 (at least in the original version; not sure about the revivals), I don't consider this musical as having gone to hell in the second act; it starts out in hell. Anyway, the final full song, "Our Time," is pretty damn hopeful, even if we know the characters aren't going to live up to it.
On the Town (Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)
This musical is so exuberant that people tend to forget the ending is bittersweet. The three sailors sing a song lamenting the quick passage of time and hoping for another chance--they are, after all, going off to war. BODY COUNT: None yet....
Pal Joey (Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart)
Joey's affair with Vera, the older woman keeping him, goes kaput. He subsequently alienates his real girlfriend, Linda, who had been in a mood to forgive him but now walks away from him. In the movie, Joey chases after Linda, but in the stage version, he thinks about it, then follows a pretty girl who happens to pass by. Because he's a brainless dolt who doesn't realize what he's lost, the downer nature of this ending is more subtle than the rest of the shows listed here. BODY COUNT: None.
Ragtime (Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens)
Coalhouse Walker Jr. is gunned down at the climax of the show, but the (sugary) final scene has him and his deceased fiance Sarah singing about their little boy, who has been adopted by Mother and Tateh, and the company then sings a message of hope. I admit, watching that little kid run onto the stage was quite touching--the audience gave a big "AWWWW...."--but I hate being emotionally manipulated. BODY COUNT: Coalhouse, Sarah, a bunch of firemen.
Shenandoah (Music by Gary Geld, lyrics by Peter Udell)
Everything does go to hell in the second act, when, despite Charlie Anderson's best efforts, he loses several family members to the war. However, a surprise survivor perks up the final scene. BODY COUNT: James, Annie, Jacob, and a Confederate sniper. Charlie's wife Martha is dead at the beginning of the show.
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