My Top Ten
Deciding which are my ten favorite musicals has been a surprisingly difficult chore. Except for a few obvious titles, I find it hard to commit to a full set of the ten best; I keep thinking, "What if I find something new? What if I change my mind? What if my tastes change in a year?" Nevertheless, I find it an interesting exercise to think hard about musicals and why I particularly like certain ones. This list is, of course, completely personal and is not meant to say, "These are the top ten musicals ever written, and anyone who disagrees is full of shit!"--which, unfortunately, is the attitude many such lists have. (Check out the various arrogant best-of lists on Amazon to see what I mean.) It's meant, as I said before, to clarify my own attitudes and to stimulate discussion. The musicals are listed in alphabetical order, since I can only quantify the first three: my favorite musical is Sweeney Todd, followed by On the Twentieth Century and Company.
Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk (music by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark, and Ann Duquesnay; lyrics by Reg E. Gaines)
This is a profoundly truthful musical; it just blew me away when it came through Denver some years back. What a splendid concept: Black American history and anger (and fierce pride) as expressed in tap and rhythm. Dancing has never been so meaningful. Tap as language, dance as liberation or as enslavement. Luckily, the OBC communicates these concepts well.
Cabaret (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb)
I had a tough time deciding between this and Chicago. I've seen both twice, and the performances on the OBC of Chicago are superior to those on the OBC of Cabaret. However, Cabaret gets the nod because the ending--the modern one, that is--left me shaken and crying, whereas Chicago was a less important (though thoroughly entertaining) production. Cabaret's book is a stunner, one of the best in Broadway.
Company (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Few musicals embody The Truth as much as this one does. Whereas my personal life is not at all like the main character's, his eleven o'clock number ("Being Alive") resonates with me like almost no other song has ever done. But the whole thing is amazing; it's one of the only albums I've ever owned that I can listen to over and over without growing tired of it. The world will never see a better ensemble cast, either.
Fiddler on the Roof (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick)
OK, so it's an obvious choice, but that doesn't lessen the quality of this show. If you're Jewish, you absorb Fiddler as you suckle at your mother's breast (and you'll be tested on it later in life, so suck carefully), and every note touches your soul. (It's not bad for gentiles either!) Practically every song in this show is a standard, and the opening song ("Tradition") is one of the greatest ever composed. Was Zero Mostel ever better in anything?
Follies (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Whatever the critics thought of the recent Broadway revival (which I saw), they were unanimous in one thing: praise for the score. This is one of Sondheim's most accessible set of songs, with a number of classics and anthems to delight and amaze. Again, there's a lot of truth here. "I'm Still Here" should be sung by anyone going through hard times. "Losing My Mind" is one of the greatest songs of obsession ever written. The Paper Mill Playhouse version (why the HELL is this CD out of print?) is the most complete, but the OBC is faster and more passionate, and the men are lots better.
Gypsy (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
Perhaps the quintessential "old-fashioned" musical, Gypsy marks several personal bests by Broadway legends: this is easily Styne's best score and Ethel Merman's best performance. There are those who feel these are some of the best lyrics Sondheim ever wrote as well, though I don't share that sentiment. Anyway, Gypsy is another musical with a superb book and tons of standard songs.
Jelly's Last Jam (music by Jelly Roll Morton with Luther Henderson, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead)
There have been revues of the work of notable black composers--Ain't Misbehavin (Fats Waller) and Five Guys Named Moe (Louis Jordan) spring to mind--but none so impressive as Jelly's Last Jam, which not only presents a whole bunch of wonderful songs but also weaves them into a musical biography (with some lyrical help from Birkenhead). Thus, Jelly transcends the revue format and becomes a genuine Broadway show. Broadway biographies tend to be hard on their subjects; Jelly is the hardest of all, and is all the better for it.
Mack and Mabel (music and lyrics by Jerry Herman)
To be honest, this one wasn't in my top ten until I heard the London concert version of 1988, and I realized how good this score sounded live.What a tragedy that the book was so terrible, because the score is truly great. Here's hoping that the planned revival works out the book bugs and catapults this musical out of cult status and into the stratosphere where it belongs. (If I ever hear that overture in a theatre, I'll burst into tears.)
On the Twentieth Century (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green)
With a spectacular overture, songs so perfectly suited to the story that you can envision the sets and the action, a knockabout sense of humor, and a splendid cast (John Cullum is so stunning that he instantly became my favorite leading man), this musical is one of the most underrated of all time and is desperately in need of revival. I like this musical so much that I'm afraid to listen to it for fear I'll get tired of it or, worse, let my attention wander and render it into mere background music.
Sweeney Todd (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)
This show is so overwhelmingly brilliant that it's hard to imagine that the various individuals involved weren't dancing around with excitement every time they rehearsed a line--and for all I know, they did. Like all Sondheim shows, it requires careful and repeated listening in order to fully appreciate just how deep and layered it is in lyric, music, book, and performance. All the performances are magnificent, particularly the leads; it helps to turn up the treble on your stereo and listen closely to catch all the subtleties of Len Cariou's tortured Sweeney Todd.
Sweet Charity (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields)
Man, did I agonize over this one. Sweet Charity has some of the finest pure Broadway-sound songs of any musical, including four of my all-time favorites, plus Gwen Verdon and John McMartin. But I finally decided to keep it out of my top ten for two reasons: I hate the ending (I only know it from the movie, but I believe it's pretty faithful to the stage production), and about half the songs are... well, they're not bad, but they fall just the tinest bit flat when compared to the stratospheric half of the songs.
All non-lyric material copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved
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