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Mark Shenton’s top 50 musicals (20-11)

A scene from She Loves Me at the Landor Theatre. Photo: Darren Bell A scene from She Loves Me at the Landor Theatre. Photo: Darren Bell
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As we wallow in all things musical theatre this week (including a special musical theatre issue of the newspaper, published on May 28), I am providing a personal guide to my 50 favourite musicals of all time. Here are numbers 20 to 11…

20. Dreamgirls

Nowadays best known for its 2006 movie version, Dreamgirls has never been staged in London — though that’s due to change soon with producer Sonia Friedman developing plans to finally present it in the capital. I saw the original Broadway production on my first-ever trip to New York in the summer of 1983, a year and a half into its run, and returned to it repeatedly both on that trip and another a year later. I also saw its subsequent Broadway revival in 1987, which turned into a memorial for director/choreographer Michael Bennett. It began performances on June 28 and he died just days later on July 2.

It was very much Bennett’s triumph as a show, with a seamless storytelling momentum that kept the show moving between different locations as it tells a fictionalised version of the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, set to a brilliant pastiche Motown score by Henry Krieger.

Productions seen: original 1982 Broadway production; 1987 Broadway revival

19. Nine

Nine went head-to-head with Dreamgirls for the Tony best musical in 1982, and won out over it. Based on Fellini’s film 8 1/2, it daringly tells of the emotional breakdown of a serial philandering film director to a haunting, melodic score by Maury Yeston. I remember seeing only part of Tommy Tune’s original incredible Broadway production in 1983: it was my first-ever trip to New York, and I couldn’t afford to see all the shows I wanted to – so half-timed it and went in for the second act only.

It’s one of my greatest musical theatre regrets. But I’ve since caught up with all of that production on the video recorded of it that’s in the collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Centre, and it’s seriously dazzling. So was the show’s London concert premiere at the Royal Festival Hall in 1992 thanks to a stellar cast that included Jonathan Pryce and also featured Elaine Paige. I also saw the show’s full London premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in 1996, starring a miscast Larry Lamb as Guido Contini, but the director of that production David Leveaux and his choreographer Jonathan Butterell subsequently returned to re-stage it on Broadway in 2003 with the far better Antonio Banderas who spellbindingly made it his own. In between, I also adored the stylish 2009 film version, directed by Rob Marshall and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, though not everyone did.

Productions seen: Original 1982 Broadway production at the 46th Street Theatre; 1992 concert version at the Royal Festival Hall; 1996 Donmar Warehouse production; 2003 Broadway revival

18. She Loves Me

With an infinitely lovely score by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (the same team behind Fiddler on the Roof) and book by Joe Masteroff, She Loves Me is one of the most exquisite and charming of all Broadway musicals. I fell in love with its score first after I fell in love with Barbara Cook, the greatest Broadway singer of my lifetime, who had appeared in the original 1963 production (unseen by me as I was only one at the time), and collected all her back catalogue. But beyond the score, I fell in love with the show, too, when I first saw Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre Company revive it in 1993, with the wonderful Judy Kuhn. When that revival came to London’s Savoy Theatre in 1995, Ruthie Henshall took the role – and won an Olivier for her efforts.

Productions seen: 1993 Broadway revival at Broadway’s Criterion Centre, then again when it transferred to the Brooks Atkinson; 1995 West End revival at the Savoy Theatre; 2015 fringe revival at the Landor Theatre

Michael Brandon in Jerry Springer - The Opera at the National Theatre. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
Michael Brandon in Jerry Springer – The Opera at the National Theatre. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

17. Jerry Springer the Opera

The first new production of Nick Hytner’s regime at the helm of the National Theatre after he took over in 2003, Jerry Springer: the Opera was audacious, courageous, outrageous and hilarious. It introduced a brilliantly subversive and original musical theatre voice (comedian-turned-writer Richard Thomas) to the mainstream, though he’d served many years on the comedy circuit (as did Tim Minchin ahead of writing Matilda). On a personal note, I’d known Thomas since we were at University together – and he claims I gave him his first bad review, but I was happy to give him a great one for this. I thought it broke new ground in form and content, and was a breath of fresh (well, filthy) air.

Productions seen: original National Theatre production in 2003, and its subsequent transfer to the West End’s Cambridge Theatre (at least ten times in all); New York premiere in concert staging at Carnegie Hall in 2008

16. The Producers

The Producers is a wonderful musical theatre insiders’ joke — but also an instantly legible, hilarious story for outsiders. Based on the 1968 Mel Brooks film of the same name, it was adapted by Brooks himself (and scored by him, too) for the stage.

Reviewing the current new UK national touring production for The Stage, I wrote that the show had “created its own sub-genre of meta-musicals that paid tribute to and sent up other Broadway musicals that’s led in turn to such shows as Urinetown, Monty Python’s Spamalot and The Drowsy Chaperone. But none have yet bettered its knowing, loving valentine to the hapless art of putting on flop shows, and it remains that paradoxical thing: a really great musical about a really awful one.”

And so a show that is all about deliberately trying to create a momentous, tasteless flop (think Carrie or Dr Zhivago more recently) has turned into a gigantic hit itself.  I love this show’s brilliant showbiz gags and equal opportunities offensiveness to theatrical aspiration, gays and Nazis.

Productions seen: original 2001 Broadway production; original 2004 West End production (multiple times); 2007/8 UK tour (featuring Peter Kay as Roger de Bris);  2012 student production at ArtsEd; 2015 UK national tour

15. Evita

Madalena Alberto in Evita at the Dominion Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Madalena Alberto in Evita at the Dominion Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

To my mind (and ears) Andrew Lloyd Webber’s greatest musical achievement, Evita remains a monumental piece of theatre, as much a contemporary opera as musical. It owes a lot to Tim Rice, not just for the fact that it was his idea it to musicalise the life of Eva Peron in the first place but also for his never-bettered lyrics.

Hal Prince’s original astonishing 1978 production (which made an overnight star of Elaine Paige in the title role, though she’d been diligently working her way through the professional ranks for some 14 years at that point) gave it a cinematic momentum and was unrivalled until Michael Grandage and his designer Christopher Oram created a new West End production in 2006 that brought out the operatic grandeur of the piece instead. It also brought Elena Roger from Argentina to play the title role with a ferocious intensity that stunned me so much I went back six times.

Productions seen: Original 1978 West End production (a few years into its run); 2006 West End revival, and subsequent 2012 Broadway transfer; 2008 UK touring production (with Louise Dearman as Eva Peron, which I caught at Liverpool Empire); 2013 student production at ArtsEd; 2014 West End revival at the Dominion Theatre

14. The Light in the Piazza

Of all of the younger generation of composers (those who emerged after 1990), Adam Guettel is probably the greatest — and undoubtedly the most born to it, as he’s the grandson of the great Richard Rodgers (and son of Mary Rodgers, who also inherited the family musical gene and had a Broadway hit of her own with Once Upon a Mattress). But he’s also one of the least prolific. He’s (so far) only created two major musicals, yet the scores to Floyd Collins and The Light in the Piazza mark him out as one of the most important writers of musicals working today.

As I wrote when Guettel came to London in 2012 to do a beautiful cabaret evening of his work at the Hippodrome in a review for The Stage, “Never mind the quantity; feel the quality. Both of his shows are modern musical masterpieces, and I don’t use the phrase lightly. Even Sondheim was once moved to publicly list The Riddle Song from Floyd Collins among songs he wished he’d written himself.”

Floyd Collins has had two remarkable fringe productions in London at the Bridewell in 1999 and at Southwark Playhouse in 2012. But we’ve yet to see Guettel’s Light in the Piazza in London, and it’s a grave omission. This gorgeous musical, with its yearning, rhapsodic score, is one of the most intense and piercing love stories I’ve ever seen musicalised. Bartlett Sher’s original 2005 Broadway production with Victoria Clark, Kelli O’Hara and (a pre-Glee) Matthew Morrison remains an indelible memory, but its British premiere at Leicester’s Curve in 2009, with Lucy Schaufer and Caroline Sheen, was a bold and brave choice for director Paul Kerryson in a regional house.

Productions seen: Original 2005 Broadway production; 2009 British premiere production at Leicester’s Curve

13. Titanic

Celia Graham and Oliver Hembrough in Titanic at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Celia Graham and Oliver Hembrough in Titanic at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton

No, this wasn’t the musical of the film – it actually opened on Broadway in April 1997, some eight months before the film came out later that same year. It’s a musical that had disaster written all over it, and not just because of its subject matter – how could it possibly put that celebrated event on stage?  Yet thanks to a moving and marvellous score by Maury Yeston (whose previous credits included Nine and additional songs for Grand Hotel, both of which also appear in my top 50 shows list) and a fantastic staging by British stage and opera director Richard Jones, it remains one of the best musical productions I’ve ever seen.

Its 2013 fringe chamber production at London’s Southwark Playhouse proved that the show didn’t require Broadway’s impressive spectacle to work, and that lean, sparse but musically overwhelming version is now playing at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre with most of its Southwark cast intact. Next stop Broadway?

Productions seen: original 1997 Broadway production (multiple times); 2006 amateur production at Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre marshalling a cast of over 100; 2013 Southwark Playhouse production (three times)

12. Merrily We Roll Along

This is the Stephen Sondheim musical that famously flopped on its original Broadway outing in 1981 (and brought about the Hal Prince era of collaborations that had yielded the masterpieces Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, all of them elsewhere in my Top 50, to a professional end until they reunited on the troubled Bounce in 2003).

Mark Umbers and Clare Foster in Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Mark Umbers and Clare Foster in Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But countless productions since, including most recently Sondheim star Maria Friedman’s directorial debut with it at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2012 that subsequently transferred to the West End, have re-asserted the show’s enduring importance in the composer’s repertoire, and has probably my favourite score of all of his work.

Other Sondheim shows feature higher on this list, including one directly above it (see next entry); but none exhilarate me musically, if not dramatically, in the same way. The overture on the original Broadway cast recording (often cut from productions nowadays) is rivalled only by that for Gypsy in the greatest overtures I know. And the moving poignancy of Our Time, the heartbreak of Like It Was and Not a Day Goes By, the uplift of Old Friends and Now You Know, and the bravura brilliance of Franklin Shepard Inc and Opening Doors make this a score of wondrously changing colours.

Productions seen: 1983 student production by Guildhall School of Music and Drama; 1990 production at Arena Stage in Washington DC; 1992 production at Leicester Haymarket; 2000 production at London’s Donmar Warehouse; 2012 production at Menier Chocolate Factory and subsequent transfer to the Pinter Theatre (multiple times)

11. Follies

There is no production I wish I had been able to see more than the original 1971 Broadway production of Sondheim’s Follies — not just for its wonderful original cast, but also for the physical staging (Hal Prince co-directed with Michael Bennett, and the latter also choreographed) and most of all for the joy there must have been for seeing it with completely fresh eyes. Its a musical about a nostalgia for a fast-vanishing past (set in a theatre that is literally about to see the bulldozers) that has itself become infected with a nostalgia for past productions in the years since it was first created.

I also wish I’d been at the now legendary 1985 Lincoln Centre concert version. I finally saw it first when producer Cameron Mackintosh offered its West End premiere in an extensively re-written version at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1987 (though the show had, slightly incongruously, received its UK premiere two years earlier at Manchester’s Forum Theatre in a council-run sports centre in the suburb of Wythenshawe). I went at least a dozen times to see a cast that included Julia McKenzie, Diana Rigg and the late Daniel Massey and David Healy as the central quartet.

I’ve seen many productions since – including two revivals on Broadway in 2001 and 2011 – but none have ever fully resolved the tensions between the show’s instant nostalgia and its here-and-now audacity of taking the lid off the crumbling relationships being played out in the midst of a crumbling theatre.

Productions seen: 1987 West End premiere production at the Shaftesbury Theatre; 1998 production at the Paper Mill Playhouse, New Jersey; 2001 Broadway revival at the Belasco Theatre; 2002 London revival at the Royal Festival Hall; 2006 London fringe production at the Landor Theatre; 2011 production at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC, subsequently transferred to Broadway (where I saw it again)

Mark Shenton’s top 50 musicals (50-41)
Mark Shenton’s top 50 musicals (40-31)
Mark Shenton’s top 50 musicals (30-21)

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