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

Melanie Chisholm with Philip Stewart in Blood Brothers in 2012 Melanie Chisholm with Philip Stewart in Blood Brothers in 2012
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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 30 to 21…

30. Blood Brothers

Like Chicago, it wasn’t until its second West End production that Willy Russell’s musical became a true smash hit – but whereas at least Chicago had had a respectable two-year run first time out on Broadway (before it returned 19 years later and has now been running continuously for 19 years since), Blood Brothers only had a six-month West End run after its initial transfer from Liverpool (where it was premiered) to Shaftesbury Avenue’s Lyric in 1983. It nevertheless deservedly went on to win that year’s Olivier Award for best musical.

In 1989 it returned to the West End in the transfer of a new touring production launched by producer Bill Kenwright (and co-directed by him), and this time it had real staying power: it ran for nearly a quarter of a century, first at the Albery, then the Phoenix, before finally bowing out in 2012. But the show remains forever on the road in a separate Kenwright touring production. It’s a timeless classic about twins separated by economic necessity whose lives take very different paths, but remain inextricably linked. And Russell’s alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming score is just as inextricably bound up in the show’s storytelling power.

Productions seen: Original 1983 West End production; 1989 West End revival (too many times to count)

29. On the Town

“New York, New York, it’s a helluva town!” goes one of Comden and Green’s lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s perfectly syncopated score, and this is one helluva musical, a blissful travelogue of the city as three horny sailors on shore leave for 24 hours, go in hot pursuit of a dame one of them has seen on a subway ad – and others get (way)laid by other female distractions between their visits to Carnegie Hall and the Statue of Liberty.

It is currently receiving a pulsating, highly energised Broadway revival at the Lyric Theatre. It’s the revival of the year on Broadway, but it doesn’t always come up quite so fresh and funny as this. Bernstein, Comden and Green scored another bulls-eye in 1953 with the more quirkily individual Wonderful Town, also set in New York, that follows the fortunes of two sisters newly arrived in the city from Ohio.

Productions seen: 1998 Broadway revival at the Gershwin Theatre; London Coliseum ENO revival in 2005 and 2007; 2014 Broadway revival at the Lyric Theatre

28. Passion

Elena Roger and David Thaxton by Johan Persson2
Elena Roger and David Thaxton in Passion at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Johan Persson

One of Sondheim’s most underrated (and divisive) musicals, Passion is an intense chamber opera about obsessive love that casts an insinuating spell, just as its sickly lead character Fosca does as she casts her strange web of desire over a handsome young soldier Giorgio. Its rhapsodic score allows for no applause breaks or respite from the anguished emotions it portrays and stirs up, and has a haunting, sometimes disturbing power.

Productions seen: Original 1994 Broadway production (starring Jere Shea and Donna Murphy), UK premiere at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal in 1996 and transfer to Queen’s Theatre (with Michael Ball, Maria Friedman), 2002 revival at Washinton DC’s Kennedy Centre (with Judy Kuhn, Michael Cerveris), 2010 Donmar Warehouse revival (with David Thaxton, Elena Roger), 2013 Off-Broadway revival (with Judy Kuhn, Ryan Silverman)

27. A Little Night Music

The most lushly romantic of all of Sondheim’s scores, A Little Night Music was once aptly categorised by its original director Hal Prince as being like “whipped cream with knives”. It’s a delicious but cutting portrait of romantic intrigue, and also life’s missed opportunities: a typically bittersweet sort of accommodation between romantic fantasy and reality. The score contains one of Sondheim’s most famous songs in the tender, achingly wistful Send in the Clowns and the musically and dramatically glorious trilogy of Now, Later and Soon.

Productions seen: 1989 West End revival at the Piccadilly Theatre (transferred from Chichester Festival Theatre, with Dorothy Tutin, Peter McEnery), 1995 London revival at the National Theatre (with Judi Dench, Len Cariou, Sian Phillips), 2008 Menier Chocolate Factory revival (with Hannah Waddingham, Alex Hanson, Maureen Lipman), subsequently transferred to West End and Broadway (with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alex Hanson, Angela Lansbury)

26. Company

A scene from Company at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton
A scene from Company at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The first of Sondheim and director Hal Prince’s five 1970s collaborations (each of them groundbreaking) was the urban, urbane Company in 1970, and it blew the modern musical apart: a concept show that exploded linear narrative conventions to explore not so much a plot as the state of mind of its lonely, relationship-phobic protagonist Robert. This most audacious and exciting of modern musicals remains a thrilling surprise every time you see it. I can only imagine the shock that must have greeted its original production.

Productions seen: 1995 Broadway revival at Roundabout’s Criterion Centre (with Boyd Gaines); 1995 Donmar Warehouse revival (with Adrian Lester), then 1996 transfer to the Albery; 2006 Broadway revival at Ethel Barrymore (with Raul Esparza); 2009 London fringe revival at the Union Theatre; 2011 London fringe revival at Southwark Playhouse (with Rupert Young)

25. Matilda

Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s glorious musical adaptation of Roald Dahl is that rare thing: a musical based on a kids’ story that is equally resonant for adults. When the show premiered at Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010 (before transferring to the West End’s Cambridge, where it is still running today), I wrote in my review for The Stage:

A quarter of a century ago, the RSC co-produced Les Miserables, which has turned into the West End’s longest-ever running musical and a worldwide hit. Now, via an unfortunate detour with Carrie, one of the most notorious Broadway flops when it was transferred from Stratford to New York, they’ve finally hit the musical jackpot again… It refills the stock of moppet musicals – from Oliver! and Annie to Billy Elliot – and gives it a giddy and invigorating burst of new life, thanks to the jaunty, tuneful wit of Aussie comedian and composer Tim Minchin’s songs, and a production by Matthew Warchus that has bite, bile and some brilliance. The tone and style is somewhere between Warchus’ own staging of Our House and a kids’ version of Spring Awakening.

It’s a modern classic, irresistible and irrepressible, like Matilda herself.

Productions seen: 2010 Stratford-upon-Avon premiere; 2011 West End premiere; 2013 Broadway premiere

24. Crazy for You

George Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira wrote some of the greatest songs in Broadway history – but the shows they come from are largely unrevivable today. One solution has been to develop new shows based around the catalogue, much as Mamma Mia! would do for Abba.

The one that kicked it off was My One and Only in 1983 (as a vehicle for Tommy Tune and Twiggy), but Crazy for You – based loosely on the Gershwins’ 1930s show Girl Crazy – in 1992 has become the gold standard for the form, making a truly hilarious backstage musical out of it set in the outback of the Nevada Desert, with an unassailably tuneful score brimming over with standards like Someone to Watch Over Me, Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm and They Can’t Take That Away from Me. It has been followed on Broadway by Nice Work if You Can Get It (2012, a title song that also featured in Crazy for You), while Chichester is about to premiere A Damsel in Distress, based on a 1937 Gershwin-scored Fred Astaire movie.

Productions seen: Original 1992 Broadway production; Original 1993 West End production (with Ruthie Henshall); 2011 Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre revival (with Sean Palmer, Clare Foster), subsequently transferred to West End’s Novello Theatre; 2015 ArtsEd student production

Ronan Keating (Guy) and Jill Winternitz (Girl) in Once
Ronan Keating and Jill Winternitz in Once at the Phoenix Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

23. Once

Many musicals are made out of films, but Once is a one of a kind: a hyper-naturalistic Irish indie feature film from 2006 became a fully imagined theatrical experience which took the story of a street busker and his platonic romance with a Czech pianist off the streets of Dublin and into a stage Irish bar, with the music all performed live by the actors themselves. It’s an astounding musical, but works its magic by stealth, not bombast.

Productions seen: 2011 Off-Broadway premiere at New York Theatre Workshop; 2012 Broadway transfer at Bernard B Jacobs Theatre (five times); 2013 West End production at the Phoenix (six times)

22. Grand Hotel

The seamless and sensational staging genius of Tommy Tune as director/choreographer is partly what made Grand Hotel such a compelling theatrical experience, but it was even more importantly his directorial intervention that reclaimed a ‘lost’ musical by Robert Wright and George Forrest that had closed out of town in 1958 and re-made it, with new songs added by Maury Yeston, that made it a hit.

I saw it numerous times on Broadway. It later came to London to the Dominion in 1992, which was a stupidly cavernous theatre to transfer it to and where it ran for less than four months. But a later London revival, when Michael Grandage directed a brilliant new staging at the Donmar Warehouse in 2004 with Julian Ovenden in the cast, was more successful critically.

Productions seen: Original 1989 Broadway production at Martin Beck Theatre (six times); 1992 West End transfer to Dominion Theatre; 2004 Donmar Warehouse revival; 2014 Guildhall School of Music and Drama production

Sofia Escobar and Jayde Westaby in West Side Story at Sadler's Well. Photo: Alistair Muir
Sofia Escobar and Jayde Westaby in West Side Story at Sadler’s Well. Photo: Alistair Muir

21. West Side Story

This landmark Bernstein/Sondheim/Laurents musical tops the list of favourite musicals for many, and I do love it, too (but not quite enough to make my Top 20). It’s a musical in which dance is a central and defining narrative element, but for me – amazing though Jerome Robbins’s work was (as can be forever witnessed in the 1961 film version) – it has led to a creative stalemate around the show, hidebound to its original production instead of capable of being reinvented. So I’m impressed whenever I see it again but there’s no surprise – except for the forever brilliance of Bernstein’s astonishing score and how it naturally leads the dance.

Productions seen: 1998 West End revival at Prince Edward Theatre; London revivals at Sadlers’ Wells in 2008 and again in 2013; National Youth Music Theatre production in Manchester in 2013 (with new choreography by Drew McOnie)

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


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