Mark Shenton’s top 50 musicals (31-40)
Following on from the first instalment of my personal favourite musicals of all time (numbers 41-50), today I chalk up another 10 classics that have a special place in my theatregoing heart.
40. Porgy and Bess
This sweeping Gershwin score is one of the all-time musical theatre greats – but it doesn’t necessarily always translate into the most riveting of shows. Yet all those dusty shadows were blown away on Broadway in 2011 when Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald (the reigning queen of musical theatre in New York) took the title roles in a reimagined musical theatre version of an opera that is sometimes treated with too much grandeur and not enough grit. A London revival at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2013 using the same version was probably the best musical production I’ve ever seen at the venue.
Productions seen 2006 London revival at Savoy Theatre with Clarke Peters and Nicola Hughes; 2011 production at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, subsequently transferring to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre (where I saw it twice); 2013 London revival at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
39. Anything Goes
The effervescent genius of Cole Porter has created an enduring songbook that will live forever, but few of the shows they came from have survived in the original versions, with the exception of Kiss Me, Kate (1948), with its glorious score that includes Too Darn Hot and Brush You Your Shakespeare. The latter contains wordplay that has Broadway at it most literary (“If she says your behaviour is heinous/ Kick her right in the Coriolanus”).
Anything Goes originally premiered in 1934 with its original book co-authored by PG Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. It was blissfully refashioned by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman at New York’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 1987 to make an old-school musical comedy work like a modern dream. Few musicals ever reduce me to helpless laughter as readily as this seafaring show of romantic chancers, aristocrats, gamblers and hoofers.
Productions seen 1987 Broadway production at Lincoln Centre’s Vivian Beaumont with Patti LuPone; 1989 London transfer to Prince Edward Theatre with Elaine Paige; 2002 London revival at National Theatre, with Sally Ann Triplett and John Barrowman, subsequently transferring to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; Sheffield Crucible in 2014, with Debbie Kurup, then on a UK tour
Of all of the 1980s British megamusicals – Lloyd Webber’s Cats and Phantom of the Opera among them – the best of all of them, musically speaking, was Chess, with lyrics by Lloyd Webber’s old sparring partner Tim Rice but newly teamed up with Abba’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Rice and Benny/Bjorn would go on to two of the most successful stage musicals of all time, with The Lion King (Rice working with Elton John) and Mamma Mia! (Abba’s song catalogue), but Chess is the show that made all the right moves. One of my all-time favourite pop scores.
Productions seen Original 1986 production at the Prince Edward Theatre; original 1988 Broadway production at the Imperial Theatre; 1996 UK tour; 2008 concert production at Royal Albert Hall; 2010 UK touring actor-musician production
One of the most influential figures in new American musicals today is Jason Robert Brown (interview here). While lots of writers inevitably emulate Sondheim, a whole new wave of them sound like Brown: quite an accolade (and maybe a burden) for a composer who is only 44. Weirdly, he is yet to have a Broadway hit — between them, his four shows that have reached Broadway so far have played a total of 383 performances. It’s safe to say he is no Andrew Lloyd Webber, commercially speaking. But though Parade, easily his masterpiece, isn’t exactly a commercial property, it’s a searchingly powerful portrait of wrongful conviction and prejudice.
Productions seen Original 1998 Broadway production at Lincoln Centre’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre; original 2007 London production at the Donmar Warehouse; 2011 London fringe revival at Southwark Playhouse
One of the defining musicals of post-war Broadway is Gypsy, a coruscating portrait of a damaged (and damaging) showbusiness mother who – unable to fulfill her own stage dreams – tries to make her daughters live them out instead. Set to a buoyant and atmospheric score by the great Broadway songwriter Jule Styne with lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim, it is as musical drama that the show succeeds triumphantly. Book writer Arthur Laurents, adapting the real-life memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee (who achieved fame as a stripper), created a blinding role for an older actress, originated by Ethel Merman, and played over the years since by Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone on Broadway. I’ve seen the last three of those, but the part has been definitively claimed now by Imelda Staunton in the current production at the Savoy, transferred from Chichester.
Productions seen 1989 Broadway revival with Tyne Daly; 1998 production at Paper Mill Playhouse, New Jersey, with Betty Buckley; 2003 Broadway revival with Bernadette Peters; Paper Mill revival with Betty Buckley; 2009 Broadway revival with Patti LuPone; 2012 Leicester revival with Caroline O’Connor; 2014 Chichester revival with Imelda Staunton, transferred to the West End’s Savoy Theatre in 2015
“The sun’ll come out tomorrow/bet your bottom dollar there’ll be sun/ Just thinking about tomorrow/ clears away the cobwebs and the rain”, goes the refrain from the most famous song in Charles Strouse’s 1977 musical. Strouse is one of Broadway’s most tuneful composers, who across a long career has had other hits (such as Bye Bye Birdie, also on this list) and a lot of flops (Nick and Nora, Rags, Flowers for Algernon) but the wonderful thing about his career is that even the flops are eminently listenable, too.
Productions seen South African premiere 1978; original 1978 West End production with Sheila Hancock, 1998 London revival at Victoria Palace; 2011 revival at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds; 2011 Australian revival at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre; 2012 Broadway revival at Palace Theatre
34. Promises Promises
The only original Broadway musical to be written by pop writers Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Promises, Promises (premiered on Broadway in 1968) showed that pop and Broadway could usefully overlap and inspire each other – a trend that has continued to this day with writers like Elton John and Cyndi Lauper among those currently on Broadway with The Lion King and the London-bound Kinky Boots respectively. I adore Promises, Promises – Turkey Lurkey Time, from the Tony telecast is one of my favourite Broadway videos of all time, with its absolutely irresistible Michael Bennett choreography — but the first time I saw it on stage was in a production at Sheffield’s Crucible in 2005 starring Emma Williams. I also loved the 2010 Broadway revival with Kristen Chenoweth, though the one I wished I’d been around to see was the 1969 London premiere with the great Betty Buckley making her West End debut.
Productions seen 2005 revival at Sheffield Crucible (with Emma Williams); 2010 Broadway revival (with Kristen Chenoweth)
This musical is now a bit of a cultural relic of its late ’60s era, but Galt McDermott’s songs still pulse with contemporary life to make this one of the great Broadway pop-driven scores. This counter-cultural musical, conceived by actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni, first came to the West End in 1968 with a cast that included the young Elaine Paige – plus Marsha Hunt, Richard O’Brien, Tim Curry and Oliver Tobias. I wish I’d been around for that. The original run was famously brought to an end when the roof of the theatre fell in. A big Broadway revival in 2009, first seen at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park the previous summer, came to the Gielgud in 2010, but I’ve never seen it more excitingly staged than in a fringe production at the Gate Theatre in 2005 that director Daniel Kramer updated to set amid the Iraq War instead of the Vietnam one.
Productions seen 2005 London fringe revival at the Gate Theatre; 2009 Broadway revival at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre; 2010 West End revival at the Gielgud Theatre
Kander and Ebb’s 1975 musical Chicago only ran for two years in its original 1975 production that starred Chita Rivera (still going strong now at 82, and interviewed in The Stage this week) and Gwen Verdon, but its 1996 revival, based on a concert staging whose origins are still clearly visible, has long outrun it and is still running now, in its 19th year, to become become the longest running American musical in Broadway history. A show about the cult of celebrity has become its own ironic reflection of that as a succession of famous people, not necessarily known for musicals, have rotated through it.
Productions seen Original 1979 West End production at Cambridge Theatre; 1996 Broadway revival with Ann Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth, 1997 in the West End with Ruthie Henshall and Ute Lemper at the Adelphi Theatre; and many, many times since as new casts have taken over
31. Hello, Dolly!
‘You’re looking swell, Dolly!’, goes the line in the title song to Jerry Herman’s musical, but this is a show that always makes me feel swell, too. The film version of Hello, Dolly! starred Barbra Streisand as Dolly Levi (and a very young Michael Crawford as Cornelius Hackle), but the original Dolly Levi was Carol Channing, and it became a show she returned to again and again in the years that followed, and was both absolutely inimitable and unbeatable. Like Yul Brynner with The King and I, she would return to it regularly throughout her career. I was lucky to see her twice in the role, 16 years apart.
Productions seen 1979 London revival at Drury Lane (starring Carol Channing); 1995 Broadway revival at the Lunt-Fontanne (also starring Carol Channing); 1984 London revival starring Danny La Rue at the Prince of Wales; 2009 Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park revival with Samantha Spiro; 2012 Leicester Curve revival with Janie Dee
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