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

A scene from Into the Woods at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in 2010. Photo: Catherine Ashmore A scene from Into the Woods at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in 2010. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
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As we wallow in all things musical theatre this week (including a special musical theatre issue of the newspaper, out on May 28), I am providing a personal guide to my 50 favourite musicals of all time . Here are numbers 50 to 41…

50. The Secret Garden

A 1991 Broadway musical version of a classic English book, composer Lucy Simon’s score remains a secret surprise: a haunting, yearning musical full of hidden beauties that I never tire of listening to. That’s especially true when it’s sung by Philip Quast, who played Archbishop Craven in the show’s first UK run at Stratford-upon-Avon in 2000 and its subsequent West End transfer to the Aldwych Theatre in 2001, where it was produced under the auspices of the RSC. Quant had previously played Dr Neville Craven in the show’s first Australian outing back in 1995.

Productions seen Original 1991 Broadway production (starring Mandy Patinkin, Rebecca Luker); Stratford-upon-Avon 2000, Aldwych Theatre 2001 (starring Philip Quast, Peter Polycarpou)

49. Bye Bye Birdie

Musical theatre, which once provided the pop music of the day, mostly separated from the charts with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. But Bye Bye Birdie in 1963 was one last hurrah for the musical trying to keep up with the newly emerging pop idiom and meet it on its own terms. The original cast starred Chita Rivera (who I have interviewed in The Stage, out May 28) and Dick Van Dyke. A staple of high schools and summer stock in the US, it is hardly ever seen here. But it’s a show that encourages me to put on a happy face, to quote one of its most infectious numbers, every single time I listen to it.

Productions seen A 1990 US tour (starring Tommy Tune, which I caught in Washington DC);  2009 Broadway revival (starring John Stamos and Gina Gershon)

48. Mamma Mia!

Thomas Sherlock and Geraldine Fitzgerald in the UK touring production. Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg
Thomas Sherlock and Geraldine Fitzgerald in the UK touring production. Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg

It’s hardly the fault of Mamma Mia! that any number of opportunistic producers have since tried to leap upon its bandwagon and create new musicals around old pop catalogues, from such dismal spectacles as We Will Rock You (Queen, whose army of fans kept it alive at the Dominion for more than 11 years) and Rock of Ages (various ’80s bands blended into one noisy soundtrack) to the rather short-lived Tonight’s the Night (Rod Stewart) and Viva Forever! (The Spice Girls).

But Mamma Mia! itself, which opened at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1999 and is still running now at its third West End home, the Novello, is a blast of ecstatic summer joy. It’s not just the blissful, instantly memorable Abba tunes, but the spirit of Phyllida Lloyd’s forever effervescent production that charms and disarms. The only pity is that Lloyd couldn’t translate that to the clumsy, miscast film version – but that, too, has been a massive success all the same, so what do I know?

Productions seen Original 1999 West End production (at least 10 times); San Francisco pre-Broadway run in 2001; original 2001 Broadway production (at least five times); UK/international touring production in Manchester in 2006; Stockholm premiere in 2008

47. American Idiot

Re-imagining a cult pop album in theatrical terms, Michael Mayer’s alternately loud and poignant, urgently staged 2010 Broadway version of Green Day’s album of the same name did something that few other musicals based on pop repertoires have ever done: given real theatrical impetus to a pop legacy. (The only other comparable achievement to my eyes and ears was Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out, a dance musical based on Billy Joel songs). When a US touring version of American Idiot came to the UK in 2012, I reviewed it for The Stage and said, “The show provides an astonishing marker that musicals and rock music don’t have to clash but can coexist in the same restless, revolutionary show. It’s the single most exciting and original live rock musical I’ve ever seen.”

Productions seen Original 2010 Broadway production (three times); UK tour at Southampton in 2012

46. Spring Awakening

Aneurin Barnard in Spring Awakening at the Hammersmith Lyric. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Aneurin Barnard in Spring Awakening at the Hammersmith Lyric. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This musical, launched at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre in 2006 before transferring to Broadway later that year for a three-year run, was a bold, vivid and moving melding of modern pop songs (by composer Duncan Sheik to lyrics by Steven Sater) to an adaptation of Franz Wedekind’s classic play about burgeoning teenage sexuality. Its 2009 West End transfer, via a sold-out run at Lyric Hammersmith, was a massive flop – the commercial theatre here was just not ready for it. But it is a show that’s going to last.

Productions seen Original 2006 Broadway (three times); original 2009 London production at Lyric Hammersmith; transfer to West End’s Novello (six times); 2011 ArtsEd student production

45. Billy Elliot

Elton John is now the most successful British musical theatre composer this side of Andrew Lloyd Webber, thanks to the long-running global smash of The Lion King. But it is really Billy Elliot that shows he has proper musical theatre credentials, writing to order and a defined narrative (instead of The Lion King’s Disney pop songs that were then theatricalised and integrated into a more authentic African-sounding texture by Lebo M). Billy Elliot is a great British musical, gritty, heartwarming and moving, based around real-life events of the 1980s miners’ strike. Told with integrity and ingenuity, it portrays the passing of one way of life – coal mining in Tyneside – and the adoption of a new self-expression that young Billy takes to so unexpectedly, yet so beautifully. It recently celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Victoria Palace and will embark on a UK tour next year.

Productions seen Original 2005 West End production (five times); original 2008 Broadway production (opening night)

44. Jesus Christ Superstar

This early Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical was another bible-based musical following Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but was actually the first of their shows to be professionally staged when it was premiered on Broadway (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was first premiered as a schools’ production, and would only reach the professional stage in 1973). The first West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar was far more successful than its prior Broadway one: by the time it closed in London in 1980, it had chalked up a run of 3,358 performances to become the longest-running musical in West End history up to then – a record since smashed, of course, in turn by Lloyd Webber’s Cats and then by Les Miserables (one of Superstar’s successors at the Palace). Jesus Christ Superstar was the first West End musical I ever saw, as a child on my first-ever trip to London from South Africa, before my family actually moved here. I still love this score now – one of my favourites of all of Lloyd Webber’s.

Productions seen Original 1972 West End production at the Palace Theatre; Bill Kenwright touring production; 1996 West End revival at Lyceum Theatre; 2011 Stratford Festival revival in Ontario, Canada; 2012 Broadway transfer of Stratford revival; 2012 touring concert revival at 02 Arena

43. Ragtime

A scene from Ragtime at the Landor. Photo: Tim Parker
A scene from Ragtime at the Landor. Photo: Tim Parker

This 1998 Broadway musical by the prolific songwriting team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, whose other gems include the lovely Off-Broadway born Lucky Stiff, Once on This Island and A Man of No Importance, is probably their greatest achievement. Though it never quite managed to establish itself as the great American musical it wanted to be, in the tradition of Show Boat, it nonetheless caught a kaleidoscopic sweep of turn of the 20th century history as it portrayed the fates of three American families – WASP, African-American and Jewish immigrant – overlapping and interconnecting with each other. I admire its ambition, and I embrace its score wholeheartedly.

Productions seen Original 1998 Broadway production (four times, starring Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie, Brian Stokes Mitchell); West End’s Piccadilly Theatre, 2003 (starring Maria Friedman); Broadway revival 2009 (twice); London’s 2011 fringe Landor Theatre revival; London’s Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park 2012 revival (twice)

42. Falsettos

William Finn is one of the quirkiest and most idiosyncratic of all New York theatre writers. I love his 2003 Elegies song cycle (which I’ve seen in concert in London), and also his hugely original 1998 musical A New Brain that I saw the original Off-Broadway production of. But it is with Falsettoland, his 1990 companion piece to his earlier 1981 show March of the Falsettos, that he changed the map of musical theatre, at least as it confronted the emerging HIV/AIDS crisis in New York. In 1992, these two one-act musicals were bolted together under the umbrella title Falsettos, and made an overwhelming whole, bringing its portrayal of real gay lives resonantly up to date, by following the love life of its lead character Marvin including the death of his partner Whizzer from an AIDS-related illness.

I’d previously seen both parts separately – March of the Falsettos when it briefly surfaced at London’s Albery Theatre (now the Coward) in 1987, with a cast that included the late Martin Smith and Simon Green (my 25-year-old self had a major crush on the latter), and Falsettoland in its Off-Broadway premiere production (at the Lortel Theatre in 1990, where it had transferred from Playwrights Horizons). But seeing them both together gave them a force-field of impact that was simply overwhelming.

Productions seen Original 1992 Broadway pairing of March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland; also earlier productions of March of the Falsettos at London’s Albery (1987) and the original Off-Broadway production of Falsettoland (Lucille Lortel Theatre, 1990); also Falsettoland at Edinburgh Fringe (2001, Pleasance Dome, directed by Jamie Lloyd, then aged 20)

41. Into the Woods

Sondheim, inevitably, features multiple times throughout this list. Of all of his shows, Into the Woods may yet turn out to be his most successful – or at the very least most accessible – show to a general public, given that its entry point is a range of familiar fairytale characters whose stories are cleverly stitched and folded together by book writer James Lapine (and the show’s original director). But actually the show is at once as audacious as it is subversive: operating on several levels simultaneously, it is dense, complex and creative. It also features one of Sondheim’s most hauntingly melodic scores that glows with such gems as Giants in the Sky, No one is Alone and No More (the latter of which was unaccountably cut from the recent film version).

Productions seen Broadway (1987, four times, starring Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien), West End’s Phoenix Theatre (1990, four times, starring Julia McKenzie, Imelda Staunton), 1998 Donmar Warehouse revival (starring Nick Holder, Jenna Russell, Sophie Thompson, Damian Lewis and a 16-year-old Sheridan Smith), 2002 Broadway revival starring Vanessa Williams, Laura Benanti and the recorded voice of Judi Dench), Landor Theatre (2009, cast included Lori Haley Fox, Luke Fredericks, Jonathan Eio), Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (2010, starring Hannah Waddingham, Jenna Russell, Mark Hadfield, Michael Xavier), Delacorte Theatre, New York (2011, starring Amy Adams, Denis O’Hare, Donna Murphy, Chip Zien); Off-Broadway’s Laura Pels Theatre (2015)

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

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