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Mark Shenton’s top 50 musicals – the top 10

Julia McKenzie and Bob Hoskins in Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre in 1982. Photo: John Haynes

Finally – here’s my personal top 10 musicals of all time. This is my list and my list alone – I make no claims to this being a definitive guide to the best musicals ever written – it’s just the ones I personally enjoy the most. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it…

10. On the Twentieth Century

Cy Coleman may well be my favourite post-war Broadway composer after Stephen Sondheim for the eclecticism and musical dexterity he brought to a wide range of hits (and of course the occasional miss, like The Life or Welcome to the Club). In a career that stretched over four decades and from which emerged such classics as Sweet Charity (1966), Seesaw (1973), Barnum (1980), City of Angels (1989), and The Will Rogers Follies (1991), he was a real theatrical chameleon, ready to adapt to whatever style was required of him.

But as much as I love the beguiling pizzazz of Sweet Charity and the intricacy and wit of City of Angels, the Coleman score that stands out for me above all is On the Twentieth Century, which opened at Broadway’s St James Theatre in 1978. With a score that’s like a pastiche opera, this highly theatrical show is a hilariously frantic backstage musical set not in a theatre, but on a train travelling between Chicago and New York as it carries a theatre producer and his cohorts back from producing their latest flop, and trying to entice his former lover, now a movie star, to work with him again.

Although I never saw the late, great Madeline Kahn in the original production (and few did, as she withdrew a few months into the run), I adore her performance on the CD as Lily Garland. I did see the short-lived West End transfer to Her Majesty’s in 1980, though, and also loved Julia McKenzie in the role. There was also a terrific fringe production in 2010 at the Union that was an utter delight – and one I’ll never forget as I saw it the night before going into hospital for spinal surgery (a condition not related to the Union’s seating, I hasten to add). The current Broadway revival (running to July 25) has Kristen Chenoweth starring, and she has never been better.

Productions seen Original 1980 West End production; London fringe revivals at Bridewell in 1996 and Union in 2010; Broadway one-night concert performance at New Amsterdam Theatre in 2005; 2015 Broadway revival (twice, so far)

9. London Road

Nicola Sloane and Michael Shaeffer in London Road at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton [1]
Nicola Sloane and Michael Shaeffer in London Road at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Musicals have followed tried and tested paths for years – and currently the favoured way to make them is simply to adapt well-known film titles into musicals so they already come with title and story recognition. But London Road, which premiered at the National’s Cottesloe in 2011, was a true blast of theatrical originality and ingenuity.

It saw Alecky Blythe apply her now established documentary theatremaking technique of conducting interviews around a particular real-life subject or event, and on this occasion setting those spoken words to music. The story is a compelling one: how an Ipswich community was affected by the serial murder of prostitutes who worked in the titular street in 2006. Those words were then set to Adam Cork’s insinuatingly clever score to become a tapestry of musical reflection in which the evocative soundtrack provided its own alternatively jagged and reflective accompaniment.
Rufus Norris directed a stunning ensemble cast in this most radical of departures for musical form seen on a London stage in years and now he has directed a film version to be released on June 12.

Productions seen Original National Theatre production in the Cottesloe (twice) and then transferred to the Olivier (three more times)

8. Next to Normal

No musical of the century so far has affected me more profoundly than Next to Normal, that premiered on Broadway in 2009, heavily reworked from previous workshop incarnations when it was titled Feeling Electric, and a subsequent Off-Broadway staging at Second Stage in 2008 that included eliminating the original title song. It was then tried out again out of town in Washington DC, before finally coming back to Broadway.

All the work paid off: here was a searingly painful and truthful musical about a woman confronting the twin demons of the loss of her son and an intense clinical depression that had affected her ever since. Beautifully written by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), it featured a brilliant cast led by the captivating, heartbreaking Alice Ripley as the woman, who seemed to be living the role as if from the inside, and Aaron Tveit, a star in the making as her late son.

As someone who suffers from depression, I won’t deny that the musical spoke to me incredibly personally, but each time I saw it in New York – and I saw it nine times in all – I was overwhelmed also by the impact it had on those around me, too. Every single performance I saw had fellow audience members – and me – weeping openly. Broadway audiences can sometimes be restless and unengaged, but this show held them gripped every time. I really hope it comes to London one day soon.

Productions seen Original 2009 Broadway production (nine times)

7. Carousel

Gemma Sutton and Tim Rogers in Carousel at the Arcola Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton [2]
Gemma Sutton and Tim Rogers in Carousel at the Arcola Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The great Broadway partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein – which stretched from the ground-breaking Oklahoma! in 1943 to The Sound of Music in 1959 – was a hit-making factory that also included such forever-standards as South Pacific and The King and I (the latter of which is currently being revived in a stunning new production at Lincoln Centre’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre on Broadway). But the show of theirs I love more than any other is the beautiful, always bracing Carousel, which contains a painful story of love thwarted by violence and the attempt to make posthumous amends. The score contains some of their most affecting songs. Examples include If I Loved You and You’ll Never Walk Alone (long ago appropriated by Liverpool Football Club but much more appropriately heard in the show itself).

Nick Hytner’s 1992 National Theatre revival remains a landmark of my theatregoing life: one of the single greatest pieces of musical staging I have ever seen. When Frank Rich, then the chief theatre of the New York Times, saw it he exclaimed, “This is without question the most revelatory, not to mention the most moving, revival I’ve seen of any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.” When it transferred to Broadway (to Lincoln Centre) Audra McDonald was the shimmering Carrie Pipperidge.

Productions seen 1992 National Theatre revival and its subsequent transfers to the West End’s Shaftesbury Theatre in 1993 and Broadway in 1994; 2008 West End revival at Savoy Theatre; 2012 Opera North production at the Grand Theatre, Leeds; 2014 London fringe revival at the Arcola

6. A Chorus Line

This is probably Broadway’s greatest tribute to itself and its own extraordinary tribe of endlessly interchangeable but utterly irreplaceable ‘gypsies’ – show dancers that move from show to show, sometimes move up the food chain to become stars or drop out altogether. It acquires a universal resonance from the fact that everyone chases a dream or ambition of some kind – in this case, trying to achieve show business success. Michael Bennett’s landmark original 1975 production quickly moved from the Public Theatre downtown to open on Broadway, and by the time it closed 15 years later in 1990 had set the record for the longest-running musical of all time.

I saw the transfer of the original Broadway production to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on the last day of its run there in March 1979 – which also happened to be the first West End musical I saw after moving to London from South Africa earlier that month. It was also one of the first Broadway shows I ever saw on my first trip there in 1983. Its most recent revival at the London Palladium in 2013 was one of the best and sharpest I’ve yet seen, even if the cavernous house did it no favours.

Productions seen Original 1976 London production at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; touring UK revival at Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon in 1987; 2006 Broadway revival; 2013 London Palladium revival (six times)

5. Sunday in the Park With George

Sondheim’s most artful musical, in every sense, Sunday in the Park With George is a beautiful piece about the process of making great art as well as its painful personal cost. Sondheim knows that all too well and pours himself into a show that may be his most directly personal. It has a shattering emotional and musical intensity as he and his book writer James Lapine follow the parallel stories of 19th-century French impressionist painter Georges Seurat and a fictionalised relative 100 years later who is making conceptual art.

Originally premiered on Broadway in 1984, this was the first Sondheim musical I ever saw in its original production on its home territory, in a phenomenal staging that starred Mandy Patinkin as Georges Seurat and Bernadette Peters as his mistress and muse Dot. When it received its British premiere at the National Theatre in 1990, it starred the great Philip Quast and Maria Friedman.  Another revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2005 (initially with Anna-Jane Casey and Daniel Evans) subsequently transferred to the West and Broadway, with Jenna Russell replacing Casey.

Productions seen Original 1985 Broadway production; original National Theatre production in 1990; Menier Chocolate Factory revival in London in 2005; West End’s Wynham’s and Broadway’s Studio 54

4. Pippin

Pippin at the Music Box Theater. Photo: Joan Marcus  [3]
Priscilla Lopez in Pippin at the Music Box Theater. Photo: Joan Marcus

“Rivers belong where they ramble, eagles belong where they can fly. I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free, got to find my corner of the sky.” There’s no theatre song that I love more than Corner of the Sky from Pippin, the 1972 Stephen Schwartz/Roger Hirson musical about one man’s journey of self-discovery. I also love Time to Start Living, which includes an equally affirmative way for banishing depression: “When the drearies do attack, and a siege of the sads begins, I just throw these regal shoulders back, and lift these noble chins…”

I first saw a production of Stephen Schwartz’s musical in South Africa when I was growing up, and still have that cast album. But I’d never seen a really satisfactory production until Diane Paulus revived it on Broadway two years ago in one of the most excitingly immersive stagings I’ve ever seen, setting it entirely in a circus of the imagination and employing the stunning Canadian circus performers from  Les Sept Doigts De La Main, who return to London this week, as it happens, in Traces at Sadler’s Wells.
Productions seen South African production in 1978; 1998 London fringe revival at Bridewell Theatre; 2000 revival at Paper Mill Playhouse, New Jersey; 2013 Broadway revival at Music Box Theatre

3. The Hired Man

The first professionally produced musical penned by composer Howard Goodall premiered when he was just 26. The Hired Man brought a kaleidoscopic view of life in Cumbria from before and after the First World War to full-bodied and musically textured life, with a score full of choral anthems and surging melodies that have their own unique sound. It remains, to my mind, the best British musical, bar none, of the last 30-plus years since it was premiered.

Goodall, too, has become my absolutely favourite contemporary British composer in any medium – and he works in them all. He is a popular classicist (you can’t listen to Classic FM, where he has also been composer-in-residence, without hearing tunes such as his gorgeous setting of The Lord is My Shepherd on the playlist. He’s also a film and TV composer (Mr Bean and The Vicar of Dibley are amongst his themes) and a musical theatre writer, whose subsequent shows have included a hauntingly beautiful stage version of Love Story (seen at Chichester and in the West End) and gorgeous scores for The Dreaming and The Kissing-Dance, both written for the National Youth Music Theatre and featuring lyrics by Charles Hart. Now Goodall and Hart have teamed up again for Bend it Like Beckham, opening at the Phoenix later this month.

But The Hired Man is still the show I go back to again and again: even if its original 1984 London production at the Astoria Theatre (now demolished as it is the site of the new Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road) was not a commercial hit, it changed my life. I saw it during a university holiday and went back a couple more times. Goodall’s thrillingly melodic score for this adaptation of Melvyn Bragg’s novel of the same name was a sound unlike any I’d ever heard in a musical, choral and English and haunting. I’ve happily seen the show staged countless times since, and it never fails to move and thrill me.

Productions seen Original 1984 West End production; 1988 Off-Broadway production; 2004 production at Salisbury Playhouse,; 2007 New Perspectives Touring production at Worcester’s Swan Theatre, then also at New York’s 59E59 Street Theatre in 2008; London 2011 fringe revival at the Landor; London student production at Mountview in 2012; 2013 revival at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre

2. Sweeney Todd

Staunton with Michael Ball in Sweeney Todd in 2011. Photo: Tristram Kenton [4]
Staunton with Michael Ball in Sweeney Todd in 2011. Photo: Tristram Kenton

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!” It’s both an invitation and a dire warning: watch, listen and learn from this darkly thrilling journey into the darkest recesses of the human soul, where a person’s moral compass can be entirely reset by desires for love (in the case of Mrs Lovett) or revenge (in the case of Sweeney).

It is Sondheim’s greatest musical theatre masterpiece. In 1980, I would see my first original Sondheim musical when Sweeney Todd transferred to Drury Lane, with a cast led by the late, great Denis Quilley in the title role and Sheila Hancock as Mrs Lovett, and I had my heart broken when it closed a few months later after only 157 performances.

But the show has become a revered classic since, especially in London (which is appropriate since it is set in the city), where I’ve seen productions everywhere from the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House to the West End in three separate outings – the reduced cast actor-musician version that I hated that came to the Whitehall from Newbury, before going back to Broadway, the brilliant transfer of the Chichester Festival Theatre production with the glorious pairing of Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton and currently – ending this week – the version that’s playing on Shaftesbury Avenue in a recreated version of the Tooting pie shop where it originated last year). There have also been some great fringe productions, including a promenade one at the Bridewell and a great one at the Union, too.

Productions seen Original 1980 West End at the Theater Royal, Drury Lane; London fringe revivals at Half Moon (1985), Bridewell (2000), Union (2008); 1989 Broadway revival at Circle in the Square; 1993 London revival at National’s Cottesloe, then in Lyttelton (with Julia McKenzie and Alun Armstrong in Cottesloe, Dennis Quilley in Lyttelton); 1996 revival at Leicester Haymarket (with Dave Willetts), 2002 production at Washington DC’s Kennedy Centre (Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Baranski); 2002 production by Opera North (with Beverley Klein);  2003 production at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (Thomas Allen, Felicity Palmer); 2004 West End revival at the Trafalgar Studios, transferred from Newbury’s Watermill (subsequently on Broadway in 2005 with Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone); 2004 production at New York City Opera (with Elaine Paige); 2011 Chichester revival (subsequently at West End’s Adelphi Theatre in 2012, with Michael Ball, Imelda Staunton); 2014 London fringe revival at Harrington’s Pie Shop in Tooting (then again on 2015 transfer to recreated version of the pie shop on Shaftesbury Avenue)

1. Guys and Dolls

There is simply no greater Broadway musical to my mind than Guys and Dolls, the most perfectly crafted and joyful fusion of book (based on Damon Runyon characters by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling) and music and lyrics (both Frank Loesser) that works like a dream every single time I’ve seen it. Even a bad production can’t destroy it (and I’ve seen a couple of those).

The punchy intricacy of the writing and its deeply atmospheric conjuring a mythical New York of professional gamblers, show girls and missionaries all colliding as they ply their respective (not necessarily respectable) trades in “the devil’s own city on the devil’s own street” (as Times Square is referred to) is just a total joy from its punchy overture to its heart-warming conclusion.

Productions seen 1982 National Theatre revival (about 15 times in all, originally with Julia McKenzie as Miss Adelaide and Julie Covington as Sister Sarah, and Bob Hoskins and Ian Charleston (neither of whom are with us anymore) as Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson respectively; subsequent take-overs included Imelda Staunton as Miss Adelaide and Clarke Peters as Sky Masterson); 1992 Broadway revival (Faith Prince, Nathan Lane, Peter Gallagher); 2005 Donmar Warehouse co-produced revival at the West End’s Piccadilly Theatre (Douglas Hodge, Jane Krakowsi, Ewan McGregor, Jenna Russell); 2009 Broadway revival (Oliver Platt, Craig Bierko); 2011 London fringe revival at Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Mark Shenton’s top 50 musicals (50-41) [5]
Mark Shenton’s top 50 musicals (40-31)
Mark Shenton’s top 50 musicals (30-21)
Mark Shenton’s top 50 musicals (20-11) [6]