Mark Shenton’s top 6 funniest musicals
Humour is, inevitably, a personal thing and we certainly don't all find the same things funny. As comedy is policed like everything else, there's an added risk: not just that a comic production may not make the audience laugh, but some might be actively offended.
The point has been illustrated just this week by the West End opening of Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks' 2007 Broadway version of his own 1974 cult film comedy.
I laughed more or less constantly, but my Stage colleague Natasha Tripney felt very differently: "The way the show treats women simply cannot be overlooked... You could argue that I’m taking things too seriously, that this show is basically benign and just out to make its audience laugh, but this stuff matters. It adds up. It contributes to a culture in which men in positions of power, movie producers say, can treat women like they exist solely for their titillation and amusement. It’s damaging – and it’s just not funny anymore."
The following shows make me laugh unashamedly, however, and support the declaration in 42nd Street that musical comedy are "the most glorious words in the English language". It is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.
1. The Producers
Mel Brooks' first film-to-stage transfer is still one of my all-time favourites, bringing the 1967 movie of the same name to Broadway in 2001. As Ben Brantley put it in his original review for the New York Times, "It is, to put it simply, the real thing: a big Broadway book musical that is so ecstatically drunk on its powers to entertain that it leaves you delirious, too. Mr. Brooks, a Brooklyn boy who grew up in the age of Cole Porter and Busby Berkeley, is totally, giddily in love with the showbiz mythology he is sending up here.... Mr. Brooks has put on a show that is a valentine to every show there is, good and bad, about putting on a show.... The whole evening operates on a self-perpetuating, can-you-top-this energy, generating enough electricity to light up California for the next century."
2. Crazy for You
Few musicals leave me as giddy with delight as Crazy for You, an inspired reworking of an old Gershwin musical called Girl Crazy that adds songs from elsewhere in the Gershwin catalogue to a new book by comic genius Ken Ludwig. When Frank Rich, then the chief critic of the New York Times, reviewed its 1992 Broadway premiere, he ecstatically cheered: "When future historians try to find the exact moment at which Broadway finally rose up to grab the musical back from the British, they just may conclude that the revolution began last night. The shot was fired at the Shubert Theatre, where a riotously entertaining show called Crazy for You uncorked the American musical's classic blend of music, laughter, dancing, sentiment and showmanship with a freshness and confidence rarely seen during the Cats decade." Susan Stroman was again responsible for the hilarious dances, as she was with The Producers. She is a secret weapon of Broadway at its funniest, which can be seen in Young Frankenstein, too.
3. Guys and Dolls
I seriously consider Guys and Dolls to be the greatest musical ever written, and even if it doesn't top my list here of the funniest, it's still pretty hilarious. It's wonderfully well observed, like a blissful cartoon strip come to life; and in Miss Adelaide it has one of the great female comedy roles.
4. On the Twentieth Century
Another beloved favourite show of mine, this Cy Coleman-scored musical with hilarious lyrics by Comden and Green is one of the great backstage musicals – incongruously set on a train! I always watch it beaming from ear to ear. And the most recent Broadway revival in 2015 that starred Kristin Chenoweth was sheer comedy delight. It's high time we had a major West End revival of the show, too. (It's original West End run at Her Majesty's in 1980 was a fast flop).
5. She Loves Me
It can hardly be an accident that some of my favourite musicals are also the funniest – and She Loves Me ticks both boxes. It also offers charm... in spades. This show is one of unalloyed delight – and laugh-out-loud funny situations and scenes.
6. Hello, Dolly!
Who knew Hello, Dolly!, that vintage 1964 Broadway musical with a score by Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart, would still be as funny today as it was then (not to say as profitable – last week it broke the Shubert Theatre's own house record for the fifth time, taking $2,346,834.78 across just eight performances)? But Bette Midler and co-star David Hyde Pierce have turned it into a comedy tour-de-force.