A recent discussion on Facebook with an old chum of mine from Australia saw him asking me what my favourite musicals are – so the downside of being asked a question like that is I can’t help but feel compelled to come up with a considered answer.
In 1989 or thereabouts I was introduced to the idea of the musical when Mum & Dad went to see Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Cats” at the Adelaide Festival Centre, and were so blown away by it that they sent my brother & I along to a matinee. In turn I was fascinated by the songs & lyrics, and began a period of seeking out as many different recordings as I could. Further into my teenage years and through involvement in Gang Show I found I had friends involved in amateur musicals as well, so I started going along to performances – and if the rare opportunity came up when I had enough money to see a professional performance, in I’d go!
For the first few years I won’t say that taste played a great part in it – and speaking to people involved in amateur musicals you very quickly got the impression that a show was worthwhile just on the basis that it was a musical. Thankfully, after sitting few a few less gripping ones I came around to thinking that maybe some were better than others, and became a (little) bit more selective about what I’d go see.
(Most of my contemporaries were less enthused about the form. At a music appreciation night when Sandra played us a song from Phantom of the Opera, Spiro double-checked whether it was ok to score the songs with half marks, before declaring “A half”. Out of ten.)
After moving to London the range of what was available exploded out in front of me, and with the performances all of a very high standard I was able to be more critical again. But now having discovered the thrill of live band gigs I really started to lose interest in the stage musical – feeling that it was a bit contrived, manufactured, fanciful, and generally lacked soul. Primarily in the case of the long-running shows resident in the West End, having run up thousands of performances and switches of cast.
Looking back now though I think I can provide a reasonably balanced list of what I thought was actively good – so here goes.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum – very definitely my absolute number 1 solid gold go-to favourite. An early Sondheim musical more in the tradition of low comedy, with a plot so convoluted you normally need an extensive diagram to describe it. Very much after the model of farce, there’s lots of mistaken identities/disguises, elaborate lies, peril, revelation, and of course romance: all set to the jaunty and lyrically interesting Sondheim score. The plot centres around Pseudolus, a slave who wants to win his freedom – with an opportunity to do so by helping the son of his master win love, the arcane plot begins to weave.
I’ve seen 3 different productions of this: the EssGee production starring Jon English as Pseudolus (which I think was my first professional stage disappointment, with the actors so busy hamming it up it detracted from the story), a production in the National Theatre featuring Sam Kelly and Philip Quast (which again I thought was directed to play too much as a Carry On film), and the best/most memorable for me was the 1994 amateur performance by the Mayfair Theatre Company in Adelaide with PJ Oaten letting the material take the lead and doing a magnificent job of it.
There was a Broadway performance in 1996 starring Nathan Lane, which given that I was in New York in 1996 but knew nothing about it have subsequently kicked myself in the arse over, repeatedly.
Favourite songs: Comedy Tonight, Everybody Ought To Have A Maid, Pretty Little Picture
Rent – about the time I was learning about the joys of Sondheim, Jonathan Larsen had produced this rock/musical based on Puccini’s La Boheme but set in AIDS-era East Village, which had great music, wonderful lyrics, and was cast using a diverse range of people not from a musical theatre background.
A firm favourite of my friend Lineke, I saw it in Melbourne in around 1999. And the breakout song from it (Seasons Of Love – “Five hundred twenty five thousand, six hundred minutes”) was mercilessly ruined by us in Adelaide Gang Show in 2000 – where I think the director was trying to get us to rehearse it 525,600 times.
Favourite songs: Life Support, La Vie Boheme, Over The Moon
The Producers – the musical version of the film about some guys making a musical hit London’s West End in 2004, starring Nathan Lane to replace Richard Dreyfuss (who more or less sacked himself from the role) and the incomprehensibly popular Lee Evans. And this time I didn’t miss out on a ticket.
Just staggering. The story of a down-on-his-luck theatrical producer trying to effectively pull off the same trick that’s kept Donald Trump in business this whole time, totally brought to life by a Broadway theatre legend.
Favourites: The King Of Broadway, When You’ve Got It Flaunt It
The Book Of Mormon – 2013’s must-see show in the West End, and somehow through diligent email-following I managed to loop a preview ticket! So sought-after were these seats that there were people out front begging people in the queue to sell them their tickets – a bloke offered me £500 for mine, which is another moment of hindsight that I can kick myself for. The South Park lads in conjunction with Robert Lopez put together one hell of a show – famously described as “a love letter to Mormonism” – with a clever score and winning performances all round, in the bareknuckled style they’re famed for. Impossible not to spend the next fortnight at least finding yourself humming “Hasa Diga Eebowai” to yourself. Brilliant show, but should’ve taken the £500.
Favourites: Hasa Diga Eebowai, Hello, Turn It Off
Matilda – Being a massive mouth-breathing, sweaty-palmed Tim Minchin fan there was no way I wasn’t going to go see this. And thankfully, it was really bloody good! Lyrically sharp, and crucially – very, VERY well-presented. There’s a particularly annoying thing about watching child stage actors in Britain, and the only thing I can quantify about it is that their arses stick out too far when they stand straight up at attention. But the kids in Matilda had been directed much more towards just being kids. And the bloke playing Matilda’s step-dad when I saw it the first time was the bloke who played Thoros of Myr in Game of Thrones. So that’s pretty cool. But crucially, the show’s brilliant.
Favourite song: When I Grow Up
Sunday In The Park With George – The Sondheim love continues with this story of George Seurat’s pointillist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and I’m pretty sure this was the first show I ever saw produced by London’s formidable and talented Menier Chocolate Factory. Other than the excellent performances and the wonderful material for this show, the really mindblowing thing was the sets/staging of it – all of the stage flats were flat white, and all detail & colour was digitally projected onto them from the wings/lighting bars. What could’ve been a distracting gimmick was skilfully employed as a useful device in the development of the story.
Favourite song: Putting It Together
A Little Night Music – Sondheim & Menier again, and this time with the added fanboy attraction of having the amazing Hannah Waddingham* in the lead role. If you’re not already impressed with the way Sondheim fits words together, then this goes to the next level with the way he fits entire vocal lines & songs together on top of & around each other.
I saw this twice. Excellent stuff. And late one night while out with friends in a Soho pub most of the cast came barrelling in for some beers, because that’s the kind of thing that happens round that neck of the woods.
Favourites: Soon/Later/Now, A Weekend In The Country
Bravestart – You’ll be unlikely to have heard of this one unless you were there… It was a theatre/restaurant production put together in Adelaide by a bunch of my contemporaries which I think I wasn’t involved in because I was in the final year of high school, or something. Written by Dennis Ankor, Bruce Clarke and Rod Klau it was a silly thing set in Scotland, and now I think of it I can only really remember 2 of the songs, but I do remember having an amazing night and genuinely wish they’d put it on more than 3 times. But that’s amateur theatre for you! Rod would never put his hand up to be counted anything other than a keen student of Sondheim, but you can’t look at lyrics like “When you throw a little oats in and you soak it in a goatskin while you forage, you’ve got porage” and not smile.
And it gave us the gift of having a new thing to hassle Nick Klau about for the rest of his life with his classic punchline-ruination of THE ENTIRE SHOW (“Wait a moment! THIS no’ be Sean Connery! This be…. Sean Connery!”)
Favourite songs: Rugby, Porage
Miss Saigon – First show I ever saw on Broadway, and a bloody spectacular bit of staging it was too. Probably only the 2nd or 3rd professional theatre show I’d been to as well, so it was really striking at the volume and quality of the singing. So much so that I was prepared to overlook the fact that it was by the same team responsible for dumping Les Miserables on us.
Favourites: The Heat Is On In Saigon, Last Night Of The World
Cats – Having agonised about what to put in the top ten, Cats has to go in because it was the first time I’d been exposed to the medium, and because for all the shit people give Lloyd-Webber about his musicals being repetitive there really was something captivating about this one. Although I was disgusted in high school to find out I wasn’t an instant genius at critical analysis of TS Eliot poetry despite knowing the libretto for Cats backwards.
Favourite songs: Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, Mr Mistoffelees.
Honourable Mentions (although not in the Top Ten):
Spamalot – Can’t possibly leave this out. I managed to catch one of the first performances of this in London just a day or 2 before heading out to India for 3 months, and this was also a massive buzz to me because at this point Tim Curry was starring as King Arthur. It was Spamalot also that made me first aware of the difference between a “full musical” and a touring production, because while the first time I saw this it was a lavish all singing, all dancing full-stage affair, whereas a couple of years later I caught the touring show which was very craftily restaged using a cast of around 12 people. The full stage show remains to this day one of the single silliest things I’ve ever borne witness to, and I’m so glad I did it. And it was the first time I’d seen Hannah Waddingham in full flight – blitzing the role of The Lady Of The Lake.
Hello Dolly – I’m not usually too excited about golden age stage spectaculars, but the 2009 Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre staging of this – particularly the title song – stay with me as one of the most spectacular moments of musical theatre I’ve ever seen. A Baz Luhrmann-esque full stage onslaught, which I think if you’d had a flypast of the Red Arrows it wouldn’t have been out of place or over the top.
Into The Woods – More Sondheim! This time made way memorable by the fact it was an Adelaide production by the *ludicrously* talented George Street Company, which I think was an offshoot of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society but seemed to me to be more a gaggle of ludicrously talented young people who I was either friends with or max 3 degrees connected to. Following seeing their incredible performance I then caught a “24 hour musical” version of it in Oxford where it was introduced on stage by Mel Smith, so that was also pretty damn cool.
And there was a Regent’s Park production we went to that I’ve just remembered, where the Wicked Witch was played by… HANNAH WADDINGHAM! (I am absolutely not a stalker)
Musical Of Musicals: The Musical – Very clever meta-musical pastiche thing taking the same basic story and presenting it in 5 different styles of sub-musical inside (Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim, Herman, Lloyd-Webber, and Kander & Ebb). It’s the sort of thing that can disappear up its own wit – but in the production we saw, nestled away in a tiny off-West-End theatre above a pub in Walthamstow the balance was spot on and deftly performed by the tiny cast of 4 without ever feeling like they were showing off.
Not a Top Ten:
Les Miserables – So, I’ve got no problem with Les Mis. It’s a powerful show with some great songs and really interesting musically. I just… it’s the hyperbole, I think. And the overexposure. We had a couple of teachers at high school who seemed more or less obsessed with it, so they shoehorned it into the curriculum wherever possible. Several years later I was roped in to helping out as backstage crew at a run (Mayfair Theatre – incredibly high standard of performance! And the only time I’ve been on a stage where something caught fire) and so that was 3 weeks of shows plus rehearsals. And towards the end of it one of my best mates who lived interstate invited me to come stay for the weekend and watch the show that he and his girlfriend-at-the-time were involved in – so I drive 450km, and find myself watching… LES MIS!
Upon moving to London it was inevitable that eventually I’d see it in the West End, but by then I think I was over the idea and felt that shows which had been running for thousands of performances in the same venue probably lacked soul. And then there was the film in 2012 which while very good indeed did little to patch up the vectors for ridicule which bothered me (e.g. “A runaway cart!”).
More inane drivel:
In my bitter and cynical old age I’ve grown to roll my eyes and yawn when new “jukebox musicals” are announced. It always strikes me as either a particularly lazy or contrived way to assemble a show. I’ll admit having a soft spot for We Will Rock You, but that makes no attempt to be serious and you can’t go wrong with a Queen soundtrack. There’s no way you could even pay me to see Mamma Mia, being terminally affected as I was with Australian 90s ABBA Saturation. If you were to say to me, “But you love The Blues Brothers, and that’s basically jukebox” then the most elaborate riposte I could probably muster would be “Shut up”.
The ones I really would’ve liked to have seen but missed the opportunity were Star Wars – The Musical (“Docking Bay 94”, “Let’s Blow This Thing”), Silence! (the musical of Silence of the Lambs – featuring such toe-tappers as “Put The Fucking Lotion In The Basket”), Carrie (an infamous theatrical flop based on the Stephen King story), The Hunting of the Snark (Mike Batt’s concept of the Lewis Carroll poem), and Groundhog Day (more Tim Minchin worship).
So the question is “This is a top ten of the ones you’ve seen – what were the rest of the options?”. Therefore at vast tax to my memory, here’s the list. It’s only the list of the ones I’ve seen in person though – films and soundtracks don’t get a place here**.
|[title of show]
A Chorus Line
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
A Little Night Music
Babes In Arms
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Fiddler on the Roof
Five Guys Named Moe
Gone With The Wind
Into The Woods
Jerry Springer: The Opera
Jesus Christ Superstar
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat
La Cage Aux Folles
Lend Me Your Ears
Little Shop Of Horrors
Lord of the Rings
Love Never Dies
Man Of La Mancha
Merrily We Roll Along
Musical of Musicals (The Musical)
My Fair Lady
Singin’ In The Rain
Sunday In The Park With George
The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert
The Book Of Mormon
The Jungle Book
The Lion King
The Phantom Of the Opera
The Pirates of Penzance
The Rocky Horror Show
We Will Rock You
West Side Story
Riveting stuff, no?
* Hannah Waddingham is a ludicrously talented singer/actress who bizarrely is probably most widely known these days as the shame nun from Game of Thrones.
** The list also doesn’t count tunes or selections from individual musicals that I’ve seen or performed in as part of a variety show, revue or choral presentation. Or we’d be here all bloody day***.
*** Yes, I know it feels like it’s a bit late to be thinking of that now.