Holiday Getaway - The Ten Most Underappreciated Broadway Musicals
Since its the holiday weekend and I feel like taking a break from analyzing songs for a day, I have decided that Labor Day will kick-off a special part of my series: The Holiday Getaway. On holidays, I will step outside of my usual format of joyously analyzing musical theatre songs and instead use my blog for other musical theatre commentary. This holiday (Labor Day) is about appreciating the hardworking and underappreciated, and I decided to do a top-ten list of "The Most Underappreciated Broadway Musicals." To do this, I had to establish criteria to help myself narrow down what I was looking for. These are the criteria I established:
- The show could not be a flop musical. It had to have a reasonably successful initial run (300 or more performances).
- The show had to have run on Broadway either in its initial run or received a successful revival.
- I have to be able to make an argument as to why it is underappreciated.
So...here we go:
The Ten Most Underappreciated Broadway Musicals
Once Upon a Mattress
I feel as though Once Upon a Mattress has been relegated to that list of "safe-bet" musicals for high schools to do: A fairy tale (The Princess and the Pea) with easy-to-sing songs. What people forget is that this musical is edgier than that. One of the show's subplots involves an unwed maiden-in-waiting who is pregnant and cannot get married until the prince finds a wife. This is not particularly a comfortable fit for most of the parents of high school students, or an easy obstacle to get by school administration. Once Upon a Mattress works, largely because of the time constraints presented by this impending birth. You cannot excise this pregnancy and have the show maintain its urgency. School drama teachers try to cut the pregancy and the show suffers for it. For me, the willingness to tear at the fabric of this tuneful, funny musical in order to make it more "palatable" to conservative America makes its careful construction underappreciated.
The Secret Garden
To this day, I cannot understand why more people didn't embrace this truly unique and earnest musical. For me, it was one of the most haunting productions to play Broadway in the 1990s. The score is of one piece. It all fits together, incorporating and interweaving elements of its two locales: Yorkshire and India, creating the magical atmosphere required to tell a transformative story. Marsha Norman was true to the classic children's book, fleshing out some of the more peripheral characters in this story about an orphan girl who helps her spiritually broken family find its way back to each other. Lucy Simon's music is so evocative and emotionally stirring that it enters your being and makes you feel like you are one of the ghosts who populate the story. The orchestrations use unique instruments such as dulcimers and sitars, also giving The Secret Garden a fresh, mystical sound. Critics dismissed it as dark and the original production as convoluted. It was not. It required an invested audience who paid attention. It required an audience who was willing to take a rough journey for their own self forgiveness. Just listen to "Lily's Eyes," "Race You to the Top of the Morning," or "How Could I Ever Know?" and try, just try, not to feel your heart break a little.
Purlie remains the musical most deserving of a revival and the most likely not to get one. The show, set in the American South during the era of Jim Crow Laws, has an electricity that is completely unlike anything else that has ever been done on Broadway. Think about the numbers "Walk Him Up the Stairs," "I Got Love," "New-Fangled Preacher Man," and "First Thing Monday Mornin'" and try to compare them to anything else that has come before or since? There is a throbbing pulse that runs through both the music and the plot. Why isn't this show better known and why doesn't the show get produced more? As is the the case with most shows that have a predominantly African-American cast, it is not something that most community theatre groups can cast properly and do well. It means that this show hasn't had the exposure that other shows have had, so it is not a show people even have on their radar.
Easily the best of the Rodgers and Hart scores (honorable mention to Babes in Arms), Pal Joey is also the least palatable of this duo's efforts. Pre-dating Oklahoma! by three years, it is one of the few musicals that attempted integrating book, score, and character development, and maybe audiences weren't quite ready to embrace that yet. The story is not the nicest one. The characters are selfish, hard to like, and difficult to empathize with. The source material, John O'Hara's series of short stories written for The New Yorker, follow an egocentric lothario and social climber who doesn't mind resorting to being a gigalo to get what he wants. The score is brimming with sexual innuendo and saucy wordplay, and what a score it is. "I Could Write a Book," "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "Zip," "Den of Iniquity," "Plant You Now, Dig You Later," and "That Terrific Rainbow" all teem with a smoldering sensuality. Pal Joey is not a feel-good show, but it is a tightly written musical that challenges the audience on a level that they aren't always ready for.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
It's old-fashioned musical comedy and maybe not the most absorbing of plots, but daffish fun and light-hearted musical comedy is never a bad thing. Perhaps it's the iconic performances of Carol Channing in the original and Marilyn Monroe in the film version that keep people from producing this show more, producers fearful that their Lorelei Lee will never compete. I lump this show in with Anything Goes, No, No, Nanette, and the Jerome Kern Princess Musicals as farcical fun that shouldn't be forgotten. The Jule Styne/Leo Robin score is packed full of gleeful standards of the musical theatre canon. "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" is, of course, the most well-known, but "Bye, Bye, Baby," "I'm Just a Little Girl from Little Rock," and "It's Delightful Down in Chile" are just as infectious. The source material, Anita Loos's satiric novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, tells the story of a goldigging blonde with an infatuation for marrying wealthy.
110 in the Shade
After the enormous success of The Fantasticks Off-Broadway, composing team Jones and Schmidt never did quite find that kind of success again. One musical that deserves more notice than it gets is the charming and oft-forgotten 110 in the Shade. Based on N. Richard Nash's popular play The Rainmaker about a flim-flam man who comes to a south-western town promising to make it rain amid a terrible drought. Local girl Lizzie falls for the drifter, who not only delivers on the promise of precipitation, but brings an end to the drought in Lizzie's love life. Why theatres everywhere don't do this show more often is beyond me. It has a sizeable cast with many fun roles (this should especially be attractive to community theatres) and the score, although not exactly a hit parade, it full of lovely music and heartfelt lyrics. Among them is "Lizzie's Coming Home," "Love, Don't Turn Away," "Melisande," and "Little Red Hat." Listen to 2007 Roundabout Theatre revival recording of this show and I dare you to say this show doesn't get under your skin!
Never have I heard a show less-deserving of being maligned suffer such blatant dismissal as Big River. Even today people say it only won the Tony Award for "Best Musical" because it opened in a weak year. True, 1985 was a weak year for musical theatre, but Big River is a very intelligent, clever, and tuneful adaptation of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the Broadway stage. Roger Miller's country-infused score perfectly captures the time, place and characters, and William Hauptman's book condenses the epic novel judiciously without missing any important plot points and themes. Songs such as "Do You Wanna Go to Heaven?" "Waitin' for the Light to Shine," "Muddy Water," "Free at Last" and "River in the Rain" are as good as any character number found in a Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe musical. It's a great ensemble piece and deserves better recognition for what it does with ease that many adaptations of classic literature fail to do.
This sweet, gentle whisper of a musical is rarely done and what a shame. Defying the conventions of most musicals of it's time, the story about an orphan girl named Lili who joins the circus may have been director-choreographer Gower Champion's finest achievement. Stepping outside of the box, Champion fashioned a show that could be both grand and intimate at the same time. The score by Bob Merrill is introspective and really captures the broken, lonely lives of the people who populate the carnival and subtly shows how they are a community unto themselves. Lili encounters many emotionally complicated characters in the story (adapted from the film Lili by Michael Stewart) including a puppeteer who can only show his emotions through his puppets (who figure prominantly in the telling of this story). Carnival! is an odd musical when you hold it up against other musicals, but because it is so original and complex, it is a diamond in a treasure chest of rubies.
City of Angels
Two musicals for the price of one, City of Angels tells the story of a novelist who is adapting one of his detective stories for the big screen in the golden age of Hollywood. The musical equally tells the story of the writer Stine, and the film that is being created about the detective Stone. City of Angels strives to capture the dark smokiness of the Film Noir genre. Cy Coleman's bluesy-jazz score and the brassy orchestrations capture this in (dare I say it) Sam Spades. David Zippel's lyrics are some of the wittiest and intricate outside of Sondheim, and Larry Gelbart has created a hilarious book that is equal parts tongue-in-cheek and vicious bite. The reflecting stories, multiple sets and costumes, and casting (most performers play roles in both stories) make this show a difficult one to produce. It is, however, a perfect example of how pastiche can feel new and relevant when the right talent comes together to create it.
Me and My Girl
Okay, I am sure many people would find reason to argue with me about this entry, but the original Broadway production remains one of my most joyous theatregoing memories. It is My Fair Lady-lite. A Cockney street sweeper learns that he is the long lost heir of a an earldom and when he moves into Hareford Hall with his girlfriend, comedy ensues. The bluebloods are appalled by his common nature, lack of discretion, and most of all by his equally lowerclass girlfriend. The attempts to clean them up and teach them ettiquette are full of site gags, ribaldry, and dry, British humor. Me and My Girl is like pink champagne. It may not be Dom Perignon, but it sure feels good going down. Plenty of opportunities for dance, catchy music, and cheap laughs. Sometimes it is exactly what the doctor ordered.
What musicals would you add to my list? I am anxious to hear your feedback and read your comments!