10 Musicals Where My Delight Was at Odds with Critics and Ticket Buyers
I don’t always agree with the critics, and I sometimes don’t agree with audiences. Where musicals are concerned, I am often surprised at what pieces are embraced and what pieces are rejected. Occasionally, I find a musical where, despite how the masses are feeling about it, I am at odds with their tastes. Here are ten musicals where my delight was at odds with critics and ticket buyers.
Admittedly, I entered Rocky with very low expectations, sure that there was no possible way I could be entertained by a musical that was based on a Sylvester Stallone film, or a musical about boxing. Sure, Golden Boy surprised me with its amazing score, but I really was not prepared to make room for two boxing musicals in my life. Boy, was I wrong. I found Rocky cleverly staged, the Ahrens and Flaherty score both moving and inspirational, and the performances of Andy Karl and Margo Seibert textured and nuanced, beyond anything the film conveyed.
I do not think that there is a Jason Robert Brown score that I have ever disliked. What appealed to me so much about 13 was its deft depiction of the middle school teenager. Having taught for many years myself, I found the musical captured their heart, their idiosyncrasies, their awkwardness, and their nastiness with honesty and empathy. It is understandable why this musical connects so easily to this age group. It speaks to them and brings their world to life. This is, perhaps, why the show had limited appeal to the greater population.
3. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
It wasn’t a perfect show, but there was so much about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown that I found memorable, I keep reliving it in my head. Most of David Yazbek’s score was catchy, with “Model Behavior” and “Invisible” standing out as spectacular. The performances by Laura Benanti and Patti LuPone were both funny and full of heart. When the music stopped, unfortunately so did the show, but I am constantly finding myself wishing that I could return to that Broadway production again and see if the show got better with repeated viewings.
4. The Scottsboro Boys
It had an unfortunately short run of 49 performances, but in that time, I saw The Scottsboro Boys four times. There are not many musicals I can say that about, but this one was worth every visit. Susan Stroman staged a compelling commentary on racism, set within the confines of the minstrel show, one of America’s most politically incorrect entertainments. Kander and Ebb provided a haunting score, brilliant in its satire and uncomfortable in its honesty. “You Can’t Do Me” was particularly effective, but every moment of the show made the audience look inward and deal with their own prejudices.
5. American Idiot
As a general rule I am not a fan of rock music, but Green Day’s album American Idiot has always had a powerful resonance in my life. I was sure that, when it came to the Broadway stage, it would assuredly be a massive hit. I was wrong. It had a mediocre run of 422 performances, and only managed two Tony wins for design categories. What a shame. American Idiot onstage was a raw, visceral experience, exploding with contempt and frustration as it followed three young men from the suburbs as they face the brutal realities of life.
6. Steel Pier
Kander and Ebb have had their share of flop musicals, and one of the more unfortunate ones was Steel Pier. Set during the 1930s, in Atlantic City at the height of the dance marathon craze, the musical was a relentless kaleidoscope of movement. Susan Stroman’s choreography had an electricity and variety that took great demands on the performers, a cast who lived up to every expectation. “Everybody Dance” was the highlight of the show, an introduction to all the marathon dancers, but just as affecting were “Willing to Ride” and “Running in Place.”
7. Tuck Everlasting
Charming. Every moment of Tuck Everlasting overflowed with nostalgia, warmth, and charm. I still do not understand why this sweet, old-fashioned show wasn’t embraced by the family audiences or by most of the critics. Based on the young adult novel of the same name, the story tackles the idea of eternity and would we accept it for ourselves if we had a choice? The Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen score was agreeable, often infectious, and revealed each character to have an emotional depth that is seldom found in contemporary musicals. The song “Time” was the best of the lot, but “Top of the World” and “The Most Beautiful Day” were also magical in their own rights. A breathtaking montage of time passing was the show’s most moving sequence, but the whole show spoke to my heart and soul.
8. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Having seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in London, I could not wait for it to transfer to New York where I assumed it would be a smash. Perhaps it was just too “British” for America, as it somehow didn’t click with New York audiences the way it thrilled in London. Regardless, the show was a colorful and joyous romp, brimming with delightfully cartoonish performances from Raul Esparza, Erin Dilly, Marc Kudisch, Jan Maxwell, Phillip Bosco, Kevin Cahoon, and Chip Zien. It was far more than just a musical about a flying car; it was an inventive (and smart) reimagining of classic children’s tale.
9. Triumph of Love
I do love any opportunity to see Susan Egan on the Broadway stage, and Triumph of Love was my first introduction to her talents. Throw in the chance to see Betty Buckley, and you have already won me over, no matter how good or bad the show was. Fortunately, I found Triumph of Love to be witty, entertaining, and tuneful, a splendid fairy tale for adults. “Anything” is as good as any “I am” song from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and “Serenity” a haunting melody with slyly sophisticated lyrics. True, the show was stronger in its first half than its second, but I was so invested I happily saw it to its end.
10. Jane Eyre
The drive to musicalize classic novels has been a mostly unsuccessful one in the realm of Broadway musicals. Every once and while, they get one right. Les Miserables is one, The Scarlet Pimpernel another, but the most underrated of them all is Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte’s epic novel about a stubborn woman who rails against societal norms is a gripping story of strength and tenacity. Combining this story with the talents of composer-lyricist Paul Gordon, and the result is a melancholic and bracing score that infuses additional life into an already compelling premise. “The Graveyard” has always been, for me, the musical number that breaks my heart, but so much of the score twists and pulls on the heartstrings.