Broadway Musicals with the Most Compelling Structures (Part One)
There is always an ongoing discussion about what musicals have the best book, even if the book writers are often given short-shrift for their contributions. A few weeks ago, I reposted a piece that I had written a few years back with my picks in this area. Some of my choices were mutually agreed-upon with my readers (as much as we can agree on anything subjective) while other choices were hotly debated. It was perhaps a few of my omissions that stirred the ire of many of my readers, but I’ll address those I left out in another article down the road (for my public lambasting, no doubt). You know what they say about opinions…
What the reaction to this article did (I read what you have to say and I am interested in your opinions), however, was to get me thinking about musicals that had structures that didn’t follow the traditional musical format cemented by the Rodgers and Hammerstein model of linear storytelling and conventional plot structure. Many musicals just don’t fit into that mold. Here is my list of the most compelling of them. Tell me what you think and also share with me any others you think I may have left out.
A Chorus Line
A group of dancers were brought together and, in a series of taped sessions, shared their stories of how they came to choose and stay with a career in dance. Those stories were taken by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante (book), Ed Kleban (lyrics), and Marvin Hamlisch (music) and knitted together into A Chorus Line. Within the context of an “audition”, each character stepped forward and shared the vulnerable side of themselves. The musical was not a plot-driven piece, but rather a character study of how we (as human beings) must put ourselves on the line to stay afloat in this life.
Director-choreographer Bob Fosse envisioned telling the story of Roxie Hart, a Chicago murderess aspiring to stardom, within the confines of a vaudeville show. Each scene of the Kander & Ebb musical was announced by a master of ceremonies an then the scene played. Drawing from all different acts of the vaudeville stage, Chicago is a pastiche of acts and performers of the 1920s, including Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Texas Guinan, Bert Williams, and Helen Morgan.
Sunday in the Park with George
A musical based on a painting is already unconventional, but Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine took the concept several steps further. The first act of Sunday in the Park with George is set in 1884 Paris, with the artist Georges Seurat fixated (with the cost of losing his love) on completing his masterpiece “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” The second act jumps ahead 100 years where is great grandson is struggling with the realization of his own artistic vision. Two connected stories separated by a century in time. How many musicals could effectively take that leap and still remain as cohesive as this triumphant musical that captures the sacrifices artists must make?
Based on the Frederico Fellini film 8 ½, the entirety of the Arthur Kopit – Maury Yeston musical Nine is set inside a Venetian spa. Even if the story wanders outside of its literal confines, the action remains therein. The spa becomes a psychological limbo for director Guido Contini who misuses the women in his life toward his selfish ends. From the time the overture starts, Guido conducts them like they are musical instruments, and keeps them ever-present and at his disposal as his artistic muses, tools toward achieving his artistic genius. Nineis episodic and often kaleidoscopic, different colorful configurations of the women in Guido’s life assembling and disassembling to create the commentary on his ego and self-doubt.
Merrily We Roll Along
Structurally, most musicals start at the beginning of the story and work toward the end. The Kaufman and Hart play Merrily We Roll Along starts at the end and works backward. When Stephen Sondheim and George Furth adapted the play into a musical, they retained that unique structure, telling the story of three jaded people, stripping away their cynicism scene-by-scene, revealing the idealistic young people they once were. Some found this confusing, but time has opened our eyes to the poignancy of how this reverse storytelling effectively got at the heart of Merrily We Roll Along’s central trio.
Stay tuned for Part Two of my piece on musicals with compelling structures.