12.07.09 My Top Ten Broadway Musicals of the Decade
The Best of the Broadway Musicals OF THE DECADE
1. Sondheim Festival at the Kennedy Center (2002)
I only managed to see two of the six shows that played in repertory over a four-month spell, but it was enough to realize how Sondheim changed the landscape of musical theater with his complicated but always gorgeous lyrics and music. Sunday in the Park with George was a bit muddled as a production, but thanks to Raul Esparza in the lead, became a true testament to Sondheim’s unbelievable intelligence (no wonder the show won the Pulitzer Prize in its original incarnation). But my heart was taken with a very straightforward adaptation of Company, a show that even more clearly demonstrated Sondheim’s unique songwriting ability juxtaposed with his even more unique sense of storytelling, or rather lack of a narrative structure. It’s no wonder that Broadway this past decade has basically repeated this DC festival with revivals of four of the six shows that appeared during the festival (plus three more that did not).
2. Sweeney Todd (2005)
And continuing with the Sondheim theme, this was a stunning revival that demonstrated yet another change in the landscape of musical theater. Much like shows of the late 70s and 80s when money was not being funneled into theater, this adaptation stripped down everything to the bare essentials. More revolutionary than anything else was the loss of an orchestra in favor of having the actors play instruments while performing their roles. The sheer brainpower required to stage such a convoluted concept is enough to make it interesting, but to actually end up with a show that captured the essence of the original production and loses none of the lushness of the original orchestrations, it was sheer wonder to behold.
3. The Light in the Piazza (2005)
Having seen this show in Chicago in an earlier incarnation that left me unimpressed, I was very hesitant to step into the theater once again, but thank god I did. This show transported the audience with its overwhelming sets and orchestral dynamite. Kelli O’Hara was revelatory as the stunted Clara, but the true power was all in the heartbreaking performance of Victoria Clarke as her mother, fighting with herself on how to raise a child that will always remain in some ways a child. It’s a quiet, if ornately conceived, piece filled with music that holds such power even when taken out of the context of the show. This was the show of the past decade that made me believe that art can still be created and be commercially successful on Broadway. Even more, it further cemented Adam Guettel as the hopeful future of the American songwriting tradition that seemed to die with every new jukebox musical that got produced on stage.
4. Spring Awakening (2006)
This musical provided a different kind of hope for the future of the American stage, one that demonstrated a viability to the art form for the under 40 set. Not since Rent have I found myself in a theater surrounded by contemporaries, or at this point, youth compared to me, but man what a refreshing concept. Duncan Sheik created a score that defied the standard musical while paying homage to those that came before him. And finally a show demonstrated some sense of frank sexuality and the difficulty of coming of age. It’s hard to believe that we needed to look back to a Franz Wedekind play from 1891 to find that refreshing voice again in the theater, but what a perfect marrying of repression and breaking free through music.
5. Passing Strange (2008)
Playing more like a concert than a stage show, the story of Stew is surprisingly poignant despite being stripped of standard narrative and theater convention. The music from this show floats between being inaccessible to awe-inspiring, but with Stew at the helm of his own digression on his life, you follow along quite easily. But this would all be denying the true power of this show that inspired tears every time I saw it. The journey of the young man finding himself by losing himself completely strikes such nerves as the youth forgets his past and his roots thinking that the only way to find his voice is to run as far from where he came from as possible. It’s an amazingly personal tale that ultimately is universal, and to stage it in this way turned into an inspiring surprise.
6. Chess – Actors’ Fund Benefit Concert (2003)
This piece might be more of a personal favorite than some seminal piece of theater history, but I do remember the night I went to this concert with amazing happiness. It was early in my New York life, and the thought of seeing Josh Groban, Julia Murney, Raul Esparza and Sutton Foster take the stage was absolutely thrilling. But more than anything was finally getting to witness this stage show, one that musically is heard constantly but so rarely performed with any of the story intact. It’s a great testament to how amazing music does not make a musical, although I would argue that this is the best score from the music men behind ABBA. I still believe that this show has a future in an actual full staged version, but the more than 25 year evolution of the show makes it quite clear how difficult it is to write a musical, let alone mount it and make a success out of it.
7. South Pacific (2008)
Reviving this Rodgers and Hammerstein work was/is a stroke of genius. What a reminder of how important these two men were in the creation of the book musical, creating such epic shows filled with major issues that still resonate today. It’s hard to believe that this piece on the horrors of racism can more than captivate but feel utterly relevant over the course of three hours. This work is also an excellent example of the failure of the more ever-present film versions of R&H’s shows that gloss over the darker themes that made these shows so revolutionary. On a more elemental level, I thank this show for proving that a live orchestra (massive in size and revealed underneath the large stage during the overture and entr’acte) is totally necessary for the musical art form to thrive, a horrifying debate that occurred at the beginning of this decade that could have left every Broadway theater with a black box providing the orchestrations.
8. The Pajama Game (2006)
Another revival that proved something quite different than South Pacific, this time the importance of performance. Modern Broadway certainly is a hot bed of a certain type of talent, generally that of shrieking melisma repeated night after night, but this show thrived on the thrill of live performance. Kelli O’Hara and Harry Connick Jr. were both so alive on that stage that you couldn’t help but be propelled through the ridiculously light show with absolute joy. When Connick took to the piano in “Hernando’s Hideaway,” or when they dueted on “There Once Was A Man,” you could just feel the life flowing through them. Nights at the theater like this are all too rare, when you can really feel performances taking flight, actual chemistry occurring before your eyes and the whole sense of stagecraft vanishes leaving you with pure theater.
9. Hair (2009)
This might be making my list because it’s still so present in my mind, but I do believe that even after more time has passed, this show’s impact will live on. Obviously history is on the side of this show, with its revolutionary ties to another era on Broadway and another era in our collective history. But it was this show in its current incarnation that really made me wake up to the world we live in. So often we sit by idly letting others make our decisions, failing to stand up for our own rights, or hoping that other oppressed people will do so in our place. This show moves everyone to act. I watched tears flow down faces of young and old alike at performances, demonstrating the true power of art to move the people. And as one of the last shows to actually truly enter into pop culture, it makes me quite happy to see people finding it yet again.
10. Wicked (2003)
I’m so conflicted adding this to my list at the end of the decade, but I just cannot imagine not saying something about this powerhouse. I have issues with the show itself, but I also must admit to listening to the cast recording repeatedly and enjoying every bit of it, even if intellectually it kills me. It has all the horrible trappings of modern Broadway with the shrieking voices, the stagecraft that calls so much attention to itself that you applaud the sets, and it’s a sorta retread of other parts of popular culture, but when added all together, it just works. I cannot deny that this bloated musical does all the wrong things right and thus is an amazing moneymaker, an audience pleaser and a show, for better or for worse, for the ages.
Not on MY list, but has to be on THE list
Mamma Mia! (2001)
I seriously cannot include this on my list, but I must make note of a successful, on more than just a commercial level, jukebox musical. This form of musical has in many ways killed much of the joy of Broadway by force-feeding people what they already know, but using ABBA as a backbone, it’s just pure fun. The story is crap. The revolving cast since opening has been lackluster. But it’s fun, and if you’re going to create a show around an already established set of songs, this is the way to do it.