10 Must-See Broadway Musicals
Among my many passions and obsessions, musical theatre is one of the most deep-rooted. I was sent a request to make a list of ten must-see musicals, and it wasn't easy; there are a lot of other amazing musicals I wish I could've fit on this list, but I had to pick the best of the best -- at least in my own humble opinion.
10) Avenue Q -- This is, by far, the most hilarious musical you will ever see. With characters consisting of both puppets and regular actors, (also, the puppeteers are in plain sight, which adds another dimension to the characters because you can see the puppeteers acting and reacting along with their puppets) Avenue Q is the ultimate "adult Sesame Street Show." It's about young kids, fresh out of college, trying to make something of themselves and find their purpose in life. The plot is easy to follow and the characters are instantly loveable. The score includes songs such as "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "The Internet is for Porn," "You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want (When You're Making Love)," and "It Sucks to Be Me." Not for those who are easily offended.
9) Hairspray -- First, before I say anything, I have to state for the record that I HATED John Travolta in the Hairspray movie. Okay? The character of Edna Turnblad is supposed to be masculine...deep voice, butch...that's why she's funny! Every other Edna was perfect: Divine in the original film, Harvey Fierstein in the original Broadway cast, Bruce Vilanche in the first tour cast...but John Travolta? Come on! He made the character sooo what it was not supposed to be. I think that was a terrible, awful, horrible casting decision on somebody's part. (Somebody who obviously thought that a big celebrity was needed to help promote the movie and was more important than finding someone who actually fit the character.) Alright; there's my two cents. Anyway, Hairspray. The STAGE musical. I love it; the music is irresistably catchy and fun, and the story is excellent, with a lot of humor, a lot of pep, and a lot of heart. It deals with segregation and integration in the sixties, discovering who you are and where your loyalties lie, falling in love for the first time, and standing up for what you believe in. It's colorful, upbeat, and more importantly, it has a message.
8) Wicked -- I have to say, I'm kind of annoyed with all the popularity Wicked has gained in the past few years. It's sort of like when one of your favorite bands becomes insanely popular; they sell out. Well, Wicked, to me, is kind of a "sellout" musical, because I loved it long before it had gotten any recognition. Now everybody loves it. I guess I shouldn't be bitter, because it really is a great show. It's based on the book Wicked: Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (who's known for writing parallel novels to fairy tales, i.e. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister). However, the musical takes a much lighter approach to the material in the book and turns it into something that is family-friendly. (The book is a political, social, and ethical commentary on what defines good and evil. As is the musical, I suppose. But the book is much darker, containing some sex scenes, an allegorical reference to Hitler, a suicide reference, and a disturbing murder.) The story is about the Wicked Witch of the West, really named Elphaba, and tells how she became "wicked." A main element of the story is her friendship with one Glinda Arduenna, with the thick of the plot being how the two cope when Elphaba attempts to fight against the Wizard and his oppressive laws. The music is excellent; it's nice to hear two strong female voices in the majority of the songs, because there isn't really an abundance of musicals with two female leads. Ultimately, I think this is a show anybody would enjoy; it's The Wizard of Oz all over again -- just the side we didn't see the first time.
7) The Last Five Years -- I'm sorry, I'm going to cheat and throw in a show that is not officially a "Broadway musical." It played Off-Broadway for only a few months, and since then has sprouted up in regional theatres across the country and in London. It is a musical, it's a two-person show, and it is entirely sung...I would estimate it at about ninety minutes long. The story is simple: Two people fall in love, get married, fall out of love, and split up. And don't worry, I didn't just spoil it for you. Here's the twist: SHE tells the story from end to beginning, and HE tells the story from beginning to end. They alternate songs the whole show and are never onstage together, except for the middle of the show where their tellings of the story cross paths at their wedding. The show starts out with a song by Kathy, and she's singing about how her husband Jamie has just left her for good. The second song is sung by Jamie, where he's reeling from having just gone on his first date with Kathy. The third song is Kathy's again, and it takes place at a point in their relationship where things are really shaky and hanging on by a thread. The fourth song is then Jamie's, where he sings about how happy he is because his career is taking off and he and Kathy are moving in together. And so it goes the rest of the show, all the way to the ending which is, quite literally, bittersweet. The music is very contemporary, with heavy, stylistic piano. The vocals are excellent as well, and very challenging, considering both the male and female singers need to have quite a wide vocal range in order to sing the songs properly. Written by Jason Robert Brown (who became known in the world of musical theatre with his first Off-Broadway musical Songs for a New World), The Last Five Years is raw realism, delivering the sadness and frustration that come with trying to maintain a relationship, but also with its share of cute and funny moments, too.
6) Gypsy -- This is the ultimate piece of theatre about theatre. Based on the true story of the infamous burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee (real name Louise) and her constant struggle with her domineering stage mother Rose who forces her and her sister June into the world of vaudeville. Set during the Great Depression, Rose refuses to believe that vaudeville is a dying business, and in an act of desperation, volunteers Louise to strip at a house of burlesque. Louise is outraged that her mother has done this to her, but ends up doing the strip number, realizes she's better at stripping then anything else her mother has forced her into, surprisingly enjoys it, and soon becomes one of the most popular, if not THE most popular, stripper in the history of burlesque. With music by Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Into the Woods, among others), the story is quite engaging and one can't help but sympathize with and cheer on Louise. Based on Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir, the musical puts a happier spin on her relationship with her mother Rose, giving the story a happy ending, which wasn't the case in reality. Nevertheless, the show is moving in its own way and will have you tapping your toes or humming a tune on the way home from the theater. The music is very solo-vocal-orientated with not very many chorus songs at all. Like Wicked, Gypsy features two female leads and it's nice to hear two powerful female voices, (three, including June); but unlike Wicked, the female vocals are much more alto than soprano, making them a bit easier and more fun to sing, (especially for karaoke). Even if you can't find a performance playing near you, I strongly suggest buying the cd (the newer one with Bernadette Peters as Rose, not the old one with Roselind Russell as Rose; she can't sing). I'm sure you already know some of the songs: "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Let Me Entertain You," and "Some People."
5) The Lion King -- If you loved the movie, you'll love the stage show. If you didn't love the movie, I think you'll still love the stage show. The show has so many things going for it: One, the music. Written by Elton John and Tim Rice (Tim Rice collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber to write Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Evita; he's a pretty damn good lyricist), the show sticks closely to the movie's score and book, with a few new songs. Now, The Lion King is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I think the music is spectacular; therefore, seeing it onstage, with the music loud and booming, it's quite amazing to me. Two, the costumes. The costumes are simply beautiful; they're intricate, complex, extremely well-designed, and really a treat for the eyes. It's probably a good thing that most people already know the story from watching the movie, because when seeing the stage show, you may catch yourself staring at the costumes and the characters' graceful movements in the costumes rather than paying attention to what's being said. Not that the costumes are a distraction -- they just enhance everything that goes on in the show. Apart from the costumes, another aesthetically pleasing attribute of The Lion King is its props and scenery; it's all so bright and colorful. Sometimes you kind of feel like you actually are in the jungle. In summation, I think this is the ultimate family-friendly show; it brings something to the table for both children and adults alike.
4) The Phantom of the Opera -- Overdone, cliché, extravagant...say what you will; Phantom is a phenominal show with some of the most beautiful music and lyrics ever written. Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Charles Hart took Gaston Leroux's early twentieth century French novel and turned it into the most successful and longest-running Broadway musical of all time. (It surpassed Cats a few years ago.) The story is that of Christine Daae, a young soprano who lives and performs in the Paris Opera House. Her father died when she was a little girl, and she now believes that the spirit of her father is coaching her as a singer by means of a mysterious Angel of Music who lives in the bowels of the opera house. This Angel, the genius Phantom, has become obsessed with Christine and wishes for her to love him. She is strangely captivated by the Phantom and does as he commands, even though she is in love with Raoul, a childhood friend, who is in love with Christine as well. The story is great, but the music...oh, the music. I can barely put into words how beautiful it is. Even if you're not a fan of female operatic singing -- I know I'm not, but for Phantom, I can't help but make an exception -- I believe you will still find the music of Phantom to be captivating and overwhelming.
3) Jesus Christ Superstar -- Before you start belting out the botched lyrics "Jesus Christ superstar! Who in the hell do you think you are?!" and before you roll your eyes at the fact that this musical is on the list, just hear me out: You don't have to be Christian, or even religious at all, to enjoy Jesus Christ Superstar. Granted, when I fell in love with this musical, I was in fifth grade and yes, I was Catholic. But for years now I haven't been practicing any religion and I declared myself an agnostic early on in high school -- and I still love it. Because, when you look at the big picture, Jesus Christ Superstar is much more of a political story than it is a religious one; the whole plot is about the government growing angry towards and fearful of Jesus because the people are following and listening to him more than they are the Law. Jesus, Mary Magdaline, and the disciples are really just a bunch of hippies trying to make the world a better place. Hell, I've seen a performance of the show where Jesus was smoking a joint and passing it down to Simon and Mary. Come to think of it, I think I know more people who aren't religious and love this musical than people who are. If you are Christian, I don't see why you wouldn't like it, either. I mean, the story does stick to the Bible, even with some direct quotes. The beauty of the show is it can be updated to fit the times: The performance I saw where Jesus and his disciples were smoking pot also had Judas in a business suit talking on a cell phone and the merchants in the temple selling heroin and guns. There are some who prefer if it sticks to the 70's style like the movie, and that's fine, too. And the music...well, it's Andrew Lloyd Webber -- how could you go wrong? The show is entirely sung, and the music is very rock 'n' roll; what more could you ask for than Jesus belting it out in falsetto? Awesome.
2) Rent -- I don't even know where to start. It's an amazing and gripping story with extremely diverse, yet very relatable, characters. The show is set in the bohemian East Village of New York City during the AIDS scare of the late 80's. The story follows eight friends -- three straight men, two lesbians, one straight woman, one gay man, and a crossdresser -- through a fast-paced plot that deals with drugs, the complications of AIDS, falling in and out of love, the importance of friendship, and, above all, living life to the fullest every day. It's almost entirely sung, running a little over two hours. Act One is fun, upbeat, and funny, with a few dramatic moments scattered about. Act Two, however, becomes much more intense as the characters face the reality of what AIDS is ultimately capable of. But not to fear: the show ends on a positive note that will have you crying tears of happiness (well, maybe I should just speak for myself on that point) and will give you a suspiciously strong desire to hug your friends as soon as the curtain call is over. I'm what you would call a huge Rent-head; I've seen the show eight times, I've waited hours before the box office opens to get first-row rush tickets, I always wait at the stage door afterwards to meet the actors, and I have a pair of pants I decorated Rent-style that I have the cast sign after the show. I've even met Anthony Rapp, (who played Mark in the original Broadway cast and in the movie), and he graciously recorded my outgoing voicemail message on my cell phone for me; he's a really nice guy. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that Rent is addictive and its energy is contageous. The creator of the show, Jonathan Larson, poured years of hard work into Rent and it is, in every sense of the word, HIS show. He literally lived and breathed everything Rent personifies, and unfortunately he never got to see it performed in front of an audience; on the day before Rent was to make its Off-Broadway debut (once the show gained popularity, it moved to Broadway) Jonathan died of an aortic aneurysm. His untimely death only strengthens the show's message and makes it resonate even louder with its audiences.
1) Les Miserables -- Based on the epic novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miz is about a man who got dealt a rotten hand in life and has every reason to be bitter and hateful, and yet he's not; he remains a good person throughout all the struggle and hardship he endures, and he's completely selfless, doing all he can to help those he cares about. This show has everything: drama, romance, tragedy, suspense, humor (only some, but it's there), revenge, friendship, loss, unrequited love, revolution, contempt, anger, desire...it's all there -- and entirely sung, might I add. (It also has, believe it or not, its moments of happiness, as well. They're few and far between, but the fact that they're surrounded by sadness makes them all the more potent.) There are numerous plotlines that weave in and out of each other, all of them tied together by and surrounding the main character Jean Valjean. I think it probably takes seeing it a few times before understanding it completely, (unless you read a full synopsis). I would suggest listening to the music first and getting a feel for it before going to see it onstage; it's nearly three hours long, and it's not really everybody's cup of tea. The first time I saw it was at a high school, performed by students, and I thought it was boring. But then, for some reason, I bought the soundtrack and FELL in LOVE. Now I can't imagine not having ever listened to it or seen it. The music is so powerful and moving, the lyrics so full of emotion and passion...I can't help but get chills and, a lot of times, even tear up every time I listen to it. This is my favorite musical and favorite stage show of all time. (Rent is a close second). I've seen it four times (not including the high school performance) and would gladly journey to another city to see it again if it were still playing in the U.S. (It's currently only playing in London.) There is, however, a video of the show called Les Miserables: The Dream Cast if you're dying to see it; the video isn't a full-out performance, it's merely a concert done in costume. But the cast was hand-picked from the huge array of actors who have perfomed in Les Miz over the years, and they picked the best of the best. It's truly incredible. It's the next best thing you're going to get to seeing the show live. Okay, I need to stop right here, or else I'll go on forever; I could talk about Les Miz for days. Bottom line: beautiful show. I can't sing its praises loud enough.