I've been obsessed recently with a website called listverse.com, which has a bunch of lists. Unfortunately there are very few relating to musicals (Appalling!) so I decided to make a list of my top ten all time favorite unsung musicals. Some of them I've written about on this blog, some not. They are ALL exquisite and worth checking out. I've ranked them in order of my preferences based on their power as theatrical pieces.
10) Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story
Book, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff
We staged the state premiere of this unique little musical at my theatre company in Madison. This show is fantastic because it plays on what makes drama great: A relationship. This was the subject of my first blog post. I've had some people say they didn't like the lyrics here but honestly I don't get that. I find it incredibly emotionally stirring and an amazing example of what you can do with two people and a piano.
9) The Life
By Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman
What a fun, gritty, fabulous show. All about prostitutes! The music ranges from catchy to heartfelt and the characters are remarkably flawed but loveable. Cy Coleman wrote Sweet Charity....so this is a musical from the genius behind "Hey Big Spender". This show featured a Tony winning turn by the fabulous Lilias White as a "worn out and weary" prostitute. At one point she does the math and discovers that she has slept with 15,000 men. Except its Lilias White, so she has to riff a bit, and it sounds like "fif...teen...thowoweeeowowowowowsand men."
Get this one for the next time you're on a road trip.
Book by Brian Crawley, Music by Jeanine Tesori
Violet is an incredible illustration of the power of the actor. She is a young woman with a disfiguring scar who makes a pilgrimage to see a televangelist who she believes can make her beautiful. Along the way she meets two young men: Monty, a pompous womanizer, and Flick, a quiet African American dreamer. Both are soldiers, and both fall for Violet in their own unique ways. "You're different", sings Monty. Throughout the show a younger version of Violet serves as her alter ego. The people she meets along the way are terrified and disgusted by her scar.
Here's the catch: The actress doesn't wear any makeup to illustrate the scar. It is left entirely to our imaginations. It is human nature to become preoccupied with a physical trait. By keeping Violet's scar off of her face we are treated to seeing her for who she is right away, while the characters onstage react and characterize her based on her scar.
The music has a folksy, country feel to it. Particularly worth a listen are "On My Way", "Let It Sing", "That's What I Could Do", and "Promise Me, Violet".
7) Floyd Collins
Book and Lyrics by Tina Landau, Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel
Upon first listen Floyd Collins is hard to fall for. It's weird. It's lengthy. It requires research to understand from the recording alone. So read a bit about the Floyd Collins story and then listen to it. Because once you know what's going on, the music takes on a whole other meaning. The context of this show is incredibly important when attempting to understand it's brilliance. Easy to receive songs all on their own are "The Riddle Song", "How Glory Goes" and "Is That Remarkable?"
Read more about it here.
6) The Glorious Ones
Music by Stephen Flaherty, Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
A beautiful musical that I gushed about here. Though on the surface it seems to be very specific to actors, it really isn't. It's about dreams, love, and being remembered for what you've contributed to the world. What does it mean to be truly remembered? Must you be remembered by your name and exact life? Or do you live on through your contributions to the world? The Glorious Ones beautifully proves the latter.
5) The Wild Party
Book, Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChuisa
I already did a lengthy post on The Wild Party but here's the gist: There are two. They are very different. Both are great in their own ways. But I have put LaChuisa's on this list because the chances of you seeing it any time soon in your area are slim to none. Andrew Lippa, who wrote the other version, provides a more widely accessible version of the story, and it too is great fun. LaChuisa's version focuses on several stories, and pays paticular attention to the issues of the day, including the merging of black and white people in social circles.
Again not your typical musical theatre fare, but all the same it is a blast to listen to. It is tough to cast and learn so regionally it just isn't done very often. But unlike Lippa's version LaChuisa's opens doors to numerous issues of the day which are worth exploring. My favorite songs on here are "Queenie Was A Blonde", "Blame it On the Gin", "and "A Little Mmmmm". The musical style of the day is also very effectively captured in LaChuisa's, while in Lippa's there is a modern twist put to the songs.
4) A New Brain
Book, Music and Lyrics by William Finn
I said what I had to say on this musical here. Just get the CD. You will love it.
3) john & jen
Book, Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
This musical is extremely close to my heart after directing and appearing in it with my theatre company. We had come off of a tumultuous year, and decided to switch to doing only lesser known musicals. With no money whatsoever we produced a show that left audiences in tears night after night. I'll be doing a longer post on this later but here's the gist: Brother and sister grow up together. Brother dies in Vietnam. Sister is crushed, then has a baby and tries to reincarnate her son through him (not literally but she wants him to be just like her brother). The same actress plays Jen from age 6 to age 44, and the same actor plays both her brother John and her son John. The script explicitly calls for minimalism. No set, suggestive costumes, two actors and a story. john & jen remarkably tells an epic tale, and all it needs is two people in a room. Again, a longer post is to come on this one. But in the meantime check out the songs "Little League", "Talk Show", and the absolutely heartwrenching "It Took Me Awhile". I am proud to say I went to the same college as this fine composer and author. What he has created here is simply magical.
2) Bat Boy
Book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, music by Laurence O'Keefe
While you're on that road trip listening to The Life, throw this one in too. Bat Boy is a story told in an alternate universe where what you see in the tabloids can be true. A half bat half human creature is discovered in a cave, lovingly adopted by a local family and yet persecuted by the townspeople for being different. A core group of actors plays multiple roles.
Since I was in Bat Boy in 2003 I have grown tired of musicals making fun of musicals. Bat Boy, however, does this in such a way that I find it charming. The reason is that the jabs at musical theatre are only obvious to people who already love the genre. In other musicals that make fun of themselves the parodies are obvious to everyone. Bat Boy tucks the musical references in often, to be sure, but without knowing them you don't appreciate the show any less. I also need to do a post on this show. It is hilarious, tragic, poignant, and revolutionary. And all around, from the book to the lyrics to the concept, it is just a solid, well written musical.
And the number one musical you've never heard of.......
Where's my drumroll?
Book by Alfred Uhry, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
This musical is stunning. STUNNING. From the early drum beats as we watch a young solider go off to fight the civil war to the final chords, this musical invades your soul.
I will only give a gist here, again, because I want to write extensively on this masterpiece. I will say this: Critics don't like it. It is not a "textbook" good musical. If you analyze every aspect of it you find problems. But if you let it speak to you, let yourself become wrapped up in the story, and let the music carry you through, it is an experience unlike any other. The story is of Leo Frank, a Jew in the south in the early 20th century, and his unfair persecution when a young girl is murdered in his factory. Because of his faith he is convicted and sentenced to death, but his wife makes every effort to get this overturned, renewing their love in the process.
Jason Robert Brown is a genius. This musical proves it. The complex beauty of what he writes demonstrates that he has a truly unique gift. Get this CD immediately and listen to "Big News", "The Old Red Hills of Home", "All the Wasted Time" and "That's What He Said". Or just listen to the whole thing. It's not for the light hearted. This one is deep. It gets under your skin and stays with you.
Some honorable mentions: Marie Christine, The Secret Garden, Phantom, tick..Tick...BOOM!, Adding Machine, Bernarda Alba, Songs for A New World, and The Great American Trailer Park Musical.