Friday, January 11, 2008

The best musicals I've never seen

Something that Eric at Man in Chair wrote got me thinking. He says that Sunday in the Park With George is one of his favorite scores, but he's never seen the show, something he hopes to rectify when the London revival comes to Broadway.

My passionate interest in musical theater is a pretty recent phenomenon, so I don't have a long list of original Broadway cast CDs that I've been listening to forever, hoping for the day when I could watch the show performed on stage. But I do have a list, and it's growing longer all the time.

Before last year, the CDs or albums in my collection were the soundtracks from movie musicals I watched on television as a kid, like Oklahoma, The King and I, The Sound of Music and Camelot. Or they were from movies I saw in the theater, like Cabaret, or Evita. In a few instances, they were the Broadway cast CDs from shows I saw on tour, like Les Miserables or A Chorus Line.

(Growing up, my favorite musical was that I'm pretty sure never made it to a stage anywhere, a 1968 Disney movie called The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band. set against the backrop of the presidential election of 1888. It starred John Davidson and Lesley Anne Warren, and featured songs by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, of Mary Poppins fame.)

What ties all this together is, I started listening to the music after seeing the show in some fashion. In fact, I can really only think of one score that I listened to long before I ever saw it on stage or in the movies, and that's Hair. I eventually saw it on tour, and I've seen the movie. (There were many others, like Evita or Gypsy, where I was certainly familiar with some of the songs, even though I'd never seen them performed).

Now, there's a growing list of CDs I have in my collection even though I may never get to see the shows on stage: Merrily We Roll Along, Company, The Lion King, (well I did see the movie, but I don't think that counts) The Wedding Singer, (that comes off the list next month!) and The Last 5 Years.

At the top of my list is Assassins, which may be my favorite Stephen Sondheim score. I mean who would ever think you could write such memorable songs about such a grim subject. It's really like a trip through 150 years of American popular music. Plus, the lyrics make some very perceptive statements about our obsession with violence and our celebrity culture.

Unfortunately, I think Assassins is one of those shows that isn't put on very often, so I'll probably never see it on stage. Although thanks to the Internet, I've seen a couple of clips from the revival.

And there are lots of other CDs I want to check out, either because I'm interested in the period in which they take place, like Caroline, or Change and Ragtime, or because I read and loved the books that they're based on, like Little Women or The Secret Garden, or because I love the cast, (anything with Audra McDonald).

I guess some scores hold up better than others if you're going to listen to them on their own, without having seen the show. Just listening to Les Miserables or Evita gives you a good sense of the story. You could simply listen to the score as a collection of beautiful songs, like The Last 5 Years, or just because they're catchy pop tunes, like The Wedding Singer. Either way, my collection is growing.


Emily said...

I love The Last Five Years although I've never seen the show, that's a great album. I would also recommend Altar Boyz and Jonathan Larson's tick, tick...BOOM! as two other good and fun off-Broadway cast albums.

Esther said...

Thanks for the recommendations Emily! I haven't listened to either one, but I know they're supposed to be great. And I love Rent. I'm going to see it on tour in a couple of weeks. It'll be my first time seeing it on stage. Until now, I've only seen the movie.

Yeah, I really love The Last Five Years, too. I guess Jason Robert Brown took alot of it from his own failed first marriage. It's funny in parts and kind of sad in parts.

Alicia said...

OK - Hair is a very special favorite of mine and I have to say that you should rent the movie. Now. Even though it is different from the play but... there you go. It's something.

How far are you from New York? Too bad you missed the recent revivals of Assassins (which I was in last year!) and Hair (a special Public Theater event).

However, it IS rumored that Merrily We Roll Along, a personal favorite, is coming back to Broadway next year, so maybe you'll get to see that one!

Alicia said...

Wait - to clarify - I was not in the Broadway revival... There was a revival, that I was not in. There was a community theatre production last year, that I was in.

Esther said...

Hi Alicia,
Thanks so much for the comments!

Sorry I wasn't clear in my post. I have seen the movie version of Hair, and I even saw it on stage, in Syracuse, N.Y., many years ago. But I read about the Public Theater production, and I would love to have seen it. I know the story might not hold up very well after all these years, but the songs definitely hold up!

Hopefully I'll get to New York a few times this year. I went three times in 2007 for four or five days each time, and I managed to squeeze in 19 shows! So hopefully 2008 will be a good year, too. I'm about three hours away, but unfortunately, my life doesn't permit me to go as often as I'd like, which would be just about every weekend!

I got the remastered Merrily We Roll Along when it came out last year, mostly because I read that Jason Alexander, of Seinfeld fame, was in it, and I thought it would be interesting to hear him sing. But I like the story, and the way it moves backward in time. I'd definitely try to see it if there's a revival.

I love the Assassins revival CD, especially Neil Patrick Harris. I think he just has a great voice. And Michael Cerveris was great as Booth.

That's great that you were in a production of Assassins. I just figured that given the subject matter, it would be hard sell on Broadway, much less for a community theatre. But it must have been a terrific experience!

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, Assassins is my favorite Sondheim score. I think he beautifully captures the essence of each of the distinct periods of American history that the show is about.

If you ever have a chance to see The Last Five Years, go and see it. It's such an inventive, moving and cathartic show.

Esther said...

Thanks for introducing me to both scores!

I know what you mean about "Assassins" perfectly capturing distinct periods in American history. Michael Cerveris' John Wilkes Booth is pretty powerful as he goes over all the grievances Southerners had against Lincoln. Then later, when John Hinckley Jr. sings Unworthy of Your Love, it really captures celebrity-obsessed modern American culture. When I first got "Assassins," I listened to it over and over. I can understand why it's your favorite Sondheim score.

Interval Drinks said...

Assassins was staged a couple of years back at the Sheffield Crucible in the UK to pretty positive reviews, but sadly that is 'up north' so unfortunately I didn't see it.

I did see The Last Five Years, when it was staged by the Menier Chocolate Factory in London around the same time and that was very interesting, wonderful in places but the unusual structure makes it difficult to warm to the characters. Some brilliant moments though.

Esther said...

I imagine the structure of The Last Five Years would make it seem almost like you were seeing two different plays, since one person is starting at the beginning of their relationship and the other at the end.

I hope I get to see it someday, and I hope we both get to see Assassins someday!

SarahB said...

The Assassins revival was brilliant at Roundabout. But even better to me was Pacific Overtures. Do check out Pacific Overtures (Someone in a Tree is beyond anything ever written) and Follies too.

Esther said...

Thanks for the recommendations Sarah! I haven't listened to "Pacific Overtures" or "Follies." I think Sondheim said that of all the songs he's written, Someone in a Tree" is one of his favorites. So I should definitely check it out.