The Greatest Musicals

March 31, 2013

On Saturday, the Times published in its Magazine section a listing of the 30 best ever musicals. It also published a leading article on the subject. My first thought on reading the articles was that it is a good thing indeed that this often neglected art form is treated seriously by a quality newspaper. I know people who proudly boast that they have never seen a musical in their life believing them to be unworthy of their intellectual attention. They fail to realise of course, that anyone of true intellect would try something at least once before rushing to judgement.

The list in the Times was compiled by a panel of its arts critics and of course was bound to be highly subjective. The result was also going to depend on how wide the parameters were set. The Times included film musicals, something I would not do. Nor would I have included “juke box” musicals which would have disqualified “Mamma Mia.” Yes,“Mamma Mia” is great fun but please, let us not mention it in the same breath as “West Side Story” or “My Fair Lady.”

So how would I define a great musical? Well first of all it must be an original production for which the book, music and lyrics were specifically written. Then, it must be a show which has stood the test of time, one that is constantly being revived and enjoyed by new generations of theatregoers. Finally, it is one whose music lives on, giving as much pleasure today as it did when it was first heard. After all, what is the point of a musical if the music is instantly forgettable? Using these criteria, I have compiled my own list of great musicals, one which I have confined to just twelve.

1. Carousel. Time magazine described the second Rodgers and Hammerstein production as the greatest musical of the 20th Century and I agree. A magical blend of all the theatrical arts, book, music, lyrics and dance; to me it is perfection and Richard Rodgers’ music remains not only his greatest score but the greatest ever.

2. Oklahoma! The first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical deserves it high-ranking not only because it is still one of the all time greats, but because it was the show that changed everything. Had there been no “Oklahoma!” there would have been none of the other great shows that followed. Previously, with Lorenz Hart, Rodgers had always composed the music first. Now, he set Hammerstein’s lyrics to music, thereby letting the story and the characters dictate the nature of the music making the piece one dramatic whole.

3. West Side Story. The Bernstein/Sondheim classic is another show which combines superbly all the dramatic arts and would be many people’s choice as the greatest ever. As I said earlier, any list like this, is a very personal one but it is a very close call.

4. My Fair Lady. Not only did Lerner and Lowe create a fabulous score, but they had the genius to give Shaw’s wit equal prominence thereby ensuring that this is one of the shows that will live forever.

5. South Pacific. When you talk about great scores, then this one from Rodgers and Hammerstein comes immediately to mind. Not only a great score but in 1949 a controversial one too, including as it does the anti racism song “Carefully Taught.” Many people wanted them to leave the song out but R&H stuck to their guns, even when it meant the show being banned from some Southern states.

6. The King and I. Another wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein score built on a strong book. Again the pair were prepared to defy convention with the hero dying in the final scene.

7. Guys and Dolls. Frank Loesser’s superb music and lyrics and Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows book make this adaptation of Damon Runyan’s stories of New York night life one of most enjoyable of Broadway musicals.

8. Show Boat. The 1927 Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein musical was perhaps the first musical to give prominence to the book, and of course it contains, among other classic songs, “Old Man River.”

9. The Music Man. This is the only show in my list not based on an existing book or play. Meredith Willson’s tuneful and joyous story has to be in my top ten.

10. Fiddler on the Roof. Written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and based on Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevye and his Daughters” this is in every way a Broadway classic.

11. A Chorus Line. Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s backstage musical currently enjoying a revival in the west End is certainly worthy of a place on this list. Great music and biting, witty lyrics.

12. Cabaret. The John Kander, Fred Ebb, Joe Masreroff 1966 musical was a wonderful portrayal of sleazy, pre war Berlin. An excellent book and evocative tunes ensures a place on this or any list of Broadway’s best musicals

This then is my list. There are shows that were worthy of consideration but did not quite made it. “Funny Girl”, for example and “Kiss Me Kate”. “Gypsy”, “Camelot”,and “Annie Get Your Gun”. Nor did the one British contender from the “golden age”, Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” I feel guilty for leaving out “The Sound of Music.” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final show was not their greatest. Hammerstein was dying when they wrote it. But even when not at their best, they could still write a marvellous score and a show that would form the basis of the most popular film musical of all time.

With the exception of “Show Boat” I have not included anything from the twenties and thirties. That meant leaving out all the Gershwin shows and those by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart. All these shows were full of great songs but for the most part, “Pal Joey” is an exception, the plots were frivolous nonsense and songs could be, and indeed were, frequently taken out of one show to be used in another.

I also feel somewhat guilty at leaving out all of Jerry Herman’s shows but, tuneful though they are, I fear they just did not match the standard of the really outstanding shows that I included. Sondheim fans will be outraged at the omission of any of his shows but I make no apology. In my opinion he should have stuck to writing lyrics. As for the more modern shows such as “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera,” whilst I enjoyed them both, I feel that they are different types of shows, and cannot properly be compared with those earlier classics.

The Times has provided a timely reminder that at its best, Broadway’s great songwriters provided a number of theatrical masterpieces, genuine works of art that hopefully will live on forever.

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Carousel

August 24, 2012

When Liliom, the play upon which Carousel is based, first gained global acclaim in the early 1920’s composer Giacomo Puccini begged playwright Ferenc Molnar to grant him the rights to turn it into an opera. Molnar turned Puccini down flat. “Liliom is my masterpiece,” he said, “and I want it to be remembered as a Molnar play, not as the libretto for a Puccini opera.”

A little more than twenty years later, after being taken to see Oklahoma!, he granted the musical rights to Rodgers and Hammerstein paving the way for the pair to write what Time Magazine would call “The Greatest Musical of the Twentieth Century.”

Had it been written by Puccini, I am sure Opera North would have staged many productions of the musical Liliom over the years. As it is, we have had to wait until now to see and hear how a major opera company would tackle the most operatic of Broadway musicals and boy, they have done it brilliantly.

Richard Rodgers, who with his rich melodic and harmonic gifts I consider to be the Puccini of Broadway, was asked if he had ever been tempted to write an opera. He replied that he and Hammerstein were sorely tempted a couple of times, and he imagined Carousel in those terms. If, like their leading man Billy Bigelow they could look down from heaven and see this production, they surely would be delighted.

Nicholas Hytner’s 1993 National Theatre production reminded us what a classic show Carousel is. This production, while not forgetting the importance of the acting, focuses as one might expect on the music. It does not diminish the importance of Oscar Hammerstein’s superb book and lyrics, but it is in Richard Rodgers’ music that the true glory of this Carousel lies. It is like seeing a great painting that having been hidden in the vaults for a number of years, has been lovingly brought back to life by a master restorer.

Director Jo Davis stamped her own authority on the production. Her decision to use the prologue to show Billy’s back story was clever and I thought moving the story from 1873 to 1915 worked well. The production was well paced and had a good narrative flow. I especially enjoyed the setting of the introduction to the Act 2 ballet, transforming Heaven’s backyard into a movie set. Perhaps only in the final graduation scene, when Billy is at last able to help his family did the direction lack a certain clarity.

Gillene Herbert was entirely convincing as Julie, the strong New England girl who would survive whatever life threw at her, whilst Eric Greene as Billy showed us a tortured soul struggling with the unfamiliar emotions of love and fatherhood. They nailed the classic Bench Scene and If I Loved You completely.

Claire Boulter was a comedic delight as Carrie and Joseph Shovelton as her beau, Enoch Snow excelled too. Together with Elena Ferrrari as Nettie , whose rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone was spine tingling, the entire cast sang their roles superbly. A special word of praise too for the chorus – seldom can the big set piece numbers such as June is Busting Out All Over have sounded better.

Anthony Ward’s uncluttered but effective sets and Bruno Poet’s lighting were a delight and Kay Shepherd’s choreography, sometimes lusty, sometimes tender, enhanced the story exactly as it was supposed to do..

James Holmes conducted the Birmingham Royal Ballet with a great feeling for the music. If I have one gripe it is that Richard Rodgers composed the score with a full orchestra in mind. When Carousel opened on Broadway the pit contained thirty-nine musicians. For this production there is twenty-nine. With such wonderful voices on stage it is a shame that they could not be backed by the full orchestra that the composer had in mind.

Nonetheless, this is a wonderful production and one that will live long in my memory. I do hope that Carousel stays in Opera North’s repertoire and I hope also that other opera company’s add it to theirs.

Opera or musical? In the end it does not matter for what is certain is that Carousel is magnificent theatre.