As regular readers -- and, indeed, my past students -- will recall, every semester I start my first Boston Conservatory class by asking my students to write down the three best musicals of all time. We then tally the votes on the board, and use the list to spark a discussion of what characteristics, if any, these shows might share. This helps establish one of the themes of my course: what defines a quality musical? At the end of the course, we repeat the exercise, to see how things may have changed.
Well, I had my first class last week, and here's this semester's list of the best musicals ever, along with the number of votes that particular show received:
15 Les Misérables
7 Sweeney Todd
4 A Chorus Line
3 Into the Woods
3 West Side Story
2 42nd Street
2 Little Shop of Horrors
2 Spring Awakening
2 Sunday in the Park With George
The following shows received one vote each: Once on This Island, Miss Saigon, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Legally Blonde, Bernarda Alba, Hairspray, Cinderella, A Class Act, Floyd Collins, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Kismet, Kiss Me Kate, Passion, La Cage aux Folles, Hello Dolly, Grey Gardens, The Light in the Piazza, Fame, The Producers, The Phantom of the Opera, Reefer Madness, Man of La Mancha, The Wild Party (Lippa), A New Brain, In the Heights, Billy Elliot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Chess, Jekyll & Hyde, Carousel, Jersey Boys, Assassins, A Little Night Music.
There's much more variability in the list than in recent years. This is probably because, this year, rather than have students announce their choices, I asked them to write them down and pass in the papers. In previous years, students changed their choices based on what other people said, so I think this year's list is a more accurate reflection of what the students instinctively like.
So, is Les Misérables really the best musical ever? Well, it's certainly the best of the big British blockbusters, although that's not really saying much. I rank Les Miz #53 on my list of the 100 Best Musicals of All Time. It's an enjoyable show, if a trifle long, and it's unquestionably very popular. Also, it's interesting to note that three of the shows that the students list in their top 15 aren't even in my top 100: Spring Awakening, Parade, and Hair, although I list all three on my list of the 100 Next-Best Musicals. I am considering moving Hair up to my top 100 based on seeing the recent Public Theater production in Central Park.
Every year, it seems, Jekyll & Hyde rears its ugly, derivative head. In the past, I've let it slide, hoping that by the end of the course students will come to recognize why it's an unmitigated pile of donkey dung. But last year, I added a unit at the end of the course in which I address why bad shows are bad, specifically focusing on Jekyll & Hyde, Victor/Victoria, and Carrie. In the end, of course, it's not really about what I think, but I do want students to start thinking more critically about exactly why they enjoy certain shows, and why others suck monkey wang.
But this year, the student who voted for Jekyll & Hyde was not only unapologetic, he also openly ridiculed me for loving Grey Gardens. Let me repeat that: someone who thinks that Jekyll & Hyde is one of the best musicals ever derided my affection for Grey Gardens. Out loud. In front of the rest of the class. Without irony.
I guess I have my work cut out for me.