10. Xanadu: I loves me some Xanadu. I saw the show three times on Broadway, and each time was a delight. (Read my review, my re-review, and my re-re-review.) Some found the show's appeal limited, or even nonexistent. One joke in the show refers to itself as children's theater for 40-year-old gay men. Many people seemed to agree, and failed to find the any charm in the show. Frankly, I pity those people. Xanadu wore its satiric heart on its sleeve, to be sure, and absolutely nothing in the show was meant to be taken seriously. It wasn't just another jukebox musical; it was a satire of jukebox musicals. Librettist Douglas Carter Beane took one of the worst movies of all time and turned it into a night of hilarity and frivolity. That's no small feat, and I for one can't wait to catch the show again as the national tour wends its way to Providence, R.I.
9. A Man of No Importance: No list of the best musicals of the past decade would be complete without the presence of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. In my humble opinion, Flaherty and Ahrens are the most talented writing pair we currently have in musical theater. At their best, we get Ragtime and Once on This Island. But even when they misfire, we still get My Favorite Year or The Glorious Ones. A Man of No Importance may turn out to be their best show. There's a seriousness of intent and a quiet dignity than in many respects surpasses those of their other shows. And the show certainly doesn't skimp on entertainment or comedy. But, most important, it reflects the desire that Flaherty once told me that he and Ahrens have for all their shows: to give voice to the underrepresented and to bring about social change. And with the able assistance of their Ragtime librettist, Terrence McNally, Flaherty and Ahrens achieve those goals with A Man of No Importance, and without making the show strident or preachy. That's certainly no mean feat.
8. Grey Gardens: The 2006-2007 Broadway season gave rise to two very different musicals, with nonetheless similar development arcs. Both Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens began their professional lives Off-Broadway at non-profit theaters: Atlantic Theatre Company and Playwrights Horizons, respectively. But, other than the fact that they are both musicals, the similarity really ends there. And, as is so often the case when there are two strong shows in a given season, theater aficionados tend to form camps, championing their favorite, to the dismissive exclusion of the other. I know that many of my readers are in the Spring Awakening camp. I am not. Both shows are worthy in their own ways, and each has its flaws, but for me Grey Gardens was significantly more powerful and better crafted. Many took issue with the first act of Grey Gardens, but I saw it as an intentional homage to the typical musicals of the time period. And the second act is simply devastating. Some people implied that Grey Gardens was for the fogies while Spring Awakening appealed to more youthful theatergoers. If that's true, I'll gladly accede to fogy-dom.
7. The Drowsy Chaperone: Quite a few recent shows have made affectionate fun of musical theater, including Urinetown, Xanadu, and Bat Boy, all of which appear elsewhere on this list. But The Drowsy Chaperone holds a special place in my heart, no doubt because I identified so strongly with "Man in Chair," played with great warmth and minor neurosis by co-librettist Bob Martin. The conceit of the show is that Man in Chair puts on one of his favorite cast records -- yes, records -- and the show comes to life around him, turning his dreary New York City basement apartment into a frothy 1920s musical comedy. The show was nothing but fun, and that's exactly what I had each of the three times I've seen the show: fun. Some of the songs are a bit lame, perhaps intentionally so. But the overall feel of the show was infectious, and the talented original cast, including Sutton Foster, Georgia Engel, Edward Hibbert, Beth Leavel, and Danny Burstein. was an unmitigated pleasure to watch. I dearly hope one day to actually play Man in Chair. And I don't care who I have to step over to get the part. (Hear that, Ricky?)
6. Bat Boy: Fans of musical theater have a lot to thank Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman for. These men single-handedly (well, double-handedly) created an entirely new sub-genre of musical theater with their wonderful Little Shop of Horrors. That genre: The Campy Off-Broadway Bloodbath. Granted, it took almost two decades for the genre to take off, but once it did we got a profusion of small shows with camp factors of 11 and body counts higher than that of Hamlet. Some of these shows were quite good (cf. Urinetown, Reefer Madness). Others, well, not so much. (cf. The Toxic Avenger, Evil Dead). Among the best was Bat Boy, which is easily one of the funniest shows I've ever seen, at least in its original Off Broadway production. The show closed prematurely in the aftermath of 9/11, but it has since gone on to become a staple in regional theater. It couldn't happen to a nicer half-boy/half-rodent.
5. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: Easily my sentimental favorite of the decade, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an absolute joy. I think a lot of us theater nerds saw ourselves in these misfit kids and their outside-the-mainstream passion for spelling. And William Finn created one of his best scores for the show, one full of humor, heartbreak and warmth. I thought at first I might be a bit biased: when I saw the show at the Second Stage, I was one of the onstage audience member spellers, and I was the last one eliminated, a fact of which I remain quite proud. (Read my original post here.) But I've since seen the show on tour and at its birthplace, the Barrington Stage, and I still had a ball even when I wasn't on stage. The show seems poised for a long and healthy afterlife, and I hope someday to play Vice Principal Douglas Panch. And I don't care who I have to step over to get the part. (Hear that, Ricky?)
4. The Light in the Piazza: I have a confession: I didn't really like The Light in the Piazza the first time I saw it. I guess I wasn't smelling what composer/lyricist Adam Guettel and librettist Craig Lucas were cooking, at least not at first. The show is often quiet and slow, and the music can be difficult to take in on a first hearing. Thankfully, The Light in the Piazza received a TV broadcast shortly before it closed, and I've since had the chance to watch the video again and again, each time finding more to appreciate and more to fall in love with. Likewise, repeated hearings of the score revealed an emotional richness and subtlety that few musicals strive for, let alone achieve. I greatly look forward to seeing what Guettel comes up with next, now that The Princess Bride appears to be a goner. Let's hope it's not another ten-year gap, as we had between Floyd Collins and Piazza.
3. Avenue Q: So much more than just a smart and funny new musical, Avenue Q represented something of an economic watershed. The show came seemingly out of nowhere, snatched the Tony for best musical from the hands of Wicked, and proved that small shows could make a profit on Broadway. Conventional wisdom held that, in order to make money, musicals needed to be huge, with elaborate sets and lots of theatrical pyrotechnics. Wrong. If it weren't for Avenue Q, we might not have seen many of the musicals on this list make it to Broadway, including Spelling Bee, Xanadu, and The Drowsy Chaperone. And now that Avenue Q has made the almost unprecedented move from Broadway to Off Broadway, the show appears to have opened yet another...well, avenue...for smaller shows to follow. Beyond that, it's also a very good show, full of wit, wisdom, and an entrancingly tuneful score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx. Even if it hadn't rewritten the rules, Avenue Q would still have made this list for the sheer quality of the writing.
2. Adding Machine: I had a really hard time deciding which show to place first on this list, but ultimately I had to make a decision. A tie would have been too annoying, and a bit lazy. But I could just as easily have justified putting Adding Machine first. I was simply blown away by this show. It wasn't just Joshua Schmidt's dynamic and eclectic score, or his and Jason Loewith's faithful adaptation of Elmer Rice's original play. It was also David Cromer's brave, uncompromising direction. The show starts off as a tale of the faceless everyman, but it quickly veers into far more subversive and satisfying territory. I greatly look forward to seeing the show again when Boston's Speakeasy Stage produces it this spring. If you're in the Boston area, I urge you to check it out. If not, I highly recommend the cast recording. This is a show to be experienced and savored. Truly one for the ages.
1. Urinetown: An unlikely masterpiece. Rarely have I experienced a musical that was so cohesive, so united in its intent, so solid in its execution as Urinetown. Mark Hollmann's score is a direct homage to Kurt Weill, and the show itself is partly a re-imagining of Marc Blitzstein's seminal The Cradle Will Rock. But Urinetown is so much more than that. It's also a shrewd satire of theater itself, and musical theater in particular, and that's really the level upon which the show truly shines. The book by Greg Kotis basically asks "What is the worst possible idea for a musical?" And the answer that it provides is nothing less than brilliant, and frequently hilarious to boot. In the original production, director John Rando kept all the actors on the same satiric page, and choreographer John Carrafa made comic reference to everyone from Bob Fosse to Gower Champion. The show has really caught on in the provinces, a fact that I find both gratifying and a bit surprising. Thankfully there appears to be room in the hearts and minds of the theater-going public for more than just Andrew Lloyd Webber and Mamma Mia.
Honorable mention: [title of show]: I couldn't finish up this list without making mention of [title of show]. I genuinely considered placing it somewhere on this list, but I decided that I needed to separate my affection for the show from an objective view of its inherent quality. I had a marvelous time both times I saw [title of show] on Broadway. I inadvertently bought a ticket to the show's first Broadway preview, an experience that was alternately thrilling and annoying: thrilling because of the sheer energy that permeated the proceedings, but annoying because of the exaggerated ovations and disproportionate response that each number, and seemingly every line, received from the [tos]-ser faithful. When I went back the next day, the show received a more moderated and realistic response, and while I once again genuinely enjoyed myself, I had to question whether the show would appeal to the general public. And, as it turns out, [title of show] wasn't able to cross over and attract a mainstream audience. I remain an ardent fan of Hunter Bell's sweet and witty book. But I also remain unimpressed by Jeff Bowen's music and lyrics. The music is fine for what it is, if somewhat derivative, but the lyrics are full of bad scansion ("car-RIE", "mar-RY"), filler lines ("And if they like us, will they mic us, me and you?"), and bland repetition ("Filling out the form, filling out the form...", "Festival medley, festival medley..."). I have great affection for [title of show], mostly because of its unapologetic and unbridled love of musical theater. But, as for being a genuinely well-crafted show, I'm afraid that it comes up just a little short.