As my students discover every semester, the idea of a musical being "overrated" or "underrated" is ultimately subjective. Some people consider Wicked overrated. I don't. I find the show extremely entertaining, even if my open admission lessens my worth in the eyes of certain theater snobs. Others might consider [title of show] to be underrated. Again, not me. I'm very fond of the show, and I'm glad it played Broadway, if only to give the story a fitting coda. But I think it played about as long as it was ever going to, poor economy or no. The appeal of the show turned out to be fairly limited, but I'm sure it will find success in regional productions.
For me, calling a musical "underrated" means that the show had a lot more going for it than its limited run would imply. Perhaps there were some great songs amid a relatively weak book. Or a compelling story surrounding a lackluster score. Whatever the combo, the following shows IMHO didn't get a fair shake, and are certainly worth your attention, if they haven't already popped up on your radar.
The Most Underrated Musicals of the 2000s10. Curtains: It seemed as though the only reason most people went to see Curtains was to see David Hyde Pierce. And he was certainly very good, winning a well-deserved Tony Award, after being incomprehensibly passed over for a nomination for his hilarious turn in Spamalot. But Curtains was so much more than a star show. The score, while not exactly top-drawer Kander and Ebb, was moderately memorable. And Rupert Holmes' book was engaging, and genuinely kept me guessing until the final revelation. Plus, it featured a cast of Broadway's absolute best, including Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba, Edward Hibbert, and Jason Danieley. Sure, it was old-fashioned. But every now and then, old-fashioned can be just what the doctor ordered.
9. High Fidelity: When I saw High Fidelity during its Boston tryout, I knew it was in trouble. But I don't think the problem was the material. The score, with lyrics by Amanda Green and music by Tom Kitt, is actually quite solid, with a number of tuneful and humorous numbers. And David Lindsay-Abaire's book, based on the Nick Hornby novel, is fairly strong, although it certainly could have used a humor transfusion. I blame director Walter Bobbie for not having a clue as to how to form these promising parts into an entertaining whole. Bobbie seems to be coasting on his Chicago success, but his directing career since (Footloose, Sweet Charity, White Christmas, etc.) hasn't lived up to that promise. If High Fidelity had had a stronger director, one with more experience at shaping a show under development, the results might have been a lot more impressive.
8. The Little Mermaid: People spew vitriol over The Little Mermaid, as if it were some deliberate attempt on Disney's part to destroy Broadway. No, that's Mary Poppins. The Little Mermaid is just a lovely story with a beautiful score that somehow got lost amid the sparkle and pomp of the Broadway production. If Disney had simply trusted the story, and not felt the need to fill the stage with enough glitz and mechanics to populate three shows, there might have been more critical affection for The Little Mermaid. Sure, many of the new songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater are pointless ("One Step Closer") or redundant ("The World Above," AKA "Part of Your World, The Intro"). But "I Want the Good Times Back" is a show-stopping charmer, evoking the bite and charm of the late Howard Ashman at his best. I don't think we've seen the last of The Little Mermaid, as there is certain to be a national tour. And experience has taught Disney that even its poorest efforts can have a successful life overseas. (cf. the successful production of Tarzan in Holland.)
7. The Story of My Life: I took a day trip down to the Goodspeed late last year to catch one of the final pre-Broadway performances of The Story of My Life. Despite an over-dependence on cultural cliches (The "butterfly effect," snow angels, "It's a Wonderful Life," The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, etc.) the show has a delightful score that revealed composer/lyricist Neil Bartram as a very promising new voice. Fortunately, the producers had the foresight to close the Broadway production after only four performances to preserve their financial resources to create a cast recording, thus ensuring that the show would have an afterlife. Perhaps the show's gee-whiz tone was a bit much for New York audiences, but there are undoubtedly many far less cynical crowds out there that will respond deeply to this perhaps overly earnest but nonetheless heartfelt show.
6. Cry-Baby: I know. WTF? I fully expect this to be the most controversial of my choices for this list. But I sort of enjoyed Cry-Baby. I realize that I am in a small minority here, and I'm certainly not saying that it's a great show. But it's also not the ignominious failure that its 68 performances would suggest. Cry-Baby certainly doesn't compare very favorably with Hairspray, a show with which it shared much of its production team as well as its John-Waters-movie inspiration. Perhaps Cry-Baby would have been better with a Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman score, but the songs by Broadway neophytes David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger were more than serviceable, and the book by Broadway vets Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan is focused and funny. The show wasn't recorded, but I'm told there's movement afoot to bring the touring cast into a recording booth. If that happens, the show may live on in the provinces. If not, it's a goner.
5. Reefer Madness: This show was a pleasant surprise for me. I bought the Reefer Madness CD during one of my I'll-buy-anything phases, but didn't listen to it for the longest time. Then, I happened to hear "Romeo and Juliet" somewhere, and decided I needed to hear the rest of the score. I wasn't disappointed. The score is full of well-crafted and memorable numbers, from "The Stuff" to "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy." I saw the show during its brief Off-Broadway run, and on stage the joke gets old pretty fast. I was a bit surprised when Showtime announced it was producing a film version of the show; I can think of dozens of other shows that I'd sooner see on film. But I bought the DVD, and again, the show loses momentum considerably. But if you take Reefer Madness in installments, there's much to enjoy.
4. The Wedding Singer: When I first saw The Wedding Singer, I was unimpressed. Here was yet another entrant in the movie-into-musical genre, and seemingly not a very inspired one at that. The choreography was overly exuberant, as if Rob Ashford were trying to make up for a lack of substance with sheer energy. But the more I listened to the score, the more enamored of the show I have became. And, frankly, the more mediocre movie-to-musical adaptations have hit Broadway (Legally Blonde, 9 to 5), the better The Wedding Singer has come to look by comparison. The show has a very sweet central story, and a lot of genuinely tuneful ("Someday"), clever ("A Note From Linda"), and rousing ("Saturday Night in the City") numbers along the way.
3. Amour: I was one of the very few people who saw Amour during its abbreviated Broadway run. (17 performances, 2002) Even though it played the Music Box, one of Broadway's smaller houses, I was left with the feeling that this was a show that belonged in a much more intimate space. The elaborate physical production, inspired by the paintings of Rene Magritte, ironically served to emphasize that Amour would have worked much better in a more modest presentation. Lost in the shuffle were Michel Legrand's wonderfully tuneful score and two understated performances by Melissa Errico and Malcolm Gets. Fortunately, we have the charming Amour cast recording to savor. The translated English lyrics by Jeremy Sams can get a bit clunky at times, but the show remains a quiet, bittersweet little marvel.
2. 13: Another heart-breaker. As a show, 13 seemed to have so much going for it, particularly composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, who, after numerous respected but financially disappointing shows, seemed poised to score his first crossover hit. When I saw the show at the Goodspeed, I honestly thought that, with a few changes, the show would become a crowd-pleasing hit. How wrong I was. The show limped through 103 performances last fall, only to succumb to the annual January Broadway chill. But here's a show that seems a natural for regional and school productions. In anticipation of just such a likelihood, the show has given rise to not one but two cast recordings, the second recently released with a few changes in song running order, a new song, and an extra CD with karaoke tracks and cut numbers. Coming soon to a junior high or church basement near you: 13 - the Karaoke Musical?
1. Dessa Rose: A nearly forgotten gem of a show. I'm a huge fan of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and have a deep abiding affection for nearly all of their shows. (Although I can't quite warm up to Lucky Stiff.) Dessa Rose is a powerful exploration of the relationship between two very strong women, played masterfully by LaChanze and Rachel York, one a runaway slave and the other the woman who almost accidentally becomes an abolitionist. In their score, Flaherty and Ahrens reflect their expertise at crafting sweeping opening numbers ("We Are Descended") as well as extended character explorations ("Twelve Children"). If you're not already familiar with this moving and heartfelt show, I strongly recommend picking up a copy of the Dessa Rose CD. You're in for a real treat.