Regular readers eagerly anticipate my students' biannual lists of the "bestest" musicals ever. At the start of my musical-theater history course, I ask my students to write down their choices for the three best musicals ever, and we tally the votes on the board. This prompts a discussion of what, if anything, these shows might have in common. We then take a huge step backward and begin our tour through 150 years of musicals.
Upon reflection, I'm not entirely sure why I use the twee neologism "bestest" to describe these lists. I think it's because it's the start of a new semester, before we've had a chance to establish a set of critical criteria for evaluating shows. The hope is that, by the end of the semester, they'll have a stronger sense of what "best" might entail. (More than a little condescending, I know. I've been accused of worse.)
In any case, here's the list for this semester's class. Here are the shows that received more than one vote:
8 A Chorus Line
7 Into the Woods
6 Les Miserables
4 West Side Story
3 Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
2 The Phantom of the Opera
2 In the Heights
2 Sunday in the Park With George
2 The Drowsy Chaperone
And here are the shows that received one vote each:
Parade, Spring Awakening, The Wild Party (Lippa), Guys and Dolls, 42nd Street, Show Boat, Golden Boy, Carousel, A Little Night Music, The Fantasticks, Evita, The Secret Garden, Candide, Pippin, The Light in the Piazza, Cats, Next to Normal, Aida, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, The Threepenny Opera, Mamma Mia, Legally Blonde, Phantom (Yeston)
It's interesting that the number-one show this semester, A Chorus Line, was only chosen by one person last semester. And West Side Story, which topped last semester's list, has fallen four slots to tie with Ragtime for fifth place. This is hardly a scientific sampling, but I do find the exercise vaguely illustrative of the changing tastes of the future theater queens of America. (As I've said before, I consider "theater queens" to be an all-inclusive term, male/female, gay/straight, whatever.)
I'm pleased to see The Drowsy Chaperone, a personal favorite of mine, make its first appearance on the list. Perhaps this is in some way a reaction to the recent announcement that MTI recently made available the amateur performance rights. Maybe two of my current students are harboring not-so-secret desires to play Man in Chair. (Get in line, bitches.)
As always, there are some interesting one-off choices on the list. Jacques Brel is a relatively recent discovery for me, based on listening to the wonderful revival cast recording. Some of the English lyrics are a bit pretentious and forced, but overall the raw sentiment of the songs and the haunting music itself are (at times, strangely) compelling. I'm particularly enamored of Robert Cuccioli's heartfelt recording of "Song for Old Lovers," so moving that I saw fit to include the song on my list of The Most Beautiful Theater Songs Ever.
And then there's Golden Boy. I'm intrigued as to how this particular student even knows about the show's existence, let alone choose it as one of the best shows ever. Golden Boy ran 568 performances in the mid-sixties, mostly based on the popularity of its star, Sammy Davis, Jr. Davis reprised the role in London in 1968, but the show then proceeded to pretty much disappear. There was talk a few years back of a Broadway revival of the show starring Usher, but beyond the initial announcement I haven't heard anything further.
As for the presence of Cats, Legally Blonde, and Mamma Mia on the list, well, the goal is that by the end of the semester, the students will have a stronger sense of what these shows are lacking in the context of the overall progression of the musical form. They're certainly free to enjoy whichever shows they choose. But maybe they'll have a slightly clearer idea of why Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and My Fair Lady are that much better.