As always, the list of shows is illuminating, featuring choices that warm the cockles of my grizzled heart, as well as the proverbial things that make you go "Hmm..."
Here are the shows that more than one student wrote about:
And here are the shows that received one "vote" each:
Annie, The Apple Tree , Assassins, Carnival, City of Angels, Dessa Rose, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Drowsy Chaperone, Grey Gardens, The Last Five Years, Little Shop of Horrors, Phantom (Maury Yeston), The Secret Garden, Smile, The Sound of Music , Sunday in the Park With George, Titanic, [title of show], Violet, The Wedding Singer, A Year With Frog and Toad
Keep in mind that the concept of "underrated" means different things to different people, and that the ultimate goal here is just to get them thinking critically about the shows they see and perform in. But I encourage my students to think about who's underrating the show: is it the general public or perhaps theater insiders? Technically there are no wrong answers, but I do tell my students that some shows are much easier to defend than others.
Case in point: Little Shop of Horrors. I haven't graded that particular paper yet, so I'm not sure what that student's justification is. But Little Shop ran more than 2,200 performances Off Broadway in the '80s and has gone on to become one of the most performed shows in schools and community theaters. Sure, the 2003 Broadway production was a bit of a bust, lasting less than a year, but my take on that is that people had already seen or done Little Shop a gajillion times and didn't feel compelled to pay top dollar to repeat the privilege.
Now, Annie is a choice that I can understand. Sure, it's one of the most successful shows of all time, but there are quite a few people who dismiss the show as sentimental fluff. To which I would respond, what's wrong with sentimental fluff? As long as it's executed in an entertaining and professional manner. I happen to be very fond of Annie, partly because I played Oliver Warbucks in my ever more distant youth, but also because it's very good at doing what it was designed to do: charm. It's certainly one of Charles Strouse's better scores, and there is much pleasure to be had in Thomas Meehan's often clever book.
Similarly, I can certainly understand why two people chose to write about Wicked. I myself have received numerous incredulous, dismissive looks when I tell people that I think it's a very well crafted show. There's a strong tendency on the part of theater aficionados to automatically disdain the popular. But Wicked is the kind of show that you can enjoy purely on an entertainment level, whereas if you really want to listen, you also just might learn something.
And then there's Aida. It's possible that these two students were responding to the fact that I listed Aida at #8 on my list of The Most Overrated Musicals of the 2000s. Here's an excerpt from my explanation as to why I included it on the list:
Call it "The Case of the Disappearing Hit." Aida ran for 1,852 performances, which is about four and a half years. And yet today the show is virtually forgotten...Despite its long and presumably profitable run, Aida has become a virtual nonentity.
It's possible that my dismissal of the show sent these students rushing to its defense, but I haven't seen hide nor hair of the show since it closed in 2004. Does it get many local productions these days? Possibly in other parts of the country the show has caught on, but I haven't noticed any local productions here in Boston. I actually sort of liked Aida, although I do find many of the musical numbers either pointless ("Like Father, Like Son") or tedious ("Another Pyramid"). But both "Easy as Life" and "Elaborate Lives" are pretty kick-ass.
As I said, the point is to get them thinking critically, and it's ultimately not about the shows that they choose but rather how well they defend their case. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a whole lot of papers to grade.