Monday, June 8, 2015

Top 5 or so Musicals

Elise Campello as Sally Bowles in Cabaret at Tacoma Little Theatre. Photo courtesy
DK Photography
 When I reviewed Cabaret at Tacoma Little Theatre for The News Tribune the thought crossed my mind that this show must be one of the greatest musicals of all time, which sent my neurotransmitters careening in my brain like balls in a pinball machine. I thought that even though I’ve never liked musicals half as much as I like drama, over the years I have come to like at least some of them a lot.
I’ve always thought that actors suddenly bursting into song is ridiculous, and I’ve always thought that the ridiculousness of musicals was epitomized by the silly, often racist, jingoistic, chauvinistic and cliché ridden big musicals of the 1950s, the so-called golden years of musical theater.
As my mind went bouncing and pinging through this pinball machine of musical theater I thought: If Cabaret is one of the greatest of all time, then what are the other greats?
Off the top of my head and without much thought, I came up my top five list.
#1 – Cabaret. Its combination of raunchy, bawdy, exhilarating music and the most tragic and horrifying of world events has got to be the most volatile thing every presented as musical entertainment. I fell in love with Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey when I saw the movie. Years later I was blown away by David Devine as the emcee in the Capital Playhouse production in my little hometown of Olympia, Washington. (I heard that Devine went to New York shortly thereafter and was in the cast of The Lion King.)  And just last week I saw Cabaret again, this time at Tacoma Little Theatre, and I fell in love with Sally Bowls and the emcee all over again (Elise Campello and Mauro Bozo).  Read my review.
#2 – Les Misérable. Granted, it taxes credulity.  Nobody short of Jesus Christ has ever been as good and self-sacrificing as Jean Valjean and nobody in the history of literature, other than Ahab in Moby Dick, has ever been as obsessed as Javert. But these larger-than-life characters are more symbolic or even allegorical than real, and the story is larger than life and heart wrenching. It’s probably the most epic story ever put to music, and the music is beyond reproach.
#3 – West Side Story. I know it might be somewhat dated, and the street gangs are like kindergarteners in comparison with today’s street gangs, but the story is timeless (how could it not be? It’s a retelling of Romeo and Juliet or, in other words, the story of two teenagers stupidly in love). West Side Story was radical for its day and the theme of conflicts between people of different ethnicities, religions or nationalities seemingly never ends. Leonard Bernstein’s music is fabulous, and depending on what company produces it, the dancing is exciting and the love story touching. Plus there’s a lot of humor thrown into the mix.
#4 – For All That. What!? You’ve never heard of this one? Of course not. It was written by Alan Bryce, the artistic director of a small regional theater south of Seattle—Centerstage in Federal Way, and has been performed only there. It may be fated for obscurity, but if there is any justice in this world it will travel to Broadway and to London’s West End. For All That is a disturbing yet hauntingly beautiful musical about young men from the Island of Lewis off the coast of Scotland who go off to fight in World War I, and about the women they leave behind. It is one of the more stunning musicals I have ever seen.
The cast of For All That at Centerstage. Courtesy Centerstage.
#5 – The Last Session. Yes, this may be another one you’ve never heard of. It was a hit Off Broadway with other shows including Laguna Beach, CA and a London run. It has a cult following, but it never made it to the Great White Way, so relatively few people have had the opportunity to see it. Written by Steve Schalchlin at a time when he was dying of AIDS but before some of the lifesaving drugs became available, it is the highly autobiographical story of his struggle with this devastating illness set to music. Schalchlin’s partner Jim Brochu, who wrote the book, said it is the funniest story about suicide ever written.
Brief and over simplified synopsis: Gideon, a once popular gospel music star, is dying. He invites his old backup singers to join him in a recording studio to record one last album before he commits suicide, which, of course, they don’t know he’s going to do. By a strange twist of fate (actually devious betrayal), a young evangelical Christian who has long admired Gideon shows up as a substitute for the singer who couldn’t make it, and a theological war breaks out. The Last Session has been favorably compared to Rent. Similar themes but more intimate and focused.
That’s five already, and I can think of many more that are worthy of equal credit—and what order they should come in is a coin-toss. Just a few that come to mind immediately are Chicago, Rent, and Ragtime; anything with music by Kander and Ebb and anything Bob Fosse had anything to do with. What are your favorites?

1 comment:

Bev Sykes said...

I'll have to check out that 5th one. Sounds interesting.