Dee Discusses: Top 10 Favorite Stage Musicals

Posted: December 27, 2014 by Dee in Dee, General Media, Musicals, Top 10
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(Not actually in my top ten, just love this image.)

I’m a musical fanatic. On the majority people know this, since I could talk all day about them, and my iPod is basically 75% musical theater. My father started me at a young age, bringing me to local theater, but eventually we upgraded to New York City shows whenever we’d visit. I saw Cats probably six times, although it’s not on this list, because as an adult I was little ehhhhh about it. Every musical on this list I have seen on the stage, some of them more than once, and I have the soundtracks. I am also going to do a musical movie top 10, and none of them carry over on purpose. There’s something about physically being in a theater that makes it more epic. Everything is live, so if the music is good, it’s incredible. It surrounds these giant theaters with powerful voices, and emotional attachments. There’s this grand scale energy of musicals, even the ones that are tamer. I know people who hate musicals, and I can’t really understand why, but that’s because I’ve always loved them. I like the energy and the storytelling device the music can add to the production.

Here are my top 10 favorite stage musicals. They are actually not ranked. I can’t rank them, I love too many of them an equal amount. Instead I’ll talk about why I love each one in particular. Spoilers for all the stories, I guess? Does anyone care about being spoiled by these? Spoiler warning!

Into the Woods

Since I’m going to see the movie soon, I’m going to start there. Into the Woods has the brilliant Stephen Sondheim behind the lyrics and music, so of course I was going to like it. He’s a genius. I love fairy tales, especially Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and I think people get misled that the play is going to be happy. Except this is a “just kidding about the happily ever after!” type of story. Old fables and stories often didn’t turn out happy, and this play fully embraces that. It is about a bunch of famous characters: Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, the evil Witch, with a few others like the Baker and the Baker’s Wife. They all have wishes they want fulfilled, but soon realize that their simple wishes were more complicated than they realized, and didn’t give them the satisfaction they hoped for. This is also a play about parents and children, and the moral at the end really does nod to that. This is a play that doesn’t have much dialogue at all, it’s mostly all music, and that’s where it shines. Even the conversations are generally sung, or have a rhyme to them. The idea is that once people go into the woods, anything can happen, and it can bring out the worst in them. Into the Woods is dramatic, but it’s also funny, in a dark type of way. I love dark, so Act 2 is delicious dessert to me. I love most of the music in this, so it’s difficult to pick one, but “Agony” does usually top my list. It’s the humor of it; the two princes complain at each other about how they love these two women but can’t have them. It’s the reprise that really makes this song, because by then they have the women, but they’re already bored and want the challenge of a new one. It shows how shallow their love really was. I laugh through both versions.

Wicked

I have to admit I was very skeptical of this play. I really like the book, especially in all its dark glory. So I went ‘oh man did they Disney this up?’ And they definitely did. It’s light hearted and all heart warming. I sighed. I think what won me over was the music, but then some of the set pieces are genuinely gorgeous. They didn’t keep much of the book in there. Or any of it. Outside of “hey what if Glinda and the Witch went to school together?” I enjoyed it all the same. The music is epic. Of course Idina Menzel really pushed that up a few notches with her belting voice, but everyone who has been on the stage since has been just as powerful. Personally I identify a lot with Elphaba, and I think anyone who grew up a little odd and out of place would feel that way. I think the way they develop Glinda is exceptional too. She’s so annoying, but charming in a way too. It’s a fine line to walk for the actress, between having you want to wring her neck sometimes, and then hug her. The Fiyero storyline is okay, but I think everyone really remembers the friendship between the two women. My favorite song is “No Good Deed.” There’s something very bitter and introspective about that song, about whether good intentions are partly selfish because people always want something out of it, even if they’re attempting to be selfless. Overall I enjoy the play and I encourage everyone to see it since it’s still on Broadway. I can’t wait until they do a movie for this … why haven’t they already?

Man of La Mancha

This is the first play I ever went to! In retrospect my parents probably shouldn’t have brought me to a play about prostitutes and mental illness, but we did things a little differently in my house. It was many years before I actually read Don Quixote, and I love the book just as much as the play. There is something about the spirit of this story that makes it inspirational, I’m not sure how to explain it. A lot of people are fond of “The Impossible Dream,” and so am I. I think everyone has their impossible dream, and no one can argue that Don Quixote’s desire to be a better person is charming. I really like the trope of the play within a play, and that there are two actual stories going on here. Don Quixote is convinced he’s a knight in the old school sense, out to right wrongs and fight giants. In reality he’s a delusional old man, but his strong belief and positivity leads the people around him to buy into the spirit. He makes a world-weary prostitute, Aldonza, into his perfect lady Dulcinea, and his squire Sancho follows him, feeding into his delusions. Meanwhile his niece and the people back home are trying to bring him out of his madness. On paper it’s a strange play, to want this old man to keep living in a dream world, but at the same time he’s just so enthusiastic it’s hard not to like him better as Quixote. It’s a dark play in a lot of ways, with rape and violence, so the delusion is definitely the better option of the two. I still enjoy the music. My favorite song is “Aldonza,” because when it’s well performed, it’s a really agonizing and angry song. The movie’s version was bland in my opinion, but the performance in most stage plays is a lot stronger.

Rent

I’ve written about Rent before. Many times. This was a formative play for me. Now looking back on it I’m a lot less patient for the play, and I understand the criticisms about the show. On the other hand, I absolutely love it, and I will never stop. It’s a tragedy, and I wouldn’t call the ending that uplifting, since you know the majority of them are dead soon no matter what. It doesn’t shy away from addressing that grief. The play is about a group of writers and musicians living in New York City, a big portion of them HIV positive. They’re angry that a former roommate has married up and “sold out,” now insisting they pay rent although he told them they were covered before. They’re poor and trying to find love in a skeptical world. What stands out to me about the play, outside of handling fear well, is the strength of friendship. While they all fight and break up, they still remain connected to each other by mutual affection and understanding. The music for this show is addictive and wonderful, no matter how many times I listen to it. My favorite song was listed as “Seasons of Love” in the review, and I’m standing by it. People are really sick of that song now because of how popular it was, but I love that it’s the opening of the play. It sets the stage and the mood. No regrets about loving Rent.

The Phantom of the Opera

This is another play that I share with my father, although my sister also is a big fan. We would listen to it in the car, and we had certain points of the songs when we’d bang on the wheel or dash in unison. So this is more of a nostalgic feeling than anything else. The music in this show is epic, and it’s supposed to be. It’s opera, and on the stage there’s also gorgeous costumes and set pieces. The Phantom is a ghost of the opera house, a man who stays in the shadows but watches all of the shows. He was an amazing musician born disfigured and tormented by a traveling freak show where he was held captive. Now he obsessed over the productions, and falls in love with the upcoming opera star Christine Daae. He secretly coached Christine to become a better singer, and they have a connection with their love of music. However, Christine is already in love with Raoul, and the love triangle gets fairly violent. The Phantom’s anger and violence escalates to the point he threatens to kill Raoul, but he’ll let the man live if Christine stays with him forever. Instead she shows him kindness and compassion, and he lets her go. The audience is supposed to pity the Phantom, and it’s difficult not to, he clearly has gone through a lot of pain and torture that warped his mind. At the same time, he doesn’t have a redemptive arc, not really. He’s too far gone in his madness and there’s no turning back. I can’t say it’s a show that really speaks to me anymore, I find Raoul in particular a really bland character, and the first half is much better than the second in my opinion. My favorite song is “Music of the Night.” It’s one of my all-time favorite musical songs, I think because it’s strong but also very gentle in parts. It’s meant to enchant Christine, and enchant the audience too, and it works on me.

Once

I reviewed this play earlier in the year, and it was the first time I saw it. I’ve become obsessed since. Obviously, considering it hit my top ten almost immediately. Without a doubt this was one of the best musical experiences I’ve had, in terms of the actual music side. They all play their own instruments on stage, and it’s set in a pub that you can actually go up to and get drinks from. Amazing. The music is extremely powerful because they’re just wailing on their instruments when they get into a scene. All of them are incredibly talented, and the play itself is about music. About how through music the heart is revealed, and the main character Guy is inspired by a stranger to fight for his work again. And not to let go of the love he lost not long before. Guy and Girl establish a connection of their own, but they are too tied to the past and need to resolve that, saying goodbye to each other by the end. But irrevocably changed by the other. I honestly can’t say enough good things about this play. I wish I could see it again immediately. I’ll have to live with the soundtrack instead. My favorite song of the play is “Leave,” although I put the video of “Gold” from the Tony Awards above, because I think it has the best example of what it’s like to watch live.

Next to Normal

I’m a little sad this show didn’t last as long as I felt like it should. I watched it pretty early on in its run, with all the original cast still in it. It did get nominated for several Tony Awards when it came out, but then it sort of slipped out of the spotlight. It’s a shame because the play really spoke to me. C’est la vie. Next to Normal is about a dysfunctional family trying to get through their life, but also hiding how bad things really are for them from the outside world. The father Dan is in denial, the daughter Natalie is fuming with barely contained rage, and the mother Diana suffers from bipolar disorder with delusional hallucinations. Her hallucination is a secret to the audience at first, we believe her son Gabriel is a real character, but it is revealed that he died when he was a little boy. What results is a painful tale about mental illness, medical drugs and the after effects, and the broken home that came from it. I can’t say I really agree with the end, at least in terms of Diana not thinking drugs are going to help her, but space from the others seemed like a good thing to do. Meanwhile Dan’s last minute connection to his dead son legitimately made my heart hurt. Youtube has the whole play on it, so if you want to check it out, you can. I embedded it above. My favorite song is “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” because man is that melody gorgeous and their voices sound so good together.

Gypsy

When I first saw this play, I had no idea who Gypsy Rose Lee was, so I didn’t know where the story was going. That made it more fun for me, I think, because when the stripping came up I went what! Followed by a lot of laughter at the gimmick she came up with, that made her a star. This play is famous for the aggressive stage mom Rose, the woman who became the stereotype of all parents who wanted to be a star and failed, so they force their children into the same box. She believes her daughter Baby June will be a star, but she runs off with a boy, so she only has her daughter Louise left. Louise is more of a tomboy and has none of June’s natural grace, but Rose is determined. Eventually they fall on bad times and she agrees to let her daughter be in a strip show. Louise does it to please her mother, but ends up finding power and fame by teasing the audience. She taunts them with a song and only drops a glove. This turns her into a sensation where she does shows where she only hints at nudity but never gives them what they want, making her a famous burlesque entertainer. The play ends with Louise and Rose falling out, and Rose realizing she did all of it for herself. This is also written by Sondheim, the music at least, and he’s famous for his bleak outcomes. It’s probably why I like him. The characters are flawed but also relatable in a lot of ways. I wouldn’t say the music is a strong part of the play, but the character arcs and performances are usually top notch. I saw it with Bernadette Peters so that was basically the best possibility. My favorite song is “Rose’s Turn” as she slowly has a mental breakdown and lays all of her issues on the stage.

Les Miserables

I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie, to be honest. While I respect all of the actors singing live, Neil Patrick Harris pointed out that stage performers do that every single night during shows. And much better. I do wish they had a whole cast of actors with better singing chops, since the acting was solid, but the music slightly less so. Maybe it’s just because the musical itself is so powerful, and the music is integral to that intensity. They have but a simple barricade in the middle of the stage and a lot takes place on it, so they don’t need many bells and whistles to get attention. I’ve also read the book, and it’s gigantic, so condensing it into this play is pretty impressive. I’ve seen the play multiple times and the music has a talent for choking me up immediately after “Look Down” starts. It’s emotional, since there is no hope for happiness here, most everyone dies and it’s a train wreck. The show has a very bleak outlook for life and doesn’t compromise on that. Even if Cosette and Marius survive, what really do they survive into? It’s nothing good, that’s for sure. Jean Valjean is such a tragic figure, this honorable thief who has no good option to live his life by. My only complaint is that we don’t get a lot of time with all the other characters to know a huge amount about their motivations. We get hints with Javert, about him being born in a prison and his mindless quest for justice isn’t as mindless as it seems. A good amount of the other characters are a little on the bland side, unfortunately, but it would have to be 10 hours to get in the rest. My favorite song is the last “Do You Hear The People Sing.” I’m not going to lie, everyone coming together for the last song gets me teary eyed.

Avenue Q

I think this play came to mind because of the shock value. I saw it knowing nothing about it. I saw there were puppets and went whaaaat, but it got such rave reviews. Right from the beginning when the muppets started spouting our swear and inappropriate things, I burst out laughing. I think that’s why it got the fame, because no one would have seen it coming, and beyond that, it’s still quite funny. The characters are all ridiculous and yet easy to be affectionate toward. The first time I watched it, I was in my least year at college, so the idea of leaving college and having no idea what to do after was very close to my heart. It’s an irreverent story that doesn’t take itself seriously, although occasionally does bigger comments about the world. It’s cynical, but not to the point of pessimism. It’s easy to laugh away the performances themselves, but it is actually impressive what they manage. They control the puppets on stage and sing the parts, and that must take some amazing multi-tasking skills. And the puppets are rather expressive, I found myself genuinely looking at the puppets when they talked instead of the actors. While some of the songs make me side eye now, I do generally enjoy listening to the soundtrack, and I appreciate what they accomplished. Plus, it’s freaking funny. Puppets having sex, guys. That doesn’t stop being funny. My favorite song is actually “Fantasies Come True.” It’s the first time the play starts sounding a little sincere, and it is rather tragic to see two people who care about the other person much, much more are about to get their hearts squashed.  It’s realistic, but also, sad. Plus it’s easy to get distracted by the silliness to miss how beautiful the voices really are, so this is a good showcase for the two mains.

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Comments
  1. Datalaughing says:

    I like musical theater, but I haven’t had the opportunity to see a lot of good shows. I mean seeing a college production of Guys and Dolls or Young Frankenstein is a completely different experience from seeing a Broadway show put on by pros. I never lived in New York 😛

    I did, however, just buy tickets to see The Book of Mormon when it comes near here on its national tour. Taking my girlfriend for her birthday. But she doesn’t know that yet. Shh, secret.

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    • Dee says:

      College productions are still fun IMO. I saw plenty of local theater stuff and enjoyed them. They stick to the play, so I’d say it still counts. 😉 Sure it’s bigger and better on Broadway, but the experience is still fun. And you’ll love it. I saw the current tour not too long ago. I love the South Park guys, you can tell how much fun they had.

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  2. […] Dee Discusses: Top 10 Favorite Stage Musicals […]

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