Okay...look. I’m sorry to have disappointed all six people who read my “list” last time. That was a joke. This list is serious business this time.
Now, I’m going to stress that when I say “top ten,” I mean musicals that are special to me on a personal level for whatever reason. This is not meant to be an objective list; I’m sure there may even be a couple musicals on here that people will scratch their heads at. But nonetheless, here is my top ten favorite musicals among the large supply musical theatre has to offer!
10. Jekyll & Hyde
I’ll be the first to admit that this musical isn’t...great. In fact, I’d even venture to say that I understand why there are people who hate it so much. The story is all over the place. The script is cheesy. The score is pedestrian at best. And you know what? I love every second of it! I love it so much that I actually bought the DVD of the original Broadway production, the one that was recorded with David Hasselhoff in the title role. (Bless his heart… He tried.) If you want something that’s the closest to what Jekyll & Hyde is meant to be, that being a darker, gothic cautionary tale, I’d highly suggest the 1994 concept album with Anthony Warlow. It’s pure magic.
9. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Where Jesus Christ Superstar takes the problematic approach of taking an important Biblical story and turning it on its head, Joseph goes in the complete opposite direction by keeping charmfully faithful to its religious source material. The story itself sticks nearly page-by-page to the Bible’s recording of the Joseph tale in Genesis with barely any deviations for creative or narrative reasons. And honestly, in a world where many Biblical adaptations make large changes to better “fit” the chosen medium of storytelling, this kind of approach can be refreshing every once in a while. This is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s earlier works, and at times, it shows; the score is simple enough to pass as a children’s Sunday school special, yet enjoyable enough for adults to pop in one of the several cast recordings every once in a while. (Try listening to “Go, Go, Go Joseph” and not getting it stuck in your head. Go on, I dare you.) All in all, Joseph is a fun little show that truly remains “ahead of its time.”
8. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812
Yes, I’ll readily admit that I’m in the “Great Comet deserved the Best Musical Tony!” camp. How can I not be? This is a weird musical that perfectly blends unconventional theatre with the foreign charm that some of my favorite European musicals possess. It’s truly a gift to have received this kind of show in the United States. I particularly enjoyed how, despite the bizarrely modern tone and sound that the score and Broadway production took, the audience, forever immersed in a giant, vodka-induced party, was always under the impression that the story takes place in 1800’s Russia. It was a romping good time, and I’ll forever be sad that the Broadway production reached the brutal end that it did. Is it time for a revival yet, Mr. Malloy?
This show holds a special place in my heart, and had you asked me back in junior high, I would have easily placed it at the top of my list. Wicked was the first musical I ever saw live that actually led to a larger love of theatre; I still remember the adrenaline rush of watching Kerry Ellis belt out “Defying Gravity” onstage at London’s Apollo Victoria Theatre. It was like my third eye opened for the first time, and it wasn’t long before I became very obsessed with everything related to the show for three years straight. Of course, as the years passed, I ended up being introduced to more shows that I related to more in my progressing age, but I still think back on Wicked fondly as a wonderful childhood memory.
6. My Fair Lady
Every Valentine’s Day, I pop in my Blu-ray of the Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison film, grab some sort of ice cream or chocolate, and watch the unhealthy romance blossom before my eyes. Apparently, according to my mom, I used to love this movie when I was three years old; I had a fondness for big, flowery hats at the time, and I liked looking at Eliza’s headwear while I methodically stirred my Beanie Babies cats around in my lap. (That was a weird habit of mine, apparently, but it sure kept my curious toddler hands busy.) Nowadays, I enjoy the musical for more sophisticated reasons. The story—at least, in its original Pygmalion form—is a smart commentary on the societal expectations placed on women, and it’s a joy to watch Eliza slowly find herself and realize she has the ability to make it on her own merits. And in the hands of the right couple playing Henry and Eliza, the chemistry between the two characters sizzles the material into an electric experience. What can I say? This is one of those shows that proves to be perfect time and time again.
5. Next to Normal
Like My Fair Lady, I’ve written about this show on the Board before. I’ll keep my addition here short and sweet, because my previous articles on the subject have explained enough why I love the musical. It’s heartbreaking. It’s relatable. The music is very listenable. If you haven’t experienced Next to Normal before, prepare to be punched in the gut. Harshly.
4. Elisabeth das Musical
And here, we get into some European musicals. Elisabeth premiered in Vienna, Austria way back in 1991, and since then, it has enjoyed multiple productions across Austria, Europe, and other places in Europe and Asia. Its widespread appeal has ensured it remains the most successful German-language musical of all time, probably only rivaled by Tanz der Vampire. What is it about? Well, the show takes a sort of Evita approach in that it tells the life story of Empress Elisabeth of Austria: her political acts, her marriage, her personal struggles. The Empress suffered from near-suicidal tendencies for much of her life, and in this musical, that difficulty is portrayed in the form of an ongoing “will-they-won’t-they” dynamic with a handsomely dark manifestation of Death. No, I promise, her depression isn’t romanticized! Just trust me. It’s hard to recommend this show to anyone who doesn’t speak German or Hungarian, but I think there may be a couple recordings with English subtitles floating around on YouTube. Go ahead and give it a look if you’re interested!
3. Tanz der Vampire
This is the other musical on my list that unfortunately doesn’t have an English-language iteration (and no, the awfully-conceived Broadway production doesn’t count), but I know for a fact that there’s a video on YouTube one could watch with accurate subtitles. Truth be told, there isn’t much substance to Tanz; what you get on the surface is pretty much what you’ve got if you try to peel back the layers enough, but the good news is that that’s kind of the point of the show. This is a parody of over-the-top vampire love stories. However, the humor is so subtle and buried under a bunch of dramatic, gothic goodness that you end up watching a bizarre melodrama with fangs unfold onstage. And guess what? It’s so much fun! How can one not watch the leading lady sing a passionate duet rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in sensual German with a brooding vampire as her love interest without rolling their eyes and chuckling? It’s the greatest goofy musical of all time! Please, if nothing else, at least look up “Totale Finsternis” on YouTube to experience that piece of musical theatre mastery.
2. Les Misérables
Surprised? I didn’t think you would be. I regard Les Mis as one of the greatest stories of all time, and despite a few drawbacks in its stage musical adaptation, it still remains some of the best that musical theatre has to offer. The score is epic and thrilling. In the hands of a great cast, the material is a pure treat that leaves audiences pinned to their seats in awe. And, above all, there’s a reason why this historic masterpiece has achieved so much success all over the world and remained the longest-running musical in London. Jean Valjean, as one of the greatest characters in the musical theatre canon, deserves every inch of appreciation sent his way. Do you hear the people sing? I sure do!
The Phantom of the Opera
...Don’t say it. I already know what you’re thinking, and yes, I will happily admit that this is probably the most basic choice I could have gone with. But you know what? I don’t care. Phantom is the longest-running musical on Broadway, and there must be something about it that has kept it going for so long, right? Is it the sweeping, romantic score? The tragic story of a villain who became that way through the abuse inflicted on him by society? The message of love, compassion, and redemption? The iconic sets and costumes? I’d say it’s all of those, and more. Over thirty years later, the Phantom continues to cast his mesmerizing spell over audiences worldwide, and hopefully, he’ll keep the music of the night going for thirty or more years.
(Photo from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat 1999 film.)