When I was thinking about how I wanted to discuss my top five musicals this week I wanted a creative way to present why these are such memorable spectacles for me. Looking at my favorite musicals — Les Miserables, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera and Rent — they all have common themes and emotional stories that have engaged me repeatedly over the years. Based on other works, such as an opera or an important novel, all of these musicals are adapted from a preexisting work of fiction but may have a basis in historical moments and events. All of these productions feature strong females, as both leading ladies and supporting characters. When I look for a musical, I am looking for a fully developed story arc from beginning to end, and interesting, well-developed characters within the work. No matter how big or how small the cast, a big production number is found within all of these pieces. A struggle for power or aggression is also key to these events being interesting for me.
Some of the common themes in my best-loved musicals are highlighted by the following
examples, albeit perhaps with some of the less obvious characters:
Rent has some parallels from the opera La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini using inspiration for the plot and the characters from this opera in four acts. Mimi, a seamstress with tuberculosis in La Boheme becomes the character of Mimi Marquez with HIV in Rent; Alcindoro in the opera, a state counselor, becomes lawyer Joanne Jefferson who is Maureen’s girlfriend in Rent. A more direct link is Benoit known as Benny in Rent, serving as the landlord in both productions. The opera is not only a foundation for the characters but also for the music within the musical Rent; for example, “Light My Candle” draws directly from a song in La Boheme called “Che gelida manina.” Les Miserables is based on the French historical novel of the same name by Victor Hugo; the work was first published in 1862. Just as the timeline for the stage musical tells us, the novel starts in 1815 and ends in 1832 with the June rebellion in Paris, following several characters, most importantly Jean Valjean as he tries to redeem himself in the eyes of society.
Nessarose of Wicked does not let her disability hold her back, as evident when she is dancing with Boq in “Dancing Through Life.” Nessa tries to live as normal a life as she can, given she is in a wheelchair; she does everything the other students do just in her own way. Nessa’s family has also never treated her like she was any different, giving her the confidence to be as strong as anyone else. In Phantom of the Opera, very few people believed that chorus girl Christine Daae could be trained enough to perform the lead soprano role, even though her father was a famous violinist, the majority of the theatre personnel said she could never be the star. After very successfully performing the lead once due to the original opera star walking out as a result of persistent stage mishaps, Christine Daae was subsequently only given the silent role in a new opera as opposed to the starring vocal role. In act two of the musical, Christine needs to defend herself against all accusations that she is planning all of the opera house ‘accidents’ so that she can become the star. Despite Christine learning that her “Angel of Music” trainer is the hideous Phantom behind the dangerous mishaps in the opera house, she has endless sympathy for the sad and tragic story of the Phantom’s life. At the end of the show, Christine tells the Phantom that he is not alone, showing compassion for him and going against what everyone else sees. Christine’s moral strength of character demonstrates her growth as a beautiful person as well as a stunningly beautiful soprano diva.
We first meet Cosette from Les Miserables as a child where she is living with the Thenardiers who are wretched innkeepers, while her mother is working in the city of Montreuil-sur-Mer trying to eke out a living so that she can reunite with her daughter. However, unbeknownst to Cosette, her mother Fantine dies in the hospital of her illness contracted while on the streets. Young Cosette dreams of a life with her mother and feeling loved when Jean Valjean adopts her. Nine years later, we see the two of them again in Paris; now Cosette has fallen in love with Marius upon first seeing him. Eponine, the daughter of the Thenardiers, now also a young adult has feelings for Marius as well, but he does not return these feelings of affection for her. Cosette loves her adopted father Jean Valjean and she is thankful for everything he has given her, even though he has not shared his past transgressions with her. Cosette and Marius are newly wed after the blessing from Jean Valjean who then gives her a letter all about his troubled past and the truth about her mother, just before he passes. Within the course of the musical, we know Cosette as a young child who suffers loss and dearly yearns for a family, to a young adult with a husband of her own.
We meet the charming Natasha at the beginning of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 which is based on 70 pages of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. As far as we can tell, Natasha is happily engaged to Andrey who is off fighting in the war, and although she has her family, she is missing him and wishing that he was with her at this time. Her world is rocked when the suave Anatole enters her life and she starts to fall in love with him. Anatole is the married brother-in-law of Pierre, but will not tell Natasha. When Pierre tells Marya, who is Natasha’s godmother, who then tells Natasha, she refuses to believe him as Anatole has already promised to marry her. Pierre confronts Anatole forcing him to leave for Petersburg the next day. With Anatole gone and Andrey not taking her back after being unfaithful, Natasha goes to the only person who is fully there for her; this is Pierre who is older and a longtime friend of the family. Natasha at the start of The Great Comet is happy, and we could say that she ends being content, but now she has had growth and learned from her first-hand life experience.
Musical shows that are more narrative-driven might not have large dance numbers, but even these musicals, which are more story and plot based, have big production numbers with big emotions. “Balaga” and “The Abduction” from Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is on par with the major productions found in Les Miserables and Rent. Here, in these big productions of The Great Comet, the cast is having a wild party before Anatole plans to elope with Natasha; these numbers include dance breaks which use the most of the entire cast. “Dancing Through Life” from Wicked is another large dance number from a more story based show, using this number as a celebratory movement similar to the way celebration is used in The Great Comet.
In Rent, we see the aggressive power struggles in the relationships between Benny, Roger and Mark. Benny is the new landlord and has gone back on their agreement and now demands that Mark and Roger pay last year’s rent, or he will shut off the power. Benny is also trying to evict the homeless from a lot where he wants to build a cyber arts studio; Benny is trying to maintain some kind of leverage over the situation, so he says to Mark and Roger that if their friend Maureen cancels the protest, then Mark and Roger can remain rent-free in their building. Similarly, the Phantom wields power and tries to control everyone including Christine as he leads her to his lair to sing for him for the first time. This aggression continues throughout the story as he manipulates the folks associated with the operatic production with his staged “accidents.” His character is trying to have control over all aspects of what he considers his theater by sending notes as though written by other people, but stating how he would like his theater to be run. The Phantom feels that he knows what is best for everyone. Even six months after the incident with the crashing chandelier where the heartbroken Phantom seeks revenge on Christine and Raoul, he secretly writes an opera and picks Christine to star in it without even holding auditions. One of the last moments of the musical is in the Phantom’s lair after he has taken her again, and he makes one final plea to get her to stay with him forever ― Raoul who has come to save her will go free if Christine stays.
(Photo: Les Miserables original Broadway cast. Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench/Bob Marshak.)