It looks like 2021 will be a great year for musical movies. In the Heights, on the heels of its premiere, currently has a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. West Side Story is the most anticipated movie (and Oscar contender) of the year. And I just hope and pray that people love Dear Evan Hansen as much as I do. Hopefully, after a couple years of musical movies that ranged from OK (The Prom) to horrible (you-know-what), 2021 will bring us back to the early to mid 2000s, when Moulin Rouge, Chicago and Dreamgirls (among others) filled our screens and hearts, and ushered a new era of musical film adaptations.
Speaking of Dear Evan Hansen, in honor of the trailer being released, I have decided to rank my all-time favorite musicals and plays. I love theatre, both drama and musicals. I love listening to cast albums, reading librettos, ordering random playscripts from Dramatists, listening to performances from LA Theatre Works, watching theatre legally on Broadway HD, and illegally via grainy bootleg videos on tumblr. Theatre is in my blood. My bones. Like Mindy Grayson. So, obviously, coming up with 10 musicals and 10 plays that I love was difficult…but I had to do it…for my readers. All fives of you.
Just want to make a quick note. This is ranking my favorite musicals and plays…not film adaptations. I’m judging these works based on what they are…not based on a film adaptation or a particular cast or performance. These are shows I would love regardless of who was in the cast. These are shows I love for how they play on stage, not necessarily for how they were adapted for the screen. I have to mention this because even though the 60’s West Side Story is, in my opinion, the greatest movie musical of all time…the actual musical doesn’t make the list. Fannie Doollee loves West Side Story on screen, but not on stage. Why do you think that is??
Let’s move on. I’m going to go back and forth between play and musical. First up…
10. The Credeaux Canvas (Play) – The Credeaux Canvas is a contemporary play from the early 2000s by Keith Bunin. It premiered off-Broadway. It’s about a 20-something year old painter and his affair with his roommate’s girlfriend. This is one of those plays that I randomly discovered when I was in high school (you can guess when that was based on the url for this blog) and I’ve pretty much read it at least once every other year since then. It’s just a cool sad/funny modern play about being broke and in love in your twenties. You can find a recording of the play starring Hilary Swank via LA Theatre Works.
10. The Sound of Music (Musical) – It’s almost painful putting this musical at number ten. I swear, Sound of Music is like 10 out of a 100! I could hum and sing this soundtrack for hours. As much as I love the Julie Andrews movie (and I’d rank it second behind West Side Story in terms of musical movies), I actually love the original script for this musical, the one that is still licensed out and used for stage productions. The NBC Carrie Underwood version is pretty much that. The movie leaves out a couple really great songs (sung by The Baroness) and has more political bite to it. I also prefer “Favorite Things” as a weird duet between Mother Abbess and Maria, as opposed to the movie where Maria sings the song to the kids during a thunderstorm. Anyway, this musical is filled with bops, and the two dudes who wrote the score are geniuses.
9. The Children’s Hour (Play) – Written by Lillian Hellman and premiered on Broadway in 1934, this play was very controversial when it was first released. It’s about a pair of female teachers who are accused of engaging in a lesbian affair by one of their selfish and spoiled students. Reviewing my list, I think more of my plays have women in the central roles than ones that star men. I guess I like a good dramatic play where the female lead is in a moment of crisis. This play was very close to winning the Pulitzer. But…because of the lesbian stuff, it was deemed ineligible, and a play no one remembers won it instead.
9. A Chorus Line (Musical) – See? If I actually considered film adaptations, this musical would never make the list. Man, the film version for this movie is garbage. It makes me angry. Apparently, Ryan Murphy is making a “series” for Netflix. Which…OK. I actually really like most of Ryan Murphy’s work. But…can’t we just get a good solid faithful adaptation of the musical? Is that too hard to ask? Why does A Chorus Line need to be stretched out into 6 to10 hours? Anyway, I’m running out of space for this one. I will say, I love this musical. I love the music. I love the dancing. It’s not a perfect musical. There are a maybe 2 or 3 sections that make me go “huh.” But Cassie’s “Music and the Mirror” dance break forgives all that. I don’t think there’s a better role for a female Broadway performer than Cassie. And I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying than seeing the cast get into position and breathe out the last “Go to it” at the end of “Hello Twelve.”
8. The Heiress (Play) – It’s physically impossible to dislike this story by Henry James. Whether you’ve read the original novel “Washington Square” or watched this play adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, you are captivated. The play is pretty much about a homely young woman with a hefty inheritance who falls in love with a man who, let’s say, doesn’t have the best intentions. It’s a breezy funny play with an easy-to-understand plot, great dialogue, and a satisfying conclusion (well, maybe, I don’t know, this isn’t a spoiler!). The play has been adapted on Broadway a few times, with its 1995 production winning the Tony for Best Revival.
8. Company (Musical) – I love Stephen Sondheim as much as any basic musical fan. Unfortunately, this is the only Sondheim show on this list, but if I were doing a top 20 musicals, Gypsy and Into the Woods would have also made the list. I love this musical for what it is…however, I have to admit that it was the stripped-down 2006 Broadway revival, where the actors played their own instruments, that introduced me to the show and ultimately made me love it. The Neil Patrick Harris version is obviously closer and more faithful to the original’s spirit…but that 2006 revival has such great instrumentals, amazing performances, and overall great direction. I don’t think anyone can sing “Being Alive” better than Raul Esparza. I also love that this musical is filled with songs that can easily be sung outside the context of the musical. It feels like I’m watching a play that just so happens to have music interspersed. I won’t get into how I feel about the recent gender-flip experiments but…well…I love 2006 version.
7. Six Degrees of Separation (Play) – No, this play is not about Kevin Bacon. Hardy har har! What an original joke! This play premiered in 1990, and it centers on an older wealthy couple who is scammed by a young black man named Paul. Soon, the couple learns that Paul has scammed others in their circle as well…and then some more people outside their circle. The whole point is that everyone who was scammed by Paul is connected because of Paul. The play is a little dated…at least that’s what I heard some people say when it was revived in 2017. I still love the play. It’s like comfort food. I think there are a few impactful scenes, and the ending really hits like a gut punch. Admittedly, I didn’t love this play when I first had to read it for college. But, over time, I learned to love it enough that it makes my top 10.
7. Baby (Musical) – No, this isn’t the title of the Justin Bieber jukebox show that will be released within 2 to 20 years. This is a cute funny musical that premiered on Broadway in 1983. When I was in college, my school put on a production of this musical, and I’ve loved it since then. The show centers on three couples from different ages in their relationship and their varied reactions to finding out their pregnant. One the final songs in the show “And What If We Had Loved Like That” is one of my favorite musical duets of all time. Of course this show is underrated, but I can see it being revived on Broadway in a few years, maybe with an updated script.
6. The Bad Seed (Play) – What did I tell you? I love these old fashioned campy thrillers with emotionally damaged women in the center. Yes, this is one of my favorite black-and-white movies of all time. However, I also really love the play, and I would love to see a live production of it someday…although I would probably crack up the whole time and disrupt everything. Anyway, in a nutshell, this play is about a psycho little girl who kills one of her classmates and her mother’s attempt at covering up the crime. Once again, the play was close to winning a Pulitzer, but the homophobic board said “No! This play gives homosexuals too much pleasure” and awarded it to Cat On a Hot Tin Roof…which ironically does have a lead gay character. Still. The decision was homophobic.
6. Legally Blonde (Musical) – I love this musical so much that I forget that it’s adapted from a movie. I love this musical so much, I’ve probably watched ten different high school productions of it on Youtube. Also, both my college and graduate school did productions of this show. And if you count the dozens of times I have watched the MTV recording with the original Broadway cast then…well, I have seen this musical a lot. This is a legitimately great musical. It was given the cold shoulder when it first premiered on Broadway, overshadowed by the overrated Spring Awakening. But England, which has taste, embraced the show when it premiered on the West End. And, now, the show is a hit. It plays all over the world. It’s a favorite among schools. And I think the show has more respect now than it did when it first premiered. Legally Blonde walked so Mean Girls and The Prom and even Dear Evan Hansen could run. It’s a show that ushered in a new generation of theatre lovers.
5. The Yellow Boat (Play) – The Yellow Boat is a children’s play written by David Saar. Premiering in 1993, the play centers on a young boy named Benjamin who is diagnosed with HIV after a routine blood transfusion. The play is semi-autobiographical, as Saar’s own young son also contracted HIV in the same way and ended up dying as a result. I remember my middle school did a production of this play, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s definitely a tear jerker and an audience favorite. The play is still performed all over the country by community theatres and schools.
5. The Light in the Piazza (Musical) – For the longest time, I actually considered The Light in the Piazza to be my favorite musical. However, coming up with this list, I realized that there are a couple shows here and there that I’ve grown to love unconditionally. However, this musical is still tier I in my book. Based on the 1960 novella, The Light in the Piazza, is about an emotionally stunted young woman who falls in love with a dashing Italian young man and her mother’s continued attempts at ending this courtship. The musical is set in Italy during the post-war years. The show’s bread and butter is the score, written by Adam Guettel, the grandson of Richard Rodgers of Rodgers and Hammerstein (the dudes who gave us Sound of Music). When I first discovered this musical in high school, I had never heard a score quite like this before. It felt so classical, yet experimental. Minimalist, yet soaring. If you can get your hands on the PBS recording, you can also appreciate the sets, the costumes, the lighting, all Tony awarded. As someone who has read the book and watched the movie, I think this musical is the best telling of this story.
4. A Raisin in the Sun (Play) – Lemme tell ya, when I was younger, I was obsessed with this play. I first read it in middle school. And by the time I had reached college, I considered myself a “A Raisin in the Sun scholar.” During my six years of college and graduate school, as an English major, I somehow found a way to incorporate this play in at least one essay per semester. Seriously, it seemed like every time I was granted the opportunity, I wrote an essay on this play. I still love this play with all my heart, but I think the shine I had for it dulled a little over time. So, I generally try to avoid this play, whether it’s script or a movie version for long periods of time. But when I do get back to this play, I’m an emotional mess by the end, Everyone is familiar with the Sidney Poitier adaptation and the Phylicia Rashad/P-Diddy telefilm adaptation. However, honestly, the Danny Glover version from the 80’s might be the best, most faithful adaptation of them all.
4. Caroline, or Change (Musical) – This is another small, underrated gem that seems to be gaining traction lately. Set around the events of JFK’s assassination, this near-opera is about a black maid and her relationship with the Jewish family for which she works, particularly the son Noah. Obviously, the musical touches on a lot of themes, including race, racism, politics, poverty, war, and anti-Semitism. It was written by a duo of geniuses: Tony Kushner, responsible for Angels in America (which doesn’t make my list, but I recognize its greatness) and Jeanine Tesori, who’s probably up there with Stephen Sondheim when it comes to great Broadway composers. The show had a short run on Broadway in 2003 despite Tony nods and critical acclaim. It was set to be revived on Broadway in 2020, but COVID hit. Now, it’s planning on reviving again in the fall of 2021. A part of me is happy that more people will discover and love this show. However, another part of me is sad because I always felt like this show was a secret among the elite few.
3. The Glass Menagerie (Play) – Let. Me. Tell. Ya…I have mixed feelings about Tennessee Williams. I don’t love a lot of his plays. Streetcar is good. Tin Roof is…OK. But…I think he hit his peak with The Glass Menagerie. It’s probably because I relate so much to the characters. In fact, there are four characters in this play, and I see myself in all of them, even though they’re different. I’m shy and filled with anxiety like the daughter. I’m aimless and depressed like the son. I’m delusional and hopeless like the mother. And I always find myself in cringe-y situations like the suitor. Anyway, the Katharine Hepburn version of this play is my favorite adaptation, and that’s the one I’d recommend watching. But, of course, it’s a great read, if you can get past Williams’s strange stage directions.
3. Coco (Musical) – Speaking of Katharine Hepburn, in 1969, she starred in her first and only musical called Coco, based off the later life of fashion designer Coco Chanel. Now, the musical gets a bad rap for a lot of reasons. The main reason is that Hepburn is not exactly the best singer. In fact, she kinda sounds like Daffy Duck, which Hepburn fully admits. She mostly sing-talks her songs, like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. But, she is still fabulous in the role. She has so much power. It proves that you don’t need to be a perfect singer to give an exceptional musical performance. The show itself also got mixed reviews when it first premiered. And no production was ever successful without Hepburn leading it. So, it’s very unlikely that we’ll get a Broadway revival soon. In fact, although you can listen to OBC soundtrack, the script for the musical was never published. And it’s really difficult for a theatre company to get the rights to perform the show. In a way, this musical is a forgotten, hidden gem. Despite that, the original production’s fifteen minute performance at the Tony Awards (essentially, the show’s finale) is one of the most amazing theatrical experiences and I am jealous of anyone that gets to watch it for the first time. Outside of Hepburn’s performance, I really do love the score, and I’ve listened to the soundtrack many times. I even got my hands on the libretto. (Don’t ask how I got it…I had to do some things to get it…Bad things.)
2. How I Learned to Drive (Play) – Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer, this play by Paula Vogel is a “coming-of-age” story set in the 1960s about a girl and her incestual relationship with her uncle. It’s a difficult play to read. Even more difficult to watch. But the story is told in such an interesting way, with the action playing out in a non-linear timeline. The play also features a lot of humor. It’s probably classified as more of a dark comedy than a drama. Like Caroline or Change, the play was supposed to have its first premiere on Broadway in 2020, but was cancelled due to Covid.
2. They’re Playing Our Song (Musical) – This is a show I’ve never seen live. I just sort of stumbled upon the soundtrack a few years ago, and I’ve loved it ever since. This is one of those late 70’s/early 80’s musicals that are set “in the present.” So when you play the score and read the libretto today, it does come across as a little dated to some people. Generally, shows from this period that were set in the past have survived better (like Annie, Chicago, or Les Mis). But I actually love these types of “dated” musicals from this era. Besides shows like Company and A Chorus Line, I also love obscure shows like I Love My Wife, The Rink, Applause, and, of course, Baby. This musical is a simple story about a male and female songwriting team who fall in love. The script was written by Neil Simon (shockingly none of his plays made my top ten), and the music is by Marvin Hamlisch (from A Chorus Line) and Carole Bayer Sager. The music is sort of this cool adult contemporary pop disco vibe. The musical is a two-person show with a very small company backing the lead actors. It’s a really nice show, and when I used to live close enough to my job to walk everyday, I’d listen to this soundtrack.
1.’Night, Mother (Play) – This is another Pulitzer winner. This seems like an odd choice for someone’s favorite play, but this is the one I’ve read over and over again. I’ve even acted out some of the scenes out loud…by myself…like a weirdo. Written by Marsha Norman, this two woman play centers on an adult woman calmly telling her mother that she plans on committing suicide. The play essentially takes place the span of this one night. While the daughter is trying to get things ready for her mother to live on her own, her mother spends much of the play desperately trying to convince her daughter not go ahead with the suicide. It’s definitely a dark play, and it’s pretty much one giant trigger warning. I’m not sure if this is a play everyone should watch or read. But if you can handle the subject matter, I’d recommend it.
1. Ragtime (Musical) – Among theatre fans, this musical is known for being somewhat of a flop on Broadway. The show premiered in the same season as The Lion King, lost the Tony for Best Musical to that show, and then closed a couple years later without recouping its cost. About ten years later, the show was inexplicably revived again…just to close again after only a few performances. Suffice to say, this show probably won’t be revived on Broadway anytime soon. If done right, this is an expensive show with a big cast. But that’s why I love this show. I love love LOVE the music. I like all the characters. I love the ensemble nature. I love the costumes and the set pieces and just every expensive and unnecessary detail about the show that probably led to its demise. Set in 1906, Ragtime is a show that discusses the relations between whites, blacks and immigrants in New Rochelle, New York. The show features a cast of real life figures (like Emma Goldman and Booker T. Washington) and fictional characters. It’s based off a book by EL Doctorow, which was later adapted into a film. The beautiful score was composed by team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (also known for Once on this Island, Anastasia and the underrated Seussical). Anyway, here’s the late great Marin Mazzie singing the show’s 11-o-clock number “Back to Before.”
Broadway is opening again! However, more importantly, theatres all across the country are starting to open as well. Support local theatre. Support college theatres. Support touring productions. Support Broadway HD so they can acquire more shows. From big to small, support live theatre because it would be a shame if we lost this artform as a result of a pandemic. Don’t depend on Broadway to become more accessible and to film their shows like Hamilton. There’s theatre all around, and we need to start celebrating the work done by people outside of New York.