List-O-Rama: Top Five Musicals

Now that things have sort of settled down, even if they aren't necessarily resolved, I can finally start updating again.  This is something I wrote before Christmas, but I'm finally getting the chance to post it.  It was a response to yet another Top Five podcast, this time counting down the Top Five Musicals.  My definition of a musical is pretty simple - it's a work with music that is (a) original to the work itself and (b) integral to the development of the plot & characters.  This rules out revue-like shows that are largely plotless (a good example of this would be Cats, which only has brief fits of plot between the poems-turned-songs).  This also rules out "jukebox" musicals, where people take existing songs and try to work a plot around them (popular examples include Jersey Boys & Momma Mia!, as well as a show that would make up all entries in a "Top Five Most Obnoxiously Self-Congratulatory Uses of Offensive Stereotypes" list, Glee).  While some jukebox musicals can be good, most of the ones I've seen feel like badly constructed songfics that someone decided to stick on a stage.  I'm not limiting myself to just movies or just stage shows, but I'll note if I prefer one version to another.  But keep in mind at all time that I'm a fussbudget about these things & think that if a work was written for a certain medium, that's probably where it'll work best.  So, on those notes, here's my Top Five Musicals.

5. Jem (TV series): First things first - the title of the show is Jem.  Just. Jem.  Not Jem and the Holograms.  Seeing that drives me nuts, so I want to get that out of my system before I continue.  If you're here, hopefully you know the premise of Jem by now, but if not, here it is - record exec uses tech to be her own star act & support her large foster family, finds herself knee-deep in new rivalries and more than one love triangle and/or identity crisis.  Many enjoy it today as either a ligher-hearted soap opera or as an amusing period piece, but it also works very well as a musical.  The bands' songs not only move the plot along as needed (action montage songs like the Holograms' "Time Is Running Out" or the Misfits' "It Takes a Lot to Survive"), but also serve to highlight the bands' different personalities.  It's actually disconcerting and almost out-of-character when the Holograms sing a "nyah-nyah" song like "The Last Laugh".  And even one-shot solos or one-appearance characters are musicalized well, from Roxy's wounded pride solo ("I'm Gonna Change") to Jacqui Benton's posthumous message to her daughters ("Starlight") to the loneliness of newly-orphaned Laura Holloway ("Alone Again").  Besides showing that you can have interesting, multi-leveled characters in a show aimed at kids, Jem showed that animated musicals could be viable on TV if the creators were just willing to try.
SIGNATURE SONGS: I find it easiest to choose songs that sum up each of the respective bands' stories & personalities; this best illustrates how well everyone in the cast was musicalized.  For the Holograms, it's probably "I Believe in Happy Endings"; it was used to show both their unity as a family (most of them were raised together as sisters) in times of trouble and their overall kindness & willingness to help others.  For the Misfits, I'd choose either "Universal Appeal" or "I Am a Giant"; both are fueled by Pizzazz's positively contagious arrogance & disregard for anyone else's complaints or opinions.  For the Stingers, I actually choose "It's a Hard, Hard Life" because it shows a more positive & admirable side to their ruthlessness and shows how easily necessary cunning can turn into boredom-fueled conniving.  Still, it's hard to choose just one stand-out song, but I always liked how the song "Nightmare" was used in both episodes that featured it.  In the first, it highlights Jem's fears that her dual identity has destroyed her sanity (thanks to an elaborate ruse), while the second had it set to Laura Holloway's drug-induced hallucinations.  Both times were equally eerie & effective.  It might not be the first song you think of when you think of Jem, but it's one of the best used in a series full of stand-out numbers.  Seriously, I could list them all day.

4. Little Shop of Horrors (stage): Stage version, since I never cared for the oh-so-focus-groupy ending Frank Oz had to use or the decision to cut out a third of the numbers from the movie soundtrack (including "Don't Feed the Plants", which is downright criminal).  Howard Ashman died way too young and left behind an entirely too small body of work.  This was the work that made the world notice him, even if it was off-Broadway.  Again, I really think you should know this story - nebbishy Seymour's attempt to grow a new plant for his struggling flower shop and impress his sweetheart enough to get her away from her jackass boyfriend help him to create the talking, singing Audrey II, how just loves people... especially with BBQ sauce.  After all, the basis for it is a midnight movie classic that was turned into an ode to the early 60s sensibility, so it should be right up the alley of anyone reading this.  Every single character is musicalized well - Seymour's sincerity & innocence, Audrey's gullibility & wounded bird vulnerability, Mushnik's greed, the Dentist's... dentistness, and especially the scheming, insulting, yet oddly endearing sass of Audrey II.  It's always a risk to musicalize a movie, but by choosing a Z-grade film beloved for its campiness & running with its silliness without being snide or insulting to the source material, this may be the best screen-to-stage adaptation ever.  Plus, it requires puppetry, which is always awesome (in fact, the original puppeteer for Audrey II, Marty Robinson, is now one of the senior performers on Sesame Street).  And you gotta love any play that has a downer ending that doesn't feel forced or condescending, no matter what the focus group subliterates might think.
SIGNATURE SONGS:  An odd choice for a personal favorite, perhaps, but I love "Somewhere That's Green", Audrey's paean to a dream house in the suburbs where she can finally live the good life.  One reason I never cared for "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid is that it's an inferior clone of this earlier, more nuanced song.  It illustrates Audrey's dreams so nicely, it has an excellent dark reprise in the climax, and it's a song that seems to be poking fun at suburban banality & asking if it's actually worse than life on Skid Row.  "Suddenly Seymour" is an excellent, heartfelt piece that really shows Seymour's devotion to Audrey and his desire to give her that life she so desperately wants without disrespecting her; both songs embody Little Shop's balance of genuinely emotion and gentle humor.  And lastly, we cannot go without mentioning "Dentist!", easily one of the best villain songs of all time and probably responsible for more than a few people neglecting their oral health.

3. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (stage):  Yes, stage version only again.  No disrespect to any of the great comedians featured in the movie (especially Zero Mostel, who followed it from Broadway to play a role he created), but they added way too much distracting random slapstick & changed Miles Gloriousus into such a heel that his ending makes no emotional sense.  A frenetic comedy of errors, this details the string of misadventures wily slave Pseudolus gets into trying to earn his freedom & help his young master Hero meet the girl of his dreams; naturally, since it's a comedy of errors, a lot of random stuff serves to complicate any & every plan made by, well, everyone.  Seriously, find a theater doing a production of it - there's so damn much going on that it'd take forever to describe it.  It's a play that demands that whoever is playing the lead role of Pseudolus have a strong stage presence (it's a role traditionally guaranteed to win a Tony), that the entire cast be brimming with energy in every performance, and that they all give the scenary a good gnawing in the process.  The songs that are bound to the romantic leads of Hero & Philia aren't as strong as the rest of the work, and the pieces that involve the whole company are the ones that define the play in all of its frenetic glory.  If you're a stickler about Roman history or bothered by dancing girls getting their own number to show off their gimmicks, then, well, I can't help you.  I am dead serious when I say you should go see a performance to appreciate how funny Forum is and enjoy a work that has enough pride to know its ending is an ass-pull but not care one lick.
SIGNATURE SONGS: "A Comedy Tonight" is, in my opinion, the most perfect opening number in the history of musicals.  It breaks the fourth wall, it establishes the setting & backstory to get it all out of the way, it introduces the whole cast, it introduces us to the charming Pseudolus, and it's a legitimately funny, catchy song.  It screams, "Pay attention to this song, because it's just gonna get crazier from here."  And its reprise at the finale serves as a lovely bookend as well.  I also like the reprise of "Lovely", turning what had been a bit of a sappy song into an amusing ode to a man dressed in drag to pose as a dead woman (seriously, go see the show, you'll understand that it's not as bad as it sounds).  Both are a perfect mix of skilled craftsmanship & genuine humor.

2. Fraggle Rock (TV series): Can't have a list without Muppets - it's the law.  I refuse to summarize Fraggle Rock because, frankly, I can't.  It's too awesome & perfect, and dammit, you should know it at least in passing by now.  It's easy to forget that this series was a musical, but music was central to the universe of the Rock.  The Fraggles regularly expressed themselves through song as a matter of habit, the Gorgs had songs for their customs & traditions, the Doozers had songs to pace their work, and the great unifiers of the Rock were Cantus & the Minstrels, pilgrims who knew from experience that music is the greatest common link between different cultures.  Every single character, even one-shot or minor ones like Convincin' John, was musicalized in such a way that no one ever came off as flat.  Its excellent use of song is just one of the reasons I will always consider Fraggle Rock to be Jim Henson's masterpiece.
SIGNATURE SONGS: There are just so, so many songs that resonate with me.  The Minstrels' mission statement, "Round and Round (Singing As We Go)", is amazing, illustrating how each felt their calling & why they believe that "music makes us whole"; it gives some character we usually just see following Cantus & Murray intriguing inner lives as well.  The Glory Song, "Shine On, Shine On Me", is one of the best uses of the quasi-gospel sound found in the series; as a day-saving number, it has a wonderful building tempo and explodes as a finale, a song that genuinely makes me feel as happy as the performers & their puppet proxies.  "Just a Dream Away" is a surprisingly upbeat song about accepting one's place in the cycle of life & death, and maybe because I so closely associate it with Richard Hunt (the song's performer), but I find it a very touching number.  Last but by no means least, there's "Follow Me" - the first real song of the show, Uncle Matt's theme that becomes Gobo's theme over the course of the series (this shift is behind a funny reprise at one point), and song Balsam & Lee chose to rededicate to the memory of Muppet writer Jerry Juhl.  It expresses a wonder & eagerness to go out each day and find something new & amazing & exciting about the world.  When it seems like the world has been permanently shrunken by media oversaturation, it touches me deeply to hear such a genuine sense of optimism & joy of discovery in a song.  I can think of so many other Fraggle Rock numbers right now, and honestly, the only things keeping me from listing them all are time & an inability to remember their proper titles.

1. Gypsy (stage or film):  Finally, a film version that stays loyal to the stage original and doesn't drop any of the songs!  The story of burlesque's Renaissance woman, Gypsy Rose Lee, this show focuses largely on her terrifying stage mother, Mama Rose, and her relentless drive to turn one of her daughters into a star.  Turns out (in reality) both did become stars, but as we'll see, Mama Rose wanted their fame on her termsIt is quite possibly the most harrowing look at stage mothers and growing up under the thumb of one in the history of stage or screen.  It's a tragic romance, where one side is too self-absorbed to realize she herself truly feels until it's too late.  It's a story of resilience, with Louise having no formal education & unsure even of her true age finding a sense of self-worth and becoming a true success.  The treatment Mama Rose gives her daughters - forcing June to play her "Baby" act into her teens & relegating Louise to the role of "ugly one" until she becomes their last hope of finding fame on the dwindling vaudeville circuit - is actually more disturbing now; surely the people who are okay with evil like Toddlers & Tiaras or Dance Moms are so warped that they'd probably view Mama Rose as she does, a hard-working mother with ungrateful daughters, which is an incredibly depressing notion.  This is one of those rare cases where both of the alternate endings work.  The stage ending I've seen (the original one) has Gypsy turning her back permanently on Mama Rose, making the latter's solitude fit the mold of classic Greek tragedy - her greed & arrogance led her to push her daughters to the fame she wanted, but all she did was push them away from her.  The film ending (the revision ending on Broadway), where they take the first steps towards reconciliation, could be a typical focus-groupy one, but the tentative tone of it & the fact that it's now on Gypsy's terms (probably the first time any interractions with her mother are) keeps it from feeling terribly forced.  It's equal parts inspirational tale & horrifying cautionary tale, with every song serving to keep the perfect balance.
SIGNATURE SONGS: People love "Everything's Coming Up Roses" because they think it's soooo positive & inspiring.  I love it because it is so blood-chillingly cruel; after June elopes, this illustrates Mama Rose's flat out refusal to let her remaining daughter be anything else but a star.  The pun of the title, the deliberate wording in teh chorus putting herself first ("Everything's coming up roses for me and for you!") - the whole song emphasizes what a horrible person Mama Rose truly is.  There's also the short "Little Lamb", a poignant number for Louise after celebrating yet another tenth birthday; "You Gotta Get a Gimmick", where a truly absurd collection of burlesque babes give Louise some career advise, is another stand-out & serves to inject some humor into an increasingly dramatic second act.  And I can't go without mentioning the genius of reprising "Let Me Entertain You", taking it from a cloying song from the Baby June act to a winking coy theme song for Gypsy's burlesque teasing - even the stagy greeting June had to use gets a suitably sexy reworking.  It's quite possibly the best use of a reprise ever.

-Hairspray (stage): Haven't seen the movie version (and honestly don't really want to), but it's one of the better newer musicals I've seen and one of the rare few hits that isn't a jukebox piece.  I think it's much more enjoyable when you see it with a Baltimore native, though (my father was positively giddy over the in-jokes, including the fact that Tracy's high school was the one he attended).  It proves that, if people really want to, they can evoke the sound of an era without having to write a story around existing numbers of dubious appropriateness.  It also proves that, at least in my father's case, maybe knowing how things in the real world worked out isn't always a good thing.
-The Muppet Movie: Ask anyone who knows me - I will cry whenever I hear "The Rainbow Connection".  As funny and well-musicalized as this film is, I have always found "Never Before, Never Again" to be a slog, and why it was nominated for an Oscar over such gems as "Rainbow", "Moving Right Along", & "I Know I'll Go Back There Someday" is beyond me.  I guess the Oscars' irrelevance isn't anything new.
- The Producers (stage): Stage version only - do not get me started on the film version of the musical.  I'm impressed that my favorite film (the original 60s comedy with Zero Mostel & Gene Wilder) could make such a good musical, even if the love story is rather tacked-on (though, to be fair, you keep getting the feeling that it's intentionally like that).  There's nothing quite like seeing a walker kickline or a real live performance of "Springtime for Hitler" on a stage.
- Beauty and the Beast (film): My second favorite film from the 90s Disney Renaissance (after The Lion King) and the best musicalized thanks to Howard Ashman.  It has one of the few film romances that I really like, it has the funny sidekicks that Disney liked so much before they become intrusive, and everyone in the cast is likable (or, in Gaston's case, familiarly detestable).  It's another reminder that we lost Ashman way, way too soon.
- Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (70s film): I always liked this oddball, colorful movie, but I never really thought of it as a musical until Paw featured it as part of his Music Movies review series. Maybe it's because one of the early songs is obviously padding ("Cheer Up, Charlie") and half of the overall soundtrack is a reprise of "The Oompah Loompah Song".  But for "Pure Imagination" alone, it counts - that song & the whole scene attached to it is utterly beautiful.
- Spamalot: A very funny musical adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which also has pieces that poke fun at musical conventions, diva actors/actresses, and stereotypical theater audiences.  About the only thing that's hurt it in any way is how much acrimonious arguing its creation has spurred among the Pythons, which is just incredibly sad.

Well, that's it.  I know one person in my house who will be upset that there's no Rodgers & Hammerstein on my list, but hey, it's my list, not hers.  As usual, I'd love to hear from other people, either to argue about the list or share their own.


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