Buzz Worthy: The all-time best musicals, and some of the worst

mclear@bradenton.comAugust 4, 2013 


I came to this job six months ago, and among the first things I heard was that the Manatee Players would, sometime this season, stage "Les Miserables." At first they were being coy, presumably for legal reasons, announcing that they would be doing a major musical that they couldn't name but that wouldn't make audiences "miserable."

I was not enthused because, at that point, I had of course not seen the Manatee Players' spectacular new theater and didn't think they'd be able to pull off such a mammoth show.

Now, after seeing the theater and the Manatee Players' excellent staging of the similarly demanding "Miss Saigon," I'm thinking this could be the musical theater event of the season.

It got me thinking of what other musicals I'd like to see again, either by touring companies or by locals. So here are a few of my favorites.

Before I start: I've found that tastes in musicals are especially divergent. When I talk to my theater friends about musicals everyone has strong opinions, and the same number of people rank "Rent" (for example) among their favorites and least favorites. I don't see that phenomenon with straight plays.

So I expect no one will agree with my list.

1. "Hair." Iconic and iconoclastic, historic, consciously frivolous, and packed with amazing songs. So much fun.

2. "West Side Story." Dated in some ways, but timeless in most, with Stephen Sondheim's poetic lyrics matched by Leonard Bernstein's glorious music and Jerome Robbins' chorography.

3. "Avenue Q." It's likely this one won't stand up through the decades because it's so tied to pop culture. But it sure is fun, and so, so clever.

4. "Carousel." Only the second show Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote together, but arguably their best. One heart-rending song after another.

5. "Les Miserables." By far the best show of its era, that bleak period of lugubrious musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and his imitators. Poignant and lovely.

Ones that almost made my list: "Children of the Day" (co-written by Manatee County resident Phil Hall), "Urinetown," "Oklahoma!," "Mamma Mia!" (don't judge it by the awful movie), "Oliver!" and "The Music Man."

And while we're at it, some of my least favorites:

1. "The Phantom of the Opera." Stunning stagecraft, but tuneless, gloomy and obnoxiously pretentious.

2. "A Little Night Music." Like a lot of Sondheim shows, ponderous, and more interesting than entertaining.

3. "Jekyll and Hyde." It really wasn't a great story to begin with, and Frank Wildhorn made it worse by replacing the drama with melodrama.

4. "Wonderland." Another Wildhorn turkey, spawned in Tampa. After years of tweaking it went onto run for on Broadway for about three weeks. Some decent songs but an indecipherable story.

5. "Menopause the Musical." Just plain stupid.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow

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