Following up on last week’s post, my love of musicals doesn’t stop with the golden era. In fact, I probably like just as many if not more musicals from the current “modern era.” Honestly, other than the date range (mid to late 1960s to the present), modern musicals tend to follow similar formulas to those of golden era musicals – speech, song, dance number, exposition, song, dance number, etc. In my mind, the difference comes in staging and storytelling (though it really depends on the show). Modern musicals tend to have more technical wizardry going on backstage and their staging is often more abstract (i.e. using scaffolding and minimal props as the set rather than fully realized backdrops that are meant to “feel” real). Story-wise, anything goes. Gone are the confines of a boy-meet-girl love story or happy endings. It’s not that golden era musicals didn’t cover complex subjects – at the heart of South Pacific is war and racism after all – it’s that they usually covered them up in lighthearted song and dance. Modern musicals are more likely to show humanity at its worst, and maybe, at its best, but always in song.
So when I’m hankering for a topsy-turvy ride into musicals of today and the recent past, where do I go? These five are a good start, for me, and for anyone.
Jesus Christ Superstar (stage, 1970; film, 1973)
I don’t know if most folks turn to Jesus Christ Superstar for religion, but in I find the religion of song. Even if you aren’t familiar with the Bible, you probably already know the story – Jesus Christ lives, teaches, heals, and dies (yes, that’s waaaay oversimplified, I know)– and it’s put to one of the most fantastic soundtracks imaginable. As a rock opera, it’s a fully sung show. While that might equate to sheer horror for some, it’s pure joy to my ears. I’ve never seen the show in person, but I really hope to someday. The movie version is wacky but very watchable, and it contains several cast members (Carl Anderson [Judas], Ted Neely [Jesus]) who pioneered the show on stage.
Les Misérables (stage, 1980; film, 2012)
The older I get, the more affected I become by the sound of Les Mis. The show may have run its course in popularity some twenty or so years ago (and I’m not sure I want to see the recent movie version with Wolverine and all that), but it’s still got some of the most powerful songs ever orchestrated on stage. The terrors of the French Revolution are experienced from numerous angles, but the show is far from dour. There’s plenty of fun to be had here and there, but it’s easy to go from laughing one minute to crying the next. I simply love getting swept up in all its emotions.
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (stage, 1979; film, 2007)
It’s hard for me to put into words the ecstasy of this show. I’ve seen Sweeney Todd on stage, in all sorts of televised version, and as portrayed by Johnny Depp. And I fall more in love with this musical every time I hear it. There have been weeks where I’ve listen to nothing but its soundtrack. Maybe that speaks poorly to my mental health and obsessive qualities, but I don’t really care. I could practically sing the damn thing note for note, and if that’s the only talent with which I leave this world, then so shall it rightly be.
Assassins (stage, 1990)
What fun could possibly be had in a musical about presidential assassins? Loads! Stephen Sondheim absolutely hit the history-meets-song ball out of the park with this show. It’s entertaining, ear-pleasing, and educational! I had the good fortune of working backstage on a production of Assassins, that that’s what got me completely hooked. The cast is quite memorable (and famous in name) and the songs fit each and every vignette that’s staged. I would have given my right arm to see its recent Broadway revival. And maybe my left arm and a kidney, too.
The Rocky Horror Show (stage, 1973; film, 1975)
The last full-fledged musical I saw was The Lion King. It’s one of those “musts.” Doesn’t matter if you hate Broadway, the theatre, or anything that’s not on television – The Lion King on stage must be experienced by everyone on the planet. That said, you’ll notice that The Lion King is not on this list, but its polar opposite, The Rocky Horror Show, is. The Lion King is one of the finest and most elegant examples of a Broadway show. The Rocky Horror Show couldn’t give two craps about what’s “pretty” and “appealing.” It struts to its own beautiful, twisted drumbeat, and you’re either on board or left standing at the station once that train is ready to go. And go it does. And I’m on board. 100%.
Like what you’ve just read? Cary posts to Geek Force Network every Friday; and you can also find more words that she put together in paragraphs at Recollections of Play, United We Game, and 8bit Kitchen.