In celebration of the Tony Awards I thought it might be fun to dip into musical theatre history and rank what I think were the best musicals to win the Tony for Best Musical. This is going to be both extremely fun and extremely nerdy.
32. 1955: The Pajama Game
Based on the novel "7 1/2 Cents", this piece is probably more well known for its choreography than anything else. Jerome Robbins was one of the directors and Bob Fosse choreographed, how's that for a team? The songs are better than they're given credit for. "Steam Heat" and "Hey There" have become standards in any songbook.
31. 2006: Jersey Boys
I'm not a Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons fan but I can't deny that this show set a new standard for biographical jukebox musicals. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical certainly takes a page from this 2006 hit. I also can't wait to see the Clint Eastwood film later this summer.
30. 2008: In The Heights
While it didn't have much competition that year, don't let that discount the impact that In The Heights has made. In my lifetime, there haven't been a lot of pieces of theatre that break barriers enough that they are performed by all types of casts in all types of location. I cannot wait to see what happens with Hamilton this year.
29. 1993: Kiss of the Spider Woman
My personal favorite of the Kander & Ebb team. This show beat out some great competition that year, Blood Brothers, The Who's Tommy and The Goodbye Girl. It featured a stellar cast with Chita Rivera, Brent Carver and Anthony Crivello all winning Tony's for their respective roles.
28. 1984: La Cage aux Folles
Even though I think Sunday in the Park with George was the better option, I can't deny this show's place in Tony history. This was the first Best Musical winner to center on a gay couple. The music is very good, and that's saying a lot from a Jerry Herman hater.
27. 2009: Billy Elliot the Musical
If West Side Story is the greatest musical not to win the Tony, then Next to Normal is #2 on my list. But Billy Elliot is a great musical. It features some truly remarkable moments and enhances an already fantastic film.
26. 1962: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Another Broadway classic, I've always loved this piece because of how well it captures the early 1960's workplace. It's probably why I loved seeing Robert Morse on Mad Men all these years. And while it takes place in the 60's, there is something timeless about the show as well.
25. 1963: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Far from my favorite of the Sondheim catalog, but it's certainly entertaining. Interestingly enough, every actor who has opened in the role of Pseudolus on Broadway (Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane) won a Best Actor Tony Award for their performance. In addition, Jason Alexander, who performed as Pseudolus in one scene in Jerome Robbins' Broadway, also won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical.
24. 1975: The Wiz
I've often said that if you're going to transpose the setting or time period of a show, make sure it makes sense and it's good. The Wiz accomplishes both of these. I also love how the show expands and re-invents The Wizard of Oz, highlighting other characters that aren't given as much attention in the original version. I am looking forward to seeing what the Bridgeport Theatre Company can do with this next year.
23. 1966: Man of La Mancha
As a Red Sox fan, this musical will always hold a special place in my heart. But more than that, it's a great piece of theatre. Man of La Mancha was first performed at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 1965. Curtain Call will be performing this next spring.
22. 198: 42nd Street
Another Broadway classic, I don't know a tap dancer who hasn't dreamed in being in this show.
21. 2011: The Book of Mormon
On paper it sounded fantastic, then it premiered and set the bar even higher. Musically, what Robert Lopez has done with this piece is incredible, but the comedy and center of the show is amazing as well. I finally saw this in Hartford this year and it was one of the funniest and entertaining shows I've seen in quite a while.
20. 1988: The Phantom of the Opera
There are some musicals that are better listened to than seen. I know that sound ridiculous, but there are some scores that are so good, that seeing them staged is underwhelming. Phantom is one of those shows.
19. 1952: The King and I
While Rodgers and Hammerstein went on to collaborate five more times during their career, this was the last of their great musical plays. All that followed The King and I could be more easily described as musical comedy. R&H wrote the show for Gertrude Lawrence who came to them with the story. Granted, her voice may not be the loveliest on Earth, but she's got the spunk and attitude necessary for the character. The rest of the cast, including the inimitable Yul Brynner is wonderful and the songs are performed at their best. Songs like "I Whistle A Happy Tune," "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance" are sung as well as can be expected by an at-the-end-of-her-life Lawrence. While they are all among the best songs written by R&H, they pale in comparison (in my humble opinion) to the two real winners in this score: the beautiful love duet "I Have Dreamed" and the score's best song "Something Wonderful."
18. 2012: Once
The movie "Once" and the accompanying songs are sacred ground for me. I have an emotional attachment to both that is a little difficult for me to explain. There is an openness and honesty to the songs that speaks to me. There's an incredible emotional fearlessness to The Frames/The Swell Season tunes that make up the soundtrack that's altogether rare. So, on to the Broadway show. It's different in the fact that every single cast member is a musician and all perform on stage. I think. Kazee outshines Milioti ever so slightly but if you take into account, the fact she has no formal musical training, she's more than equal to the task.
17. 1994: Passion
Based on the Italian movie Passione d'amore, Stephen Sondheim's Passion is a story of obsessive love. Giorgio (Jere Shea), a soldier, and Clara (Marin Mazzie), a woman with a husband and child, are deeply in love, but their idyllic happiness is disrupted when Giorgio is transferred to another post. Here, he meets Signora Fosca (Donna Murphy), a homely and ill woman who is the cousin of the regiment's commanding officer. Fosca soon falls in love with Giorgio and pursues him relentlessly, saying "Loving you is not a choice / It's who I am." He is repulsed and resists her advances, but eventually, he succumbs to the power of her love.
Rather than a succession of individual songs strung together by dialogue, Sondheim's score is a constant flow of gorgeous music. The plot is conveyed by song, some dialogue, letters between the characters, and a group of soldiers that serves as a Greek chorus. The result is more of a chamber opera than a conventional musical. The theatre of Stephen Sondheim can be, to the ready soul, a almost religious experience, and that's no exaggeration. When I see or listen to a Sondheim musical, and especially Passion, what goes on between my two ears and in my heart becomes special, precious and abiding. He gives shape and understanding to the conflicting feelings of love and passion in all their caprices and disappointments, and he pulls no punches in the disappointment and broken heart department.
16. 1982: Nine
Another great theatre debate, who should have won? Dreamgirls or Nine? Maury Yeston's score is full of infectious and, sometimes, haunting melodies and is very listenable. All performers give A+ performances with special honors to Karen Akers and Anita Morris. Raul Julia was a great actor who had a rougher singing voice that was filled with lots of character and bravado. He should have won the Tony for Best Actor in a cakewalk over Ben Harney, whose win honestly shocks me. Raul Julia is able to overcome any little liabilities he may have as a singer with strong acting, especially in the killer Act One finale "The Bells of St. Sebastian".
15. 1950: South Pacific
Certainly one of the few all time great scores for the musical theatre. Beginning with those first three majestic chords from "Bali Ha'i" through to all of the justly famous songs: "Some Enchanted Evening," "There Is Nothin' Like A Dame," "A Wonderful Guy," and "Younger Than Springtime" to the less famous but no less superb "Twin Soliloquies," "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught," and my personal favorite, "This Nearly Was Mine," everyone is a gem. The cast is flawless: Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza lead a cast with no weak links. Interestingly enough, except for the opening song sung by two children and three songs in which the chorus sings, every one of the songs in this classic show is sung by the four principal players.
14. 1965: Fiddler on the Roof
It might seem an odd choice for the honor, but this is undoubtedly the most beloved Broadway musical of the Sixties. The songwriting team whose earlier Tony Award winning success Fiorello! certainly never suggested they could create something as wonderful as "Fiddler." Zero Mostel heads the cast as Tevye, the dairyman, with Maria Karnilova as Golde, his wife, who, with "Do You Love Me?" have the best love duet between two married people in musical history.
13. 1998: The Lion King
First of all, to address some who don't believe it deserved the Tony: What the American Theatre Wing recognized is an historic and important step in theatre history. It on Broadway didn't attempt to merely transfer the cartoon images of the movie onto the stage (a la Beauty and the Beast). Instead, through the guidance of then-genius director and designer Julie Taymor, the glorious story was lifted and transformed through mask, puppetry, and dance into a multi-disciplinary wonder.
12. 2001: The Producers
The Producers was the vehicle that first proclaimed Mel Brooks's decidedly singular comic vision as a film director in 1968. At the time, the world may not have been entirely ready for the depth charges of hilarity he unleashed; but more than three decades later, it seemed almost certain that the film's retooling as a full-fledged musical, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman would become the smash hit of the 2000-2001 Broadway season. Brooks is, of course, no stranger to the Broadway musical genre or to songwriting, but skeptics might find themselves taken by surprise at just how outrageously well all the threads come together for the new show.
11. 2007: Spring Awakening
Who would have thought that Duncan Sheik would succeed where Paul Simon and Randy Newman failed, successfully transitioning from the pop-rock world to the Broadway stage? With Spring Awakening, Sheik and book writer/lyricist Steven Slater have created a thoroughly exciting show that incorporates a contemporary art-indie idiom into a dramatic musical theater context. The unlikely setting is that of a Frank Wedekind adaptation, but as it turns out, teenage angst is perennial, whether it's in contemporary America or in a 1891 German boarding school. Songs such as "The Bitch of Living", "The Word of Your Body," "I Don't Do Sadness," and "Totally Fucked" resonate with the rage, frustration, confusion, excitement, joy, anger, and of course budding lust of those hormone-driven years. The show is greatly enhanced by its youthful cast members including then unknown Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher, who sing their hearts out.
10. 1980: Evita
Evita was Andrew Lloyd Webber's last show with Tim Rice before he went on to projects with less interesting collaborators, so it's no surprise that it remains his most consistently involving and rewarding work. Loosely based on the life of Eva Peron, the charismatic wife of post-World War II Argentine president Juan Peron, Rice's compelling story of one woman's rise from poverty to power is complemented by Lloyd Webber's colorful music as propelled by vigorous Latin rhythms. The showstopper, of course, is "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," but the score is full of gems, including "On This Night of a Thousand Stars," "Oh, What a Circus," and "Another Suitcase in Another Hall." Headlining the 1978 Broadway cast, Patti LuPone is fabulous in the title role, showcasing her big voice and brash egotism in the role she was born to play. Mandy Patinkin is Che, the Greek-chorus character commenting on and criticizing the Perons, and his tenor is sweet on the ballads and powerful on the driving numbers. LuPone and Patinkin made their names with Evita (and took home well-deserved Tonys), but it's the third principal, Bob Gunton, who elevates this cast to the stratosphere. As Peron--a role often filled by a nonsinger--Gunton inflects his strong voice with both menace and sensitivity.
9. 2004: Avenue Q
Avenue Q will only fuel the frustration of those who think that Broadway has given up on sophisticated entertainment geared to adults. "Whatever happened to Cole Porter's witty rhymes and mature subject matter?" they'll say. Well, it's hard to deny that Avenue Q's main frame of reference is Sesame Street and that its humor can be very broad, yes, there's profanity and puppet sex. But the show also displays heart ("The More You Ruv Someone" typically begins with "Why can't people get along?") and a pretty satisfying zany streak. Musically, the score is rooted in 1970s pop, with nods to the aforementioned Sesame Street. The excellent cast, dominated by John Tartaglia and Stephanie D'Abruzzo, does it justice, milking the humorous numbers for all they're worth and finding pathos in the more straightforward ones. Not bad for a childish show.
8. 1987: Les Misérables
After Les Misérables became a huge hit in London, it moved to Broadway, bringing along two stars from the London production, Colm Wilkinson as the heroic Valjean and Frances Ruffelle as the despondent Eponine. Filling out this 1987 cast are Randy Graff (Fantine), Terrence Mann (Javert), David Bryant (Marius), Judy Kuhn (Cosette), Michael Maguire (Enjolras), and Leo Burmester and Jennifer Butt (the Thénardiers). Whether you prefer the London cast or this one just might depend on which one you heard first. Regardless of cast, Les Misérables has become a sensation. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's score is filled with beautiful ballads ("Bring Him Home," "I Dreamed a Dream") and rousing anthems ("One Day More," "Do You Hear the People Sing?"), and Victor Hugo's classic novel of a student uprising in early-19th-century France provides a compelling story line that continues to thrill audiences all over the world.
7. 1979: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is closer to the operatic world of Verdi and Donezetti than it is to Rogers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Lowe, and there have been times when it has been performed in opera houses as well it should. This show is replete with arias and quintets, duets and chorus numbers. More than any other American "musical" I can think of, there are different characters singing different things at the same time, just what you would expect to find in an opera. Besides, like an opera, most of the main characters are dead by the time the curtain rings down. This is Sondheim at his best, coming up with some of his most beautiful melodies in a show where the "hero" and "heroine" cut people's throats and bake them into pies. Consequently while you have "Not While I'm Around" sung by a poor boy to his surrogate mother and "Johanna" sung by young Anthony to his intended, you also have "My Friends" sung by Todd to his set of sharp razors. Sondheim has always delighted in such ironies.
6. 1996: Rent
Into Broadway's creative vacuum of revivals, movie adaptations, and Hollywood star vehicles comes Rent, the story of squatters, junkies, performance artists, struggling musicians, drag queens, aspiring filmmakers, and HIV-positives (and you thought Miss Saigon's helicopter landing was cool). Undoubtedly among the defining pop cultural events of 1996, it brought substance back to the Great White Way. Transposing Puccini's 100-year-old opera La Bohème into modern day Bohemia (19th-century Paris's Left Bank becomes late-20th-century New York's East Village where the scourge of tuberculosis becomes the plague of AIDS) Rent celebrates life among the young, sick, and unconventional. While Broadway shows are hardly the place for authentic portrayals of the latest marginalized hipsters, composer Jonathan Larson (who died at age 36, days before his musical opened) managed to sculpt vivid characters and scenes that bring Avenue A as close as it will ever come to 42nd Street. And by telling a socially relevant story of living without the guarantee of a future (renting, that is), Larson does his own little bit to define an X'ed generation.
5. 1969: 1776
For me, this is one of the most entertaining AND intellectually worthy amalgams of music, lyrics, book, theme, plot, characterizations and dialogue to ever come out of pre-1970's Broadway musical theatre. Each song is like a little gem, and displays the broad range of emotions and ideas with which 1776 brims. Satiric, romantic, hilarious, heartbreaking, disturbing, dark, inspiring, thoughtful, humane, and even a little bawdy, the songs glide and tromp all over the map, as does the show itself. 1776 broke open the Broadway musical, making it a pitch-perfect example of what can truly make a musical more than a toe-tapping time killer while never becoming tedious, pompous, windy, or dull. If anything, it crackles with suspense.
And as to the reviewer who was shocked that it would win out over Hair? Listen to "Mamma Look Sharp" or "Molasses to Rum to Slaves" to hear exactly the play's political and often-unflattering ideological landscape. This was definitely a Vietnam-era play whose content was as disturbingly pertinent, then, as it is, now. And, despite all of this, the score and play never become leaden or preachy. On the contrary, each performance is a gem, and each character is witty and unique. Who knew that history could be a passionate and fun adventure?
4. 1960 Tie: The Sound of Music
While the film should be credited for inspiring millions, it's the music itself that caught people's attention.
3. 1971: Company
This represents the pinnacle of Sondheim's achievement and a bastion of the greatest music Broadway has ever sponsored, both from a musical and literary perspective. Company itself is by turns warm, acerbic, amusing, frantic, and is a magnificent expression of the convoluted emotional lives of modern urbanites.
2. 1967: Cabaret
That chilling introductory drumroll and cymbal crash, followed by the equally chilling sound of Joel Grey's voice singing "Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome," is enough to tell the listener that CABARET is an exceptional show and that its original cast recording is exceptional, too. In CABARET, realistic book scenes are interspersed with floor show-style sequences that comment on the action. The result is a moving, disturbing take on the rise of the Nazis in 1930's Berlin. There is no question that the librettist/composer/ lyricist team of Joe Masteroff, John Kander, and Fred Ebb, aided by the innovative staging of director Harold Prince, created a revolutionary musical.
1. 1957: My Fair Lady
After all these years, My Fair Lady, starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, featuring the incomparable Stanley Holloway, never lost its charm. George Bernard Shaw's classic tale, Pygmalion, comes to life under the genius direction of Moss Hart. Rex Harrison oozes charm from every pore, in his masterful portrayal of Henry Higgins. And, by George, Julie Andrews really got it as she sings like an angel in her rendition of Eliza Doolittle.
When I hear Julie Andrews' wonderful voice next to the immortal talking songs of Rex Harrison I cannot imagine a more perfect duo. It's like Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire dancing through their vocal chords. Add to that, Alan Jay Lerner's incredible lyrics and Frederick Loewe's delicious score, and you have theatrical magic.