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Author’s Choice

June 2024
8min read

The 10 Greatest Musicals

The first musical I ever saw was South Pacific . I was taken to see it on my fifth birthday, only a month after it opened. Overprivileged brat that I was, I had no idea that I was being treated to the toughest ticket in the history of Broadway.

My sole memory of the original production today is Mary Martin washing that man right out of her hair. But my mother later told me I was so excited by it that I couldn’t go to sleep that night and that I sang—off key—tunes from the show for weeks afterward. I’ve been hopelessly in love with a wonderful kind of theater, the American musical, ever since.

But while I’ve seen South Pacific in other productions when I was more grown-up, it doesn’t—quite—make my top-ten list. It is not that there is anything wrong with South Pacific . Far from it; it’s a masterpiece. It’s just that there are ten other masterpieces that for reasons entirely arbitrary, capricious, and idiosyncratic, I happen to like even better.

South Pacific played 1,925 performances on Broadway. It produced half a dozen standard songs. Its original-cast album has been in print for nearly forty-four years. It has earned tens of millions of dollars. The fact that it is not, ipso facto, on everyone’s top-ten list only goes to show how extraordinarily rich, artistically, has been the American musical theater in the middle years of the twentieth century.

In truth, one must go back to late Elizabethan and early Jacobean London to find a time of equal theatrical fecundity. Like Shakespeare’s day, those years on Broadway were one of those incandescent moments in human history when genius and opportunity came together and created an enduring art form.

Today theatrical economics threatens the future of the American musical. Oklahoma! was mounted for eighty-three thousand dollars, but fully a hundred times that sum is needed to produce a major musical on Broadway today. Thus only sure-fire hits can get financing. And sure-fire hits are never the daring, experimental works that sometimes push an art form forward and renew its vigor. Instead, by necessity, they are formulaic, just as were the musicals that Oklahoma! made appear so old-fashioned.

On the positive side, the change over from LP to CD technology in recorded music has caused dozens of old original-cast albums to be remastered and made once more available. And the CD’s wonderful fidelity and long playing time have caused many of the greatest musicals to be recorded anew with world-class casts that could never be assembled on a stage and with their scores no longer truncated to fit on an LP. Thus, if the future of the American musical is problematic, at least its glorious past is now accessible as it has never been before.

So here, for what it’s worth, is my personal top-ten list, with brief notes on the best CD recordings of the stage versions and with apologies to all the dozens of wonderful shows that I happen to love only slightly less than I love these.

1 The King and I

The King and I (1951) is undoubtedly the Rodgers and Hammerstein dramatic, as opposed to musical, masterwork. Indeed, if you would like to understand how much a great librettist contributes to a great musical, rent the videos of the movie versions of Anna and the King of Siam and The King and I . Forget about the music for a moment (if that’s possible), and just notice how much tauter and better shaped the Hammerstein version is dramatically.

Astonishingly The King and I is basically a love story involving two people—an Oriental potentate and an English schoolmarm—who cannot possibly realize their love. In one of the great Broadway scenes, they obliquely acknowledge that love for one brief, shining moment in the glorious polka “Shall We Dance?” before they are once more torn apart by the separate cultures that bind them each. It is stunning theater.

There has not been a really satisfactory recording of The King and I until recently, when Julie Andrews and Ben Kingsley starred in an absolutely first-rate one (Philips: 438 007-2). Now if these two would only do it on the stage. I know. Just dreaming.

2 Show Boat

Show Boat (1927) was the first American musical to deal seriously with that besetting issue of American life, race. And its many revivals and three movie versions have traced the country’s attempts to come to grips with the problem. Just consider the very opening line of the show. In the 1927 original the chorus began: “Niggers all work on de Mississippi. Niggers all work while de white folks play.” By the 1936 movie the line had become “Darkies all work on the Mississippi.” In the 1946 Broadway revival it was “Colored folks work… .” And by the 1951 movie it had become the utterly bloodless “Here we all work… .” Today, in the grand restoration of the original score conducted by John McGlinn and starring Frederica von Stade and Jerry Hadley (EMI: CDS 7 49108 2), it is back to the artistically and historically honest “Niggers all work… .” That, believe it or not, is progress.

That Show Boat could deal so forthrightly with so volatile a subject over so many years testifies to its extraordinary dramatic and musical power. As the theatrical historian Miles Kreuger put it, Show Boat is not just another show: “It is basic literature. It is magic.”

3 West Side Story

West Side Story (1957) marked a considerable advance in the revolution that had begun with Oklahoma! , the complete integration of dance into the American musical. The very concept of the show was created by the choreographer, Jerome Robbins, and henceforth the chorus of Broadway shows would no longer be divided into singers and dancers. From now on the chorus had to do both, and the choreographer and the director were also often the same person.

The show’s nervous, dissonant, passionate music by Leonard Bernstein, the hip lyrics by the young Stephen Sondheim, its modern, urban, underclass setting, and its incomparable choreography made West Side Story seem very new indeed when it opened. Unlike many similar musicals that followed, it has never sounded old-fashioned in the least. While the original-cast album is by no means without its charms, for me, it is the definitive version conducted by Bernstein himself and starring Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras (Deutsche Grammophon: 415 253-2) that gets the prize for best recording.

4 Gypsy

Created for Ethel Merman, Gypsy (1959) was to be her last original Broadway show and the ultimate triumph of a triumphant career. It is a mark of how fast the Broadway musical developed after Oklahoma! that only sixteen years later a red-hot hit could have as its leading, indeed dominating, character a middle-aged woman who was driven, self-centered, and frankly obnoxious.

Yet the part is so powerful that it has been recorded no less than three times by stars of the first rank. Merman and the original cast (Columbia: CK 32607), Angela Lansbury (RCA Victor 60571-2-RG), and Tyne Daly (Elektra Nonesuch: 79239-2). The true aficionado will have all three, but if you have to pick, then it has to be Merman, now and forever, the one and incomparable.

5 Follies

The “concept musical,” which does not have a plot in the usual sense, was pioneered, as so much was, by Rodgers and Hammerstein in their unsuccessful Allegro (1947). But it was Company (1970) and especially Follies (1971) that really put the idea on the map. Follies tells the story of a reunion of performers and stage-door Johnnies who had known each other years earlier. It repeatedly moves back and forth between the present and an increasingly distorted past, as the memories tear the characters apart. If you have ever wondered why you hate reunions, Follies will tell you exactly.

It is, to my mind, Stephen Sondheim’s finest score, which is saying a lot. But be warned, if you have ever realized, much too late, that you were in love with someone (“Too Many Mornings”); if you have ever been really, really angry with your spouse (“Could I Leave You?”); if you have ever been dumped by someone you can’t help loving still (“Losing My Mind”), this score can have the impact of an emotional ICBM.

The original-cast album was a disaster, amounting almost to vandalism. Happily a concert version performed in 1985 with an absolutely all-star cast (RCA: RCD2-7128) is a triumph.

6 Carousel

Carousel (1945) is the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical masterpiece. Although it had the same producers, director, and choreographer as Oklahoma! , it is a much darker, more somber work, wholly different in tone and substance. Hammerstein, heaven knows, believed in love. But he knew full well that its consequences are not always happy ones. In Carousel a young mill hand, Julie Jordan, falls for a born screwup, the carousel barker Billy Bigelow. The consequences are unhappy, and only at the end does she understand that despite his many failings, Billy did indeed love her. Twenty years of pain are redeemed in an instant with that knowledge.

The score of Carousel is without peer among Broadway musicals, and “If I Loved You” alone is worth the price of admission. The best recording of it stars Barbara Cook and Samuel Ramey, with a splendid supporting cast (MCA: Classics MCAD-6209).

7 Guys and Dolls

I don’t know if Guys and Dolls (1950) is the funniest musical ever written, but it is certainly in the running. And while it is as unlike Rodgers and Hammerstein as a Broadway musical could be, the effect of Oklahoma! on it is very clear.

Just compare it with, say, Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (1934). The latter’s original plot involved a shipwreck. But the actual burning of the Morro Castle sent the book into hasty rewrite, and Anything Goes acquired an entirely new plot while the musical numbers were already in rehearsal. The 1984 revival had still a third book. Anything like that would have been impossible with Guys and Dolls , with its carefully shaped story and its perfectly integrated songs. Perhaps that is why its 1992 Broadway revival is nearly as big a hit as the original of more than forty years ago. That and the fact that it is howlingly funny.

The original-cast album (MCA Classics: MCAD-10301) is splendid, if technically primitive, lacking even stereo. The original-cast album of the 1992 revival (RCA: 0902661317-2) is just as good artistically and miles ahead in fidelity.

8 Pal Joey

Pal Joey (1940) has a score by Rodgers and Hart and a book by the novelist John O’Hara, who wrote the short stories on which it is based. The title character is a nightclub owner with the morals of a wharf rat, simultaneously involved with a wealthy older woman not above paying for his attentions and a younger one with more decency than brains. When the two women finally get together and compare notes, Joey is history. With real characters and real-life situations, Pal Joey , like Show Boat , is one of the most important milestones on the road to Oklahoma!

Unfortunately there is no wholly satisfactory recording. The studio album that sparked the enormously successful 1952 Broadway revival (Columbia: CKO 4364) with Vivienne Segal and Harold Lang is first-rate but technically limited because of its age. The 1980 London revival, now on CD (TER Limited: CDTER 1005), is much better technically, but, not surprisingly, the “English” shows through in this most American of shows. The score, Rodgers and Hart’s greatest, cries out for a noholds-barred, all-star, definitive recording.

9 Candide

Candide (1956), based on Voltaire’s novel, is Leonard Bernstein’s greatest Broadway score. But it was a flop when it opened, thanks in part to a humorless, didactic book by the distinguished playwright Lillian Hellman. Only when Hugh Wheeler wrote a new book in the early 1970s did Candide begin to achieve the status of the classic that it is.

The score, extraordinarily vocally demanding for Broadway, has incomparably witty lyrics by a whole crew of distinguished lyricists—principally the poet Richard Wilbur, John La Touche, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, and Stephen Sondheim. And Leonard Bernstein himself contributed to them.

Bernstein conducted what he called a “final revised version” in 1989, more than thirty years after the show first opened. This version was the last recording Bernstein made, and it is altogether wonderful (Deutsche Grammophon: 429 734-2).

10 The Music Man

Another musical comedy that could not have been written before Oklahoma!, The Music Man (1957) was Meredith Willson’s first and greatest Broadway show. It’s the story of a flimflam man who comes to an Iowa town around the turn of the century to sell the suckers on the idea of a boys’ band, collect the money, and run. His plans go awry when he falls in love with the town librarian, who, much to her surprise, falls in love with him. There is, needless to say, a happy ending for all concerned, especially the audience.

Among this show’s many charms and quirks are an opening musical number with no music, a barbershop quartet that functions something like a Greek chorus, and a wife of the town banker who manages to make the word Balzac sound obscene.

The only recording of the stage version is the original-cast album starring Robert Preston and Barbara Cook (Capitol: CDP 7 46633 2). While it suffers from the limitations of 1950s technology, it shows clearly why the show revived Preston’s career. It also preserves forever the utterly glorious, bell-like soprano of the young Barbara Cook.

—J.S.G.

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