No musicals week would be complete without a list, right? So that’s what today is all about – trying to figure out what my favourite musicals are. As I’ve seen hundreds of the things now (and that’s no exaggeration), it’s a slightly more difficult prospect than you might think; there’s an increasing range of genres and styles employed by musicals as well, so it’s harder to eliminate swathes of them for all sounding or looking the same…
I want to start briefly with some that didn’t quite make the cut. Girl From the North Country is a big favourite of mine (there was a collection of truly extraordinary performances in that show), but despite it being pushed into the ‘musical’ category by its producers, I always felt like it was a play with songs. And that’s not some sort of latent snobbery kicking in – it just didn’t shout “MUSICAL!” at me. So I’m sticking with my guns and not including it in this list, but I thought I really ought to give it a mention.
There are a handful of other shows that I couldn’t quite squeeze in; a few classics (Half a Sixpence, 42nd Street and Top Hat) and a modern classic in the making: The Grinning Man. This last one was one of the more original pieces of theatre I’ve seen in recent years, though it was shamefully ignored by the Oliviers panel.
I was determined not to get drawn in by the hype – I’m the kind of person who often gets pushed away if people rave about things too much. Prior to its arrival, I’d decided that I would obviously have to see it so I could make my own mind up about it, and that I’d test its storytelling ability by actively avoiding hearing any of the Broadway cast recording or reading about the real history of Alexander Hamilton’s life. Hands down one of the best decisions I’ve ever made! Unless English isn’t your first language, there actually isn’t any need to listen through beforehand; yes, some of the raps are quite fast but as long as you’re not daydreaming you can easily take in all of the information. Not only has Hamilton opened my eyes to a key period of history that often gets overlooked, but it sparked a bit of an interest in the origins of rap music – whether you’re a fan of the genre or not, the social history is absolutely fascinating. This show is a vital piece of art, and terrific entertainment.
Guys and Dolls
An absolute classic, and a show that I find totally irresistible. I first saw it at the Savoy Theatre in 2016 when it transferred from Chichester, and fell head over heels in love with it! Though it was first produced in the 1950s (based on stories from the 1920s & 1930s), it didn’t feel dated – the brilliant songs and some superb performances made it a real feel-good affair. Before then I’d never experienced an applause like the one following Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat; it seemed to go on forever, with the cast holding on & on before it died down. And I still think back to Sophie Thompson as Miss Adelaide and chuckle to myself! After going without it for two & a half years, I felt I absolutely had to visit the Royal Albert Hall towards the end of last year when they put on a semi-staged concert version of the show, where I was again captivated by Miss Adelaide – this time portrayed by the hilarious Meow Meow. It’s a show that should be put on regularly, as a guaranteed happy place.
Much of Emma Rice’s work ends up in the ‘play with music’ category, but her final new work at the Globe definitely moved into musicals territory. In conjunction with songwriters Kooman & Dimond, Rice adapted a French-Belgian film (Les Émotifs anonymes) into the sweet & charming Romantics Anonymous; a musical about socially awkward chocolatiers that immediately resonated with me. Even from the first preview it felt like utter perfection (and turned me into an emotional wreck) and word quickly spread, bringing a new audience into the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It’s a shame that there isn’t any flexibility for extending runs at that theatre, as there was definitely a demand for extra performances – though it’s confirmed as part of Simon Godwin’s first season at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a UK tour in conjunction with that…
Christopher Isherwood is one of my favourite authors, and the Berlin Stories are definitely up there with the best of his work; Goodbye to Berlin served as the inspiration for Cabaret, introducing the infamous Sally Bowles to the world – in fact, I plumped for green nail varnish this week as a tribute to this larger than life character. It’s an absolute classic musical from Kander & Ebb (also well known for Chicago), though the film adaptation starring Liza Minelli (directed by the legendary Bob Fosse) is possibly the first thing people think of if Cabaret is mentioned. I’ve only ever seen the Rufus Norris production from a few years ago – both at the Savoy and at the Bristol Hippodrome when it subsequently toured – which has its positives & negatives; the big plus was the casting of Will Young, who was seemingly born to play the Emcee. Despite my love of new work, I do keep hoping for a brand new production that highlights some different aspects of the show…
There was no way Sunny Afternoon could be left off this list! It’s the show that started me on this theatre blogging journey, helped me to settle into London, provided the backdrop of my crash course in theatre education, and found me a set of friends with whom I still frequent theatres (& pubs!). But more than that, it’s possibly the most well done jukebox musical that I’ve yet seen. The combination of Ray Davies’ autobiographical songwriting and Joe Penhall’s superlative abilities as a playwright meant that book and music were equally strong, avoiding the pitfall of a weak storyline & poor dialogue that’s typical of this kind of musical. The show’s exploits at the 2015 Olivier Awards speak for themselves, and each cast (two West End & one tour) put its own stamp on it, marking a very fulfilling two years of my life.