I just finished grading this semester's crop of "underrated musical" papers. I know how much my readers enjoy hearing about which shows my students have chosen to defend, so I always like to pass the list along. This semester's top choices comprise a decidedly eclectic mix of shows. Here are the works that more than one student chose to write about:
Plenty of choices that melt my icy heart, particularly Once on This Island. Grading those three papers prompted me to break out the cast recording, which I haven't listened to in years, and it was a joy to rediscover this inventive and heartfelt little show. Once on This Island was the show that brought Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens to my attention, and this talented duo has been firmly on my radar ever since.
If you're not familiar with Once on This Island, I urge you to get a hold of the recording, which contains the show in its delightful entirety. It's basically a Caribbean take on the "The Little Mermaid," as opposed to the Disney version, which completely changes the ending, and the intent, of Hans Christian Andersen's original tale.
As for the other top choices, I personally love every last one of them. Working is especially dear, and contains quite a few powerful scenes and songs (particularly "Just a Housewife" and "If I Could've Been"), although there is the occasional misstep. ("Neat to Be a Newsboy," anyone? Yeesh.) As for Bat Boy, although many of my students over the years have chosen it as their underrated musical, nobody has ever really been able to capture why it's good in the course of writing their papers. They all take it way too seriously, and even if they do focus on the humor, they're never really successful at analyzing why it's just so darn funny. This is actually true of most of the wacky, zany Off-Broadway satires. (See Zombie Prom below.)
Here's the rest of the list, the shows that received one paper each:
On the Town, The Wiz, Once Upon a Mattress, She Loves Me, One Touch of Venus, Ragtime, The Wild Party (Lippa), Children of Eden, The Fantasticks, Goblin Market, Les Miserables, Assassins, Into the Woods, Parade, The Frogs, Zombie Prom, Curtains, Beauty and the Beast
A lot of usual suspects, including The Wild Party (yawn) and Children of Eden (Y-A-W-N). But I was rather intrigued by Goblin Market and One Touch of Venus. I'm not overly familiar with Goblin Market, although that student's paper made me want to dig out the cast recording and get a copy of the script. The show is essentially a Victorian poem (by Christina Rossetti) come to life in the form of an ambitious two-character show. I haven't had a chance to give it much attention, but it's definitely on my play list and night stand.
And then there's One Touch of Venus. I've never seen the show, but I have read the script, and once saw the rather lame movie version with Ava Gardner. But the Kurt Weill score is stunning, with some of his best songs, including "Speak Low" and "I'm a Stranger Here Myself." I used to include the show in my course syllabus, but I had to cut it because that particular class was running way too long. The story concerns a statue of Venus that comes to life and wreaks havoc in the lives of a few select mortals, and on the whole the show is a real charmer.
One Touch of Venus is one of those shows that was a huge success back in the day only to later slip into near obscurity. (Another example: Lady in the Dark.) Encores did it 13 years ago, and it's been dusted off by The Goodspeed Opera House and a few international theaters. But it's really the sort of show that could stand a first-class revival. It would probably require a big star, but maybe Catherine Zeta-Jones (A Little Night Music) will start a trend of big stars coming to Broadway to anchor musical revivals that otherwise not have seen the light of day.
Scarlett Johansen, are you listening, girl?