The 2000s represented a renaissance of sorts for musical theater. The previous three decades were often grim, both in terms of the number of shows per season and the tone of the shows themselves. But with the advent of the new millennium came a few heartening trends. First, there was the return of musical comedy (The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Full Monty), which was in rather short supply since the 1960s. Second was the "Little Show That Could," small funny shows (Avenue Q, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Drowsy Chaperone) that proved that you didn't have to be an overblown spectacle to make money on Broadway. Rest assured that the above-listed shows will feature prominently in the forthcoming lists.
In keeping with my previous lists, I'll be dividing the shows of the 2000s into four categories: The Most Overrated, the Most Underrated, the Best, and the Worst, in that order. Look for the remaining lists to follow over the next few weeks.The Most Overrated Musicals of the 2000s
10. Thoroughly Modern Millie: Now, truth be told, I actually enjoy Millie, but the show earned its place on this list simply because it beat out Urinetown for the best-musical Tony. Excuse me? Millie is a pleasant diversion at best, with a moderately enjoyable score and a funny-but-slight book. But, as my students point out each year in their "overrated" papers, Millie has at least two songs that serve no function whatsoever -- "Only in New York" and "Long As I'm Here With You" -- both of which happen to belong to Muzzy. Millie is certainly fine for what it is, but it's no Urinetown. Not by a long shot.
9. Legally Blonde: Again, there are certain aspects of Legally Blonde that I can appreciate, particularly some of the songs. But overall I found the show lacking any real depth or humor. Even light musicals need three-dimensional characters, and in that department, Legally Blonde comes up decidedly short. The show will doubtless have a healthy afterlife in the high school-community theater realm, and there are certainly worse shows that they could be doing (cf. Fame and Footloose). But, for my money, Legally Blonde ranks rather low in the movie-to-musical genre, and that's not a particularly illustrious genre to begin with.
7. Spamalot: I have two obsessions: musical theater and Monty Python. So you'd think that a show that brought these two together would have me kvelling. Nope. Spamalot was rather amusing in performance, sometimes riotously so. But I can never quite get past the show's score, which is simply atrocious. The musicality is primitive, and the lyrics are forced and awkward. All of which would seem beside the point for the show's presumed fan base, but as a musical-theater aficionado, I must cry foul. Perhaps if composer John Du Prez and librettist Eric Idle had brought in some more experienced hands to shape the score, the result would have been more satisfying. But, for me, Spamalot was a major disappointment. Plus, it beat out The Light in the Piazza, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for the best-musical Tony, and Spamalot is easily the least distinguished of the lot.
6. In the Heights: When I first saw In the Heights Off-Broadway, I was unimpressed. I found the emotions pat, the plot contrived, and the performances overwrought. The show underwent significant changes en route to Broadway, and the end result was much tighter and more enjoyable. But it's still a cartoon. If you take West Side Story, remove all the drama and tension, and substitute unbelievably noble stick figures for characters, you basically get In the Heights. That said, the choreography was outstanding, and Lin-Manuel Miranda shows promise as a composer and lyricist, although his Spanish lyrics for the West Side Story revival were less than stellar. Overall, either Passing Strange or Xanadu would have been a superior choice for best musical in 2008.
5. Spring Awakening: I think a lot of us, myself included, were a bit dazzled at first by the raw energy and bold presentation of Spring Awakening. The show has a great message to impart, and the style and youthful exuberance were hard to resist. But the show hasn't held up upon repeated viewings, at least not for me. Too many of the songs have scant relevance to the plot. Yes, this was deliberate on the authors' part, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Also, the show has too many subplots that are left under-developed, particularly the ones concerning abuse and homosexuality. And, try as I may, I simply can't abide by slant rhyme, which occurs in annoying profusion throughout Steven Sater's lyrics and Duncan Sheik's score. It may be an acceptable practice in popular music, but I hold musical theater to a higher standard. Flawed though it may be, Grey Gardens was my choice as best musical of 2007.
4. Movin' Out: I never got to see Movin' Out when it was on Broadway. Let me rephrase that: I never wanted to see Movin' Out when it was on Broadway, where it ran for 1,303 performances. Much as I admire Twyla Tharp, and as iconic as Billy Joel was during my 1970s youth, the idea of the show just never appealed to me. I did finally see Movin' Out on tour, and was underwhelmed. Tharp displayed little of her trademark eclecticism in her choreography, and the show was only sporadically...well...moving. It's no wonder her second songbook effort, The Times They Are a Changin', based on the songs of Bob Dylan, died a quick and ignominious death in 2006. But Twyla remains undeterred, and is in the process of developing Come Fly With Me, based on the Frank Sinatra songbook. The word on the street is that the show is actually quite good, so I'll reserve judgment until I get a chance to see it. But as for Movin' Out, yeah, not so much.
3. Mary Poppins. I remain thoroughly bewildered by the success, and extended Broadway run, of Mary Poppins. I absolutely hated the show when I saw it in London. Friends exhorted me to give the show another chance, and I simply couldn't bring myself to. I found the entire enterprise irritating and shrill, lacking any and all of the charm of the original "Mary Poppins" movie. The new songs added nothing, the staging was pointless, and the set was dull and washed out. I'd rather sit through a revival of Lestat than endure the sheer pain of Mary Poppins again. There aren't enough spoonfuls of sugar in the world...
2. Mamma Mia: It's so easy to bash Mamma Mia. Too easy. I must admit I had fun when I saw it on tour in Boston. But the show is now the 13th-longest-running show in Broadway history, and will soon pass Grease to become number 12. It ain't that good. The book is thinner than parchment, and the well-known songs often feel wedged in with a ball-peen hammer. And the movie...oh, my sainted aunt, that movie. The show somehow works much better on stage, but just the fact that Mamma Mia the show gave rise to that cinematic atrocity is reason enough to earn the show its place on this list. Plus, Mamma Mia was the show that started the whole jukebox musical trend, and for that, it must pay.1. Billy Elliot: There really wasn't a contest here. For me, Billy Elliot is one of the most overrated musicals of all time, let alone the decade. I saw it in London and was nonplussed. I saw it again on Broadway, and saw just a bit more to admire than I had the first time, but I was still sort of meh. As with most of the other musicals on this list, I'm not saying that Billy Elliot is a bad show. It's just not the second coming, which many people seem to make it out to be. The score is forgettable at best, clumsy at worst. The dance is dynamic, but indistinct. The story is quite moving, and there are some really charming moments throughout the show. But I simply don't think it's one for the ages. The real nail in the coffin for me was when the Tony voters gave the best actor award to all three Billys. Oh, isn't that just adorable. We wouldn't want to have to make an actual decision and hurt someone's iddoo biddy feewings, now would we? The Billy I saw - the now-departed Kiril Kulish - was a terrific dancer, but no great shakes in the acting department. To my mind, Billy Elliot is admirable in its intent, but significantly flawed in its execution. The delightful movie "Billy Elliot" deserved far better.