I recently had a friend, in response to a negative review that I wrote, post on my Facebook page "Well, you hate everything." Even taking into account the obvious hyperbole there, I took significant umbrage at that remark. I most certainly do not hate everything. Why would I devote so much of my time and attention to musical theater if I didn't somehow find it captivating, moving, even transcendent?
I suppose the best evidence I can present to counter my friend's comment is the following list. This was easily the hardest one to compile, simply because there were so many shows that I was enamored of, or at least admired, in the past ten years. I had such a hard time choosing only ten shows that I ultimately gave up and expanded the list to 20, which I've broken up into two separate posts. And even then, I included an "honorable mention" category, which I will include in the next portion of the list. So I guess I don't hate everything, now do I?The fact that there were so many strong musicals to choose from certainly belies the notion that musicals are a dying art form. There's plenty of evidence to the contrary. The number-one album this week is Susan Boyle's I Dreamed a Dream. The hottest movie of the holiday season is Rob Marshall's "Nine." Musical theater may never be the cultural force that it once was, but reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.
The Best Musicals of the 2000s
20. Hairspray: I think a lot of us musical-theater mavens develop a knee-jerk distaste for the popular. It's almost as though admitting that we like something like Wicked (see below), or Les Miserables, or anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber is tantamount to surrendering our theater-queen credentials. Well, some of these shows have much to recommend them, and Hairspray definitely belongs in that category. How could you *not* root for a musical with a plus-size leading lady and message of racial tolerance? And when that musical delivers with a solid score (by Marc Shaiman and his life partner Scott Wittman) and an amusing book (by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan), well, all the better. The movie version was a bit of a bloated botch, overloaded with celebrities and would-be celebrities, but the show itself remains entertaining, and relatively true to the off-beat style of the 1988 John Waters film upon which it is based.
19. Caroline, or Change: One of the most interesting and ambitious musicals of this or any decade was Caroline, or Change. Any musical with a libretto by Pulitzer-Prize winner Tony Kushner (Angels in America) is worthy of attention, but Kushner delivered in spades with a show that confounded expectations and brought the form into new directions. The multifarious score further demonstrated that composer Jeanine Tesori is just as comfortable with more adventurous fare (Violet) as she is with musical comedy (Thoroughly Modern Millie). That said, the show is a bit of a downer. I mean, look at the CD cover: who decided that such a dour image would make people want to see this show? True, the image is consistent with the show's tone, but hey, throw the general public a bone, guys. Nonetheless, Caroline, or Change remains a challenging, moving, and -- for those who are willing to give it a shot -- satisfying musical.
18. The Producers: After the unmitigated mess that was Young Frankenstein, it might be easy to forget that Mel Brooks is a genuinely talented man, and that earlier in the decade he gave us one of the funniest musicals of all time, The Producers. Of course, having Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the lead roles was certainly a boon, but The Producers works well even without these talented men. Did the show really deserve its record-breaking 12 Tony Awards? I think not. (Best lighting? Best set design?) The Tony voters were very likely just looking to break a record. Was it worth paying premium prices of $400 or more? No show is. But now that the dust of hype has settled, and we can analyze the show for its objective strengths, I have the feeling that The Producers will be one for the ages, becoming a staple in regional theaters, and an enduring favorite among theatergoers.
17. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: One of the most pleasant surprises for me this decade was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I had never even seen the 1988 movie upon which the show is based, so I went in with no expectations. I was looking forward to seeing if composer/lyricist David Yazbek could follow up on The Full Monty (see below) with a score that was just as fresh, funny, and appealing, and fortunately he did not disappoint. Jack O'Brien's direction kept the show moving at a quick clip, and if Jerry Mitchell's choreography was a tad uninspired, there was plenty to enjoy in the leading performances, including John Lithgow, Sherie Rene Scott, Norbert Leo Butz, Joanna Gleason, and Gregory Jbara. The show unfortunately proved to be rather star-dependent; although it ran well with Jonathan Pryce, replacement Keith Carradine couldn't quite keep the show open.
16. Contact: There was quite the controversy when Contact made the move from the Mitzi Newhouse to the Vivian Beaumont. Musicians were up in arms because the show used prerecorded music. Theater purists were pissy because the show didn't match their rigid criteria for what could be called a musical. As I've said before, if the people who put a particular show together call it a musical, then as far as I'm concerned it's a musical. The question is: Is it any good? And Contact is good. Very good. The show comprises three distinct but thematically related dance sequences. The first is just a bit of fluff that brings a famous (if treacly) painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard to life. The second explores the fantasies of a woman in an abusive relationship. And the third relates the story of an unhappy advertising exec on one fateful night. The common element: contact. The desire for human contact. Writer John Weidman revealed that he does in fact have a heart (the vast majority of his musical-theater work to the contrary), and Susan Stroman showed us for the first time that she was capable of far more than creating stunning dance routines.
15. Wicked: I am completely unapologetic in my love for Wicked. I remember when I first saw the show, and I told my class that I really enjoyed it, one of my students said, "You what?!" and gave me one of the most dismissive looks I've ever seen. (Sometimes I think my students forget that I'm giving them a grade at the end...) Wicked is a show that people can enjoy on multiple levels. If you just want spectacle, you certainly won't be disappointed, but there are also some genuinely interesting and provocative ideas to be found, particularly in the scenes and songs featuring the Wizard: the notion that we need an enemy to define who we are, and the insidious appeal of fame and power. Original ideas? Hardly. But Wicked isn't just some fluffy, mindless spectacle. If you're listening, you might actually learn something.
14. The Full Monty: It seems as though the ticket-buying public only has room in its consciousness for one hit musical per season. So, frequently we get a situation in which a terrific show gets upstaged by a more successful competitor. In 2001, the big hit was The Producers, a show that was so hot, not even the 9/11 attacks could dampen ticket sales. Lost amid the ballyhoo was a strong musical that had opened 6 months earlier, The Full Monty. Now, the show wound up running about 770 performances, which is fairly decent, and which is why I didn't put Monty on my underrated list. Plus, the show really seems to be catching on in regional theater. I think this is because The Full Monty has a funny and moving book by Terrence McNally, and a terrific score by newcomer David Yazbek, who has since shown with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that he very likely has the power to sustain.
13. Passing Strange: Some of the best shows of the past decade were created by outsiders, folks who weren't schooled in the "rules" of musical theater, and who therefore didn't feel compelled to follow them. Passing Strange is one of those musicals. The show impressed me with its innovative storytelling and surprisingly accessible score. (Read my review and my re-review.) Stew's book and lyrics are erudite and allusive, although they do occasionally border on pretense. The show tells its coming-of-age story with just the right balance of humor and angst, and the result is a theatrical marvel. But when I mentioned Passing Strange in class recently, very few of my students had even heard of it. Perhaps that will change in January, when Spike Lee's filmed version of Passing Strange gets it DVD release. The show may have only run 165 performances on Broadway, but the DVD will assure that a greater number of people will get to experience the raw power of Passing Strange.
12. Next to Normal: I certainly have a long and tortured history with Next to Normal. The first time I saw the show, I was disappointed in the quality of the writing, but I also took great exception to the apparent message of the show, which I found to be profoundly anti-psychiatry. (Read my review of the Off-Broadway run here.) My review sparked the ire of librettist Brian Yorkey, and he sent me a number of angry emails taking me to task. When Yorkey's emails took on a more collegial tone, I responded politely but firmly, restating my initial objections. When I saw the show again on Broadway, I found it vastly improved in terms of its tone and emotional impact, but I still noticed a vestige of bias. (Read my Broadway review here.) Even so, I came to appreciate the show for its stirring story and moving score, and have actually become something of a fan. I find myself tearing up every time I listen to the recording. Not many shows take on subjects as serious as mental illness, and very few creators could have done it with as much style and compassion as Yorkey and his composer, Tom Kitt.
11. A Catered Affair: There were many musicals during the 2000s that didn't quite catch on, or even failed outright, but for me the most heart-breaking was A Catered Affair. Is there a place on Broadway for a small, sweet, heartfelt musical with nothing more on its mind than to bring a small, humble, flawed group of people to empathetic life? I'm really not sure. All I know is that I was thoroughly captivated by the show, from John Bucchino's lovely score to Harvey Fierstein's touching book. (Read my review and my re-review.) I find myself returning to the CD again and again, and find something new to appreciate every time I listen. The production also featured numerous strong, even revelatory, performances, notably those from Faith Prince, Leslie Kritzer and Tom Wopat. My hope is that the show will catch on with small theaters around the country looking for an off-beat but heartfelt show to captivate its audience.
COMING VERY SOON: The Top 10 Musicals of the 2000s