Gee, you folks really like lists, don't you? Well, I'm more than happy to comply.
I recently posted this semester's list of the "most overrated" musicals, as selected and defended by my current crop of students in my musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory. Many of you commented on the selections -- some agog, some aghast -- and said that you were looking forward to their selections of the "most underrated" musicals.
As promised, here we go, with the usual caveats. Students typically discuss their choices with me before they sit down to write, and I try to steer them toward shows that lend themselves to the "underrated" treatment, and away from the shows that don't work as well. So the following list is decidedly unscientific, and heavily influenced by yours truly.
Why is it that some shows work for this paper and some don't? Well, essentially, I use this paper to give the students an opportunity to start spotting and analyzing the various innovations, techniques, devices, and other signs of a quality musical that we're exploring in the course. Of course, most of these innovations spring from our discussions of Rodgers and Hammerstein. (e.g. integrated songs, dramatically purposeful dance, extended musical scenes/sequences, effective character arcs, uses of leitmotif and the dramatic reprise, etc.) So shows that don't adhere to the R&H revolution (Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys), or shows that come later in the historical sequence and deliberately subvert the innovations (Chicago, Cabaret, Movin' Out, Contact, The Drowsy Chaperone) are much harder for the students to defend, at least at this point in the course.
That said, here are the shows that received multiple "votes":
So, what exactly do we mean here by "underrated"? Well, essentially, there are two broad categories of underrated shows: hidden gems that don't get the attention they deserve, and big blockbusters that frequently get dismissed as being too frothy, too spectacular, too...well...popular.
Ergo, Wicked, clearly this year's winner, and by quite a hefty margin. I'm sure the fact that I consider Wicked underrated myself frees my students up to express their affection for the show, an affection that is often met with derision from their peers. I frequently receive comments on my own list of the most underrated musicals, particular as to how I could possibly consider Wicked to be underrated. The comments are sometimes impolitely incredulous. "Wicked!? UNDERRATED?! [scoff] How could you possibly consider Wicked underrated!? [sneer] It's, like, the most overrated show, like, EVER!!" (Actually, I should probably add some more egregiously capitalized words here, and maybe a dozen more exclamation points, but you get the point.)
Well, when I say that Wicked is underrated, I mean exactly that. And I think the intensity of the incredulity of some of my commenters only serves to reinforce the notion that people don't give Wicked enough credit for being more than just entertaining. It's also smart. The characters are complex. Glinda and Fiyero claim to be shallow, at least at first, but Stephen Schwartz gives them complex rhymes and clever wordplay to make their eventual evolutions more credible. "Don't be offended by my frank analysis/Think of it as personality dialysis/Now that I've offered to become a pal, a sis-ter and adviser, there's nobody wiser."
Schwartz also makes liberal use of leitmotif ("Unlimited...", "I'm limited...") and includes a really effective dramatically purposeful reprise. In fact, I include the following paragraph in the directions for the underrated paper to give the students a sense of what I'm looking for:
Wicked has a number of clever musical devices that help audience members understand what the characters are feeling. One particularly effective device is the use of the dramatic reprise. In the first act, Elphaba sings a song called “I’m Not That Girl,” in which she laments that she could never gain the hand of Fiyero, the show’s main male love interest. Elphaba sings, “Don't dream too far. Don't lose sight of who you are. Don't remember that rush of joy. He could be that boy, but I'm not that girl.” Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz paints a heartbreaking picture with just a few lines, nicely evoking Elphaba’s loneliness and resignation. But the real payoff comes later, when Glinda sings a reprise of “I’m Not That Girl.” The simple device of using the same song but switching characters deftly demonstrates not only that the tables have turned for Elphaba, but for Glinda as well. Glinda sings almost the exact same refrain as Elphaba, and the reprise is only four lines long, but it nonetheless conveys both Glinda’s loss and Elphaba’s gain.
What's more, Wicked is a terrific example of a show that people can enjoy on multiple levels. If you're just looking for spectacle and screlting, the show has both in abundant supply. But if you're willing to take a closer look at the underlying message of the show, it's actually fairly savvy when it comes to social commentary. Take, for example, the sly political reference in "Popular":
Celebrated heads of state,
Or even great communicators.
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don't make me laugh.
They were popular.
Please, it's all about popular.
It's not about aptitude,
It's the way you're viewed.
So it's very shrewd to be
Very, very popular, like me.
And who was the great communicator? Why, Ronald Reagan, of course. The idiot who ruled our country for eight years, not because he was bright ("Not just because you're bright..."), but rather because he was charming and had a way of saying genuinely horrendous things in a way that was palatable to far too many people in this country. ("Romney...cough, cough...Romney...")
Is Wicked a masterpiece? Hardly. I've never really been a fan of the bland power ballad that is "As Long As You're Mine." And there are a few minor songs that don't really serve much more purpose that they would if they were simply turned into dialog. ("A Sentimental Man" and "Something Ba-a-a-a-ad") But, overall, I'm genuinely thrilled that Wicked has become the seemingly unstoppable blockbuster that it is. Think of all the kids that get turned on by musical theater because of Wicked. I'd rather see them swoon over Wicked than The Lion King, Mary Poppins, or [shudder] Spider-Man.
But, then, the current list of underrated musicals doesn't completely conform to my personal preferences. I'm not really much of a fan of In the Heights, although it has its heart in the right place and contains many elements of genuine quality. [SPOILER ALERT] I just can't quite get past the deus ex machina plot resolution. Everything works out just fine because someone wins the lottery? Really? That's the message we're giving out to people seeking upward mobility? Play the lottery? Haven't lotteries done enough damage? Preying on the poor with false hope, exhorting them to divert huge portions of their income based on infinitesimal odds? How about making the plot resolution based on someone making a decision to effect a major change in his or her life through personal initiative?
But enough of my tirades and encomiums. What do you think of this year's list, dear reader? Surprises? Omissions? I'm all ears. (Unless you use all caps and/or exclamation points. In which case, my ears shut down.)
One thing that musical-theater majors are never short on is attitude. And when I started teaching musical-theater history at the Boston Conservatory, I decided I wanted to tap into that attitude. So, I developed two introductory writing assignments to help me develop a sense of what my students were capable of, as well as to give students a chance to figure out what I was looking for on the midterm and the final.
As regular readers will recall, this led to The Most Overrated MusicalTM and The Most Underrated MusicalTM, in which students choose, develop and support their candidates, all while developing a stronger sense of what makes for a quality show, using themes, structures, techniques and innovations that we discuss during the course.
Of course, the students' actual choices are just a conceit to get them thinking. It really doesn't matter, ultimately, which show they choose, so long as they're developing their analytical writing skills. Nonetheless, I always like to share the lists of shows with my readers, because the lists serve as a sort of unscientific barometer of the MT zeitgeist.
A few caveats: this list is heavily influenced by the discussions that students have with me before they write their papers. There are certain shows that I steer students away from, and other shows that I point students toward. So, again, this list is anything but scientific. Also, students can only write about shows for which they have direct access to the libretto. Between my own collection and that of the Boston Conservatory library, the students have access to hundreds of scripts. But, for instance, neither I nor the library has a copy of the script to The Lion King, which comes up a lot as a candidate.
So, after much ado, here's this year's list, with my attendant comments, harangues, dogmas, digressions, and miscellany. These are the shows that received more than one "vote" (i.e. the number of students who chose to write about that show as being "overrated"):
So, whaddya, think? Some pretty clear trends here. First, I tell students that there are essentially two classes of overrated shows: the "bloated blockbuster" versus the "shows that make MTs swoon." Clearly, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables fit into the former category, while The Wild Party and Children of Eden fit into the latter. In terms of sub-categories, there are the high-school perennials like Bye Bye Birdie and Anything Goes, and the modern-day power weepies like Rent and Spring Awakening.
And then there's Legally Blonde, which appears to be well on its way to becoming a high-school perennial. The show ran about 600 performances on Broadway, and as far as I can tell didn't recoup its original investment. The show received a much better reception in London, however, and recently ended a three-year run followed by a UK tour. It even won the Olivier Award for best musical. And yet my students clearly reflect the American attitude toward the show: not so much.
I must confess that, although I found Legally Blonde unbearably shrill when I first saw it, the cast recording is really starting to grow on me, mostly because of the work of composer/lyricist married couple Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin. (It's really no surprise that O'Keefe's work would become richer to me over time, since he's responsible for the score to one of my favorite shows of the last 15 years, Bat Boy.)
As I mentioned earlier, there are certain shows I steer students away from and others that I encourage them to consider for their papers. Over the ten years I've been teaching this course, I have found that, with certain shows, it's easier for students (generally freshmen in college) to figure out what's wrong and to provide specific support. With other shows, it's a lot harder to capture what's wrong. In fact, based on my life-long love of skiing, I've organized the usual suspects for the overrated paper into categories based on the trail-marking system that ski resorts use to steer skiers to slopes that match their level of ability. To wit:
GREEN CIRCLE (Easiest) - Legally Blonde
- Bye Bye Birdie
- The Sound of Music
- Spring Awakening
- The Phantom of the Opera
- Billy Elliot
- Anything Goes - Newsies
- In the Heights
- Big River
- Sweet Charity
- Funny Girl
BLUE SQUARE (Harder) - South Pacific
- Man of La Mancha
- Les Miserables
- Thoroughly Modern Millie - Mary Poppins
- Promises Promises
- 42nd Street
- Beauty and the Beast
- The Music Man
- Miss Saigon
- The Wild Party (Lippa)
- Children of Eden
Bear in mind that these three lists have nothing to do with whether I personally find the shows in question good or bad. Some of these shows I love, others I despise. I'm just saying that, in terms of the criteria that we establish in my course (meaningful integration of song, demonstrable character arc, musical sophistication, etc.), it's a lot easier for my students to find something to criticize in Bye Bye Birdie or Spring Awakening than in Gypsy or Chicago.
Some of the more difficult shows are challenging because they represent some sort of satire or parody that the students have a more difficult time wrapping their minds around (e.g. How to Succeed or Grease). Others represent a sort of post-modern or meta show structure (e.g. Chicago, Cabaret, The Drowsy Chaperone) that we won't really get around to addressing until later in the course.
And then there's Cats. It might surprise some readers that I find Cats to be a black-diamond show, but consider this: What exactly is wrong with Cats? Is it bad because it has no plot? Well, it has about as much plot as Company. And it pretty much has the some plot as A Chorus Line. (A bunch of dancing performers get together to compete for a certain honor. They all get their moment in the sun, and at the end the sentimental favorite wins.)
I've only ever had one student who came close to capturing what is really wrong with Cats. She focused on the fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber stuck too close to the original T.S. Eliot poems, which are mostly written in the third person. As a result, we rarely hear any of the cats singing about themselves, rather we hear about them from a third party. So, we never develop a bond with anyone on-stage, with the exception of Grizabella, who sings one of the few songs in the show that wasn't based directly on one of Eliot's poems. Pretty savvy, huh?
So, what do you make of the list, dear reader? Any surprises here? Any glaring omissions? Gimme a holler.
Dear Reader: As part of my course on the history of musical theater at the Boston Conservatory, I'm currently directing a staged reading of the Rodgers and Hart musical A Connecticut Yankee. What follows is my director's note from the show's program. The performances are this Friday, October 12th and Saturday, October 13th, both at 8 pm. If you're in the Boston area and would like to attend, call 617-912-9222 for reservations. Admission is free, but seating is limited, so reservations are recommended. --C.C.
When the Rodgers and Hart musical A Connecticut Yankee first appeared in New York City in 1927, the production ran a thoroughly respectable 421 performances. The economics of putting on musicals in the 1920s allowed shows to make a profit in as little as 100 performances, so this was more than enough of a run for the show to be considered successful. However, when A Connecticut Yankee was revived in 1943, the production was only able to eke out 135 performances, this despite two new Rodgers and Hart songs: “Can’t You Do a Friend a Favor?” and “To Keep My Love Alive.”
Why was the reception for the revival so much less welcoming? It helps to recall that Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat made its maiden voyage in 1927, and that 1943 heralded the arrival of Oklahoma!, the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. In 1927, A Connecticut Yankee reflected the typical show on Broadway at the time: flippant, frothy, forgettable, but nonetheless fun. Show Boat would, of course, change the course of musical theater, but it would take a good sixteen years for the innovations to fully take hold. By 1943, A Connecticut Yankee was a bit of a dinosaur, a fact made all the more apparent by Oklahoma! and the arrival of the fully integrated musical.
The irony here, of course, is that Richard Rodgers would be largely responsible for making the shows that he created with Lorenz Hart, including A Connecticut Yankee, a thing of the past. When Rodgers changed writing partners, from Hart to Hammerstein, he became part of the single most important partnership in musical-theater history, one that would reinvent the form and lay the foundation for the innovations of the future.
A Connecticut Yankee has since pretty much disappeared from the theatrical landscape, apart from a television production in the 1950s and a 2001 concert staging as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center. On the one hand, it’s a shame: the score represents Richard Rodgers at his most hummably melodic, Larry Hart at his most playfully inventive, and librettist Herbert Fields at his quip-master best.
But the show’s disappearance also makes perfect sense: the book is overly jokey, the songs are only partially integrated into the story, and the script contains numerous references to “specialties,” which in this case were essentially stand-alone dances that were intended to showcase particular performers, not further the plot.
The three men who created A Connecticut Yankee all grew up in the same part of New York City, within blocks of each other, in fact. Hart and Fields were slightly older than Rodgers, but they all went to the same summer camps, where they got their first experience at putting on stage shows and writing songs. Fields, of course, was the brother of now-famed lyricist Dorothy Fields, but he was also the son of Lew Fields, a hugely successful vaudeville performer, comedian, and eventually theater manager and producer. The elder Fields would become instrumental in providing opportunities for the three young men to get their work on stage.
Very early in their association together, the trio had the idea to turn Mark Twain’s satirical novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court into a musical. In fact, the Twain estate gave them the rights free of charge, if only for a year. It would take them years to actually write the show, and by that time they were already established writers and had to pay a premium for the stage rights to the novel.
In the 1920s, the songs for musicals were very often crafted not so much to serve a dramatic purpose as to become hits. A Connecticut Yankee certainly had its share of hits, including “Thou Swell” and “My Heart Stood Still.” The latter song has quite an interesting backstory, although the story of the song’s genesis is possibly apocryphal. The story goes that Rodgers and Hart were working in London and took a side trip to Paris. During a cab ride through the city, the taxi they were riding in was nearly involved in an accident. One of the young women who were riding with them apparently remarked, “Oh, my heart stood still!” Inspiration struck, and – voilà – a hit song.
What was definitely true is that Rodgers and Hart originally wrote “My Heart Stood Still” for London theater impresario C. B. Cochran, who was sort of the British counterpart to America’s Florenz Ziegfeld. Cochran included the song in his London Pavilion Revue in 1927. When Edward, the Prince of Wales (the same Edward who would later become King Edward VII, only to abdicate in order to marry Wallis Simpson), attended the show, he became an immediate fan of the song, and it went on to become a huge hit in Britain.
In fact, at one point, the legendary Beatrice Lillie wanted to include “My Heart Stood Still” in one of her stage shows. Both Rodgers and Hart felt that Lillie’s ironic performance style would be all wrong for the decidedly un-ironic song, so they claimed that they needed the song for the show that they were currently working on, which happened to be A Connecticut Yankee. However, in order to prevent Lillie from performing their song, they needed to purchase the rights back from C. B. Cochran, which set them back a reported $10,000 (roughly $127,000 in 2012 dollars).
The fact that Rodgers and Hart could take a song that was written for an entirely different production and insert it into A Connecticut Yankee is a fairly strong indication of how marginally integrated most of the songs in the show are. To be fair, this was 1927, and very few musical-theater practitioners were concerned about integration. (Show Boat and Oklahoma!, would change that.) And there are some genuine, albeit fledgling, attempts at integration in A Connecticut Yankee, including the show’s opening sequence, the opening of act 2, as well as a sequence introducing the audience to the court at Camelot.
But most of the remaining numbers in the show are virtually interchangeable. The secondary characters of Sir Galahad and Evelyn, his love interest, sing two songs that bear scant relation to the rest of the goings on in the show: “I Feel at Home With You” and “On a Desert Island With Thee,” although the latter gets points for at least throwing the idiomatic “thee” into the title. In fact, both numbers – and, indeed both characters – were excised from the 1955 television production of the show, without much effect to the plot.
One admittedly integrated song in the show’s score is “Thou Swell,” although the lyric is so dense it can be difficult to understand the song upon first hearing. When Hart was on his game, there were few lyricists who could surpass him in terms of verbal inventiveness (e.g. “I Wish I Were in Love Again” from Babes in Arms) and heartfelt simplicity (e.g. “My Funny Valentine” also from Babes in Arms). But Hart also displayed a strong tendency to write lyrics that were overly clever, calling attention to the wit of the lyricist rather than the plight of the character singing the song.
“Thou Swell” is arguably one of those songs. When A Connecticut Yankee was in production in 1927, many of those working on the show felt that the song’s lyric was perhaps a bit too dense and that the show might benefit from a new song in its place. But the song stayed, the audience response was very positive, and “Thou Swell” eventually made its way into the Great American Songbook, although this could be more due to Rodgers’ jaunty melody that Hart’s impenetrable lyric.
As for the Rodgers and Hart partnership, it was decidedly on the wane in 1943. In fact, while Rodgers and Hart were writing new songs for the revival of A Connecticut Yankee, Rodgers was also working with Oscar Hammerstein on Oklahoma!, the first of 9 stage shows the duo create together. Hart passed on Oklahoma!, reportedly because the rural setting didn’t really suit his writing style, but also because his famously dissolute lifestyle, including a significant dependency on and abuse of alcohol, was catching up with him. The last lyric Hart wrote was that of A Connecticut Yankee’s “To Keep My Love Alive,” a scathingly comic list song that represents Hart at his most clever, playful, and deeply sardonic.