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":
The Light in the Piazza 4
The Scottsboro Boys 4
In the Heights 3
The Last Five Years 3
Once on This Island 3
110 in the Shade 2
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels 2
Floyd Collins 2
Legally Blonde 2
And here are the shows that received one "vote" each:
Annie Get Your Gun, Assassins, Bat Boy, Camelot, Children of Eden, GreyGardens, Little Women, Merrily We Roll Along, Once Upon a Mattress, Sunday in the Park With George, Parade, Passion, Pippin, She Loves Me, SideShow, The Color Purple, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, The Phantom ofthe Opera, The Secret Garden, Thoroughly Modern Millie.
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.)