My sister, whose birthday it is today, was once a lot like me. Followed musicals, wanted to be up on the latest scores, see the latest shows. Eventually, life (and living in Los Angeles) meant she couldn’t keep up, and, by her own admission, the last quarter century of musical theatre history is somewhat murky to her. Perhaps you feel the same. When I listed thirty Shows You Should Know a couple of weeks ago, there was nothing from the past twenty-five years. And that’s because I had in mind an audience that knows the recent shows but not the classics. So, if you know only the classics and not the newcomers, this should help.
City of Angels is an old school delight. By that I mean that what it brings to the table are elements that had been entertaining audiences for the previous fifty years. For example, David Zippel’s lyrics are the most intricately rhymed and clever set that I can think of. Nobody writes lyrics this way anymore. (Well, except for me.)
Closer Than Ever was a revue mostly made up of Maltby & Shire trunk songs, but, really, who writes better than Maltby & Shire? Once, they were protégés of Sondheim; I now believe the disciples have exceeded the master.
William Finn’s family-with-gay-father saga, Falsettos, is innovative in some of the ways one might have hoped the genre would evolve. It’s sung-through, but unlike a lot of Eurotrash nobody warbles “Please pass the salt.” Characters are always at a high enough emotional pitch to justify song, which is a little exhausting. The music sounds like Dixieland reflected through a fun-house mirror. The lyrics embrace what might be called a craft mistake: Finn, for the sake of a rhyme, will let his train of thought get derailed. But this serves to make many lines feel unexpected. A sense of zaniness is never far from the picture even when the subject turns serious.
Falsettos started as two Off-Broadway musicals. In the 90s, one could still look to Off-Broadway for experiments that hadn’t been tried before. Floyd Collins might be the era’s most-praised work, introducing a revolutionary composer-lyricist, Adam Guettel. Another voice-to-be-reckoned with, Andrew Lippa, did his best work in John and Jen. My old friend Jeanine Tesori made a stunning debut with Violet, my favorite of the shows in this paragraph.
William Finn wrote a very fine score to A New Brain; it’s great fun on record, a little puzzling in the theatre. And the odd fleshed-out drag act, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, was a commercially successful rock musical that – gasp! – even got a movie adaptation.
What puzzles me about the era following Hair is that there weren’t a lot of shows using rock or pop styles effectively. So, when Rent came along, it seemed the answer to many a contemporary music fan’s prayers. The best-loved of songwriters who sound like they’ve listened to more radio than Broadway is Jason Robert Brown. Some of his tunes are undeniably appealing, and The Last Five Years’ two-person cast assures it of many a production for years to come.
Perennially popular rocker Elton John tried his hand at musicals, with a great deal of success. The Lion King is a mega-hit, and Aida and Billy Elliot drew crowds for years. Clearly, he has something on the ball. But were you expecting me to mention Andrew Lloyd Webber? Post-Phantom, his shows have been such duds he’s barely a blip on the cultural radar.
I’ve also little regard for Jekyll and Hyde but it’s a popular and important score in certain ways. Frank Wildhorn, who’d penned hits for Whitney Houston and the like teamed up with a long-past-prime British lyricist and used an outside-the-box method of shepherding their Eurotrash melodrama to Broadway, recording an album (using Streisand sound-alike Linda Eder). The songs are startlingly inane (Someone Like You, This Is the Moment) but work as ear-worms. So, the record achieved some popularity, leading to productions and, eventually, Broadway, where it lost money. Now, it’s about to be revived on Broadway; God help us.
Some will find it surprising to see Jekyll and Hyde and The Secret Garden lumped together, but both are based on books I read in my youth, have some catchy tunes marred by lousy lyrics, and bore the hell out of me. Those who reflexively utter “They don’t write ’em like they used to” would be surprised by some of Lucy Simon’s genuinely pretty melodies. One is Matchmaker, Matchmaker refashioned as a 4/4 ballad with an added note, so I’d argue that some write ’em exactly like they used to.
If, instead, you were looking to Broadway to be big, ambitious and emotionally stirring, like it was back in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s time, you had to have been pleased by Ragtime. It impressed me for the same reason Les Misérables did – that it manages to put so much story on stage. Yet, you’d think I’d feel more for a piano player and new father than I do.
The songwriters’ Broadway debut, Once On This Island, though, is one I’ve only good things to say about. The young and intelligent team of Flaherty and Ahrens very creatively told a simple Caribbean love story: one of the outstanding shows of this period.
As the millennium turned, funny musicals began to appear again on Broadway. They’re Shows You Should See, for the fusillade of punchlines, but, in many cases, there’s little point bothering with the cast albums, for that’s not where the humor resides. I’m talking about The Producers, Hairspray, Spamalot, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Drowsy Chaperone and The Book of Mormon. I give a show a lot of credit for making me laugh, and recommend two with scores by David Yazbek, The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: some truly hysterical songs in there, plus a couple of moving ones. Similarly, I’m tickled by the dirty puppet musical, Avenue Q.
Now it’s beginning to seem like I’m listing way too many. Quickly: Seussical, after bombing on Broadway, became the most produced musical in America. Wicked is, by some distance, the weakest of Stephen Schwartz’s Broadway scores, but it has its moments. Thoroughly Modern Millie is an old-fashioned trifle; one could have seen something similar fifty years earlier. In the Heights uses a wide variety of pop music styles, not commonly heard in the theatre. And I’ll close with one with music so innovative, most of the audience had never heard anything like it: The Light in the Piazza. It may require a sophisticated palette, but it sure moved me.