So, as my loyal blog-followers may recall, in June I began to compile a list of my 10 favorite nights in the theatre out of 30-some years of theatre-going. I only made it to three. This second installment will feature "The Broadway Musicals."
I'm an actor. I don't sing or dance while anybody's looking or listening. I LOVE going to straight plays (plays with nobody singing, regardless of their orientation) from Shakespeare to "Clybourne Park," which just won the Pulitzer and the Tony for Best New Play. I preach to my students, usually fruitlessly, the joys of going to non-musical plays, which they usually seem not to have known even existed. I do believe that there is nothing like sitting in a theatre and watching live people living imaginary lives, or to witness close-up the technique and artistry of wonderful actors. (I remember once coming out from intermission at "Long Day's Journey into Night," which is one of the greatest American plays, and hearing a matinee lady complaining that there was only one set. She had seen a musical last week that had so many sets and costumes! I guess I still have some missionary work to do on behalf of straight plays.)
But, I've gotta admit: I loves me some musicals! And I choose to believe that it doesn't make me shallow. Musical theatre can be a perfect way to express story, mood, character and emotion. Although going to a musical sometimes means checking your brain at the door and not expecting anything from the acting beyond loud, brassy and smiley, the following musicals demonstrate the potential power, beauty and artistry in the form of musical theatre.
On my list of Top 10 Nights in the Theatre, the musicals start with:
4. "A Chorus Line" (1976) Perhaps the perfect Broadway musical. I saw it the day I arrived in New York the first time with my high school Thespian troupe. It's simple, intimate, clever, funny, sad. The music and choreography are beautiful and perfectly express the feelings of the characters. It changed the face of musical theatre when it premiered, and certainly inspired a boy from the midwest. I wish it could run forever so that everybody can see what musical theatre can be.
5. "Sunday in the Park with George" (1984) I do believe that Stephen Sondheim is the only certified genius working in musical theatre today, so my 5 and 6 spots go to his two best. "Sunday in the Park" is a brilliant meditation on what it takes to be an artist. The first act is perfection, and the second act sometimes has a hard time living up to the standard, but, if nothing else, is worth sticking around for to hear "Move On," which is one of the most beautiful and moving songs I've ever heard. It's also a motto to which I try to live my life.
6. "Into the Woods" (1987) (which was just revived this past summer in Central Park in what I read was a less than successful production) was Sondheim's next play after "Sunday in the Park," so it had a lot to live up to. I went out at intermission saying, 'Okay, it's funny and charming, and perhaps the most clever plot juggling I've ever seen on stage. But this is Sondheim, and that's not enough.' Then I went back in for the second act and found that I had been set up. He was distracting and amusing us in the first act so that he could take everything we had learned about and from fairy tales and turn it on its head. What seems to be 'happily ever after' is just the beginning of the struggle and ambiguity of trying to live a good life. The last two songs of the show, "No One is Alone," and "Children Will Listen," can still make my cry just from reading the lyrics, but also have the power to make the world a better place if everyone could listen to them and take them to heart.
7. "Rags" (1986) I'm pretty sure this musical isn't on anybody else's 10 Best List. It ran on Broadway for 18 previews and 4 performances, before closing after bad reviews. I saw 3 of those 22 performances, and loved it. It certainly isn't perfect. It's rough around the edges, which seems appropriate for a musical about the Eastern European migration to the Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th Century. The opening scene shows these poor, hopeful people in the great hall on Ellis Island waiting to find if they will be allowed into the United States or sent back to the squalor and oppression they fled. Watching that scene, I felt that I understood what these thousands of people went through in a way that countless documentaries had failed to do. It's about hope and struggle and determination and touched me very deeply. It is so quintessentially about the American experience that I am still surprised that it didn't touch a deeper nerve in its audience.
8. "Rent" (1996) I started out with a chip on my shoulder about "Rent" because I was performing in an Oscar Wilde play on the other side of a brick wall from its original home at the New York Theatre Workshop. Each night as I was waiting to make my entrance into the upper-crust world of 1890's London, I would hear the thump-thump-thump of the bass line through the brick wall. Eventually I got over my grudge and went to see the show on Broadway, the first of five trips to this Broadway show. As I look up my list, it seems to me that all of these musicals are about people struggling like hell to figure out how to live their lives, and "Rent" may be the most blunt example of that. It is a rock musical about young people trying to overcome poverty, oppression, prejudice, addiction, illness and hold on to their ideals. It shows people that have never peopled the cast of a musical before, and the music sounds authentic in a way that musicals never had before. As opposed to "Rags" which made me relate to characters that had previously seemed foreign and remote, "Rent" showed me people that I knew. They were my friends and people that I passed on the street every day, and they presented these people in an honorable way without compromising their integrity or their complications.
So, there's eight out of ten. My next installment (which I promise won't take as long as this one did) will finish out my Top Ten with some room for meditation on what my selection means.
So, what do you think?