What makes a good musical?
Like any form of entertainment, if watching a musical makes you laugh and evoke feelings of joy and happiness, that is one measure of success. Further, if you walk away from a show and you are humming the tune of a song you just heard, or even singing the lyrics – the stickiness and how memorable is yet another measure. Thirdly, if you find yourself discussing the themes and characters afterward, that too is another way to guide us in appreciating a good musical.
Over the years, (and particularly in this time for us in Victoria, under COVID lock-down) as I reflect fondly of the many musicals I have seen, allow me to provide a review of musicals that I have enjoyed over the years.
For the purposes of this series, I define a musical as a performance live on stage. A musical still counts if the filming was of the live stage performance. Wikipedia has a definitive list. It can be said, however, that for those works, the existence of non-musical performances can distort and influence my view of a musical, but largely in a positive way.
As a Melbournite, musicals are typically performed at Regent Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Princess Theatre, Comedy Theatre, Athenaeum Theatre, State Theatre, or the Palais Theatre.
When I was 13, I attended a puppet-based performance of The Hobbit at the Alexander Theatre, Monash University. This does not count as a musical. However, a big factor in making any musical just a thrill, is to be live in the audience of a theatre. The atmosphere and the music enrich the experience. When Cats was performing at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne in 2010, I had a special treat and visited the green room and backstage. As you can see from the photo at the top, I even tried on part of the costume hair!
I feel it is important that in order for me to say one particular musical was “the best” I need to provide context. If you have only seen one musical ever, that one automatically becomes the best. Then, as you see a second one, you automatically have something to compare and validate your opinion. This list is ordered chronologically with the direct-to-film productions (*) included in order of when I first viewed them.
1. Phantom of the Opera, Princess Theatre, 1997
2. Fiddler on the Roof, Regent Theatre, 1997
3. Into the Woods, Broadway – Direct to Film, 1989*
4. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,1999*
5. Sweeney Todd, Broadway – taped, 1982*
6. The Lion King, Regent Theatre, 2005
7. Wicked, Regent Theatre, 2008
8. Billy Elliot the Musical, Her Majesty’s Theatre, 2008
9. Wicked, Apollo Victoria Theatre (London), 2009
10. Cats, Regent Theatre, 2010
11. Fame, Regent Theatre, 2010
12. Wicked, Regent Theatre, 2014
13. Grease, Regent Theatre, 2014
14. Strictly Ballroom the Musical, Her Majesty’s Theatre, 2015
15. Avenue Q, Her Majesty’s Theatre, 2016
16. The Sound of Music, Regent Theatre, 2016
17. Aladdin, Her Majesty’s Theatre, 2017
18. School of Rock, Her Majesty’s Theatre, 2019
19. Barnum the Circus Musical, Comedy Theatre, 2019
Storytelling & the music
One of the most important aspects of a musical is the storytelling. The stories, characters and character development all form a core part of any musical or work. The original storyline sometimes lends itself to being a masterful and memorable experience. In many of the musicals a strong lead showcases their singing talent and are supported well by the ensemble cast. Typically the story being told follows the hero(ine) growing and overcoming adversity to be victorious. Often there may be a love interest who is part of the journey. The struggle and journey is often depicted and assisted through dramatic music performances – the instruments and costumes combine to add to the drama. Some of the big emotive scores really help connect an audience to the characters and story.
Coupled with easy to remember song lyrics and an easy melody all help to build the greatness of a musical. After all, musicals are all about the music! However, I also feel that not all storytelling needs to be done via singing. Some productions have continuous singing, where even normal speech becomes a rhyming flow. Disney’s recent release of Hamilton is an example of this continuous style and musical flow; another is Les Miserable.
My top three musicals are:
1. Into the Woods: This was also my first introduction to the works of Stephen Sondheim. The catchy lyrics of numerous songs are often on the tips of my tongue and the themes woven into the multiple storylines make this a must watch for anyone who loves musicals. Bernadette Peters as the Witch sets the standard although I do commend Meryl Streep for her rendition in the 2014 film adaptation.
2. Wicked: I always loved the stories from L Frank Baum and the Wizard of Oz, so to see the inverse story told from the perspective of Elphaba was a treat in itself. The talent of Idina Menzel also strengthen the already magically written lyrics and song-writing of Stephen Schwartz. Seeing it at the West End/ London was a real treat, I missed the first production run in Melbourne but got a second chance in 2014.
3. The Lion King rounds out my top three selection. It is the record holder top-earning stage production at the box office - $8.1 billion as of 2017! The combination of elaborate costumes, brilliant lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Elton John, make this a musical experience hard to beat. Disney had already hit gold with the 1994 animation, and bringing us the musical gave a new freshness to the same story.
Join me as I write and delve into each of the musicals and share my love of them with you.
Nic Lee works by day as a Business Analyst Consultant whilst, outside of business hours, maintains an IT support & website services business. He volunteers with 89.9 LightFM (Christian Community Radio). Nic has served for over twenty years in his local church, in worship, technology consulting, life group leading and event management.