Musicals tend to get a bad rep, which is a shame because when done well, they can take a seemingly difficult topic and turn it into something worth singing about. Throughout my life, I was lucky to be surrounded by a family who prioritized seeing live performances. Many of my most treasured childhood memories involve getting all dressed up and heading into a beautiful theatre ready to be transported away to a new world through singing, dancing, and (often) wild costumes and intricate set designs. One of the best things about Cleveland is that it is home to the largest performing arts center in the US outside of New York (something most Clevelanders will tell you about within the first five minutes of selling this town). This means that every year, we are guaranteed to be presented with some of the best theatre programming available. Playhouse Square offers the “Broadway Series,” which brings seven of the best shows from New York right to our doorstep.
This year I was lucky enough to see six of the seven (I couldn’t go to Hello Dolly!) with R who loves theater even more than I do. Just like when I was little, I greatly look forward to getting dressed up for these dates and then discussing the ins and outs of what we just saw for hours afterward. In addition to these six musicals, in the past year, I also saw Hamilton in London and Ragtime at a local theatre. As tickets are generally rather expensive and the frequency with which you can see a show rather low, I thought that I would rank the ones I have seen in the hopes that you find the right one for you. I want you to be prepared next time you are ready for a song & dance injection! Okay, start blasting your favorite musical soundtrack and let’s get into the shows…
8. MISS SAIGON. Never have I ever walked out of a production…oh wait… yes I have. Miss Saigon was so awful that we walked out at intermission because neither of us could bear to watch another minute of this misogynistic and racist show. Sarah Bellamy, co-artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre eloquently explained the problem with it stating, “It gets a lot easier to wrap your head around all of this for folks of color when we remember a key point: this work is not for us. It is by, for, and about white people, using people of color, tropical climes, pseudo-cultural costumes, and props, violence, tragedy, and the commodification of people and cultures, to reinforce and re-inscribe a narrative about white supremacy and authority.” Yuck. Luckily, there are enough other (fantastic) options for shows, so you never need to waste your time or money seeing this.
7. SCHOOL OF ROCK. To be honest, I am not sure that the movie translates very well to the stage version of School of Rock. I mean, how can anyone live up to Jack Black? And, not only live up to him but also do it live on stage? It is a lot to ask from any performer – no matter how good he is. That isn’t to say that it’s not a whole load of fun. It is! Particularly the very talented kids in the rock band who play their instruments live on stage. But, I don’t think that it is a must-see. My suggestion? Rent the movie and rock out along with Jack in the comfort of your own home.
6. A BRONX TALE. While I enjoyed A Bronx Tale, the fact that I repeatedly forgot that it was part of this Broadway season may demonstrate that it wasn’t quite as memorable as it should have been. Set in the Bronx in the 1960s, the young male protagonist is conflicted between loyalty to his father and his idol – a mob boss. The music is high-energy, and the show is entertaining; but, at the same time, the Bronx/mob/doo-wop story seems overdone at this point. Unfortunately (for A Bronx Tale), Jersey Boys and West Side Story are just too brilliant to be able to compete with, so see those two instead.
5. LES MISÉRABLES. One of the most celebrated musicals in theatrical history, for a long time, “I dreamed a dream” (groan) of seeing this Tony Award-winning phenomenon. Out of all of the musicals listed here, Les Misérables is the most “old school.” You know the kind; a massive cast, a tremendous amount of musical numbers (49!), and a melodramatic plot. So if you are looking for that type of musical experience, then Les Mis is a good choice. After all, at this point, it can be considered a contemporary classic – which counts for something, right?
4. RAGTIME. Based on a 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime tells the story of three groups in the United States in the early 20th century: African Americans, upper-class suburbanites, and Eastern European immigrants. Using song to weave together their stories, the plot focuses on the discrimination and social inequality that existed at this time. Not that social inequality has changed much since then, which is what makes this musical so relevant today. As the struggle to bring fairness and justice into our society and institutions continues, it becomes more and more apparent how necessary art is to help bring these issues to light.
3. DEAR EVAN HANSEN. From what I gathered, the oldies in the crowd were a little confused by the troubles that the characters in Dear Evan Hansen were going through. For those of us who have grown up with technology infiltrating every part of our daily life, the storyline feels a little too close for comfort. What I particularly loved about this show was the way they so acutely demonstrated what being bombarded with social media really feels like. The fact that (spoiler alert!) things don’t work out in a happily-ever-after manner felt real, raw, and very 21st century. In my humble opinion, this is the first true millennial musical, and I am here for it.
2. HAMILTON. There is a reason that Hamilton created such a worldwide buzz. It is so creative! Who would ever have thought that an almost three-hour-rapping-extravaganza could so brilliantly encompass the life of one of the Founding Fathers? But, Lin-Manuel Miranda made it happen and changed the very essence of what modern musicals can (and should) be. A show for our time about events that happened a very long time ago.
1. COME FROM AWAY. This time last week I had zero, zilch, nada idea what Come From Away was about. But, given the fact that it was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life, I want to suggest that you go into it with as little knowledge as possible. Everything from the story (it is based on a true story) to the set design, the witty writing to the overarching message is P-E-R-F-E-C-T. Other than Legally Blonde: The Musical (which continues to be my favorite musical soundtrack of all time), this is the first time I have come out of a show and immediately streamed the soundtrack. If you have the opportunity to see the show, take it. This is particularly important if your current view of humanity is, ehm, coming up short.
HONORABLE MENTIONS. Two other contemporary shows that I loved (but saw in 2017) are Waitress and Book of Mormon. Both are HILARIOUS. Both I would happily see again. Both should be on your musical bucket list!
Now tell me, which musicals should I be planning on seeing in the next 12 months?
Let me know in the comments below!