Is there anything quite like the thrill of consuming a new musical? It’s that insatiable need only quenched by the blessed “repeat all” button.
After a decade or so of nonstop musical consumption, new musical obsessions seem a far-gone delight as formerly novel shows now sit overplayed in the music library. But take heart! New (or previously unknown) albums are as endless as the INTO THE WOODS prologue. So let’s have a good old-fashioned musical-swap.
Using seven musicals probably long past the looped listening stage, I’ve extrapolated- sometimes liberally- parallel shows possessing similar characteristics. But mostly it’s an excuse to promote some of my favorite shows. Let’s kick off the summer by diving into some new musical obsessions!
Worn out Les Miserables? Check out Ragtime.
1998. Music and lyrics by Lyn Ahrens and Charles Flaherty.
Packed with rousing number after (over)dramatic ballad, RAGTIME possesses the heart of LES MIS sprinkled with the musical sound of turn of the century America. Throw in Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell and just try listening to anything else for the next month.
Best hit: “Wheels of a Dream”
Recommended recording: RAGTIME Studio Cast Recording (also check out the Original Broadway Cast recording’s version of “Sarah Brown Eyes” which was written after the studio cast recording)
Worn out Dear Evan Hansen? Check out Next to Normal.
2009. Music and Lyrics by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey
It’s the modern rock musical style that so defined early 2000s Broadway. There’s angst. There’s mental illness. There’s a pole-dancing hallucination (WHAT? Yes, kinda). Like this season’s Tony Awards ringer, N2N dives into the values of friendship and family, ultimately resting on the value of life over happiness.
Best Hit: “You Don’t Know/I am the One”
Worn out Newsies? Check out The Scarlet Pimpernel.
1998. Music and Lyrics by Frank Wildhorn.
You know that musical that defined your childhood, but apparently no one else’s, and you’re lucky if you discover anyone who has even heard of it? Oh hey, THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. This underappreciated adaptation of the classic novel stars a post-LES MIS Terrence Mann and includes- if you listen closely enough to group numbers- a pre-legendary Sutton Foster. Like NEWSIES, inspirational male underdog choruses centered around an adventure to take down the bad guys dominate this 25-song album.
Best Hit: “Into the Fire”
Worn out Wicked? Check out The Wild Party (Off-Broadway)
2000. Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa.
Idina Menzel’s showstopping “Life of the Party” is the electrifying “Defying Gravity 2.0” we didn’t know we needed. This addictive prohibition-era musical depicts a disintegrating night in the life of a clown named Burrs (a sinister Brian d’Arcy James at his best), a vaudeville performer named Queenie (an on-edge Julia Murney), and their unbalanced friends (including Menzel and her then-husband, the always-smooth Taye Diggs). Note: as odd Broadway trivia would have it, another composer penned a musical of the same title using the same subject material. It’s inferior.
Best Hit: “Life of the Party”
Worn out The Book of Mormon? Check out The Fantasticks (Off-Broadway)
1960. Music and lyrics by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones.
It’s Pyramus and Thisbe without a lion and with some crazy parents, a semi-trustworthy narrator, and a comical song about fake rape. You wouldn’t recognize the voice of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’s Lumiere- Jerry Orbach- as he croons the sentimental opener, “Try to Remember,” and maybe classic Broadway seems in no way to resemble modern hits. But with the same parodied flavor as THE BOOK OF MORMON, THE FANTASTICKS compiles outlandish circumstances atop a solid ’60s musical theatre platform.
Best hit: “It Depends on What You Pay”
Worn out Into the Woods? Check out A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
1962. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
“Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy tonight!” Honest. Simple. This opener leaves no question about what we’re getting into. Before Zero Mostel biddy-biddy-bum-ed as Tevye in Anatevka, he won a Tony Award as the clever slave Pseudolus in ancient Rome. Like Sondheim’s later hit INTO THE WOODS, FORUM has a whimsical, yesteryear setting. But with fewer fairy tale characters and more Roman guards. And tragical courtesans.
Best hit: “Comedy Tonight”
Worn out Hamilton? Check out Gypsy
1959. Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
No, GYPSY is nothing like HAMILTON. But the entertainment industry-centric GYPSY is a must for all theatre fans, ranked by some as the best musical of all time (and I’m not just saying that because theatre people are egotistical and love shows about themselves). Just as Rodgers and Hammerstein is a prerequisite for the entire musical canon, the best work of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s chief inspiration must precede anything Miranda. Lyrically, it’s hard to beat good old Steve.
Best hit: “Everything’s Coming up Roses”