In news that might not surprise many of you, I’m one of those bastards who loves musical theater. No joke. Couldn’t get enough of it as a kid. Found my mom’s album of My Fair Lady and never looked back. Now, my tastes have evolved considerably in that time. So much so, that there’s nothing from old-school musicals on this list. If you’re a fan of South Pacific, prepare to be disappointed. But at least I stuck to shows that originated on stage. And there are several on here that are at least a few decades old. I’ve also made a conscious effort to only list one song from any given composer. Otherwise this would skew heavily towards Jason Robert Brown. (Ok, I lied, I included two from JRB. It was a game-time decision. Don’t hate me. He’s so good!)
Also, for the Hamilheads out there, I didn’t include anything from Hamilton on this list, though I was tempted. It basically came down to the fact that Hamilton has so much exposure right now, I’d rather give that slot to a somewhat less-exposed show.
So, in alphabetical order and without further ado, it’s showtime!
Beautiful City from Godspell
I came across this musical as a kid on television in my grandparent’s basement. I had no idea what it was. It was strange. It had gutter-clowns, and some guy in a Superman-like t-shirt. And it was kind of Jesus-y. (Yes, I was very young and didn’t get a lot of churchin’.) It kind of fell off my radar until my late teens when my friend Eric re-introduced me to the soundtrack in his den. He later played Judas in the college production, thus confirming that Judas is okay in my book.
The book of the musical is not my favorite, but man, the music from Stephen Schwartz is so good. And “Beautiful City” has recently become my favorite from the show. I like the message of hope. And the revival cast from a few years ago was outstanding, which is part of why I chose this version to share.
Heaven on their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar
Of all the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, this is the one that resonated with me. I know. It’s weird. And it’s merely by virtue of the alphabet that these two songs are back to back. I swear, the music gets to sinnin’ pretty quick after this.
My first wife got me hooked on JCS. So much so that I used to have an Easter tradition with a friend of mine. We’d cook up a feast and sing along at the top of our lungs. So maybe it’s timely this ends up in my list right before Easter. I’ve been doing the Norwescon convention the last several years which always falls on Easter weekend, and I’m missing those sing-alongs.
For my money, there’s no better Judas than Carl Anderson.
History of Wrong Guys from Kinky Boots
I love the movie Kinky Boots. I didn’t have any idea how they’d pull it off as a musical. Then they got Cindy Lauper to do the music.
I don’t know what to say about this song other than the fact that it’s infectiously fun.
I love Annaleigh Ashford’s delivery. Strongest or best song in the musical? Probably not. But favorite? Yes, hands down.
Home (Reprise) from The Wiz
There are a lot of versions of this. Well, of course there are. Written by Charlie Smalls, this song is just an outstanding showcase for a great vocalist. And I went with the Diana Ross version for the very simple reason that she was my introduction to this song and musical.
I was a sheltered nine-year old living in rural Colorado when this came out. I either went to the theater to see it myself or dragged along my kid brothers. And I loved it. LOVED it. Sure, Stephanie Mills, who originated the role on Broadway might have been a better Dorthy. I didn’t know, and at the time I couldn’t really care. This movie was magic. And this song still hits me in the gut each and every time I hear it.
I’m Going Home from the Rocky Horror Picture Show
Damn that Richard O’Brian, but he writes a catchy torch song. And Tim Curry just sings the shit out of it. That said, my feelings about this musical are complicated. It’s not a good musical, the material is problematic as hell, but it has great music. It’s also impossible to watch with other people without them shouting along. Sometimes, I just want to listen to the music, much like I did the first several times I heard it–on a record at my friend Ivan’s house.
I’ve also done this one at karaoke a few times. Damn, just such a good song about coming to the end of a road and realizing the ride is over. For some of us, far too soon.
Lesson #8 from Sunday in the Park with George
If you had asked me five years ago who my favorite Broadway composer was, I would have said Stephen Sondheim without hesitation. That’s largely on the merit of how much this musical changed my life. I came across the musical on Great Performances on PBS about halfway through the first song and knew I needed it in my life almost immediately. For years, the only way I could watch this show was on an unlabeled VHS tape with part of a song missing. I have long since upgraded to better versions. And my friends Aarron and Michaela took me to see the revival for my birthday when it toured here almost a decade ago.
For years, the song “Finishing the Hat” was something of a theme song for me. It’s only been edged out in recent years by this one. The first is almost an argument Georges Seurat has with himself, that yes, he’s missing out on life, but that his art is worth it. But Lesson #8 reflects a bit more of where I am now. This feeling of being lost, questioning your artistic direction or if the journey is even worth it some days. I suspect all artists experience this from time to time. And Mandy Patinkin really sells it, too.
“George is afraid. George sees the park. George sees it dying. George too may fade leaving no mark, just passing through. Just like the people out strolling on Sunday.”
Midnight Radio from Hedwig and the Angry Inch
With music by Stephen Trask and book by it’s initial star, John Cameron Mitchel, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was like nothing else I’d ever seen. This song, in particular evokes David Bowie, which always works for me. And I went with this recording from the movie because it’s just so goddamned triumphant.
Sweet baby jesus, it gives me chills. I could, and have, listened to it on a loop a dozen times in a row. I can’t think of a better example of how we use music to discover our own sense of identity.
Never Get Married from Honeymoon in Vegas
Did I tell you I love Jason Robert Brown? I love Jason Robert Brown. He’s got a great ear for a hook and his lyrics are clever as hell. The idea of a musical based on an old Nic Cage movie is a weird idea. But damn if he doesn’t pull it off. The fact that this show was so overlooked breaks my heart. It’s fun and clever (and not without some problematic material, particularly in how it portrays Hawaii), and holy hell, it had Tony Danza tap dancing!
It’s pure Broadway.
This song, in particular, is just fun. It’s like something you’d expect to see on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Nancy Opel kills it as the mom to bewildered Rob McClure.
See I’m Smiling from The Last Five Years
Consider this your daily double dose of Jason Robert Brown. Hey, I could have thrown in stuff from Parade as well if I wanted, but I wanted to keep it reasonable. But damn, this show is so good. A strange concept, yes–five years of a relationship portrayed by two people, one moving from front to back, one from back to front.
The way it changes moods on a dime is incredible. Some songs are light and fun. Some are a slow knife to the ribs but in the best way possible. Then some transition in the middle with little warning. Like this one, that goes from hopeful to angry to resigned in a way I’ve seen real relationships do far too often in my life.
Really, the bridge just kills me. And while I have much love for Anna Kendrick who recently did this in the movie, there’s no substitute for Sherie Rene Scott from the original recording.
Telephone Wire from Fun Home
Got your tissues ready?
You’ll need them.
This musical came out of nowhere and kicked some ass at the Tony Awards a couple of years back. Music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics & book by Lisa Kron, it was based on the great graphic novel by Allison Bechdel. It deserved every Tony it won. Such a great show. It’s playing here in Seattle this summer and I can hardly wait.
That said, I’m likely to cry myself to death. This song, where a woman looks back at trying to have a real conversation with her dad–her, a recently out college student, and him a closeted married man. A complicated relationship at best, it provides no easy answers for either character. And it’s one of the most powerful pieces of musical theater I’ve ever heard.