Musical theatre is one of the few truly American art forms, and we have a long list to be proud of. There have even been a number of musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over the years, including Sunday In The Park With George, A Chorus Line and South Pacific. As works of literature, these shows outclassed the straight plays of their season and it did it while singing and dancing.
Of course, that's the cream of the crop. Sometimes the storytelling and singing and dancing is all too much to hack. Sometimes all those collaborators add up to too many cooks, or maybe there's one overly ambitious artist taking on the whole beast. Musicals can really go wrong. Nonetheless, musical theatre is a glorious genre, and some of the most creative minds in the world have understandably been drawn to it. Even when show doesn't work as a whole, the sum of its parts can be irresistible, particularly to fans, for whom the piece lives on via its cast album or bootleg recording. Speaking as one of these fans, I can tell you we may not always want you to know we're listening to these turkeys, but don't you dare try to take them away from us!
Click through to read my selections for the Essential Guilty Pleasure Musicals.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
The Boy From Oz is an odd inclusion in some ways because after years of success in Australia (including an eventual arena tour!), the show was finally a smash on Broadway with superstar Hugh Jackman in 2003. Jackman's charisma almost obscured the over-the-top, unintentionally campy writing. Many of Peter Allen's compelling songs worked well as solo material for the character of Peter in this biographical musical, but some of his hits felt awkward sung by other characters in his life, like "Don't Cry Out Loud" performed by his mother or "I Honestly Love You" sung by his lover. Sometimes, it was even so bad, it was good — such as Stephanie J. Block as Liza Minnelli doing the Fosse-inspired "She Loves To Hear The Music." And fans will not soon forget the thrill of Jackman's performance or the almost too-real effect of Isabel Keating as Judy Garland bringing the house down with "All I Wanted Was The Dream."
Another international hit to make this list, Starlight Express has become something of a joke. It's like Cats, but with trains instead of felines. At least with Cats, when you actually revisit the show (with an open mind), you can take it as interesting piece of dance theatre set to T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." Starlight Express, on the other hand, feels more like an unintelligible traffic jam of various attempts to anthropomorphize locomotion, which would almost play better as a children's show, were it not for the dark themes and sexuality. For fans of pop opera, though, it's hard to resist some of these soaring Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes, particularly, as belted to pop perfection by original London cast stars Stephanie Lawrence and Frances Ruffelle.
Some people will quibble with including Baby here, as it's a somewhat respected musical by esteemed writers including David Shire, Richard Maltby, Jr. and Sybille Pearson. (Pearson is a professor at the N.Y.U. Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.) So it's not that Baby isn't a smart piece of work. But try taking out your earbuds and blasting it for everyone at the gym. The music is hopelessly — deliciously — of its time, a strange 1980s attempt at a "modern Broadway" sound with a shelf life of about six months. And the point-of-view of the themes (also very contemporary for its time) is horribly dated now. For us fans, though, none of that matters when Liz Callaway pours her soul and seamless voice into "The Story Goes On" or when (future "Camp" filmmaker) Todd Graff melts hearts with "I Chose Right," or when they duet on "What Could Be Better?" or in any of the witty, tuneful songs that make you wish you could freeze time in 1984 and see Baby on Broadway every night.
|Photo by Bob Marshak|
Aspects of Love is a guilty pleasure musical with rabid fans. While the show may bore many with its meandering melange of lovers trading partners over the course of several years, voiced by endlessly repeating Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes set to lyrics that range from banal clichés in the ballads to ridiculous minutia in the recitative and interstitial material. But the earworm aspect of Aspects is insistent and you may find yourself waiting for a bus somewhere singing, "Shall I order an espresso or cappuccino?" "Armagnac." And of course, if they got you with "Armagnac," chances are you, like me, live for Ann Crumb singing "Anything But Lonely."
Chess is a guilty pleasure musical in that Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, (formerly of ABBA) and Tim Rice's excitingly dramatic and ravishingly melodic score (seamlessly spanning rock to classical) is hopelessly tied a soap opera plot heavy-handedly set in the Cold War without saying anything interesting about that period. Still, Chess counts among its fans superstars and royalty and big-time movers and shakers and major productions continue to pop up all over the world, ensuring generations of goosebumps for fans of Elaine Paige, Judy Kuhn, Idina Menzel and the dozens of performers to tackle the role of Florence as time goes on.
Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's 1971 flop Prettybelle, starring Angela Lansbury, never made it to Broadway, closing in its Boston tryout. The story (of an alcoholic redneck widow who tries to undo her deceased bigoted sheriff husband's wrongs by letting allowing minority men rape her) is hardly what you'd think of as Main Stem fare and it's easy to see why it never came to town. A cast recording wasn't even made until 1982 when scrappy independent producer Bruce Yeko got member of the original company together to give something to fans eager to hear Lansbury tackle this bizarre material. Of course, in song after song, she's absolutely delicious and no Angie-phile should be without Prettybelle.
Claibe Richardson and Kenward Elmslie's 1971 musicalization of Truman Capote's The Grass Harp only lasted on Broadway for seven performances, but it lives on via a recording of its first-rate cast singing the score. Hearing Barbara Cook and Carol Brice essay the piece's stronger material, there's not much to feel guilty about — this is just a pleasure! But then you listen to "Floozies" with its antiquated fews set to a funky 1970s beat and you just blush. For true guilty pleasure nirvana, check out the great Karen Morrow's rendition of the 12-minute tour de force, "The Babylove Miracle Show," which describes, among other things, the Revival Movement and will certainly convert you. "I believe in Babylove! I believe in Babylove!"
Rachael Lily Rosenbloom (And Don't You Ever Forget It) just sounds like guilty pleasure musical, doesn't it? The 1971 concoction played seven performances on Broadway and closed without ever opening. The fantastical rags-to-riches-to-nervous breakdown story starred a young Ellen Greene in a breakout peformance as a Brooklyn fishmonger (who adds an extra a to Rachel, in commemoration of the a Barbra Streisand dropped from Barbra) who becomes a Hollywood star. With music by disco scribe Paul Jabara and book by Off-Off-Broadway auteur/camp visionary Tom Eyen, Rachael Lily was perhaps too drug-trippy to follow, at least for Broadway audiences, and maybe even for its creators. Tragically, no cast album was recorded and the score lives on only in bootlegs and via Ellen Greene's supple, searing singing of "Dear Miss Streisand" on her 1974 album, "All The Lives Of Me."
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on a worldwide tour. His new solo play, Bad with Money, begins performances Sept. 4 at The Duplex in NYC. Read Playbill's coverage of the show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)