Happy Tony Nominations day. This is not a musical theatre blog, and it is somewhat suspicious to post one of my rare pieces about musical theatre on Tony nomination day which isn't necessary an emphatic bellwether of excellence. (Can any award really be?) Still, it'll do.
Max (Cinemaxwell) were discussing theatre scores of the 21st century and decided today would be the day we reveal our favourite scores of the last 14 years. But only Broadway, a list of Off-Broadway favourites will come some time in the future. For reasons of thoroughness we opted to exclude any musicals of the 2013-2014 season (I'm still waiting for If/Then to release its cast album) and in cases of doubt we're using the (admittedly, occasionally shoddy) Tony ruling as to eligibility.
We decided on a list of fifteen, but if you've ever read this space you know how much I live for list-making (I have all the excel files to prove it). So, runners-up first.
I am, by nature, wary of shows with pre-existing scores expanded by Broadway and Tony eligibility - these two are two I love, although the added songs include some clunkers amidst the gems: The Little Mermaid (2008), Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002)
Shows I love specific songs on, or parts of but not completely or not all together: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005), The Color Purple (2006), The Drowsy Chaperone (2006), Urinetown (2002). They each came close to making the top 15.
The Top 15
Music by Elton John
Lyrics by Tim Rice
It's probably my favourite of the "pop music takes Broadway by storm" subgenre. Sure all the male solos range from unimpressive to terrible, but there are only 3 and even they do try to do interesting things with musical styles. Gospel to reggae to traditional pop to R&B, it's fun to listen to and fun to re-listen to with some true gems and some excellent duets (and trios, and quartets).
(Highlights: “Elaborate Lives”; “A Step Too Far”; “Not Me”)
Avenue Q (2004)
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Okay, admittedly it's #15 on my list because though hilarious I sometimes fliplfop on if it's an excellent score but it's good numbers are lovely and even amidst its constant humour it doesn't go for easy tricks and is sincere, throughout.
(Highlights: “There's a Fine, Fine Line”; “Fantasies Come True”; “The Money Song”)
The Book of Mormon (2011)
Music and Lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone
With Avenue Q above and Hairspray below it's a trio of funny musicals that I'm resistant to in some aspects. (Maybe I don't like funny?) But occasional issues aside, I consider all three significant pieces of this century. The Book of Mormon. Parker and Stone benefit from the addition of Lopez and their typical ribald humour gives way to a score that is uproarious, but also full of melody and sophisticated.
(Highlights: “Hello”; “Hasa Diga Ebowai”; “Turn It Off”)
Music and Lyrics by John Kander
Lyrics by Fredd Ebb and Rupert Holmes
Curtains is oldfashioned, it doesn't cut very deep and it doesn't rank at the top of the Kander and Ebb collaborations but it sure is fun and funny. It has some of my favourite lyrics of the decade and although its observations about theatre are not new they are excellently rendered.
(Highlights: “I Miss the Music”; “Thataway”; “Show People”)
Grey Gardens (2007)
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
But for the best song of the score, I'm partial to Act One more than Act Two, but Grey Gardens is a lovely gem of a score. Yes, that first act tends to give-way to pastiche. But, why complain? That's the intent and what's wrong with pastiche? (I'm old-fashioned.)
(Highlights: “Another Winter in a Summer Town”; “Will You”; “The Five-Fifteen”)
Music and Lyrics by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman
Like with The Book of Mormon, I'm occasionally suspicious of them until I let loose and just give in to the beat. Sure, I'd wish it went deeper in some places but what a weird complaint for such an unbridled joyful musical. And that it leads up to the excellent final number which incorporates the entire cast (too rare a thing) only makes me appreciate its goodness even more.
(Highlights: “Welcome to the 60’s”; “You Can’t Stop the Beat”; “I Can Hear the Bells”)
The Light in the Piazza (2005)
Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel
I feel guilty because The Light in the Piazza is the classic example of a show I want to love more, in fact I respect it and love parts of it more than the whole but it is an impressive score and beautiful when at its best. I feel the same way about Guettel as I do about his contemporary - I love aspects of their, adore some of their songs but am always a millimetre away from loving one of their scores completely. Still, small issue with something as passionate as this.
(Highlights: “The Light in the Piazza”; “Passeggiata”; “Dividing Day”)
Next to Normal (2009)
Music by Tom Kitt
Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
I don't think Next to Normal has any number I'd indict for being terrible. The songs have their tiers, but as a complete theatre score it is cohesive and impressive. If forced to criticise I'll admit on relisten there's a slight aloofness to the music (not so much the lyrics) now and them, but I'd be nitpicking. It's one of the scores I'm more likely to queue up on a random evening and even though I've heard it disparagingly referred to as "only Broadway's version of what rock is" at its most angry it nails the hopelessness and despair of its characters.
(Highlights: “I Am the One”; “I Dreamed a Dance”; “A Light in the Dark”)
Passing Strange (2008)
Music and Lyrics by Stew
Music by Heidi Rodewald
It's a coming of age story so sometimes the lyrics do get cute or vaguely pretentious but this score is a keeper. It can be humorous but it an also be full of angst and the music itself is inspired, sometimes even more than the lyrics.
(Highlights: “Keys”; “Come Down Now”; “Passing Phase”)
Spring Awakening (2006)
Music by Duncan Sheik
There are two things that generally annoy me in theatre scores - songs with little relation to plot and slant rhymes. Both happen here but I love it still. I was at the age of ultimate teen angst when the album was released so maybe it's a personal effect but I think it's more than that. For all the familiar aspects of the themes the genuine nature of the music wins over all else.
Highlights: “Touch Me”; “The Word of Your Body”; “The Dark I Know Well”
The Scottsboro Boys (2011)
Music and Lyrics by Fred Ebb and John Kander
Musical theatre should, at its best, push boundaries which is why I'm always frustrated when people say X can't be the subject for a musical. Everything about the score for The Scottsboro Boys doesn't work for me but it touches on the best aspects of Kander and Ebb, moving from just entertainment to legitimate social critique. That the score manages to be tuneful, inventive and beautiful in addition makes it even more worth its place here.
(Highlights: “Southern Days”; “Go Back Home”; “Minstrel March”)
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Oh, Wicked, they do love to hate you. The thing is, I don't even think “"Defying Gravity” is in the top 5 songs of the score, and it's a fantastic song. The score is frothy and sweet but that is no flaw. It is not Schwartz best, but that's not a true flaw either. Lyrically it is not the most profound, also not a real flaw. Wicked works as a musical score, the Wizard's numbers are underwhelming but otherwise it doesn't have a truly forgettable number. It's funny when necessary, but poignant and moving, too.
(Highlights: “For Good”; “Thank Goodness”; “Popular”)
The Wild Party (2000)
Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa
The Wild Party's score has peaks and valleys. Every solo number Queenie and Marie - a gem, most of Burrs - good. Some of the guests numbers are less impressive, lyrically, but Lachiusa's music is evocative and melodic. I still feel as if I'm yet to completely love a LaChiusa score but the highest points of his work here are marvelous.
(Highlights: “People Like Us”; “When It Ends”; “This Is What it Is”)
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2011)
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Maybe my ability to love this comes from the fact that my first knowledge of each of these musicals is through the score. The direction of the play was reportedly terrible and the production bloated but the score is a keeper. It suffers slightly from the Aida issue of weaker male numbers but with the exception of the opening numbers each song is good to great. I did read a review which said the score has not one memorable track, though, so maybe Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is simply not for everyone. Their loss.
(Highlights: “Island”; “Model Behaviour”; “Invisible”)
# 1 Caroline, or Change (2004)
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Lyrics by Tony Kushner
So, when I began putting this list together I had no idea what would be at the top of my list.* I kept going through the list of those I loved more, re-listened to them all and kept coming back to Kushner and Tesori’s challenging, haunting and rewarding score the often forgotten 2004 musical. The first time I got the score I was daunted by its two-hour run-time with few clear-cut “actual” songs, but over time it has been one of the most rewarding scores I own. I suspect that the cliché of “ahead its time” is especially apt for Caroline, or Change. It is unlike most contemporary musicals. It takes getting used to. The show ran for only 136 performances (22 previews). The mostly sung-through score tells a bleak story, of the black maid working for the Jewish family in 1963. But it is gorgeous. It’s not just that the libretto is my favourite thing from Kushner (an odd choice considering his oeuvre) but with the conceit of inanimate objects Caroline interact with functioning as a Greek chorus (washing machine, radio, dryer bus, moon) the score takes on a profundity that beats anything I’ve heard from Broadway this century. From the opening “mmm-hmmms” to the first complete, excellent number “I Got Four Kids” the music is swelling with emotion. The score's centre-piece is “Lot's Wife”, a second Act song that is gut-wrenching in its anger and emotion and closes with the evocative line. Don't let my sorrow make evil of me.
Caroline’s final song “Underwater” is two minutes of the most beautifully devastating moments I can recall. The entire score benefits from excellent use of metaphor, leitmotif and reprise. Tough, smart, honest and direct. Its sadness is distressing but so, so beautiful. Caroline, or Change is my choice for the best score to come out of Broadway this century. Nothing happens underground in Louisiana, but there are multitudes of great things happening in the score to Caroline, or Change.
(I had no idea what would come out on top because my favourite theatre score of the 21st century, thus far, has not had a Broadway production. It’ll be on my list of Best Off-Broadway Scores. Coming sometime in the future.)