Some of my earliest memories are of sitting beside the stereo cabinet, listening to my parents' records of musicals. Yes. Records. They were these circular, lacquered...oh never mind. Now, of course, I recognize how flawed many of these works were. Racist, many of them. Imperialist. But simply listening to the music without context or images was wonderful and imagination firing.
Hearing them that way was probably a good thing in a lot of cases. Kismet was one of my favorite albums. The lyrics were so clever, the music so exhilarating. ("Our princes more aristocratic here/ Our beggars more distinctly aromatic here" - good stuff.) When I finally watched the movie production, I was so disappointed. The plot was vapid. The ending absurd even for a comedy. I've never watched it again, but the music has stayed with me.
You know it's going to end badly, since you know it's based on Romeo and Juliet. People die in this musical. And still one hopes. And still, after all these years, my eyes tear up when I hear "There's a place for us/ Somewhere a place for us..." The longing, the anguish in those lyrics is universal and timeless. It's also one of the best musicals for balletic choreography - as illustrated in the pic above. The energy and excitement of these songs lend themselves to a number of spectacular dance interludes.
An innovator and, by now, a pillar of musical theater, Stephen Sondheim can be a bit much. Sometimes his music drags. Sometimes he's just dreary. But he is responsible for some of the most daring and different productions in the last thirty years. Which brings me to one of my favorite musicals, Sweeney Todd. Not a dance kind of musical, though there is choreography of a different sort, this is musical horror, not something you often see. Drama-heavy, yes, and fantastical, but the music drives it, dark and haunting and at times soul searing. A musical for black moments, for dark reflection, where every character is shown under a stark bare bulb, their obsessions exposed for us to see. I love this stuff. It gives me shivers and I watch wide-eyed and a little traumatized. Jekyll and Hyde, by Frank Wildhorn, doesn't quite reach that level of dramatic fear, but it has some really good shivery moments, too.