Being such a fan of musical theatre, an obvious question that I am frequently asked is “So what’s your all-time favourite musical?”
Now if it’s opera I am asked about, I’m fine. I have a favourite opera. It’s La Traviata, Verdi’s classic about the glamour of dying from consumption. I have nearly every recent DVD and Blu-ray of La Traviata, six at last count, plus a few CD recordings for good measure. And Opera Australia are doing La Traviata in Melbourne this year – I can’t wait!
But it’s easy with opera; there isn’t a season of new ones every year. (If anything, the new ones are the worst.) Great musicals keep on coming, year after year, Tony Awards after Tony Awards. How can anyone pick a favourite?
People often go by a personal connection. The first musical they saw live on stage. The first show they were in. A movie musical they watched on TV as a kid. Sometimes it seems there are as many favourite musicals as there are musicals.
Having picked a favourite, there is the related problem – listening to the cast recording or seeing the show so often that it wears out its welcome. This is when a favourite can become a cringe-inducing terror and I have to confess that I have a few of these. It would take a pretty darn amazing reason for me to see to The Pirates of Penzance again. I once thought I would listen to nothing but the complete symphonic recording of Les Misèrables for the rest of my life but I soon realised I was wrong. At the moment there is an amateur production that I know I should see but I kind of overdosed on the professional season last year.
Personal preferences cause dilemmas for show selection committees. Each person will have a favourite show, so how to decide what to stage? An artistic or cutting edge choice may please the committee and attract creatives and cast but it still has to draw an audience. On the other hand, if audience preferences are taken into account, the show may be a dreary choice for the company members.
One very effective way that I know a show is on its way to my list of favourites is when I have a strong reaction the first time I see it. Let’s just say this can involve tears in my eyes even if it is not a particularly sad show. I had this reaction the first time I saw Jersey Boys and Ragtime on Broadway and the first time I saw Billy Elliot in London.
I am going to Broadway again in a couple of weeks and even though it is only eighteen months since my last visit there are already a dozen or so musicals I haven’t seen before. My recent ploy is to not listen to the cast recordings beforehand to achieve maximum impact in the theatre although I think I will have to make a little exception for whatever numbers are on the Tony Awards.
Finding an audience favourite is massive business for producers. An often-quoted fact is that The Phantom of the Opera has taken in more money than any other piece of entertainment. Hit shows like Wicked and The Lion King take in over 1.5 million US dollars each week on Broadway. Some local theatregoers have raised eyebrows over Sydney’s choice of The Addams Family after dubious reviews but the truth is that it too was in the million-dollar club for months when it opened.
A bonus of living in Australia is the chance to see favourites re-staged after they have had a decent break from the public eye. Productions in London and New York drag on for years and years, with no incentive to ever see them again. Here we have the chance to see fresh new return seasons with enthusiastic, starry casts. Recent examples include Mamma Mia!, Chicago, and Phantom. I would never go to see the tired productions of these shows on Broadway but loved seeing them again here. The Les Miz anniversary tour next year will surely fire up fans across Australia, especially after the success of the London anniversary concert.
So what is my all-time favourite musical? I really can’t narrow it down to one. My most frequent answer is that my favourite show is whichever one I’m watching at the time. But if I really had to choose, there is a short list of classics that I never tire of and always come back to again and again. Ragtime must be right up there, especially having seen both productions of it on Broadway. Little Me is my favourite comedy. I love the concert recording of Pal Joey, starring Patti LuPone and Peter Gallagher, but have actually never see in it on stage (Production Company, are you listening?) Evita is surely my favourite drama and the score never ceases to amaze me. Showboat is a sentimental favourite and Hairspray is my favourite of recent years, especially after the fabulous Australia staging.
But who knows, in a couple of weeks I will be in New York and there could be a whole new list…
Do you have a favourite musical? Tell us in the comments below!