Theater Musical Showtunes Theatrical Performance Live

Musical theater is a very special art form and it appeals to different people in many different ways. Because of this variability, rating individual musicals can hardly be objective by any means, even if selection criteria are consistent. Furthermore, selection criteria of musicals can be very different than typical selection criteria for other forms of media. Movies can be rated by earnings, music can be rated by requests, but musicals are distinctively difficult to rate. Having said that, I would propose the following criteria for selecting the best musicals of all time: general popularity, real life applicability, enjoyment of performing, recognition of references, and character of the show. As alluded to previously, these are unique measures to fit an exceptional art form.

General popularity is probably the most obvious, a musical has to have general appeal to a wide variety of audiences and must have made a significant amount of tours to be considered. Real life applicability relates to the ability of a musical to expose and explore real human emotions, teach life lessons, and be transposed (if just in interpretations) to real situations. For musical enthusiasts, the shows they are most sentimental about may be shows they had some part in performing in, even in small-scale, local productions; so the enjoyment artists get out of performing musicals comes in to play. Like popular movies, popular musicals often get referenced in pop culture and in conversation, and recognizing those references indicates a significant impact the musical had on its viewers. Finally, many musicals have traditions or stories behind the performance or plot, and I think these background stories add character to the show, enough that it may change the value of the show in this respect.

Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” tops my list, with a tear-jerking story behind the story and plenty of real life applicability. “Rent” depicts the lives of several young, starving artists in the streets of New York, struggling with their values, love lives, sexuality, figures of authority, and HIV. The phenomenal soundtrack includes the flagship song “Seasons of Love”, emotion-drenched love songs and fun, spirited dance tunes. The movie “Rent” is a good reproduction of the fantastic Broadway show, but nothing beats live theater. The movie “Team America” references the musical in an ironic parody sketch called “Lease” featuring a song stating “Everyone has AIDS. AIDS, AIDS, AIDS!”

I can’t say enough about the musical “Wicked”, which is based on the story of the “Wizard of Oz” but with a comical, clever twist. Wicked soared in popularity, probably because of its relation to real life issues and the attention it commands with its very presence; before even entering the theater, witty “Wicked” paraphernalia makes show-goers and passers-by chuckle at the ironic humor. While it takes place in a completely fictitious world, it deals with realistic issues such as discrimination, heartbreak, gossip, social standards, and moral values. The lyrics of “Defying Gravity” and “Dancing Through Life” are taken literally in the show, but taken figuratively, the show inspires the lives of its fans.

One of the best aspects of live theater is that the performance is not limited to the stage. Even at a conceptual level, I love “Phantom of the Opera” for its adaptation of the entire theater as the setting of the show. Rather than being in a theater watching a show on stage, audience is in a theater in which we are led to believe the story is actually unfolding. The special effects in this musical are breath-taking, and frightening at times, and definitely make it a joy to watch and presumably to perform. Well-known showtunes and life applicability also play into the appeal of “Phantom”. It’s no wonder this musical is incredibly popular. Don’t be content with just watching the movie, the live performance will absolutely blow your mind!

I would include “Pippin” in my list, which may be a significantly more sentimental choice than an objective one, but it is based on the deeply-rooted character of the show. This specific musical may not win Academy Awards, but it is loaded with performing traditions and nuances that an unknowledgeable audience may never pick up. For example, the main character, Pippin, never wears shoes during the performance. Also, the musical has multiple alternative endings, and the director’s choice of ending almost completely defines the mood throughout the entire musical. I’ve seen multiple performances of “Pippin”; one was very bright, bouncy and fun; another was more traditional, emphasizing drugs, sex and power as driving forces of the character’s motives; and the one I performed in was dark, gloomy, and on the verge of being evil. For these reasons, I would say “Pippin” is one of the most diverse musicals, and therefore is more intriguing and interesting to see and perform. While it may not be as wildly popular as the other shows on this list, “Pippin” is very deep, and it definitely can have real life applicability.

“Go, go Joe!” rings out in my head as I think about “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”. Based on a Bible story, this energetic, charming and heartfelt show is packed with catchy tunes, funny references, and amazing special effects. While it has been a very popular musical, I wouldn’t rate it high in real life applicability; it may seem ironic (and blasphemous) to say a Bible story doesn’t have a good life lesson, but I think the issue is in the presentation of the story, not the story itself. The musical doesn’t relate to common, realistic emotions as much as some of the others on this list. That issue aside, “Joseph” is a thrill to perform in, and the show has a huge presence and character.

No list is complete without “Les Miserables”, likely one of the most complex and drastically serious musicals of all time. Taking place in France in the early 19th century, the musical portrays the hardships of a multitude of characters struggling with poverty, crime and revolution. There are tons of characters to keep track of, and so many motives and plots; it is very different than watching Dorothy try to get back home to Kansas. For first-timers, I would suggest you read a full synopsis of the plot before going to see it. Nevertheless, the artistic value and life applicability of this musical, plus its huge following and ease of referencing, make “Les Miserables” and must-see. If you are a reader, the musical is based on a very thick book of the same name (written by Victor Hugo), and the musical is just as complex as the book. From the more popular song “Castle on a Cloud”, to references to prisoner 24601, “Les Miserables” is referenced in pop culture more often than many people realize. I was watching “South Park” the other day, and there were obvious references scattered through the episode “Helen Keller the Musical”. I can’t even imagine how awesome it would be to perform in “Les Miz”, as it’s called for short; I would guess the acting would be emphasized more than in the upbeat musicals.

My honorable mentions would be “Miss Saigon” for its artistry and drama, “Cats” for its clever choreography and popular showtunes, “Oklahoma” for its traditions and story, “West Side Story” for its reference recognition and popularity, “The Music Man” also for its reference recognition and popularity, “Pirates of Penzance” for its character and performing enjoyment and “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum” also for its character and performing enjoyment.

Looking back on this list of the best theater musicals, I am struck by the variety of seriousness, appealing features, and contexts on which the musicals are based. “Wicked” is a twist on a commonly-known story made movie, “Les Miz” is based on a Victor Hugo book, and “Joseph” is based on a Bible story. On the contrary, there are musicals based on similar themes that I would argue were catastrophic failures; “Jesus Christ Superstar” was ridiculous (I know there is a huge fan base, and I apologize deeply but I just didn’t get it), and “Legally Blonde” was a complete joke. It is apparent that a musical’s success is very difficult to determine; there are no consistent factors that separate hits from misses. However, the few characteristics that I’ve used here in selecting the best musicals, general popularity, real life applicability, enjoyment of performing, recognition of references, and character of the show, may also be used to indicate a show’s potential.