The Sound of Musicals

Music has been called “the universal language.” Even if the music is in a language you cannot understand, most folks can appreciate it.  For example, here’s one of Andrea Bocelli’s signature songs, sung with the equally talented Sarah Brightman. I don’t know how anyone can not be swept away by it even though it’s in Italian, which most of us don’t speak.

I think the first musical I ever saw was the film version of “The King and I” with Yul Brenner and Julie Andrews. My mother took me to itwhen I was in elementary school, probably in an attempt to instill some “culture” in me.

She took me to other film musicals, including West Side Story (a/k/a Romeo & Juliet updated to New York), and Sound of Music (which I actually enjoyed). But when I was old enough to go to movies on my own, I did not choose musicals.

The first musical I chose on my own was initially neither a stage production nor a film. It was the rock opera recording of Jesus Christ Superstar, released in 1970 and then produced on stage in 1971.

While in college from 1970-74, I developed a liking for the stage from attending performances produced by the theater department. When I went to graduate school in Gainesville, I began attending theater performances by a local group and became a season ticket patron. The group turned a downtown classical building which had been a post office into the Hippodrome Theater, which is now a state theater.

Whenever I traveled to San Francisco or Washington, D.C., I always saw at least one theater performance. Both cities have “day of show” half-price ticket outlets, so how could I pass up a performance in a fine theater? Probably my most memorable performance was seeing “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the historic Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated. (The box where he was shot is sealed off and draped with American flags.)

I came to musicals late in my theater life, partially because I thought they were “fluff” compared to “serious” theater productions.  Las Vegas is where I developed a taste for musicals, because musicals are a big part of the entertainment there and I was visiting Vegas every year.

The first stage musical I saw in Vegas was Phantom. Its great music, elaborate sets and beautiful costumes whetted my appetite for more.  Las Vegas has many “day of show” half-price ticket outlets and I took advantage of them to see many musicals, such as “Chicago.”

The “jukebox” musicals, which are based on baby boomer music and popularized by the immensely successful “Mamma Mia!” are enjoying a good run. I caught the Vegas productions of “Jersey Boys” and “Viva Elvis.” I’d like to see “Beautiful,” which is based on Carole King, one of my favorite artists in college. I expect that “Motown the Musical” will be a real foot stomper!

Although I don’t have an extensive history with musicals, there’s three that I would see again.

First, of course, is Phantom. If it wasn’t that good, it wouldn’t still be on Broadway after 26 years. That’s right, 26 years. After about three years  of perseverance, I was able to get “day of show” half-price tickets to it in Vegas, where it holds a record for longest run. And not “nosebleed seats” either…third row orchestra. And well worth $75 (half-price) a ticket!

Here’s a clip of my favorite song from the 25th anniversary performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall, a venue I’d love to see Phantom at. (I did see an orchestra performance at Royal Albert Hall when I visited London in 1988.)

Second is Mamma Mia!, whose story line is based on ABBA songs. It played six years in Vegas (Phantom was 6 1/2 years) at Mandalay Bay, where I saw it, and a new production recently opened at the Tropicana. It’s been on Broadway for about 13 years and recently celebrated 15 years in London.

Here’s the finale from the Broadway production.

Third, is Jersey Boys which has been on Broadway for about eight years.

Here’s a “preview” clip from Jersey Boys on Broadway:

There are three “classic” musicals on my list.

One of them is Cabaret. The 1968 London production introduced the world to
a woman with an…interesting…voice and who most folks know for her role in some of the James Bond films as “M”… Judi Dench.

Second is Oklahoma. Before he played a wolverine, Hugh Jackman played Curly on the stage in this musical.

Finally, there’s Cats. It ran on Broadway for 18 years, a record which was overtaken only by Phantom. Here’s a clip of the Broadway cast performing at the 1983 Tony awards ceremony, where Betty Buckley sings “Memory” and won the “Best Female” Tony for her performance in that musical:

There are a number of more “modern” musicals on my list.

At the top of that list is Evita. I saw the film version with Madonna but I don’t think her version of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is as strong as this stage one with a slower tempo:

Even though I don’t live in a major city, between Florida State University (FSU), a community theater, a “young actors” studio and a music theater, I’ve been able to see a number of musicals locally.

I saw Jesus Christ Superstar at the local music theater, which draws on music and theater students at FSU and another state university. Here’s an…interesting…interpretation of King Herod’s song:

I saw Rocky Horror Picture Show on a small “theater in the round” stage at FSU. Because of its intimacy, I liked that performance as much as the film. Here’s the classic Time Warp and Sweet Transvestite from a Melbourne production.

I saw “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” but I don’t remember where. Here’s a clip from the introductory scene (Comedy Tonight).

Whenever I travel to a large city now, the question on my mind is…musical tonight?