You Gotta Know These Musicals: Part I
Each musical’s title is followed by its composer, its lyricist, the author of its book, and the year in which it premiered on Broadway or the West End.
- West Side Story (Leonard Bernstein; Stephen Sondheim; Arthur Laurents; 1957): Riff and Bernardo lead two rival gangs: the blue-collar Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Tony, a former Jet, falls in love with Bernardo’s sister Maria and vows to stop the fighting, but he kills Bernardo after Bernardo kills Riff in a “rumble.” Maria’s suitor Chino shoots Tony, and the two gangs come together. Notable songs include “America,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Adapted from Romeo and Juliet, it was made into an Academy Award-winning 1961 film starring Natalie Wood.
- The Phantom of the Opera (Andrew Lloyd Webber; Charles Hart & Richard Stilgoe; Richard Stilgoe & Andrew Lloyd Webber; 1986): At the Paris Opera in 1881, the mysterious Phantom lures the soprano Christine Daaé to his lair (“The Music of the Night”). Christine falls in love with the opera’s new patron, Raoul, so the Phantom drops a chandelier and kidnaps Christine. They kiss, but he disappears, leaving behind only his white mask. Adapted from the 1909 novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux, it is the longest-running show in Broadway history.
- My Fair Lady (Frederick Loewe; Alan Jay Lerner; Alan Jay Lerner; 1956): As part of a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering, the phonetics professor Henry Higgins transforms the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a proper lady. After Eliza falls for Freddy Eynsforth-Hill, Higgins realizes he is in love with Eliza. Eliza returns to Higgins’ home in the final scene. It is adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, and its most famous songs are “The Rain in Spain” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”
- Cats (Andrew Lloyd Webber based on poems by T. S. Eliot; 1981): The Jellicle tribe of cats roams the streets of London. They introduce the audience to various members: Rum Tum Tugger, Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer, Mr. Mistoffelees, and Old Deuteronomy. Old Deuteronomy must choose a cat to be reborn, and he chooses the lowly Grizabella after she sings “Memory.” It is adapted from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot.
- Evita (Andrew Lloyd Webber; Tim Rice; Tim Rice; 1978): Che (possibly Che Guevara, but it’s also South American slang for just “a guy”) narrates the life story of Eva “Evita” Perón, a singer and actress who marries Juan Perón. Juan becomes President of Argentina, and Eva’s charity work makes her immensely popular among her people (“Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”) before her death from cancer. It was made into a 1996 film starring Madonna and Antonio Banderas.
- The Mikado (Arthur Sullivan; W. S. Gilbert; 1885): The Mikado (Emperor of Japan) has made flirting a capital crime in Titipu, so the people have appointed an ineffectual executioner named Ko-Ko. Ko-Ko’s ward, Yum-Yum, marries the wandering musician Nanki-Poo, and the two lovers fake their execution. The Mikado visits the town and forgives the lovers of their transgression. It includes the song “Three Little Maids From School Are We.”
- The Sound of Music (Richard Rodgers; Oscar Hammerstein II; Howard Lindsey & Russel Crouse; 1959): Maria, a young woman studying to be a nun in Nazi-occupied Austria, becomes governess to the seven children of Captain von Trapp. She teaches the children to sing (“My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi”), and she and the Captain fall in love and get married. After Maria and the von Trapps give a concert for the Nazis (“Edelweiss”), they escape Austria (“Climb Ev’ry Mountain”). It was adapted into an Academy Award-winning 1965 film starring Julie Andrews.
- Fiddler on the Roof (Jerry Bock; Sheldon Harnick; Joseph Stein; 1964): Tevye is a lowly Jewish milkman in tsarist Russia (“If I Were a Rich Man”), and his daughters are anxious to get married (“Matchmaker”). Tzeitel marries the tailor Motel (“Sunrise, Sunset,” “The Bottle Dance”), Hodel gets engaged to the radical student Perchik, and Chava falls in love with a Russian named Fyedka. The families leave their village, Anatevka, after a pogrom. It is adapted from Tevye and his Daughters by Sholem Aleichem.
- Oklahoma! (Richard Rodgers; Oscar Hammerstein II; Oscar Hammerstein II; 1943): On the eve of Oklahoma’s statehood, cowboy Curly McLain and sinister farmhand Judd compete for the love of Aunt Eller’s niece, Laurey. Judd falls on his own knife after attacking Curly, and Curly and Laurey get married. A subplot concerns Ado Annie, who chooses cowboy Will Parker over the Persian peddler Ali Hakim. Featuring the songs “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “Oklahoma,” it is often considered the first modern book musical.
- Cabaret (Fred Kander; John Ebb; Jon Masteroff; 1966): Cabaret is set in the seedy Kit-Kat Club in Berlin during the Weimer era. The risqué Master of Ceremonies presides over the action (“Wilkommen”). The British lounge singer Sally Bowles falls in love with the American writer Cliff Bradshaw, but the two break up as the Nazis come to power. Adapted into an Academy Award-winning 1972 film starring Liza Minelli and Joel Grey, it is based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.
This article was contributed by former NAQT writer Daniel Donohue.