You Gotta Know These Musicals: Part II
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.
- The Music Man (Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey, 1957): The swindler Harold Hill attempts to con the families of River City, Iowa by starting a boys’ band. While there, he falls in love with the librarian Marian Paroo. The scheme is exposed, but the town forgives him. Notable songs include “Trouble” (the origin of the phrase “trouble in River City”), “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Shipoopi,” “Gary, Indiana,” and “Till There was You.”
- Rent (Jonathan Larson, 1996): Rent tells the story of impoverished artists (“bohemians”) living in the East Village of New York City during the AIDS crisis circa 1990 (though the temporal references are inconsistent, so no specific year can be pinned down). It is narrated by the filmmaker Mark Cohen, whose ex-girlfriend Maureen just left him for a woman (Joanne), and whose recovering-heroin-addict roommate Roger meets the dying stripper (and fellow heroin addict) Mimi. Mark and Roger’s former roommate, the itinerant philosopher and hacker Collins comes to town, where he is robbed, then saved by the transvestite Angel, with whom he moves in. Meanwhile, the former fourth roommate of Mark, Roger, and Collins — Benny — has married into a wealthy family and bought the building Mark and Roger now live in, from which he wants to evict them. The title refers to both the rent money that Mark and Roger cannot and will not pay Benny, and to their community being rent apart (torn) by the AIDS epidemic, poverty, and drug addiction. Rent is an adaptation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohème (with most characters corresponding directly, e.g. Mark to Marcello). It won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is most famous for the songs “Seasons of Love” and “La Vie Bohème”.
- Guys and Dolls (Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling, and Abe Burrows, 1950): Nathan Detroit runs an underground craps game but needs a location. To make enough money to use the Biltmore garage for his game, he bets the notorious gambler Sky Masterson that Sky can’t convince a girl of Nathan’s choice to go to Havana with him for dinner; Nathan chooses the righteous missionary Sarah Brown. Sky wins the bet but ends up having to bring a dozen sinning gamblers to a revival meeting. As Nathan attends the meeting, his long-suffering fiancée Adelaide, a nightclub dancer, is increasingly frustrated that their 14-year engagement has not led to marriage. At the meeting, Sky bets a large amount of money against the gamblers’ souls, winning, and eventually convinces Sarah to marry him and Nathan to marry Adelaide. Adapted from short stories by Damon Runyon, the musical the songs “A Bushel and a Peck,” “Luck Be a Lady,” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”
- Les Misérables (Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer, 1985): A partial retelling of the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, this work follows Jean Valjean, who was convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving niece. He breaks his parole and is doggedly pursued by Inspector Javert. Several years later, the lives of Valjean, his adopted daughter Cosette, her lover Marius and his former lover Éponine, and Javert become intertwined on the barricades of an 1832 student rebellion in Paris. The longest-running show on London’s West End, it features the songs “I Dreamed a Dream,”, “Castle on a Cloud,” “Master of the House,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, “One Day More,” and “On My Own.”
- Annie Get Your Gun (Irving Berlin, Herbert Fields, and Dorothy Fields, 1946): Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show comes to town, and performer Frank Butler challenges anyone to a shooting contest. Annie Oakley wins the contest and joins the show. She and Frank fall in love, but Frank quits out of jealousy that Annie is a better shooter than he is. The title role was originated by Ethel Merman. The show includes the songs “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” and “Anything You Can Do.”
- The Pirates of Penzance (W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, 1879): Frederic, having turned 21, is released from his apprenticeship to the title pirates. Reaching shore for the first time, Frederic falls in love with Mabel, the daughter of Major-General Stanley. Frederic realizes that he was apprenticed until his twenty-first birthday, and, having been born on February 29, he must return to his apprenticeship. Mabel vows to wait for him. The Major-General and the police pursue the pirates, who surrender. The pirates are forgiven, and Mabel and Frederic reunite. As the work is actually a light opera, most of the songs are simply titled after their first lines; the most memorable ones include “Pour, oh pour, the pirate sherry” and the patter song “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.”
- H.M.S. Pinafore (W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, 1878): Aboard the title ship, Josephine promises her father, the captain, that she will marry Sir Joseph Porter, but Josephine secretly loves the common sailor Ralph Rackstraw, and the two plan to elope. A peddler named Buttercup reveals that she accidentally switched the captain and Ralph at birth: Ralph is of noble birth and should be captain, while the captain is nothing more than a common sailor. Ralph, now captain, marries Josephine, and the former captain marries Buttercup. Like The Pirates of Penzance, songs are named after their first lines; they include “We sail the ocean blue,” “I’m called Little Buttercup,” and “Pretty daughter of mine.”
- The King and I (Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, 1951): Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, travels to Siam (now Thailand) to teach English to the King’s many children and wives. Anna’s western ways, the looming threat of British rule, and romance between Lun Tha and the concubine Tuptim all weigh heavily on the traditional, chauvinistic King. As the King dies, Anna kneels at his side, and the prince abolishes the practice of kowtowing. Adapted from Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon and inspired by Anna Leonowens’ memoirs, it was made into an Academy Award-winning 1956 film starring Yul Brynner. Its songs include “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Shall We Dance?”.
- Jesus Christ Superstar (Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, 1971): In the week leading up to the crucifixion, Judas grows angry with Christ’s claims of divinity, and Mary Magdalene laments her romantic feelings for Christ. Judas hangs himself, and Christ, though frustrated with God, accepts his fate. It includes the songs “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Gethsemane,” and “Trial Before Pilate.”
- Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, 1979): Sweeney Todd, a barber, returns to London from Australia, where the evil Judge Turpin — who lusted after Sweeney’s wife — unjustly imprisoned him. Sweeney’s daughter, Joanna, escapes Turpin — of whom she had been a ward during her father’s incarceration — and falls in love with the sailor Anthony Hope. A vengeful Sweeney begins murdering his customers, and his neighbor, Mrs. Lovett, bakes them into meat pies. Sweeney kills the Judge but, in his fury, accidentally kills a mad beggar woman who was really his long-lost wife. Mrs. Lovett’s shop boy, Tobias, grows scared and kills Sweeney. The show’s famously complex score includes “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” “The Worst Pies in London,” “Johanna,” and “God, That’s Good,” but the show is nearly sung through and it is sometimes nontrivial to identify distinct songs within it.
- South Pacific (Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan, 1949): During the Pacific Theater of World War II, Nellie Forbush, a U.S. Navy nurse, has fallen in love with Émile, a French plantation owner. Émile helps Lieutenant Cable carry out an espionage mission against the Japanese. The mission is successful, and Émile and Nellie reunite. Featuring the songs “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” and “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair,” it is adapted from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.
This article was contributed by former NAQT writer Daniel Donohue.