A while ago, I wrote a cranky diatribe against using music as underscoring in plays. Turns out I’m against it. Well, my mailbox was flooded with angry letters the next day. None of them were about music. I can’t say exactly what they were about (but how cool is it that you don’t even have to enter an international lottery to be declared a winner!), but they did give me an idea for a new entry.

Thing is…I love music. Mmmmmmmm, music. It’s my first passion. When I was three, I had a favorite song – “American Pie.” It’s true. My second-fave was “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head,” and my mom knew I’d be a musician because I understood the need to count the silent beats (“Raindrops keep falling on my head [2, 3, 4] That doesn’t mean my eyes…”). It’s in my soul, music is. All kinds, all forms, all genres.

And when it’s on, I’m an active listener. Music isn’t background – when it’s playing, “listening to music” is what I’m doing. I used to sit up in our playroom as a child and play the few albums I owned (Billy Joel’s “The Stranger,” The “Grease” soundtrack, a K-Tel collection called “Far Out”) and just…listen. It’s a wonder I didn’t end up in a special school.

That tendency of mine, to shut down and take in the tunes, is probably why I don’t react well to the use of music in many plays. When it’s in the background, then so am I, and the scene itself becomes secondary. And when it’s used between scenes to “comment” on what we’ve just seen…well, that just never works for me. It becomes less about the characters and more about the director – namely, how clever he or she is to have thought of a song with lyrics that sum up what just happened. And how deep his or her CD collection is.

But here I’m getting cranky again, and that’s not right. I can’t be a curmudgeon about music – it’s just too crucial to me. So instead, I’m gonna focus on something I love – musicals.

I love me some musicals. I think I’m one of those people who envies the characters, because they get to break out in song now and then and sing out all the emotions that they can’t say. We should do that more in real life. When you’re in the boss’ office, and he’s explaining that the pictures of your family on your desk are creating a hostile work environment – what better way to respond than in song? In real life, bursting into song gets you arrested. In a musical, that’s how you win the girl.

So, in no particular order, here are my favorite musicals, and why:

  • “Rent.” It’s an obvious choice, but so what – it’s daring, it’s romantic, it’s snotty, it offers characters that are instantly likeable and complex, it’s bursting with energy, and it absolutely earns its tears. And here’s a surprise…it doesn’t feel dated at all, even though, by definition, it is. The music is a deft blend of Broadway and rock/pop, and while there are a few second-rate songs and rhymes (what a shame that Roger’s final ode to Mimi is so weak), the majority of the tracks just soar with abandon, melody, wit, and rhythm. Trying to pick a favorite song is like choosing a puppy at the pet store, but for a pure, slick little delight, how about “Santa Fe,” Collins’ sly ode to selling out?
  • “Guys and Dolls.” I’ve never been a fan of the older shows. I grew up on rock and roll (GOOD rock and roll – my parents fed me Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis), so I get a little impatient with your “Carnivals” and your “Carousels” and other shows that may or may not begin with “C.” I’m not proud of that, friends…but that’s the way it is. But “Guys and Dolls” is a beauty from start to finish – it’s hilarious, it’s subversive, the humor builds, it gets romantic but never schmaltzy (it’s too smart for that), and the music is uniformly wonderful.
  • “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Composers have struggled for years to offer true, driving rock music in musicals. “Grease,” “Little Shop,” “Rocky Horror,” even “Superstar” all tried, but they ended up offering rock through a Broadway filter, and no wonder…rock music is about pure emotion, but the people on stage are acting, singing, dancing…there’s a disconnect between the primitive nature of rock and the very act of putting on a character. But not in “Hedwig,” because what we’re seeing is a concert with a narrative. It’s a brilliant, bold idea, and man oh man, does it work, both as theatre and rock and roll. The music is fabulous – a blend of glam rock, punk, and heartfelt ballads, just the kind of thing our hero might create. See the movie, sure, but definitely see the show.
  • “Bat Boy.” I’m incredibly biased, because I was in the show and it was one of the great theatre experiences of my life. But even so, I can step back and see that “Bat Boy” is something wonderful: it’s satire with emotion, camp with anger, a genuinely hilarious and scary ride – and it gives you the Grand Guignol ending so many “horror” shows botch. The music is a top-notch, joyful mix of pop, gospel, bad rap, pure Broadway – and there’s not a bad song in the bunch.
  • “Evita.” It took “Evita” a long, long time to become one of my favorites. I used to object to its use of repetition, its overblown string cadences, its use of recitative. Now, however, I think it’s one of the greatest plays of our time – a massively ambitious look at a massively ambitious woman, and an examination of the strange relationship between politics and celebrity. And there are even some subtle moments – “Another Suitcase, Another Hall” sounds suspiciously like the “hit single,” but it’s a nice moment nonetheless. Mandy may do some serious emoting on the Broadway CD, but don’t let that get in your way…”Evita” is an incredible piece of work, and “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” has about six layers of meaning, if you really want to dig that deep.
  • “Little Shop of Horrors.” I love it when high art is inspired by low art, and vice versa, but in either school you run the danger of condescension. Not here. “Little Shop” treats its hero and his situation with utter seriousness, and the score is a masterpiece of melody and rhythm. The Menken/Ashman combo hit a high here that they’ve never surpassed – try not to bob your head during “Feed Me/Get it.” I dare you.

Some other musicals that will always have a home in my heart:

  • “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It’s big and bombastic and thinks very highly of itself, but it works. “Heaven on Their Minds” is one of the great openers of all time – it’s a mini-musical all on its own.
  • “Grease.” It’s remarkably stupid and vulgar, but those are plusses to a guy like me. Besides, I was in the show once, and when the bass started playing the first few notes of “Summer Loving,” the exhilaration in the audience was palpable. Plus, I met my wife in that show!
  • “The Music Man.” Again, I was in it, and it was a glorious experience, but consider how lovely and original the music is, and how cleverly Harold Hill cons the audience into wanting him to get away with it.
  • “Company.” My fave Sondheim show – so accessible that you don’t realize how revolutionary it is. Has there ever been another musical that took place in the course of one second?
  • “The Rocky Horror Show.” I have yet to outgrow it. I know the arguments against – it’s slipshod, some of the music was clearly written before the show was conceived, it basically falls apart halfway through Act Two. But it’s also genuinely funny and satiric, and Act One is pure adrenaline.
  • “Oklahoma.” What can I say? It’s a hell of a show, a cornucopia of activity, plots, characters, and energy. Besides, it’s subversive – ever notice how Curly, our hero, is kind of a dick?
  • “Avenue Q” and “Urinetown.” We can all agree that we don’t need any more hip, self-aware musicals, right? So how come these two are so fresh and hilarious? Beats me, but these two very different shows are the best musicals I’ve seen on Broadway in recent years.

Now I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t whine, so here are a few big & famous musicals that do little to nothing for me, and why. I’m wrong about them, of course…dead wrong, and what the hell gives me the right? Not a damn thing, that’s what. Anyway, here we go.

  • “Les Miserables.” It’s not so much a tear-jerker as it is a mace-in-eyes-sprayer. Still, I’d forgive its shameless suckerpunches – like trotting out lovestruck ingénues and sprightly 10-year-old boys just to kill them off for effect – if it weren’t so damn BORING. But then, millions love it, so who the heck am I to judge?
  • “Bye Bye Birdie.” I can deal wih sanitized pop, but “Sincere” as a rock n’ roll song? Sorry.
  • “Jekyll & Hyde.” It’s hard to write a musical. It’s really, really hard.
  • “Brooklyn the Musical.” It’s what would happen if Disney created “Rent.” The show is one false, labored note after another. But the kids are good.
  • “Chess.” Haven’t seen the show, but then I haven’t been able to sit through the first 20 minutes of the original album, so there’s not much chance I’ll be buying a ticket. I dig the trashy rap song, though!
  • “Phantom of the Opera.” Ah, the spectacle! Ah, the effects! Ah, the music! Ah, the zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

That ends another chapter. Stay tuned next week (?) when we’ll discuss the non-musical music that makes my heart sing and my soul happy. Until then…sing, sing a song. Make it simple, to last the whole night long…