The Marvels Of Modern Musicals
Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
To celebrate the start of the fall theatrical season, we sat down to hash out the complexities and wonders of theatrical works created in the past 50 years.
Taylor's Pick: The Phantom of the Opera
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera is widely considered by theatre critics and enthusiasts alike as the most successful musical of all time, and I would have to agree. First staged in 1986 in Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End, it is the longest-running show in Broadway history. The haunting tale of an estranged “phantom” living in the shadows of an opera house and training the young, naive female protagonist Christine to be an opera star is a tale rich with intrigue, obsession, love, and, perhaps most prominently, tragedy.
It is an ironic show in one major way: it is a Broadway show about an opera house. It is, on a very basic level, a look into the intricacies about the production of a show: the competition for roles and the “backstage” of what you eventually see on stage. The show does a fantastic job creating a strong sense of character development and evokes sympathy for the Phantom throughout.
Each production of the show has incredible set design and costumes. Since the show is set in Paris in 1881, the performers are clad in intricate costumes, especially during the Masquerade scene.
While the score for Phantom offers an incredible mix of sound, it is most notable for its soothing and strangely eerie love ballads accompanied by sounds of the haunting opera house organ. The most celebrated portrayal of the Phantom and Christine would have to be Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, who were both members of the original West End and Broadway cast. It is their renditions of the show’s songs that have become staples of any Broadway lover’s repertoire.
The unmistakable, intense organ of the “Overture” gives listeners a preview into the world of the Phantom. The duets between the Phantom and Christine, such as “Angel of Music” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” are fantastic pieces that perfectly juxtapose the Phantom’s deep, emotive voice with Christine’s extreme soprano, opera-esque voice.
The most striking song of the score, however, is “The Music of the Night,” sung by the Phantom. The amazing lyricism of this song combines the imagery of a beautiful dream and the power of music while subtly connecting these ideas with the sensation of being in love. While it may vary from person to person, something about the story, the music and its eerie beauty resonate powerfully with the human soul—that is the simple reason for its success.
I’m not a theater connoisseur, but The Phantom of the Opera is an unbelievable show. Each time I’m not only blown away, but I’m also brought to tears. Do yourself a favor and see the show, don’t watch the movie. It is the only Broadway show whose score I will frequently listen to—I’m completely captivated by it.
Brennan's Pick: Sunday in the Park With George
There is simply no denying that Stephen Sondheim is one of the most masterful commanders of modern theater. His works range from brilliantly esoteric (the aging Follies, one of the most important musicals of all time) to innovative and groundbreaking (Gypsy, West Side Story, and Assassins).
Then, of course, there’s Sunday in the Park With George, a pioneering adaptation of a painting to the theatrical stage. Based off of pointillist mastermind Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, painted in 1884, the musical traces the story of the artist as he struggles to find inspiration in a seemingly stilted moment of his life.
The musical’s crowning glory is, unquestionably, the moment in which all of its supporting players converge and the audience realizes with a hushed gasp of abject admiration that the actors are all dressed as characters from the iconic painting. Falling at the end of Act I, the scene is arranged by Seurat (a role originated by Mandy Patinkin in 1983) to the tune of “Sunday.” In its most recent (2008) incarnation, the backdrop was three white walls, upon which majestic sketching and eventually a fully fleshed-out La Grand Jatte itself appeared. The moment proves magical upon every viewing: a technical, musical, and choreographed work of art in its brisk but impactful presentation—art, at its most meta and moving.
The second act presents a more fictionalized version of events in Seurat’s ancestry, tracing the life of his great-grandson in 1984, himself a struggling artist about to present the most fully realized work of his career (Chromolume No. 7). More a self-reflective actualization of Sondheim’s relationship to his critics, Act II is more divisive among theater geeks, as it fudges some details here and there and struggles to maintain fluid and believable continuity with its prior act. Ultimately, it stands as an endearing and heartbreaking gap between the past and the present, between a young Sondheim/Seurat at the brink of success, and how little that success can matter years down the line.
Even Sondheim devotees don’t know quite what to make of Sunday in the Park With George, but the show’s 2008 revival did some revisionist history in its staging of Act II, establishing fluidity and eliminating doubts to the show’s utterly jaw-dropping brilliance. Ben Brantley, The New York Times’ stingy theater critic, commented on the revival, noting, “this production goes further than any I’ve seen in justifying the second act’s existence.”