Top 10 Classical Musicals

I love musicals, the cheesier the better. This is something of a source of frustration for me, as my brother is a classically-trained opera singer (though he likes and performs in musicals too). I like opera OK (I enjoyed Madame Butterfly very much, and I like The Mikado, if that counts) and I am dimly aware that there's lots of fascinating Classical stuff in opera. (Ed played Acis in Acis and Galatea once, and I'm struggling to remember if I went to see it. I am a very bad sister).

What I really love, though, is opera's younger cousin, musicals. It's not to do with the amount of singing in proportion to dialogue, as one of my absolute favourites is Les Miserables. I just like the more modern style. I'm a big fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and can make a whole room full of musicians groan when I remind them that I really like the cheesy key change that always gets popped in towards the end of Lloyd Webber songs. I'm especially fond of belting out the big numbers to myself while alone in my car, which makes me a strange person to be stuck next to in a traffic jam. West End musical producers, if you could hire my brother so I can spend my time going to see big hit musicals instead of Stockhausen's Mittwoch Aus Licht, I'd be very grateful.

And so without further ado, my Top 10 Classical musicals. When I started trying to think of examples, I was surprised how many there are of these!

10. Godspell
Where in the ancient world are we? The story is from Roman-period Judaea and Galilee. It's quite well known. The show is usually performed in modern dress as far as I know; the film is shot in 1970s New York City, though the spoken dialogue is kept largely intact from translations of the Gospels.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Much of it is pretty light in tone, but there are serious sections. The main character dies at the end.
Most toe-tapping tune: Probably 'Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord', which we've actually used as a hymn in church on Palm Sunday.
Best song: Probably 'Prepare Ye' again, though 'Day by Day' is also nice.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? The original production had Jesus followed around a playground by a troupe of clowns and the 1973 film is... interesting. Mr Andrews from Titanic wanders around in huge '70s hair and a Superman T-shirt, surrounded by clowns/hippies covered in face paint. He's 'crucified' by being tied to a flimsy-looking fence and loudly insisting he's dying. Like Jesus Christ Superstar, the film doesn't depict the Resurrection; unlike Jesus Christ Superstar, some stage productions do, so if that's important to you, you need to seek out particular stage productions, and most directors play around with the setting to make it look less ridiculous. Essentially, the film is OK and the tunes are great, but it's dated very badly - though the location filming in New York is gorgeous.
Watch it because: If you only watch one early 1970s hippie musical about Jesus that leaves out the Resurrection... watch Jesus Christ Superstar. But if you have time for two, Godspell is certainly interesting (a euphemism for seriously weird) and there's no denying the earworm qualities of 'Prepare Ye.'

9. Moulin Rouge!
Where in the ancient world are we? The story is a (very) loose re-telling of the story of Orpheus set in Paris in 1900. To be honest, it's such a loose re-telling that I didn't even notice that's what it was, but that's what the director says.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? A tragedy, but much of the film in between the sad bits is hilarious.
Most toe-tapping tune: The tune is catchy, but the performances are what make it - Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh and a supporting cast of waiters' rendition of 'Like a Virgin' has to be seen to be believed (in a good way).
Best song: Since the soundtrack is put together from some of the greatest hits of seriously big pop artists, it's really hard to pick a favourite. I'm a huge fan of Queen and 'The Show Must Go On' is one of my favourite Queen songs, so I love the cover of that; the 'Elephant Love Medley' is brilliant, and 'Roxanne' is dark, passionate and possibly an improvement on the already great original. The one song written for the film, 'Come What May', stands its ground among all the fabulousness as well, and provides a suitably rousing musical-theatre finale that you wouldn't get from the pop songs.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? Yes, as it is a film rather than a stage show. (You Tube seems to have some videos of amateur stage versions, dance versions etc. - I dread to think how much it must cost to get the rights to all those songs).
Watch it because: Faramir-in-drag storms off in a huff, Jim Broadbent sings Madonna, Ewan MacGregor is in it, Kylie is a fairy, there's a narcoleptic Argentinian... why wouldn't you want to watch it?!

8. Xena Warrior Princess, The Bitter Suite
Where in the ancient world are we? Wherever and whenever Xena is set... a sort of vaguely medieval fantasy-land peopled with (some) characters from Greek mythology.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Tragedy. In the ancient world, a tragedy didn't have to have a sad ending (though many of them did). The difference between the two was that tragedy took its subject matter seriously. Also, it tended to include fewer fart gags.
Most toe-tapping tune: We know we're into some weirdness and should suspend disbelief even more than usual when we're introduced to 'The Land of Illusia' (which seems more like the underworld to me, but there you go).
Best song: Xena's heart-rending apology to Gabrille and Soren in 'The Love of Your Life' at the end is beautiful.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? Yes, as it's a TV episode - though you might need to buy quite a few other episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess as well.
Watch it because: Although this episode of Xena is neither the first TV musical nor necessarily the best, it is the one that kicked off the trend in the late '90s and noughties. The whole thing is beautifully put together, with real emotion in the songs and some stirring tunes, plus, of course, the obligatory tango. Incidentally, three of the entries on this list include crucifixion, but only one follows it up with resurrection. It's this one.

7. Frogs
Where in the ancient world are we? This is an up-dating of Aristophanes' comedy Frogs, set largely in the underworld.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Comedy. This musical, first put together in 1941, expanded in 1974 and expanded again in 2004, is based on a specific ancient comic play. Stephen Sondheim wrote the music in 1974, and expanded the score in 2004 for a Broadway run.
Most toe-tapping tune: 'Shaw' brings a smile to the face as it 'samples' (I believe this is Musician for 'steals') from My Fair Lady.
Best song: The 'Invocation and Instructions to the Audience' sets the tone nicely and both updates the play and references Aristophanes himself.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? Frustratingly, it doesn't seem to be available - I've only seen/heard it through clips and recordings on YouTube. You can buy the Broadway revival soundtrack starring Nathan Lane on CD, but that's it. If anyone knows how to get hold of a video recording, I'd be very grateful!
Watch it because: Although I've never had the chance to actually see the thing, I love the idea of this. Frogs is one of my favourite Aristophanes plays and the idea of up-dating it to be a contest between George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare is great (and introduces various themes concerning social commentary and the power of drama of which Aristophanes, who frequently whined in his plays that he knew how things should be done better than anyone else and everyone should listen to him, would have thoroughly approved). The parts I've seen on YouTube are also very funny.

6. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Where in the ancient world are we? The film, set in the Depression-era American South, is supposedly based on The Odyssey. Supposedly. Some of the characters have the same names and there's a guy with one eye.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Although The Odyssey is a reasonably serious epic poem, it has a lot of scope for lighter interpretation, especially in the adventure tales, and this film is a fairly light comedy.
Most toe-tapping tune: I suppose it's stretching it a bit to call this a 'musical', but there are several songs sung by various characters and music is very important to the film, playing a big role in the plot, so I think it counts. The song the boys sing that becomes so important, 'Man of Constant Sorrow', is evocative, catchy and nicely sums up thematically the life story of poor old Odysseus.
Best song: My favourite song from the soundtrack is easily the ethereal and beautiful 'Down in the River to Pray'.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? Yes, it's a film.
Watch it because: The only Coen Brothers film I really get is True Grit, but I love the atmosphere of this film. I don't really know anything about the culture of the American South, and I've never been there, but this feels a bit like a window into that world.

5. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Where in the ancient world are we? An unfashionable suburb of Rome, in a comedy pulled together from various elements of Plautus' comedies.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Comedy. This is the second Sondheim musical based on ancient comedy in this list, though this time the story is put together from recurring themes from Plautus' plays rather than being an adaptation of a specific play. Also, this one's Roman.
Most toe-tapping tune: After I saw a stage production of the show when I was about 10 years old, I continued to remember and sing bits of 'Comedy Tonight' for the next 20 years.
Best song: Definitely 'Comedy Tonight.'
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? The 1966 film is a pretty good version, though it has some odd, very '60s', moments. Personally, I prefer the stage show. The breaking of the fourth wall feels more natural on stage and I remember loving it when I saw it, despite - or perhaps because of - most of the jokes going over my head at the time. The film goes a bit mad and the attempt to juxtapose gritty realism and Brechtian levels of self-conscious performance doesn't work so well for me. On the other hand, the film has Buster Keaton in it, so that's pretty cool.
Watch it because: This is probably the closest it's possible to get to experiencing an ancient play in a similar way to the ancients, as it's updated enough to make sense as a modern production, but not so updated as to becomes a completely different thing.

4. My Fair Lady
Where in the ancient world are we? My Fair Lady is a musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, which takes its name from, and echoes some of the themes of, the ancient myth of Pygmalion and his statue. That may sound a bit tenuous, but the film version does play up the Classical links in places.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Hard to say. It depends partly on how you feel about the ending used for the musical, chosen from the several available options after Shaw added some extra bits when no one liked the original one.
Most toe-tapping tune: I knew the song 'Get Me to the Church On Time' long before I ever saw the musical - though 'The Rain in Spain' is also very popular and earworm-y.
Best song: 'I Could Have Danced All Night' and 'On the Street Where You Live' are classics, but I'm very fond of 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly?'
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? The film is an all-time classic; a little bit long perhaps, and I feel slightly uncomfortable about Audrey Hepburn being dubbed by Marni Noxon when they could have just hired Julie Andrews, but utterly gorgeous, funny and tragic all at once.
Watch it because: See above. And it's interesting to see just where 'Get Me to the Church On Time' comes from.

3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'Once More With Feeling'
Where in the ancient world are we? The main point of this episode is just to get everyone singing their feelings, but the plot, such as it is, is a loose version of the myth of Persephone.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Tragedy, though 'They Got the Mustard Out' is hilarious.
Most toe-tapping tune: It's hard not to bop along to 'I'll Never Tell'.
Best song: A really tough choice, and I love 'Going Through the Motions', but I also have a real fondness for big numbers with everyone singing over-lapping tunes, so I'll have to go for 'Walk Through The Fire'.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? Yes, and you can even get this one by itself without the rest of Buffy season six if you want to - which you might well do (I am, I'm afraid, one of those people who really hates a lot of Buffy season six).
Watch it because: This is easily the best TV musical episode I've ever seen. The music is great, the songs fit each character, the funny bits are funny, the sad bits are sad and the singing is pretty good (especially Antony Stewart Head, who's starred in musicals, playing Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show). It's not perfect, but it's pretty close.

2. Hercules
Where in the ancient world are we? Greece's mythical past, in the age of heroes.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Comedy, though there are serious moments.
Most toe-tapping tune: Everything the Muses sing is pretty catchy, but their opening number, 'The Gospel Truth', is probably the best.
Best song: 'Go the Distance' is great but I love 'I Won't Say (I'm in Love)'.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? Yes, as this is an animated film - though to be fair, that didn't stop them making a stage musical version of The Lion King. But doing the Titans on stage would definitely be a challenge.
Watch it because: Hercules probably isn't the film most people would name as their favourite Disney. Slotting in right at the end of the 1990s Disney Renaissance and only two years after Toy Story, when not everything was CGI yet, we children of the '80s and 90's are more likely to name Aladdin, The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast as classic, generation-defining Disney animation. But Hercules is a great film, with solid tunes, warm humour and a style to the animation that at least differentiates its characters from their Disney stablemates (is there honestly any difference at all between Aladdin and Prince Eric?). Plus Meg really makes the film, a husky-voiced, cynical woman who's deeply flawed but still sympathetic. Just try to ignore the bit where they put an attempted rape scene in a kids' movie.

1. Jesus Christ Superstar
Where in the ancient world are we? Back where we started. Except this one is filmed in Israel, not NYC.
Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Tragedy. Jesus Christ Superstar is a Passion play, telling the story of Jesus' death from the entrance into Jerusalem, commemorated the week before Easter in various Christian denominations, through the Last Supper, arrest, flogging and crucifixion.
Most toe-tapping tune: In amongst all this gloom, in the middle of the story of Jesus' arrest and trial before Pilate, we get 'King Herod's Song'. Based on an incident recorded in Gospel of Luke in which Pilate tries to pass Jesus over to Herod Antipas and make him his problem, the song is used to incorporate a purely comical interlude in what is otherwise a fairly grim production, Hosannas aside.
Best song: I absolutely love 'Gethsemane'; Ted Neeley's performance in the 1973 film is heart-breaking.
Theatre is expensive. Can I just buy the DVD? You wait 2,000 years for a musical film with hippies and Jesus and then two come along at once. Like Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar is a musical that can be really weird, or can be really good, depending on the production. Unlike Godspell, the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar is very, very good. It plays down some of the sexier parts, which are played up in other productions, and Mary Magdalene's love for Jesus is rather more chaste than in some, though there's still a lot of oiling going on. The supporting cast are again wearing very dated 1970s outfits, but they're not clowns and don't have any face paint on, and Jesus is dressed in a bog-standard white robe, so the only scene that's distractingly dated is the brash finale. The conceit of showing the actors arriving by coach is nice (though it does sort of imply they left Ted Neeley to die out there - fortunately the DVD commentary confirms they didn't) and the shepherd who wanders in a symbolic-looking manner across the screen at the end was a real bit of luck for the director. I'm not claiming to be familiar with many other versions of Jesus Christ Superstar, but I suspect Norman Jewison's film is one of the best.
Watch it because: This is my favourite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. There's a seriousness to the plot and the songs that isn't always there in his other productions and I love the way he twists and plays with lines from the Gospels and from Christian prayers, especially 'Yours is the power and the glory'. Also, while as a Catholic obviously I disapprove on theological grounds, the bit where the disciples imply there's something dubious in the bread at the Last Supper and say they want to write the Gospels so they'll be famous is hilarious.

Honourable mention: Monty Python's Life of Brian isn't a musical, but does end on a fabulous and different entry into the 'musical crucifixions' sub-genre.

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  1. Another honorable mention would have to be Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It's ultimately derived from the rape of the Sabines, though more directly from a short story called "The Sobbin' Women". About the only song anybody remembers is "When You're in Love", but the dance numbers are incredible. Apparently, it's been adapted for the stage with mostly new songs, but I don't know anything else about it.

    I'm sure there must be some other examples out there, but nothing else comes to mind.

    1. Yes I know. I haven't watched it because I don't especially want to watch a story about rape (it may have been adapted, but the plot still sounds pretty dodgy to me). There's a surprisingly large number - Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is another obvious choice if including the ancient near east and Egypt - and The prince of Egypt - and even Mamma Mia mentions the odd bit of Greek myth.

    2. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has a lot of very energetic dancing in it, but no rape. Playful kidnapping, though.

      Re: Mr. Andrews from Titanic, Victor Garber, is better known as SpyDad, one of the stars of one of my favorite shows, Alias. When I realized he had starred in Godspell, I was totally shocked. He's changed a bit. :)

    3. I'd forgotten about Alias! He'll always be Mr Andrews, or the guy that cried at the Dirty Dozen in Sleepless in Seattle to me!

      Maybe I should give Seven Brides a go, though I'm still not wild about the kidnapping...

    4. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a really fun romp! I haven't seen it in ages, but I remember thinking it was a blast! Plus great music.

  2. What a fantastic post, Juls! I am crazy, crazy for musical theatre and you listed most of my favorites.

    Godspell the movie I can’t abide, but I have seen it on stage many times. Another little bit of trivia -- Anthony Head’s first paying gig was a member of the original stage ensemble of this show. I will most likely now have “All Good Gifts” stuck in my head all day. :-)

    My Fair Lady holds a special place in my heart. Back in the day, my father travelled to New York to see Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison star in the original and he never forgot it. As a result, it became his favorite musical and he would sing the songs often. About a year before he died, he and I went back to New York to see a revival that was simply divine. I looked over at my dad, who was sick by this time, and was astonished at the sheer joy on his face. It brought tears to my eyes at the time (and still does).

    Jesus Christ Superstar is my favorite as well. During its last revival in New York, my brother and I went to see a Saturday matinee. As it finished, we looked at each, walked over to the box office, and bought tickets to see it again that night. I am not really a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but this one is a work of genius.

    Once again, great post. You put a huge grin on my face on a Monday morning!

    1. Thanks Chris! :) I'm glad you liked it. I had those songs in my head all day yesterday....!

  3. Great post Juliette! I'm pretty nuts about musicals as well, and often prefer watching them home alone than with other people 'cause I just can't stop myself from bursting into song most of the time! :p I was reading through the post and couldn't help but turn the volume up on Once More With Feeling... That's also my favourite song in the episode, but they're all fabulous! I hadn't thought to associate it with Persephone's story...

    As for My Fair Lady... in Spain we get a good laugh with that one song, because the rain in Spain is most definitely NOT in the plain!!! The plain, or meseta de Castilla (think Don Quixote and windmills) is the driest place in the country! lol! :p But it's such a fun song, one of my favourites with "Just you wait 'Enry 'Higgins" :D

    1. Thanks :) Moulin Rouge! and Buffy are both a bit of a stretch, but I think there's a Classical root in there ;)

  4. I just noticed on TV Tropes that the cheesy key change is known as the Truck Drivers' Gear Change. That is *perfect*!

  5. I'm quite the opposite. I can't stand musicals in general, but I did love the Buffy Once More With Feeling ep, and O Brother Where Art Thou works quite well (though admittedly my favourite Coen Brothers film would be Miller's Crossing).

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