Since quarantine has kept me confined to my house without much else to do but schoolwork, I’ve taken the time to either watch or listen to a bunch of new musicals, mostly while playing Windows Spider Solitaire. Below is a list of the musicals I listened to or watched in order of most favorite to least favorite, along with my opinions of each. Hope you enjoy!
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812:
Or simply Great Comet if you don’t have the time, is a musical based on a seventy-page sliver of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Described as an electro-pop opera, it follows the story of the engaged Natasha as she mistakenly falls for the handsome playboy, Anatole Kuragin, and their disastrous courtship. Oh, and Pierre’s there too; a depressed heap of sadness practicing social distancing 200 years in advance. This musical is one of the greatest shows to come out of the 2010’s in my not-so-humble opinion. Composer Dave Malloy masterfully blends a plethora of different genres seamlessly into an entirely sung-through opera that is both fun to listen to and deeply meaningful. Throw in the fact that Great Comet was originally a dinner theater and carries aspects of that audience participation into its Broadway show, seating many audience members on stage and interacting with them during the big numbers, and you have quite a unique show. I absolutely love this musical, and it’s become my second favorite musical of all time, only behind Les Misérables.
Favorite Song: “The Abduction”
Favorite Character: Anatole Kuragin (don’t ask me why — he’s a garbage human being)
Jekyll and Hyde:
*Disclaimer: I listened to the original concept album, rather than the Broadway version. Apologies for the differences*
Based on a novel inspired by Jack the Ripper, Jekyll and Hyde presents the controversial experiments of Dr. Henry Jekyll, a scientist determined to find a way to separate man’s evil nature from him and get rid of it. After being rejected by the board of governors, Jekyll decides to use himself as his test subject. His experiment goes horribly wrong and creates a murderous, split-personality who calls himself Edward Hyde. A roller-coaster from start to finish, this musical has been described as a cross between Les Misérables, and Phantom of the Opera as far as style goes. It’s dark, edgy and action-packed and displays the theme of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Though the board of governors’ refusal to permit Jekyll’s experiment is largely hypocritical, they end up being right in the end about nothing good coming out of trying to play God. Jekyll himself cannot bring himself to admit this and continues to try to make his experiment work, despite it now being responsible for murder. The music is well-written and compelling and matches the story it’s telling perfectly.
Favorite song: “His Work and Nothing More”
Favorite Character: John Utterson
The original movie took the Newsboy Strike of 1899 to the bottom of the box office when it was released, but the Broadway musical takes it right back up, following Jack Kelly as he rallies his fellow Newsies to fight against Joseph Pulitzer’s unfair newspaper price increase. The music is enough to get you hyped up any day, but what really makes this show stand out is the dancing and acrobatics pulled off by its ensemble. It reminds me a lot of West Side Story in that regard. The sets and choreography give it a larger-than-life feel, even watching it from your TV at home. It’s amazing that a musical can take something as apparently boring as the founding of a union and make it fascinating to watch come to life on stage.
Favorite Song: “King of New York”
Favorite Character: Davey
As one of the only people left in the world who hasn’t seen the 1997 animated film Anastasia, I can view this musical with an unbiased frame of mind. Inspired by the rumor that Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia survived the brutal murders of the rest of her family by the Bolsheviks, the show blends fact with fiction to create a hauntingly beautiful piece. In the show, con-men Dmitry and Vlad devise a plan to present the amnesiac, Anya, to the Dowager Queen to receive a reward, unaware that Anya is actually the lost princess herself. I loved it. Beautiful music, touching story, what more could you ask for? Wikipedia (can it be trusted?) tells me that the Bolshevik general, Gleb, the show’s antagonist, replaced Rasputin and some supernatural elements from the original movie to ground the show in reality a little more. Personally—again, I’ve never actually seen the movie—I think this was a good choice as it sheds a more serious light on the tragedy of the Russian Revolution as well as giving us one of the show’s most complex characters.
Favorite song: “Stay, I Pray You”
Favorite Character: Dmitry
This self-proclaimed “show about death,” actually carries with it a profound message of life as we watch teenage Lydia Deetz come to terms with her mother’s death with the help of a pair of friendly ghosts and the intrusion of a meddling demon called Beetlejuice. This show beautifully combines silliness with seriousness and all of its songs are a joy to listen to. Somehow a musical based on a Tim Burton movie from the eighties about a demon with an affinity for pinstripes becomes a compelling story of family and loss, lightened by a bubbly soundtrack and Alex Brightman’s portrayal of the titular character. It should never have left Broadway. I’m still salty.
Favorite Song: “Dead Mom”
Favorite Character: Beetlejuice (duh)
*Disclaimer: watched the movie, not the musical, so if any information below differs from the actual musical, I’m sorry.*
This musical follows the tumultuous relationship of flamboyant American actress and singer Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli) and shy, unassuming English teacher Brian in the midst of 1930’s Nazi Germany. It’s strange, in that I wouldn’t exactly call it a musical, given that all of its songs take the form of performances at the Kit Kat Club where Sally works, instead of being sung by the show’s characters as reflections of their conversations or internal thought processes. This allows for a strange dichotomy of weird, gimmicky songs and a serious, emotional plot, as the two elements are quite separate from each other. In fact, if you were to take out the songs, the rest of Cabaret could easily stand on its own as a film. An element worthy of note, that I really enjoyed, was the way the show handled the Nazi situation. Rather than it being at the forefront of the plot, the Nazism was seen largely in the background, showcasing the fact that Sally and Brian aren’t really paying much attention to the truth of what is going on though we, the audience, are fully aware. This gives the show a rather sinister undertone.
Favorite Song: “Mein Herr” Favorite Character: Brian (Played by David York)
*Disclaimer: Saw the movie, not the musical. If any of the information below differs from the actual musical, I’m sorry.*
Set in crime-obsessed Chicago, this musical follows the highly publicized defense of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), who murdered her lover in cold-blood. We watch Roxie become caught up in the fame and romanticized world of crime. This isn’t a musical that you can just listen to, as much of what makes it amazing are the dance numbers. I would expect nothing less from Bob Fosse. Similarly to Cabaret, the delivery of the songs in this musical is unusual, as all of the song and dance numbers are either performances on stage, or exist within Roxie’s imagination, as she often fantasizes a more glitzy reality than the one she’s currently living.
Favorite song: “We Both Reached for the Gun”
Favorite Character: Mama (Played by Queen Latifah)
Next to Normal:
This musical follows the struggles of a woman suffering from mental illness and guilt over the death of her son when he was an infant. It displays an excellent commentary on the horrors of mental illness and how little we know about how to help those suffering from it, with Diana’s therapist and family even convincing her to undergo shock therapy, which completely eviscerates her memory. A fascinating piece of this musical exists in the antagonist, Gabe, a personified form of Diana’s mental illness presented as her long-dead son. What’s interesting about this is that, in some ways, it makes Diana her own antagonist, as Gabe isn’t really there and is instead a product of her schizophrenia. This musical had a really good story, and only places so low on this list because I wasn’t the hugest fan of most of the music. I still really liked it. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.
Favorite Song: “I’m Alive”
Favorite Character: Gabe (Aaron Tveit, duh)
Nick and Nigel Bottom are a writing duo in Elizabethan England whose main rival is the one and only William Shakespeare. In an effort to outdo him, Nick contacts the nephew of Nostradamus, who doesn’t exactly have the same talents as his uncle. He looks into the future to see what Shakespeare’s greatest play will be, so Nick and Nigel can write it first, but misunderstands “Hamlet” as “Omelet” and suggests they make it a musical. Hilarity ensues. Not much to say about this one other than its quirky, funny, and a joy to listen to. Also there’s something ironic about a musical making fun of musicals.
Favorite Song: “God, I Hate Shakespeare”
Favorite Character: Nigel
Where to begin? Preludes follows the life of famed pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff and his slightly disturbed mind. It’s a strange kind of musical, in that there isn’t really a lot of singing, rather, a combination of Rachmaninoff’s music and composer Dave Malloy’s plays behind monologueing actors in most songs, with a few bouts of singing here and there. The first “song” in the entire musical, “Your Day,” is one such example, with Gabriel Ebert’s Rach describing in detail the events of each hour of his day to his therapist, which sounds like it would be boring, but is strangely riveting, thanks to the writing and delivery. I was legitimately shaking when I finished listening to this musical and could only think, “What did I just listen to?” over and over again for the rest of the night. It’s strangely chilling and not necessarily in a bad way. It places so low on this list due to its unrelistenability (is that a word?). Very few of its songs are the kind that you could put on a Broadway Spotify playlist or something. It’s the kind of musical that you can listen to once, and once is enough.
Favorite Song: “The First Symphony”
Favorite Character: Natalya
The Trail to Oregon:
Somehow this ended up being my first StarKid musical thanks to YouTube algorithms continuously recommending it to me until I finally gave in and watched. It’s a silly musical following a pioneer family as they journey west. It has some pretty good laughs and an interesting element of audience participation, as the audience names the pioneers in the beginning and chooses which one dies in the end (Spoiler alert). Very enjoyable if you’re looking for a good laugh, though not so much a substantial story, although that’s not what StarKid is about. StarKid uploads all of their musicals on YouTube for free, so you can go watch it there if you’re interested.
Favorite Song: “Independence!”
Favorite Character: The Mother
Catch Me If You Can:
Based on a Leo Di Caprio movie of the same name, this show is about a young con-man who poses as a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer in his time journeying around the world counterfeiting money; and the dutiful FBI agent tracking him down. Now, I’m a sucker for Aaron Tveit—and he is the best part of this musical—but the music to me was kind of meh. I’m sure it would be better if I could actually see it performed on stage, but it’s been closed for years, so I don’t think that will happen.
Favorite Song: “Live in Living Color”
Favorite Character: Frank Abagnale Jr. (Aaron Tveit again, duh)
Composer Dave Malloy makes his third and final appearance on this list with Ghost Quartet. I watched the full show, which is available on YouTube, and still can’t really figure out what it’s about. The Wikipedia page tells me it’s a “song cycle about love, death, and whiskey and follows four friends describing four different narratives spanning seven centuries.” None of this is in chronological order, and I understand that it’s supposed to be a quartet, but it makes it difficult to follow which actors were playing which characters and when. There was an interesting element in the very end where, throughout the last song, the four members of the quartet distributed their instruments through the crowd so they could play along with the song and then left, leaving the audience as the only ones playing the final song. The music was good, and what I could comprehend of the story was interesting. Given a different production quality and—I know this defeats the purpose—a few more actors, it could be a decent show.
Favorite Song: “Usher Part III”
Favorite Character: Scheherazade
Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat:
It’s not bad, actually. It needs a better title, but what little music from it I’ve been able to find (the full soundtrack isn’t available anywhere,) has actually pleasantly surprised me. The musical is, as best as I can figure due to lack of information about it, about the feud between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. It’s a little silly in places—what can you expect?—but it doesn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously, and the six songs that are available on Sound Cloud and YouTube are fun to listen to.
Favorite Song: Breakthrough
Favorite Character: Nikola (Chris McCarrell is always a win)