They’re a dying breed, but I love them. I’m talking musicals that aren’t based on anything. That are pulled completely out of thin air, not based on a film or a play or a book or the song catalogue of a recording artist or even a historical event. No, they’re just pure invention.
10. Bye Bye Birdie
I feel like this should in a way be conditional; though Conrad Birdie is not a real person, he’s a satire of Elvis and the play is a satire of Elvis mania. But the writers still did invent it, technically, and I do love it with all my heart. Favsies high school theatre experience, good memories all around, and I’ve still the Conrad Birdie Fan Club t-shirt and saddle shoes to prove it. It’s not a particularly insightful show or anything, but it’s cute.
9. Avenue Q
Also a satire in a way. It’s dirty Sesame Street, it’s puppets having sex, it’s shock humor a lot of the time. But to anyone who says it’s all that, I offer refutation in the form of “There’s A Fine, Fine Line.” Legitimately one of the most heartbreaking showtunes in the last decade. Or at least one of the showtunes that’s best for belting when you have a broken heart. It’s a silly show, but it’s sweet. As sweet as puppets having sex can be.
8. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
I’ve never seen it done on stage, but it’s a very, very interesting film. The score is pretty neat (if it’s not sort of obvious, I’m a big fan of rock musicals) and the story, though it has the potential to be played for shock value and at moments seems as if it’s going there, perhaps, is sweet and very human. Also, it’s raunchy and controversial, and therefore earns more win points in my opinion.
7. In the Heights
Definitely another with soul. I don’t know why, but it seems like original musicals often have soul to spare. It’s a fun cultural experience and a fun, modern take on the day-in-the-life story. It’s sort of what Oklahoma! would be if it was set in the present day and in a New York City barrio and the characters were a teensy bit spunkier. And it’s got a little something for everyone, in terms of plot. The tragedy of Abuela dying, the complex family drama of the Rosarios, the romance of Nina and Benny or Vanessa and Usnavi, the fun of mass street-scene dance parties.
6. The Drowsy Chaperone
Sure, it’s another fluff piece. And a bit of a satire on the entire 1920s musical genre. But it’s legitimately witty and there are legitimately awesome dance numbers and with a legitimate cast it can be very, very strong. It’s cute but it doesn’t really just rest on “cute,” either.
5. City of Angels
Another sentimental-value musical; I worked tech on this show in high school and pretty much from the get-go I was in love. How many other proper musical film noirs can you think of? (Well, except the musical of Sweet Smell of Success, which is in and of itself worth a listen for no reason other than Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James. But it’s based on an actual film noir, so it doesn’t entirely count.) The way it’s staged, with a double cast and a black and white film world mixed in with the color real world, is unique and really, really cool. I’m sure it could be destroyed by a bad production, but so long as the production is solid it’s really an enjoyable piece.
4. The Last 5 Years
Jason Robert Brown is sort of one of the minor gods of original musicals. Though 13 hurts my head to think about and Songs for a New World is really just a song cycle, those and Last 5 Years are three more than most anyone can hope to claim. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful show. Remember what I said about songs to listen to when you’re brokenhearted? Yes, this is an entire score of them. And the set-up, with Cathy going backwards and Jamie going forwards, is innovative and really neat. When they meet in the middle for “The Next Ten Minutes,” it’s so beautiful I (almost) cry.
3. The Rocky Horror Show
I know, I know, ANOTHER satire. But it’s just so goofy and campy and trashy it’s awesome. It’s sort of a grindhouse musical, and it has the world’s most impressive cult following, and it’s fun. It’s ridiculous, sure. It’s raunchy, sure. It’s an amalgamation of things that were already ridiculous, sure. But it’s just pure fun. I dare you to listen to the “Time Warp” and not feel sort of happy. I dare you.
2. Next to Normal
You, dear readers, already know how I feel about this show. I think it does have the distinction of being one of the more serious shows on this list. Even Hedwig gets occasionally a bit campy. There is no camp here whatsoever. Just heart and psychological drama and rock music and beautiful lights and an awesome set and… yes.
1. [title of show]
A musical chronicling its’ own creation? How cool is that?! One that does so with its tongue very much in cheek, yet still has more heart than… oh, almost anything. One where I know at least I personally am excessively emotionally invested in what happens to the characters even though I sort of know what happens. One where the songs are simple but cute, and where flash is not the name of the game in any way. One where the cast is just so sweet and genuine even off-stage. One where one of the actors dresses up as a sheaf of paper to sing the song aptly entitled “An Original Musical” and another actress uses vampires as a metaphor for creative buzzkill. In short, one that’s painfully fantastic.
–your fangirl heroine.