This is a list of 5 of my favourite musicals of the 1990s. If you don’t know them – head straight to Amazon and pick up a cast recording! These are definitely shows that should be on your radar.
Simply put, Michael John LaChiusa is the best of the new generation of serious musical theatre composers and Marie Christine represents one of his lushest and most seductive scores. Loosely based on the Greek play, Medea, the show transposes the action to 1890s New Orleans where Marie finds herself spurned by her love, Dante, and exacts a tragic revenge. Add a touch of voodoo and a dash of history by way of the real-life figure Marie Laveau and you have the makings of a compelling tale of mythic proportions. LaChiusa’s score is filled with ravishing melodies and haunting motifs and the original cast recording preserves a tour de force performance from Audra McDonald in the titular role.
Passion is a haunting show, a musical of immense emotional depth and intellect. It’s not perhaps the most easily accessible of musical theatre scores: the score is not compartmentalized into extractable, toe-tapping songs, but uses a series of motifs to develop narrative and character in an immensely sophisticated manner. Emotionally we’re looking at some of the things that drive us all: the nature and meaning of love, and the thin line between passion and obsession. It’s disquieting how easily one can see something of oneself in Fosca, as broken in her soul as she is in her body, or in Giorgio, a man whose life is completely transformed by his experiences with this woman. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine challenge conventional ideas about the relationship between love, passion and obsession from three perspectives: what people expect them to be, what they truly are and what they have the potential to become. It’s dark and brooding and brilliant.
In contrast, Sondheim’s Assassins has a score that is almost immediately accessible, owing to its brilliant use of pastiche and the inclusion of a range of characters that lurk within the boundaries of our public consciousness. Even if one hasn’t heard of the assassins whose perspectives placed at the centre of this muiscal, one has surely heard of the American presidents who were their targets. From the variations on “Hail to the Chief” to the series of ballads that tell the stories of those who would see the chief fall, every number in the show is memorable. The original Off-Broadway cast recording also preserves the chilling climactic scene in full and, if you’re lucky enough to see the show live, there are other treats that await in the book: the monologues of Samuel Byck, would-be Richard Nixon assassin, and the hysterically funny scenes between Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who both attempt to assassinate Gerald Ford. It’s a satirical gem that works best without the latter day addition of “Something Just Broke”, a song that forces us back into our traditional perceptions of the assassins and their deeds and which dilutes the experience we should undergo as we experience this show.
Some people ask why Andrew Lloyd Webber turned what is considered by many to be an untouchable film into a musical. Well, I prefer my divas singing, so it suits me just fine. Sunset Boulevard is not particularly subtle, but its broadness suits its mileau and characters. There are some haunting pieces of music here: the instrumental use of “The Greatest Star of All”, for instance, or the ghostly introduction to the titular tune, or the two instantly memorable songs given to Norma Desmond, “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye”, and even smaller numbers like “The Perfect Year” are melodic little gems that stay with you long after the last time you listened to the score.
In 1997, two different versions of the Titanic story were told in two different styles in two different mediums. The film offered Leonardio DiCaprio and Kate Winslet frolicking in a fictional love story set against the backdrop of the ill-fated ship of dreams, while the musical used the stories of the real life Titanic passengers as a basis for telling its Robert Altman-like version of the tale. These days, I find myself returning to my cast album of the stage score rather than the film. It’s a moving piece of musical theatre, from the opening sequence to the haunting contra-punctual duet “The Proposal/The Night Was Alive”, from the exquisitely structured sequence at the end of the first act (where the ship hits the iceberg) to the chilling lifeboat sequence that climaxes with the stirring anthem, “We’ll Meet Tomorrow”. And any of these is many times better than “My Heart Will Go On”….