Even though it has been more than 30 years since Merrily We Roll Along flopped on Broadway and put an end to his fruitful collaboration with director-producer Harold Prince, Stephen Sondheim has only written five complete and completely new musicals for the stage: Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, Passion and Road Show. (Of course, Prince did collaborate with Sondheim on an earlier version of Road Show which was named Bounce at the time, but that didn’t work out as planned.)
1. Sunday in the Park with George
The first three musicals ranked here are really interchangeable for me. But perhaps, as it is the most ambitious of the three and arguably the most well-realised, Sunday in the Park with George deserves the top spot. The show creates a fictional account of the painting of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” to examine the process of creating art and its place in our lives. The second act shifts in time and space to examine the same issues played out in our more recent history, through the exploits of Seurat’s (fictional) great-grandson. There is so much in this show that is moving and nothing more so than “Sunday”, the song that brings both Act 1 and the show as a whole to a close.
I love Assassins. It is a brilliant show. It was especially brilliant before “Something Just Broke” was added to the score; now, it is a brilliant show in spite of it. The show takes a look at one of the darker aspects of the history of the USA: the assassins who killed, or tried to kill, American presidents and the underlying truths that they saw as reason enough to justify their actions. Many people might advise those uninitiated with this show to start with the Broadway Cast Recording. I’d say go for the earlier Off-Broadway Recording: overall, the cast is better and you get a reading of an indispensable scene from the book of the show.
Many people hate Passion with an intensity. They hate it so much that they will even say it is a bad show. It isn’t. Set in 19th century Italy and dealing with the the obsessive love of Fosca for a a young soldier, Giorgio, and the changes this brings about in him, Passion is a show that demands emotional maturity from it’s audience. (Emotional maturity has nothing to do with age it seems. I know someone who got more out of Passion as a teenager, than someone whose own barriers in middle age prevented him from appreciating it.) It’s a show that people struggle to face, because it deals with such personal themes in such an intimate manner. My advice: listen to or watch this show with an open heart, with a willingness to learn some dark truths about yourself. Cast it aside if you don’t like it. But realise at the same time that your dislike doesn’t equate with how well the show was made.
4. Into the Woods
Into the Woods has become difficult to appreciate due to its apparent ubiquity. That said, the show still has its rewards. I found great joy in the piece when I directed it this year. The show’s ubiquity means that people are constantly trying to reinvent it. Child narrators (as seen in Moisés Kaufman’s production and the open air production that played both the UK and the USA recently) and different visual concepts (the witch costumed – way before the advent of Lady Gaga – as her garden or the storybook-influenced concept used for the misguided Broadway revival of the show) abound. My recommendation? Go back to what was there at the start, clear your mind and let your imagination run free.
5. Road Show
A decade in the making, Road Show arrived in 2008 with great expectations, having already been seen in a workshop in 1999 and as Bounce in 2003. Audiences hoped for another Company or Follies and what they got disappointed them. For most people, that was enough to write off this little show about the Mizner brothers and forget about it. Me too, for a while at least. But a couple of years after the hype had died down, I revisited the show and found more in it that I remembered. There’s some great material in the piece, including “Addison’s Trip”, “Talent” and the universally liked “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened”. What’s more is I found a show that I’d like to perform in. Just putting it out there…
Every day this December, I’m choosing 5 musicals linked by a common theme and ranking them from best to worst. I’d love to see your rankings of the musicals posted each day, so head on down to the comment box and share your thoughts.