Top Ten Musicals of the 00s

The Best Musicals of the Deacde

Some folks just don’t care for musicals. They just can’t appreciate a world where people suddenly burst into song – a place where, for some inexplicable reason, everyone knows just the right choreography.

But for those of us who love musicals, there’s no other art form as entertaining or endearing. Of the hundreds of original musicals that were created in the last ten years, these shows are the most exceptional and inspiring.

10: Urinetown

This musical parodies dystopian worlds of an Orwellian caliber, all the while keeping its audience laughing at its bathroom humor. Creators Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis clearly have their minds in the toilet – and the result is a funny, quirky little masterpiece filled with songs that are simultaneously cheerful and diabolical.

What’s It About?

The citizens of a drought-ravaged community must pay to use the toilet. Those who cannot afford the “fee to pee” are sent to a mysterious place called “Urinetown.”

The Best Part:

The banter between Officer Lockstock (the morally ambiguous narrator) and Little Sally (the pesky interrupter who criticizes the title of the show).

9: The Light in the Piazza

Perhaps the most introspective musical on this top ten list, The Light in the Piazza is a bittersweet love story. Songsmith Adam Guettel, the grandson of Richard Rogers, lives up to his legacy. His compositions, in particular the female solos and duets, are powerful yet fragile.

What’s It About?

An American mother and daughter are vacationing in Florence and Rome, when all of a sudden: love strikes! When the daughter falls head-over-heels for a handsome Italian, the mother tries to prevent the relationship, believing that her daughter’s secret disability will prevent the relationship from flourishing.

The Best Part:

The opening song: “Statues and Stories.”

8: Memphis

This 2009 Broadway hit captures the spirit of Rock and Roll’s early days. Complete with break-out performances by Chad Kimball and Montego Glover, this original show (penned by the versatile Joe DiPietro) offers audiences a lot of passion, fun, and an uplifting message. (And Bon Jovi fans will be pleased by David Bryan’s original tunes).

What’s It about?

Inspired by real-life disk jockeys of the 1950s, Memphis tells the story of a white DJ who is not afraid to cross social boundaries in order to find the best music in town. He discovers the love of his life – but will their inter-racial relationship survive the closed-minded perspective of the 1950s? Forbidden love is no stranger to theater – but the choreography and musical numbers are a fresh change of pace in a decade filled with stale jukebox musicals.

The Best Part:

I’m a sucker for gospel-tinged numbers like “Memphis Lives in Me.”

7: Little Women

Musical elitists might wonder why I have included a musical that was panned by most critics. The simple answer: I love the material. Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel contains a wonderful series of heartfelt stories, many of which were based upon the author’s experiences. The songs capture the enthusiasm and the courage of the incorrigible Jo March – a strong female lead (and a wonderful role model for my daughters). Frankly, I’m surprised the show lasted for less than 200 performances on Broadway.

What’s It About?

While their father is away during the Civil War, the four March sisters keep the home-fires burning.

The Best Part:

“Some Things Are Meant to Be” – the duet between Jo and her ailing sister Beth. (Okay, I admit it; I burst into tears when I first heard this song!)

6: Avenue Q

If you grew up addicted to Sesame Street, then you probably love Avenue Q for its devious satire. Or perhaps you hate the show for its sacrilegious portrayal of Muppets. Love it or hate it, you would be hard-pressed to find funnier lyrics or more seething social-commentary.

What’s It About?

Princeton, a puppet and recent college graduate, learns that life in the big city is a lot more challenging than getting a B.A. in English. The show is filled with lots of hilarious numbers and twisted (though perhaps truthful) messages.

The Best Part:

The sexually repressed Rod and his cheerful yet obnoxious roommate Nicky (patterned after Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie).

5: Hairspray

Adapted from the cult-classic film by John Waters, Hairspray is quirky, silly, and sweet. Despite the light-hearted tone of the show, this Shaiman and Wittman musical says a great deal about gender, racial equality, and self-image. Tracy Turnblad, the plus-sized protagonist, represents a shift from the typically thin and glamorous leading ladies often seen in today’s media.

What’s It About?

Set in segregated Baltimore of the early 1960s, Hairspray chronicles the misadventures of a optimistic teen who dreams of dancing on the Corny Collin’s Show. Along the way, she helps to make the world a better place by fearlessly standing up for equal rights.

The Best Part:

The upbeat finale: “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” I dare you not to bob your head along to this tune.

4. Billy Elliot - the Musical

Yet another movie-turned-musical, Billy Elliot features innovative dance numbers choreographed by Peter Darling with invigorating music by Sir Elton John, not to mention book and lyrics by the film’s original screenwriter, Lee Hall.

Lesser writers portray children as simplistic and naïve. In a refreshing contrast, Hall has created young characters that reflect real-life. Bill Elliot: the Musical features children who exhibit psychological complexity, emotional depth, and a struggle to discover one’s identity and purpose.

What’s It About?

While living in a downtrodden coal mining town in 1980s England, eleven year old Billy Elliot accidentally stumbles into a ballet class and discovers that he has a gift. But will his blue-collared father accept the boy’s newfound love of dancing?

The Best Part:

The “Angry Dance.” (Fury and tap dancing prove to be a winning combination.)

3: The Drowsy Chaperone

Most bachelor parties consist of a night loaded with too much booze and a morning filled with hazy regrets. But when Bob Martin had a stag party to celebrate his upcoming marriage to Janet Van De Graaff, he and his friends put together a little show that was both a spoof and a loving tribute of old fashioned musicals of the 20s and 30s. The result developed into The Drowsy Chaperone: one of the most hilarious original musicals in years.

What’s It About?

Alone in his apartment and feeling blue, an unnamed “man in chair” decides to listen to one of his favorite records (yes, “records”), an old musical from 1928. As he plays the soundtrack, he provides narration and the madcap show unfolds in his kitchen.

The Best Part:

The narrator’s hysterical introductions to each of the characters. (Anyone who knows about the unfortunate fate of Adolpho knows what I’m talking about. To this day, the sight of poodles makes me shudder!)

2: Wicked

Many people think of this box-office empress as a deconstruction of The Wizard of Oz and its characters. In fact, this Stephen Schwartz smash is a double reinvention. Gregory Maguire’s novel, the musical’s source material, is remarkably different than the Broadway show. Its humor is dark, its tone often broods, and the text abound with philosophical ambitions. The stage version, penned by My So-Called Life creator Winnie Holzman, focuses on the friendship between the green-skinned Elphaba and Glinda, the bubbly, blonde and supposedly “good” witch.

Holzman and the rest of the Wicked team make a very wise move by lightening up on the material. The result is a musical with a lot of humor and heart, with a subtle undercurrent of the book’s original melancholy.

What’s It About?

You mean you haven’t heard of Wicked before? Where have you been hiding?

Picture the Wicked Witch of the West. But instead of that evil lady with a burning broomstick and a grudge against Dorothy and Toto, imagine that the witch is actually the hero of the story. Throw in some vibrant songs, an impressive set deign, some flying monkeys, and then you’ve got yourself the second best musical of the decade.

1. In the Heights

Yes, In the Heights, the Latin-jazzy, hip-hop masterpiece won over my soul the moment I heard the soundtrack. Why did it claim the number one spot on this list? Aren’t there more admirably serious-minded musicals such as Spring Awakening and The Color Purple that didn’t make into the top ten? Perhaps. But what is so impressive about this musical is its capacity for happiness. It takes place in our decade; it’s exploring the here and now. And despite the fact that there is so much in our daily lives to worry about, In the Heights reminds us to take comfort in our friends, our family, and our home. It is a work of sheer joy and praise. (Or should I say “alabanza”?)

Although a very modern story, the themes are inspired by classic shows such as Fiddler on the Roof; the main character Usnavi resembles Fiddler’s Tevye and Wonderful Life’s George Bailey.

The music and lyrics were crafted by Lin-Manuel Miranda, not only the songwriter but the star of the show – yet another amazing attribute. The melodies blend rap, hip-hop, and salsa, all of which don’t make it to Broadway very often. Despite this unique mixture, the songs are also rooted in theater traditions. Miranda’s lyrics give a shout-out to Cole Porter. On the view, Miranda explained how he was inspired to write a musical about the here-and-now, thanks to watching when he was only seventeen. And as a further tip of the hat, Miranda personally thanked Stephen Sondheim during his rap/acceptance speech. The future of the American musical is in good hands.

I can’t wait to see what Miranda, and the rest of the musical community has in store for next decade.