Top Ten Musicals of the 20th Century (V)

Everyone has their own idea of what makes a great musical!

A Little Night Music (1973)
Night-MusicMost shows start out as a play or book, are turned into a musical and then filmed. A Little Night Music is an exception. It was based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film “Smiles of a Summer Night” (well worth seeking out). It is a comedy with sharply delineated characters whose lives are changed by drinking a dessert wine whose mystic property (as Madame Armfeldt tells us) is to open the eyes of “even the blindest among us”.

Sondheim was accused of writing the whole show in a variant of waltz time – which is not strictly true – as a bittersweet parody of a Viennese operetta. The music sets the mood of its characters and is skilfully used in a tour de force finale to Act I and, as everything breaks down, to recollect earlier moments at the end of Act II.

One of many anecdotes: The script called for a completely musical scene to establish the details of how everyone meets at the Armfeldt country mansion one weekend. Sondheim was behind schedule and Prince “got tired of waiting” so he asked the actors to ad-lib the lines and invented blocking for them to rehearse. Sondheim watched the scene and then wrote the piece so specifically that the blocking did not have to be altered. A similar situation also inspired the famous “Send in the Clowns”, which Sondheim wrote in just one evening.

The Phantom of the Opera (1986)

Phantom(1)The arch-exponent of opera-bouffe, with witty lyrics and dialogue, and an artful combination of high-spirited words and music, is Jacques Offenbach. Dubbed the “Mozart of the Champs-Elysées”, he was beloved by the theatre-going public of his day. When Andrew Lloyd-Webber came to write The Phantom of the Opera, he did so as a tribute to that tradition.

Gaston Leroux’s novel, published in 1911, is set in the Paris Opera, built in 1875. Lloyd-Webber retained the spirit of the original story (rather than its interpretations in several film versions) and recreated the burlesque style of the music of Offenbach. What we hear is not pastiche but a sincere tribute which, using an idiom that is uniquely Lloyd-Webber’s, is dramatic, funny and entertaining. The tunes are also highly memorable.

Phantom of the Opera has won over 70 major theatre awards including three Olivier Awards, an Evening Standard Award, seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, seven Drama Desk Awards and five Outer Critic Circle Awards. The Original cast recording was the first in British musical history to enter the charts at number one. On 9 January 2006 the New York production overtook Cats to become the longest running show in Broadway history, and on 7 July 2014 it celebrated 11,000 performances.

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