It's from a musical, I swear it's not just an excuse to look at Matt Smith's chest...
I'm a bit of a frustrated diva. The one thing I say more often than anything else is that if I had my time again, I'd go to drama school and try to carve out a career in musical theatre. Singing is a passion of mine and I was pretty much raised on musicals (more of which, later), so they mean a great deal to me.
This morning, a friend posted his top 3 musicals of all time and it got me pondering what mine would be. Then I decided that three simply wasn't enough. So, until such time that I change my mind (which is inevitable!), here are my top ten musicals of all time:
10. Half A Sixpence
Strange confession time: Tommy Steele was one of my first loves. Yes, well before Mark Owen or Stephen Gately, it was Tommy I quietly pined over. He was cute, he could sing and dance and he had amazing hair. Of course, I didn't realise that he wasn't young, anymore. That he didn't actually look like Artie from Half A Sixpence, anymore... Don't judge me, I was only, what? Six or seven?!
Anyway, this is one of those "musicals I was raised on," that I mentioned, earlier. When I was little, my mum (also a big lover of musical theatre) would put on old musicals on video and we'd watch them together. I therefore grew up wishing that people would randomly burst into song...
Those old musicals from my childhood will always be amongst my absolute favourites, because of the memories attached to them and the songs I grew up singing as a result of watching them. To this day, because of watching Half a Sixpence as an impressionable little girl, whenever I have a crush on someone (as readers of my last blog will know I do now...), I have an overwhelming urge to sing "You're Too Far Above Me" as I pine, longingly.
Half a Sixpence tells the story of two young lovers, separated by circumstance, only to be brought back together when Tommy Steele's character, Arthur Kipps, realises that his first love, Ann, is the only girl for him. Despite fortunes won and lost in the course of the story, the real message is that love is more important than riches or success and that being true to yourself is worth a fortune all by itself. It's one of those classic song & dance musicals, with a happy ending. And I love it.
9. Sister Act
When I think about it, a lot of my favourite musicals are rooted in my childhood. This one is no exception.
As a kid, I was obsessed with the movie, Sister Act (and Sister Act 2, if I'm honest). It all started when our next door neighbour let my sister and I borrow the film on video. We watched it over and over, until we eventually knew pretty much every line of dialogue and every word of every song. When it was announced that the movie was to be made into a stage musical, there was absolutely no question of whether my sister and I would go to see it. It was a must.
The show - telling the story of a lounge singer called Deloris, who witnesses a brutal murder and is sent by police to hide out in a local convent, only to end up befriending the nuns and leading their choir to enormous musical success - didn't disappoint. The music is catchy, there's plenty of comedy and the storyline itself, as silly as it may be, is engrossing enough for you to lose yourself in it completely for a couple of hours.
When my sister and I saw it in the West End, we were lucky enough to see Whoopi Goldberg (the film's original Deloris) take on the role of the convent's Mother Superior. Seeing the person we'd idolised in the movie, live on stage, is something I won't forget, especially as Whoopi was kind enough to sign autographs for fans waiting at the stage door, afterwards. I still have my signed ticket.
8. West Side Story
There's a long tradition of crying at musicals, in my family. It started when I was a kid, watching those old classics on video, with my mum. I loved them; musicals made me happy. Then, we watched The King And I (which only narrowly misses out on a place on this list) and for the first time, I realised that musicals can do more than just make you want to sing and dance. They can move you to tears. West Side Story is one such musical.
Telling the story of star crossed lovers, Maria and Tony, West Side Story is a modern take on Romeo & Juliet. Maria is Puerto Rican and set to have an arranged marriage to a man named Chino, whereas Tony is a white New Yorker. Maria's brother Bernardo is in a gang, The Sharks, who have a fierce rivalry with Tony's own former gang, The Jets. Racial tensions are addressed, as the gangs clash over and over. But whilst ignorance and violence goes on all around them, Maria and Tony fall in love against all the odds and dream of their rival cultures coming together in peace. That peace is shattered when Tony tries to intervene in a planned "rumble" (gang battle), only to witness Bernardo kill his friend - and leader of The Jets - Riff. Tony sees red and murders Bernardo. Maria hears what has happened, but despite her grief, she realises that Tony is still a good man and that he is horrified by his own actions. They dream of running away together and getting away from all the violence around them. Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, tries to stop Maria from running away with Tony, but eventually, she realises that the pair are deeply in love and she promises to help them. Tony and Maria agree to meet on neutral ground and Anita goes ahead to tell Tony to wait for Maria. But when Anita arrives, other members of The Jets begin to cat-call and use racial slurs against her, taunting her about the death of Bernardo. Eventually, Anita snaps and lies to Tony that Maria has been shot dead by Chino. This causes Tony, mad with grief, to stumble into the streets, begging Chino to kill him, too. Just as he glances up and sees Maria alive and well, heading towards him, a shot is fired and Tony falls to the ground, eventually dying in his lover's arms. Heartbroken Maria then manages to finally bring peace to the warring gangs, by showing them how hate destroys lives.
To this day, I can't hear Somewhere without getting choked up. And when we finally saw West Side Story on the stage, my mum and I sobbed copiously throughout the last 10-15 minutes of the show. It only serves to prove that musicals aren't just cheesy song and dance routines. They have the power to break your heart, too.
7. Phantom Of The Opera
I'll be brutally honest: opera was never really my cup of tea and as such, I didn't have a massive desire to see Phantom. But whilst on holiday with my mum in New York City, we decided we had to see a show on Broadway and this happened to be the one we picked. It was phenomenal.
Phantom tells the story of an opera house, haunted by a masked phantom who sends the opera house owners malevolent letters and makes demands as to which singer should play the lead roles in all performances. The phantom is in love with a singer called Christine, whose beautiful voice has enchanted him. Kidnapping Christine and taking her down into the opera house cellar, the phantom's disfigured face is finally revealed and he begs Christine to stay with him forever. However, Christine is in love with a man named Raoul and after she pleads for her freedom, the phantom lets her go, on the condition that she wears his ring and remains faithful to him. Upon her release, Christine and Raoul plan to run away together, but their conversation is overheard by the jealous phantom, who kidnaps Christine once more and tries to force her to marry him. Initially, Christine refuses, but when she discovers that the phantom plans to blow up the opera house and murder Raoul, she offers to be his bride, in return for her lover's freedom and the safety of those in the opera house above. The phantom kisses Christine and is given a kiss in return, which causes him to break down and admit that nobody has ever shown him any affection in all his life. He allows Christine and Raoul to escape, asking Christine to promise that she will visit him on the day of his death, which she does.
The show is about passion, love and loss and it's an absolute triumph. You can hardly fail to be moved by the plight of the phantom, with his unrequited love and his life of rejection and solitude. That in itself, is no easy feat to achieve and yet this musical manages it perfectly. The show is a visual and aural feast - a spectacle. I've yet to see the sequel, Love Never Dies, but I've heard from friends that it more than lives up to its predecessor. Again, that is no mean feat.
6. The Rocky Horror Show
Any excuse to dress up...
Ah, Rocky Horror. It's bold, it's brash, it's silly, it's rude and it's bloody wonderful.
Possibly the only entry on this list to be truly worthy of the phrase "cult status," this show/film could easily have made its way closer to the number one spot, purely due to the incredible soft spot I have for it.
Created as a loving spoof of old B-movies and sci-fi films, Rocky Horror tells the story of a newly engaged couple called Brad and Janet, who suffer a tyre blow-out on a cold, rainy night in the middle of nowhere. They head for a castle in order to borrow a phone to call for help, but they end up entering a debauched world of cross-dressing aliens, murder and show tunes. As you do. Both end up separately losing their virginities to the master of the household, a "sweet transvestite" named Dr. Frank N Furter. Frank is from the planet Transexual in the galaxy of Transylvania (because of course he is) and he has been sent to discover the ways of planet Earth. But, as his servant-turned-executioner, Riff-Raff, tells him, his mission is a failure; his lifestyle's too extreme. And extreme it certainly is; during his time on Earth, Frank has murdered a delivery boy named Eddie, in order to use half of his brain to bring to life a "perfect man" named Rocky, who Frank created for his own sexual pleasure. He has devoted his life to the "sins of the flesh" and spends much of his time trying to convince the innocent Brad and Janet to "give yourselves over to absolute pleasure." Of course, such a lifestyle eventually proves to be his undoing and poor old Frank doesn't live to see the end credits...
Silly it may be, but it's a whole lot of fun.
5. The Sound of Music
The Sound of Music will always have a very special place in my heart. It's one of the very first musicals I ever remember seeing on video and it's one of the ones I therefore grew up singing along to.
Based on a true story, The Sound of Music is the tale of a novice nun named Maria, who has serious doubts about her calling in life and is sent to act as a governess to the seven children of a wealthy, widowed Naval Captain named Georg Von Trapp. Although the children originally rebel against Maria, she wins them over with her kind heart and her love of singing, eventually encouraging the children to sing together as a group. Whilst the Captain is away, Maria allows the children to be free and to recapture the innocent sense of fun they had lost following the death of their mother. They climb trees, ride bikes and sing together. Upon his return to the house, Captain Von Trapp is shocked by the antics of his children and their governess, particularly as he has brought with him a friend whom he is considering marrying - Baroness Elsa Schraeder. He orders Maria to return to the abbey she came from, but upon hearing beautiful music coming from inside the house, he is astonished to learn that Maria has taught his children to sing and has a change of heart. As time goes by, Maria and the captain grow close, leading to Maria becoming confused by her growing feelings for him. Jealous at the thought of losing the wealthy Captain to a mere governess, the Baroness plays on Maria's confusion by telling her that it's obvious that she's in love with him and that perhaps, she really ought to return to the abbey.
Maria's departure is felt harshly by all seven children, who can no longer find fun in anything without her, even singing. Captain Von Trapp becomes engaged to the Baroness, but even he realises that he misses Maria terribly. Meanwhile, back at the abbey, Maria's Mother Superior can tell that Maria is in love with the Captain and urges her to return to him. However, when Maria discovers that the Captain is enaged, she insists that she will only stay at the house until a more suitable, replacement governess can be found. This news causes the Captain to realise who he really wants and he breaks off his engagement and admits to his true feelings for Maria.
The couple then marry and whilst they are on their honeymoon, their friend Max secretly enters the Von Trapp children in a singing competition. But when Maria and the Captain return home, they discover that Austria has fallen to the Nazis and that the Captain is being ordered to join the German Navy. Appalled, the Captain insists that the whole family must travel to Switzerland to safety right away. As they make their escape, however, Nazi soldiers are waiting and demand to know where the family are going. Captain Von Trapp quickly tells them that the whole family are performing in the singing competition that night and the Von Trapps are escorted there to sing one last time. After their song, the family sneak away to Maria's old abbey and are assisted by the nuns. The show/movie ends with the family making their way on foot over the mountains to Switzerland and to freedom.
It's schmaltzy, yes. But it's also lovely. Somehow, despite being about a singing nun and a load of kids who wear clothes made out of curtains, The Sound of Music manages to touch upon several factors common to most of our lives; first love, secret feelings, patriotism, pride and the longing to live our lives in peaceful freedom. The theme of not giving up on your dreams or beliefs runs strongly throughout and there can be fewer better messages to take away from a musical. I spent much of my youth, wanting to play the role of Liesl. And frankly, it's a source of deep sadness that I'm much too old to get away with pretending to be "16, going on 17" anymore...
There's an hilarious spoof of Rent in Team America: World Police, in which several puppets are seen dancing around, singing: "Everyone Has AIDS!" The truth is, there's a bit more to Rent than that...
Rent is an usual entry on this list, in as much as I became completely, hopelessly obsessed with it, without ever having seen it, be that on stage or in movie form. My sister went on a school trip to see it and absolutely raved about how incredible it was. So much so, that she bought the soundtrack and encouraged me to listen to it, whilst she told me the plot line. I was absolutely hooked - it was so fresh and different to anything I'd ever heard in a musical before, that I quickly fell in love. When I went to New York with my mum, my absolute mission was to see the show on Broadway, but, devastatingly, the theatre was closed for renovations and the show wasn't playing whilst I was there. I've since seen the movie version and the stage version (a touring production, which I dragged my friend Lizzie along to!) and my love for the show hasn't dulled a single bit since I first heard the soundtrack and heard the story. If anything, it has only grown.
Rent is loosely based on La Boheme and tells the story of a group of hard-up wannabe performers and artists, living in New York's Bohemian Alphabet City. All are dealing with their own problems, from broken hearts, to drug/alcohol addiction, to, yes, AIDS. The plot begins on Christmas Eve and revolves around roommates Mark (a film-maker) and Roger (a songwriter). Previously, they had lived with a third friend named Benny, but Benny has since married into a wealthy family and now owns the building and is demanding high levels of rent that his former friends simply can't afford. Their friend Collins is beaten up on his way to visit them at their apartment and is tended to by a cross-dressing street-drummer named Angel. Both are HIV Positive and, as they realise they have much more in common, they quickly fall in love.
Mark and Roger have both been unlucky in love, with Mark's girlfriend Maureen, a protest artist, dumping him for a woman named Joanne and Roger's girlfriend April taking her own life after realising that she and Roger both have HIV. Whilst Mark goes off in search of Collins, concerned that he's in trouble, an attractive neighbour named Mimi turns up at their apartment and begins flirting with Roger. She's young and clearly troubled, with a drug problem and also suffering from HIV. At first, Roger pushes Mimi away, but his attraction to her is clear and eventually, they come together as a couple.
Meanwhile, Maureen and Joanne are planning a protest, in the hope of stopping Benny from evicting a group of homeless people from a nearby lot and turning it into a Cyber Arts Studio. Benny suggests that if they cancel the protest and allow the work to go ahead, his friends can all use the studio to make their films/music etc and can remain tenants in the building free of charge. The group unanimously reject the offer, instead deciding to continue with their protest in support of the homeless tenants. A riot breaks out at the protest, which Mark films and eventually discovers that the footage has earned him a lucrative job offer.
As time goes by, Maureen and Joanne split up (only to reunite) and Mimi and Roger become notoriously on-again, off-again as Mimi battles her drug addiction and Roger fights to overcome his jealousy after discovering that former friend Benny is Mimi's past lover. Mark watches his friend's lives fall apart and begins to panic about being the only one left if they all die as a result of AIDS. He accepts the job offer and forms a support group for his friends. Tragedy then strikes, as Angel passes away. Collins can't afford to pay for the funeral, leading Benny to step in. The men rekindle their friendship, but the group begins to separate, with Mark taking on his new job and Mimi and Roger splitting up.
By the time Christmas Eve rolls around again, Mark has left his job to work on his own film once more and is finally ready to show it to his friends. Collins bursts in with handfuls of cash; he has rewired an ATM to provide free cash to anyone who knows the secret code: A-N-G-E-L. Roger has finally written the one, perfect song he had been searching for and wants to dedicate it to Mimi, but nobody knows where she is. Eventually, Maureen and Joanne find her, homeless and close to death. Roger plays his song for her and the couple are reunited. The friends resolve to spend whatever time they all have left together, living as though there is "no day but today."
And it's that final line of the whole show that serves as a reason why Rent will always hold such a special place in my affections. Living your life, regardless of how long you may have, surrounded by those you love most, is a pretty bloody powerful message. When you think about the fact that the show's creator passed away before he ever saw it become an enormous success, that message only becomes even more important. And it's one I carry with me always.
This one definitely falls into the category of "musicals I loved as a kid." I auditioned for the role of Nancy in a school production when I was around 10 or 11 and ended up playing a maid, instead. But it's okay, you know, I'm totally over it and not at all still bitter or anything...
Everyone reading this should know the plot line of this one, so I don't feel compelled to write it all out, here. Suffice to say, it's about an orphan called Oliver Twist and is based on the Charles Dickens book of the same name. Oliver runs away to London to seek his fortune and ends up joining a gang run by a wily old man named Fagin. He befriends a gang member known as The Artful Dodger and seems destined to remain part of the gang, until he's arrested and ultimately rescued by a man who turns out to be his great uncle. Ah, convenient plot. We do so love thee.
With songs like Consider Yourself, Food Glorious Food and As Long As He Needs Me (which I ROCK when I sing it by the way, teachers at my primary school...) Oliver! is rightfully considered an absolute classic musical. Its return to the West End a few years ago was triumphant and it's still absolutely beloved by many a fan, with good reason. It's a proper old-school musical, with big song and dance numbers, rousing choruses and characters that are instantly identifiable.
If anyone's looking for a Nancy for their current production, just give me a call...
2. Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat
I can't adequately tell you how much I love Stephen Gately. Or this musical.
In many, many ways, this should be at number one. Why? Because it's the musical I've been to see live more times than any other on the list. I think at the last count, it was three times in the West End and twice on tour, but I could be wrong. My biggest Joseph-related regret is that I never saw my beloved Stephen Gately in it, but to be fair, I've seen Lee Mead play the title role three times and he blew me away on every occasion.
I'm not even sure where to start on this one. It's hard to explain just why I love it so much, without resorting to "CHEESE." Because, let's be perfectly truthful: Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is pretty much as cheesy as musical theatre can possibly get. It has song and dance routines. It has a random Calypso number in it. It has a Pharaoh dressed as Elvis, for crying out loud! And yet it just works.
When my mum and I talk about our mutual love of musicals, one word comes up over and over again: Escapism. For a couple of hours, you can forget about real life and become completely lost in a world in which people spontaneously burst into song and ridiculous, unlikely things happen. Musicals can be uplifting and fun and Joseph is a prime example of that. I could walk into a theatre in the foulest mood possible, watch Joseph and emerge with a face-splitting grin. In fact, I have been to see Joseph in a bad mood and just as I said, the show put such a smile on my face that I couldn't even remember what I was in a mood about in the first place. It's just that sort of show - energetic, funny and shamelessly cheesy. By the time the cast perform the "Joseph Megamix" at the end, I defy anyone not to be on their feet, clapping and singing along. I said earlier that I can't adequately tell you how much I love this show and I really can't; you just have to go along and experience it for yourself.
Oh, the plot? Well, if you're familiar with bible stories, you'll know that Jacob has 12 sons, the youngest of which, Joseph, is his favourite. Jacob gives Joseph a fabulous, multicoloured coat as a sign of his love. Joseph's brothers are incensed by this and bundle him off to be sold as a slave in Egypt. They later kill a goat, smearing the blood all over Joseph's coat and tearing it into pieces, so that they can lie to Jacob and insist that their brother has been killed. Joseph, meanwhile, becomes a slave to a man named Potipher and actually enjoys serving him, until eventually Potipher's wife makes a move on him and Potipher throws Joseph into jail. Whilst in jail, Joseph meets two men who have had very vivid dreams that they cannot explain. Joseph discovers that he can work out the meaning of the dreams and later, when the Pharaoh struggles to sleep due to confusing dreams, Joseph is sent for. His interpretation of the dreams ensures that Pharaoh is able to keep the people of Egypt well-fed during a period of famine and Joseph becomes the Pharaoh's Number Two. Meanwhile, his brothers are struggling and cannot cope with a lack of food and dwindling supplies. They, along with Jacob, travel to Egypt where they beg for help. Joseph tests them by planting a precious golden cup in his brother Benjamin's sack. When the brothers all rush to Benjamin's aid, offering to be taken to jail in his place and insisting on his innocence, Joseph realises that they have become decent, honest men in his absence and reveals his true identity, becoming reunited with his family at last.
And then they do a megamix of the show's songs, because OF COURSE THEY DO.
1. Les Miserables
Hankies at the ready...
I said earlier that musicals are about escapism. I stand by that. But sometimes, a musical is so powerful, so emotionally raw that you escape into something that basically leaves you a gibbering wreck. It sounds awful, but when that's done well, it's frankly beautiful.
Such is the case with Les Mis. It's number one on my list and yet it's one of the shows I've yet to see on stage (shocking, I know; I nearly went to see it in Prague, but I figured it wouldn't be in English, plus the friend I was with wasn't keen, so we went to see a black light show that turned into live, onstage porn instead. Long story...). Still, I've seen the 10th anniversary performance many times, I own the 25th anniversary DVD and I've seen the film. Someday, I will see the show in the West End, too.
The plot to Les Mis is so long and complicated that I'm not going to even attempt to summarise it, here. I'm just going to link to the show's Wiki page, instead. And if you don't fancy clicking through to read that, I'll briefly state that Les Mis has literally everything, from unrequited love (I think of myself as something of an Eponine, depressingly...) and civil unrest, to selflessness and tragedy. I cry at a lot of musicals, but Les Mis is in a league of its own. I start sniffling around 10-15 minutes before the end and by the time (spoiler alert) the musical's hero, Jean Valjean, shuffles off his mortal coil, beautifully accompanied by two of the show's previously deceased characters, I am literally bawling, with snot and tears all over my face. It really is a very sexy image that I've just conjured up; you're welcome. For those who are familiar with the musical, I can even tell you the exact line at which I cross from ladylike sniffling to all-out grief: It's "Take my hand, I lead you to salvation, take my love for love is everlasting..." We're talking "Boyzone performing Gave It All Away using the late Stephen Gately's vocals" level of tears, here. And if you don't know what that looks like, it looks like this. I can only apologise for my big, puffy, mascara-stained face at the end.
But back on topic...
Les Mis doesn't shy away from searing honesty, gritty plot or emotional battering. Set with the French revolution as a backdrop, the musical gives us passionate characters, desperate situations and genuine heroes to aspire to. The songs range from bold and rousing to heartbreakingly beautiful and the sensation I get at the end is always, despite the tears, one of being incredibly uplifted. The prospect of a bright, brave new future "when tomorrow comes" is always enough to dry my eyes and leave me emboldened, somehow. It's still escapism, but on a different level. There's no cheese, little camp silliness to be seen, here. But it's all-consuming; if you allow yourself to be taken in, you'll still find yourself escaping from real life into a world that can churn your guts and make you cry, yet somehow still leave you thrilled by it all. And that is the magic of the musicals. Sometimes, they can break your heart, but still leave you wanting more.
There are so many other musicals that I adore, but which I just didn't have space for on this list (and I'm sure I've done a top ten before and it's almost certainly changed since then). I haven't mentioned the likes of Funny Face, Chicago, Hairspray, The King And I, Blood Brothers or Cabaret. There hasn't been room for Annie, Finnian's Rainbow or Funny Girl. But I love all of those as well, of course!
A musical can be fun, silly, raw, emotional or rousing. Whatever it's like, however, it should always touch you on some level. It should always cause an emotional response. Whether you leave the theatre (or switch off the DVD) dabbing your eyes, or grinning and singing to yourself, you should feel like you've just witnessed something magical.
Because you have.