I’ve launched a brand-new weekly podcast, called ShenTen, in which I will countdown my personal top tens in different theatrical categories.
The first edition today is a Top 10 of my Favourite Musicals — not, I stress, my own reckoning of the ten best musicals ever written, but my own personal favourites; the shows that have resonate for me most powerfully. I’d say there’s probably overlap between my personal favourite and what I consider to be the best shows in the repertoire in only the top two rankings (namely Guys and Dolls and Sweeney Todd), and I’d additionally make a case for including Sunday in the Park with George in a Top Ten list, but probably not at number 3; ditto She Loves Me, currently at number 7, but possibly higher).
I’ve not, in any case, yet given serious enough consideration to that list, but it would almost certainly include My Fair Lady, Carousel, West Side Story, Porgy and Bess, Chicago and A Chorus Line. And I’d probably swap out Evita for The Phantom of the Opera.
But the fact that favourites are different to best is the reason why there’s a little cluster of shows, for instance, that all deal with depression (Pippin, Next to Normal and Groundhog Day). Other interesting coincidences:
I’ve seen Jane Krakowksi in three of the shows on my top ten list (the original production of Grand Hotel, a London revival of Guys and Dolls and a Broadway revival of She Loves Me). I’ve also seen Philip Quast in three: the original London production of Sunday in the Park with George, in which he played the title role, and revivals of Evita and Sweeney Todd, in which he respectively played Peron and Judge Turpin).
Jenna Russell starred in West End revivals of both Guys and Dolls and Sunday in the Park with George. Mandy Patinkin created the title role in Sunday in the Park with George and was also the original Che in the Broadway transfer of Evita. Patti LuPone was the original Eva Peron in the Broadway transfer of Evita and has also starred as Mrs Lovett in a Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd.
Hal Prince directed the original productions of three of my top ten: She Loves Me and Sweeney Todd (both on Broadway) and Evita (in London). Michael Grandage has directed revivals of Evita and Guys and Dolls. Three of my favourite ten have been revived by the Menier Chocolate Factory across the years, including Sunday in the Park with George, She Loves Me and Pippin.
This is, inevitably, a very subjective list, of course. I wish I had another ten so I could also include, amongst others, On the Twentieth Century and The Light in the Piazza, two more personal favourites.
But here are the shows I did finally choose, and some essential facts on each — plus an anecdote or two from my own experience of each. (On the podcast, they’re counted down in reverse order from 10-1), but here I’m going forwards (from 1-10).
1) GUYS AND DOLLS
Composer: Frank Loesser (music and lyrics)
Premiered: Broadway 1950
Film version: 1955 (Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson, Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit, Vivian Blane (reprising her stage performance as Miss Adelaide from the original Broadway production)
National Theatre, 1982 (Julia McKenzie as Miss Adelaide, Bob Hoskins as Nathan Detroit, Ian Charleson as Sky Masterson, Julie Covington as Sister Sarah Brown, directed by Richard Eyre, who went on to become artistic director of the National Theatre after the success of this, succeeding Peter Hall); this production was revived at NT, 1996 — Imelda Staunton (originally a HotBox girl in 1982 and understudy to Julia McKenzie starred as Miss Adelaide, with Joanna Riding as Sister Sarah Brown)West End 2005 (Michael Grandage directed Ewan McGregor as Sky, Douglas Hodge as Nathan Detroit; Jenna Russell as Sister Sarah, Jane Krakowski as Miss Adelaide)Chichester/West End 2015: including Jamie Parker as Sky; transferred to the Savoy then to the Phoenix, casts included Samantha Spiro, Rebel Wilson (Miss Adelaide), Oliver Tompsett (Sky Maserson), Simon Lipkin (Nathan Detroit)All-black version at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, 2017
Favourite songs: My Time Of Day/ I’ve Never been in love before; Take back your mink; Luck be a Lady; Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat
Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat, from the 2009 Broadway revival, performed at that year’s Tony Awards.
There isn’t a more perfect musical than this miraculous portrait of a mythical Broadway, set on the very streets around Times Square that Broadway itself inhabits, populated by professional gamblers and night club ‘hostesses’, and the missionaries that try to save them. Based on stories by Damon Runyon, it pulses with vitality, humour and flat-out fantastic songs.
Quirky Fact: The Save-a-soul Mission is described in the show as being located at 409 W49th Street. If you try to find this address, it doesn’t exist — its a playground, not a building.
Quirky personal connection: I have an apartment in New York – it is located at 522 w50th Street, literally one block up and one block over from the Save-a-Soul Mission’s supposed location!
2) SWEENEY TODD
Composer: Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics); book by Hugh Wheeler.
Premiered: Broadway 1979 (Uris Theatre, now the Gershwin, Hal Prince directing Len Cariou as Sweeney; Angela Lansbury as Mrs Lovett);
West End 1980 (Drury Lane, with Denis Quilley as Sweeney, Sheila Hancock as Mrs Lovett; only ran 157 performances (less than five months); Quilley would return to role in the NT revival in 1993, see below, when he took over from Alun Armstrong)
Film version: 2007 (Tim Burton directed Johnny Depp as Sweeney, Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs Lovett)
NT 1993 (Declan Donnellan directing Alun Armstrong as Sweeney, Julia McKenzie as Mrs Lovett, in the NT’s Cottesloe Theatre; it subsequently transferred to the larger Lyttelton Theatre, with Denis Quilley taking over as Sweeney.Newbury’s Watermill Theatre 2004 (John Doyle directing a company of actor-musicians, which then transferred to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios; it subsequently also transferred to Broadway 2005 (Eugene O’Neill Theatre, with Michael Cerveris as Sweeney, Patti LuPone as Mrs Lovett)Chichester Festival Theatre in 2011, then transferred to West End’s Adelphi Theatre in 2012 (Jonathan Kent directing Michael Ball as Sweeney, Imelda Staunton as Mrs LovettHarrington’s Pie Shop in Tooting, London in 2014 (Jeremy Secomb as Sweeney, Siobhan McCarthy as Mrs Lovett), then Off-Broadway’s Barrow Street Theatre in 2017 (London leads, then Norm Lewis/Hugh Panaro as Sweeney; Carolee Carmello/Sally Ann Triplett as Mrs Lovett)
My Favourite songs: The Worst Pies in London, Little Priest and By the Sea, Ladies in their sensitivities/Kiss Me; Not While I’m Around
Bryn Terfel (Sweeney) and Emma Thompson (Mrs Lovett) perform A Little Priest, performed at New York’s Avery Fisher Concert Hall in 2014, then reprised at the London Coliseum in 2015
Background history: Sondheim was inspired to write the musical after seeing Chris Bond’s play version of the story at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1973, when he was here to see the West End premiere of Gypsy with Angela Lansbury as Momma Rose. According to Sondheim,
“What I did to Chris’ play is more than enhance it. I had a feeling it would be a new animal. The effect it had at Stratford East in London and the effect it had at the Uris Theater in New York are two entirely different effects, even though it’s the same play. It was essentially charming over there because they don’t take Sweeney Todd seriously. Our production was larger in scope. Hal Prince gave it an epic sense, a sense that this was a man of some size instead of just a nut case. The music helps to give it that dimension.”
Sondheim once described the show as his “love letter to London”. Given that it is about a serial killer, that’s some love letter!
Personal connection: This is the first Sondheim musical I ever saw in its original production, when Hal Prince’s production transferred for its all-too-brief run at Drury Lane in 1980. We’ve since made amends in the UK, originating two revivals that subsequently transferred to New York: an actor-musician version directed by John Doyle (who became a go-to expert in Sondheim re-imaginations, including a new Broadway production of Company and Off-Broadway versions of Road Show and Passion), and the immersive Harington Pie Shop version in London in 2014 that was recreated at Barrow Street Theatre, in which the audience sat at tables in the tiny cafe/restaurant, and the action took place all around them. In Tooting, the pie shop was located opposite a barber shop, which was used as the interval bar — and people were able to have haircuts there, too!
3) SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE
Composer: Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine (who also directed the original production)
Premiered: Broadway 1984 (Booth Theatre, James Lapine directing Mandy Patinkin as Georges/George, Bernadette Peters as Dot/Marie)
UK premiere at London’s National Theatre 1990 (Steven Pimlott directing Philip Quast/Maria Friedman)London’s Menier Chocolate Factory (2005, Daniel Evans/Anna Jane Casey, transferring to the West End’s Wyndham’s in 2006, with Jenna Russell replaced Anna Jane Casey; then transferred to Broadway’s Studio 54 in 2008New York City Center, concert performances in 2016, with Jake Gyllenhaal/Annaleigh Ashford); transferred to to Broadway’s Hudson Theatre in 2017 (Hudson Theatre); it was due at the West End’s Savoy Theatre in summer 2020, but it was postponed because of the Covid pandemic.
Favourite songs: Finishing the Hat; Move On; We Do Not Belong Together
Jake Gyllenhaal performs Finishing the Hat backstage at the Hudson Theatre, New York (not in character)
Quirky Facts: the original Seurat painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Latte, that inspired the show, is in the Art Institute of Chicago; it was the first place I headed to when I visited Chicago!
Personal connection: Sunday in the Park with George was the first musical I saw on Broadway in its original production. The second time I saw it there, I bought a standing ticket at the back of the theatre; at the curtain calls, I noticed Stephen Sondheim was standing next to me. I followed him out of the theatre and asked him to sign my programme; I subsequently lost it when the suitcase it was in was stolen from Greyhound’s left luggage department at the Port Authority bus station on Eighth Avenue
By: Tim Rice (lyrics) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (music)
Premiered: Recording first released as the ‘White album’ concept cast recording in 1976 (starring Julie Covington as Eva Peron, Colm Wilkinson – then billed as C.T Wilkinson – as Che); World premiere stage version was at the Prince Edward in1978 (Hal Prince directing, with Elaine Paige replacing Covington as Eva, and David Essex replacing Colm Wilkinson), transferred to Broadway‘s Broadway Theatre in 1979 (Patti LuPone as Eva, Mandy Patinkin as Che)
Film version: 1996 (Alan Parker directing Madonna as Eva, Antonio Banderas as Che)
West End revival 2006 (Adelphi Theatre, Michael Grandage directing Elena Roger/Matt Rawle, also Philip Quast as Peron), transferred Broadway’s Marquis Theatre in 2012 (with Elena Roger reprising Eva, newly joined by Ricky Martin s Che)West End revivals in 2014 and 2017 (Bill Kenwright tour to came to the Dominion in 2014 with Madelena Alberto as Eva, Marti Pellow as Che, and to the Phoenix in 2017, with Emma Hatton as Eva)Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park revival in 2019 (Directed by Jamie Lloyd, it was due to be revived at the Barbican in 2020, but the season was cancelled owing to the Covid pandemic.
Favourite songs: Buenos Aires; I’d be surprisingly good for you; Another Suitcase in Another Hall
Patti LuPone performs Buenos Aires at the 1981 Tony Award
Background history: the show was inspired by a radio documentary about Eva Peron that Tim Rice heard when driving in his car!
5) THE HIRED MAN
By: Howard Goodall (music, lyrics), book: Melvyn Bragg, based on his 1969 novel set in his home county of the Lake District
Premiered: Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre in 1984 (where the company included (including Phyllis Logan and a young Tilda Swinton!), then Leicester Haymarket/London Astoria, 1984
Notable productions: Though it is yet to have a West End revival, it has had multiple regional productions, including ones I’ve seen at Salisbury Playhouse in 2003, Worcester’s Swan (produced by New Perspectives Theatre Company, that subsequently toured, including a run at London’s Greenwich Theatre in 2008); Colchester’s Mercury Theatre in 2013 (David Hunter and Julie Atherton); London’s Union Theatre in 2017; and the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch in 2019
Favourite songs: Day follows day (added for a new production at Salisbury Playhouse in 2003)
The opening of The Hired Man, performed by the National Youth Music Theatre in 2014
Quirky Facts: Paul Clarkson and Julia Hills, who starred in the original Leicester and London production of The Hired Man as John and Emily Tallentire (pictured at the top of this entry), subsequently married in real-life, and are still married! Paul once told me that when he auditioned for The Hired Man he was also offered Starlight Express at the same time, but he chose The Hired Man; I replied, if he’d chosen Starlight Express instead, he might be married to Frances Ruffelle!
Personal connection: Last month I actually visited the Lake District, and went on a pilgrimage of places associated with The Hired Man, including Melvyn Bragg’s hometown on Wigton; nearby, we saw a sign for a village called Tallentire. We drove there, and I took a photograph beside the sign. Later, after I posted it to twitter, Paul Clarkson sent a picture of himself alongside a similar sign, when he was a much younger man!
Even prouder personal connection: Howard Goodall, who in addition to writing The Hired Man and another favourite musical Bend it Like Beckham, plus Love Story, The Dreaming and Girlfriends whose scores I also love, is best known, of course, for his theme tunes to such TV classics as Blackadder, Mr Bean, Red Dwarf and The Vicar of Dibley, has also now composed the original music used on this podcast!!!
6) GRAND HOTEL
Music and lyrics: Robert Wright and George Forrest, with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston; book by Luther Davis
Premiered: Broadway 1989 (Martin Beck, now known as the Al Hirschfeld; it later transferred to the Gershwin), and came to London in 1992 (Dominion)
London revivals, 2004 (Donmar, Michael Grandage directing Julian Ovenden as Baron Felix, Daniel Evans as Otto Kringelein, Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio as Elizabeth Grushinskaya; and 2015 (at Southwark Playhouse)
Favourite songs: I Want to Go to Hollywood (Flaemmchen); Who Could Dance with You (Flaemmchen/Otto); We’ll Takena a Glass together (Baron Felix/Otto) How can I tell her (Raffaela)
Michael Jeter and Brent Barrett lead ‘We’ll Take a Glass Together’ at the 1990 Tony Awards, including Jeter’s Tony win immediately afterwards
Quirky Facts: Originally written as At the Grand and premiered at LA Light Opera in 1958 but Broadway transfer cancelled when Paul Muni (playing Krongolein) fell ill. David Carroll, the original Baron in the original Broadway production, died in the studio while recording the cast album; HIV/AIDS would also claim Michael Jeter (original Otto).
Personal connection: As well as seeing the original Broadway production multiple times, I also saw that Tommy Tune staging in Berlin in 1991, where it starred Leslie Caron as the ballerina Elizabeth Grushinskaya!
7) SHE LOVES ME
By: Jerry Boch (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics); Joe Masteroff (book), based on 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie
Premiered: Broadway 1963 (Eugene O’Neill Theatre, Harold Prince directed Barbara Cook as Amelia Balish and Daniel Massey as Georg Nowack); transferred London in 1964
Broadway 1993 (Roundabout at Criterion, then Brooks Atkinson; Scott Ellis directed Boyd Gaines as Georg, with Judy Kuhn/Diane Fratantoni as AmaliaLondon 1994 (the Broadway production transferred to the Savoy, with John Gordon Sinclair as Georg and Ruthie Henshall as Amelia, and Tracie Bennett as Ilona Ritter)Broadway 2016 (Studio 54, Zachary Levi as Georg, Laura Benanti as Amalia, Jane Krakowsi as Ilona)London’s Menier Chocolate Factory 2016 (Mark Umbers as Georg, Scarlett Strallen as Amalia)
Favourite songs: A Trip to the Library (Ilona), Grand Knowing You (Kodaly)
Ice-Cream and She Loves Me performed by Barbara Cook and Stephen Bogardus in concert
Production history: The source material was also the basis of The Shop Around the Corner (1940 film with James Stewart) and In the Good Old Summertime (1949 film musical with Judy Garland), and the premise was also the basis for the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail starring Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan.
8) GROUNDHOG DAY
By Tim Minchin (music and lyrics), Danny Rubin (book), based on 1993 film of the same name, scripted by Rubin and director Harold Ramis, set in Punxsuawney, PA.
Premiered: London 2016 (Old Vic, Matthew Warchus directed Andy Karl as Phil Connors, Carlyss Peer as Rita, Broadway 2017 (August Wilson Theatre, where Barrett Doss replaced Carylss Peer as Rita)
Favourite songs: Seeing You; If I had My time again; Stuck
Composer Tim Minchin performs Seeing You at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards at the Savoy Hotel
Quirky Facts: Andy Karl injured self on one of final previews; he returned for opening night on April 17 (otherwise he would not have been Tony eligible); closed September 17
Personal connection: I loved this show so much I saw in ten times in all! I had already seen it seven times by the time I happened to be in New York during the last week of its run; I booked to see two of the performances in its final week, including the Saturday matinee before it was closing the following afternoon, on September 17. As the curtain fell on the Saturday matinee, my husband turned to me and said: we have to be at the last show tomorrow. We were due to fly home on the morning of September 17, but we went to the box office, bought a pair of tickets, then went home and changed our flights!
9) NEXT TO NORMAL
By: Tom Kitt (music), Brian Yorkey (lyrics, book)
Premiered: Broadway 2009 (Broadway, after Off-Broadway production in 2008 at Second Stage)
Original Off-Broadway cast included: Alice Ripley as Diana, bipolar mother (subsequently replaced by Marin Mazzie); Brian d’arcy James as Dan (replaced by J Robert Spencer for Broadway, with d’Arcy James returning later), Aaron Tveit as Gabe, dead son. (Marin Mazzie took over as Diane, with Brian d’Arcy James/Jason Danieley as Dan)
Favourite songs: I Miss the Mountains (Diane); You Don’t Know (Diane); I’m Alive (Gabe); I am the One (Dan/Gabe/Diane); My Psychopharmacologist and I (Diane, Doctor Fine)
The 2009 Tony Awards performance introduced by Carrie Fisher, herself no stranger to manic depression disorder, in which Alice Ripley performs ‘You Don’t Know’ and J Robert Spencer and Aaron Tveit perform ‘I Am the One’
Quirky Facts: I have championed this show so often that one day, out of the blue, I got a call on my mobile from David Stone, the show’s original lead producer, to talk to me about why he was so anxious about bringing it to London. I was due in New York the following week, so we arranged to meet and talk about it in person.
By Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics), Roger O’Hirson (book)
Premiered: Broadway 1972 (Imperial, Bob Fosse directed Ben Vereen as Leading Player, John Rubinstein was Pippin, Jill Clayburgh as Catherine); London 1973 (Her Majesty’s, inc Paul Jones as Pippin, Diane Langton as Estrada, Elisabeth Welch as Berthe, Patricia Hodge as Catherine)
Notable productions: Broadway 2013 (Diane Paulus directs Patina Miller as Leading Player, Matthew James Thomas as Pippin, Andrea Martin as Berthe, Charlotte d’Amboise as Fastrada; this production recently opened in Sydney, Australia, as the first musical to open there post-pandemic.
Favourite songs: Corner of the Sky, Morning Glow, Time to Start Living (When the drearies do attack/and a siege of the sads begins), I Guess I’ll miss the man (Catherine)
Matthew James Thomas (Pippin) and Patina Miller (Leading Player) perform Corner of the Sky and Magic to Do at the 2013 Tony Awards
Quirky Facts: I first saw Pippin growing up in South Africa — and I still have the vinyl cast recording (starring Sam Waters as Pippin, an American actor who years later I would read an obituary for in Variety, after he died of HIV/AIDS).
Special thanks to my producer Paul Branch; Howard Goodall, for theme music; and Thomas Mann for the logo design