Last week, I ranked the top five musicals of the Golden Age of Musicals, or “classic” musicals, that appeared on stage between the 1940s and 1960s. Musicals have matured alongside other media through the turbulent years between then and now, so this week, I return to the present to find the best modern musicals, from between the 1970s to the 2000s. These new works, hailed as masterpieces the moment they were brought alive on stage, took the traditions set by their predecessors and either remade them for the newer generation or simply cast them aside to make their own. These five musicals boast elaborate sets that rival any soundstage made in Hollywood, controversial themes that are still as relevant now as they were before, and, in one instance, hardcore puppet-on-puppet action. These are the top five modern musicals.
5. The Phantom of The Opera
From the iconic mask worn by the eponymous hero to the famous falling chandelier scene, The Phantom of the Opera is one of Broadway’s biggest blockbusters, holding the title of the longest running musical for having an incredible 8,979 performances over the course of its 23-year-long run. The musical was based on the classic French novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, in which the Opéra Populaire, an opera house in Paris, is haunted by a mysterious “opera ghost,” a disfigured musical genius living in the cellars of the building. Written by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe and with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the musical itself is an example of an opera fitted for the Broadway stage, with sweeping orchestral scores alongside memorable lyrics that often have the audience enthralled, even after the last note fades into the rafters, thus making it on this list.
Notable Song: “The Phantom of the Opera”
One of the most famous songs to come out of the musical is a duet sung by Christine, a young soprano in the Opéra Populaire, and the Phantom himself. The song starts with a chord blasted from the heart of an organ that immediately sends chills down the spine of even the hardest man within the audience, and keeps up the feeling of awe and fear until the last high note Christine sings in her solo that threatens to break nearby wineglasses. I chose this song not only because it sticks to the mind of the listener, but also because I believe that it personifies the musical itself musically — both the feelings it evokes and the grandness that, even in just the music, it exudes.
4. Jesus Christ Superstar
One of the more notable musical collaborations made by Tim Rice, lyricist, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer, Jesus Christ Superstar was less of what was more commonly known as a musical and more of an opera-like narrative that is strung together through rock songs, or, simply put, a rock opera. This genre of music actually had its origins in bands such as The Who and The Kinks, and made its way towards the stage by influencing Webber to make a rock opera. The style of the musical itself, however, is just one aspect of its greatness: the main focus of the musical was that of the interaction and conflicts between Jesus, Judas, and others who walked with them. However, it turned heads as it portrayed Judas as a victim and Jesus as a less-than-divine being, thus continuing the controversy-making tradition set by other musicals, like Hair or Cabaret, and that is why it deserves a place on the list.
Notable Song: “Gethsemane”
As Jesus makes his way to the garden of Gethsemane after the last supper in the musical, he delivers a soul-stirring aria that has him questioning the plan that God has for him, asking him why he still has to die after what he’s already done for his people. This song in particular is striking not only in its music, which has the tenor pierce the roof with some of the high notes, but also in what Jesus tells God about how he feels about how he’s going to die. The last line in particular always gives me goosebumps in its delivery and how it shows Jesus to be more human, but no less divine, in facing his death. The song itself personifies the musical in its thought-provoking lyrics and driving rock rhythm that is prevalent throughout the rock opera.
3. Avenue Q
While some musicals stick to heavy subjects that tend to depress audiences or send them into bouts of melancholy, this musical, written by Jeff Marx and composed by Robert Lopez, takes them on a romp through the lives of typical New Yorkers, with adult themes like joblessness, racism and sex, with the help of a cast consisting mainly of… puppets. Avenue Q, influenced by the style and puppets of Sesame Street, is the story of several residents of a row of apartments on the street the musical is named after, and of one recent college graduate in particular named Princeton, who strives to find his purpose in life. Puppetry in theatre is not a new concept, but to combine such raunchy themes with puppets, some of which are direct parodies of Sesame Street characters, turned enough heads to make the show win the Tony for best musical. The show’s originality and sheer craziness is enough to make it on this list.
Notable Song: “The Internet is For Porn”
The moment I heard this song, I needed to hear it again to make sure that I heard the painfully honest and hilarious lyrics about how the Internet’s main function is to deliver “relief” to sexually frustrated individuals. This song starts out with Kate Monster’s intent to teach children about the Internet, and soon devolves into a chorus of men, led by a Cookie Monster look-alike named Trekkie Monster, hailing the Internet as the best place to find porn. This song’s sheer silliness and raunchy attitude about a very adult subject personifies the rest of the musical, and the one reason why it’s my pick for the notable song in the musical. With a title like that, who wouldn’t?
Based on Puccini’s verismo opera La Bohéme, Rent is yet another rock musical that shows the lives of starving artists in the Bohemian Alphabet City under the constant scare of AIDS and the lack of power and heat. Written by Jonathan Larson shortly before he died of an aortic aneurysm caused by Marfan syndrome, the musical has been long hailed as revolutionary in the way people, most notably young people, received musicals; Rent was to the youth of the 1990s what Hair was for the youth of the 1970s, and perhaps as controversial considering that it tackled the subject of the AIDS. In fact, some of the songs in Rent have been used to promote AIDS awareness. The musical’s set and style mirrored the gritty streets and impoverished citizens of Alphabet City just after the turn of the 1990s, and most of the events and places therein were actually inspired by the creator’s own experiences, making it even more realistic to the audience. The musical’s portrayal of New York and the effect it had on AIDS awareness is why this show is on this list.
Notable Song: “Seasons of Love”
An anthem of love within the dark days of the 1990s, the song is one of the most memorable songs in Broadway’s repertoire, starting with a simple tune that coalesces into a harmony that leaves most with a sense of almost spiritual enlightenment. The song starts the second act, and has the entire cast stand in a line in front of the stage underneath spotlights, an image that is iconic of the musical. The song itself is about how one should measure one’s life, be it in times during the day or even in the cups of coffee one consumes, a philosophical question that crescendos into an joyful answer. A heartwarming and empowering song, “Seasons of Love” is my choice for the Rent’s notable song.
1. Les Misérables
This musical needs no introduction, as it is known as one of the most performed and the most popular musical worldwide, beating even Broadway’s The Phantom of The Opera performing streak by a good three years in West End, the theatre district in London. Les Misérables, composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg with a libretto and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, is the most famous musical, not only on Broadway but in the world, having been performed in 38 countries and in 21 languages. The story is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, and is about the lives of people in the heart of 19th century France, where a revolution is brewing. The musical is sung through, much like an opera, and has songs that, even by themselves, evoke a range of feelings, from the melancholy and sadness of Fantine’s final solo, to the triumph and glory of the revolutionaries’ march song. The musical’s worldwide popularity and classic songs, makes Les Misérables the best modern musical.
Notable Song: “Bring Him Home”
Upon hearing this song sung by the original Jean Valjean of the West End production, Colm Wilkinson, I simply started crying. The sheer emotion displayed by the character through this song, praying to God to keep his daughter’s lover alive through the doomed revolution, is as simple as it is beautiful. The music simply floats over the audience like a gentle mist, while the song itself lifts them up to emotional highs that many other songs only dream to achieve. Done properly, the song can garner a standing ovation and ensure that not a dry eye is present in the stands. I choose this song as the best song, not only in this musical, but also out of all the other musicals out there.
Which musical do you think belongs in this list? Give us a holler in the comments!