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The 10 best shows for music directors, in no particular order, for several reasons

Listing the ten best shows for a music director to work on is as subjective as choosing the ten greatest composers, or painters, or novelists, so it’s worthwhile to stipulate some qualities the winners must have, subjectively speaking. These qualities can only reveal themselves by working through the reasoning of what makes a show a music director’s favorite.

Of the many musicals I’ve attended in recent years, among the most enjoyable and perhaps the funniest was Monty Python’s Spamalot. The music cues come fast and furious, and in all varieties, from classical quodlibets to Spike Jones-like punctuations–a true challenge for the music director to keep up and maintain the comic timing. Yet despite such diversity of style, despite the expertise of the orchestrations, regardless of the virtuosity of the players in the pit, the music is so fully integrated into the fabric of the comedy that it almost ceases to have a discrete identity of its own. It acts more as laugh-enhancer to the goings-on onstage.

Are the shows that music directors are partial to leading from the podium perhaps not the best ones to view from the house as an audience member or critic? Most music directors, it seems, prefer directing musical material with its own distinction.

That’s why many readers are probably expecting the top of this list to be occupied by the musical jewels that always seem to outshine the rest, and are likely the offhanded choices of just about any music-director-on-the-street you might ask: West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, South Pacific, Cabaret, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Fiddler… And isn’t it interesting that as the list continues, that the best scores seem to coincide with the best stories; they are inseparably connected to the best musical theater works, the best overall entertainments. A great book marks the finest examples of the form, and great scores masterfully accompany these great stories or themes, just as Spamalot’s does. There have been many excellent, crafty scores alongside librettos that have not sufficiently engaged their audiences–and those shows have rarely succeeded–but seldom has there been a great musical without an outstanding score.

For a music director, it’s about the sparks that fly when music and drama collide and collaborate; that’s what makes the job exciting. Therefore, I will, after all, include Spamalot among my top ten, for the same reasons I cited above to argue against it. It seems impossible that the music director-conductor of that show could ever get bored in performance, what with the variety of musical involvement, and the charming music is very much a part of the outrageous humor.

Stephen Sondheim on piano with Leonard Bernstein and Carol Lawrence (on far right) standing amongst female singers rehearsing for the stage production West Side Story. NYPL Digital Collections.
Stephen Sondheim on piano with Leonard Bernstein and Carol Lawrence (on far right) standing amongst female singers rehearsing for the stage production West Side Story, 1957. Copyright: The New York Public Library. NYPL Digital Collections.

And yes, the great scores (some, but not all of them–I’ll tell you why in a moment) belong on the list, if for no other reason than the pure musical satisfaction they provide music directors. West Side Story is there because, well, because the score is not only unthinkably beautiful and profoundly interesting, but is also a seminar on music theory and composition. Sweeney Todd, too, because nothing can touch that unique sound, that combination of dark and light, the stuff that waves of goosebumps are made of. Both of these scores are also musically challenging for all involved: singers, musicians, and music directors. On the other hand, though you may adore a lush, sophisticated work such as The Most Happy Fella or The Bridges of Madison County, you might be prone to disconnecting from the emotional content, which are diluted by threadbare (albeit emotional) story lines. Instead, I’ll include something comparably original and musically intelligent, Carousel, which though certainly corny by today’s standards, is still a marvel of lyricism, and of connection of music to story. I’m sure many readers would want to add their own favorites in its slot.

Music directors covet music with “groove,” especially since groove began to dominate popular music in the mid-20th century. Nothing is more satisfying than rocking out with a great band in front of an audience that is really into the proceedings. Perhaps the deepest grooves in musical theater history have belonged to a handful of authentically rock/pop shows–among them Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Rocky Horror, Mamma Mia!, Tommy, Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar, Spring Awakening, In The Heights, and now Hamilton. I’ll disqualify Tommy and Heights due to my bias as an alumnus of their Broadway productions. Hedwig is a whole different animal, with its onstage band and few songs; Mamma Mia! has a silly story; and Spring Awakening’s music direction is subtle and overshadowed by its remarkable staging and storytelling, so let’s just narrow the list down to Rent and Superstar. I give the nod to Jesus Christ Superstar because its music calls upon all the influences of its time–rock, R&B, blues, psychedelia, etc.–while retaining a true classical heart and a tenacious theatrical bent. It’s nearly through-composed, and the conductor plays keyboards, keeping him or her busily occupied throughout. Almost all of this is true of Rent too, so let’s keep them both on the list.

As for onstage bands: Ain’t Misbehavin’ or Smokey Joe’s Cafe. Both are a just a gas to lead, the music director gets to show off at the piano a bit, and the spirit and music of the shows tend to evince stellar performances from their singers and players, as well as rowdy approval from audiences. Take your pick; it’s a tossup.

Let’s add shows that get better the more you view them. The Music Man, for example, has brilliant construction, sharp characterizations, and a glorious score, featuring intricate melodic connections and spectacular dance arrangements. And because they so epitomize the musical theater form, it’s almost impossible to exclude A Chorus Line or Chicago. I’m choosing A Chorus Line on the list because of its scant 100 minute duration (no intermission), which for working stiffs, gets many music directors home at a quite reasonable hour. (I was also tempted to include Little Shop of Horrors for this reason, and because it is a brilliantly crafted musical with a great, grooving score, but again, as an alum of the original production, I am biased.)

Any show that you yourself help to arrange or create as music director, any show that you truly care for, is probably your darling. It could be the show you arranged for your local theater club, or a revue you did with your favorite singer. Shows that you work hard on get under your skin, into your soul, and never leave you. Nine years after departing Broadway’s The Lion King, I still have Lion King ear worms.

Any of the shows I list might be compromised by an irresponsibly reduced orchestration, or an unjustifiable or unattractive synthetic musical element. I am considering them in their ideal, pristine, original, or very-close-to-it versions. So here they are, in an order that I will change countless times after posting this blog article:

10.   Rent
9.     Spamalot
8.     Carousel
7.     A Chorus Line
6.     The Music Man
5.     Tie: Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Smokey Joe’s Cafe
4.     Jesus Christ Superstar
3.     Sweeney Todd
2.     West Side Story
1.     Your own personal Lion King, whatever it may be–the show that is closest to your heart.

Headline Image: Music Notes. CC0 Public Domain License via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Steven Rosenhaus

    Hi Joe!

    For bands on stage, I would add “Chicago.”

    I once saw a production of Sweeney that used, as I recall, three keyboards with the music director leading and sometimes using a fourth keyboard. The individual sounds were “okay” but unexciting; this was a pity because everything else about the production was quite impressive.

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