Thursday, May 29, 2008

SOB's Best Of 2007-08: Best New Musicals

SOB's Best Of 2007-08: Best New Musicals

During the 2007-08 Theatrical Season, I've enjoyed the opportunity to see 13 new musicals. Perhaps "enjoyed" isn't quite the right word since that number proved a bit unlucky with three of these tuners turning up on my "Worst 5" list.

The past year was not a particularly great one for new musicals with the vast majority of them falling a bit flat with me. But fortunately, there were some notable exceptions, enough to register, resonate and score on my personal "5 Best" list for the past twelve months:

5 - Queens Boulevard (Signature Theatre Company at the Peter Norton Space, New York, NY)

While a certain neighborhood in the upper reaches of Manhattan has helped launch this season's mainstream ethnic musical sensation, those who ventured to Queens Boulevard were treated to something quite otherworldly. Charles Mee's rendition of the melting pot known as Queens was a varitable feast for the senses with the most beguiling first twenty minutes I've ever seen in a stage show. Queens Boulevard centers on a bride (Michi Barall) and groom (Amir Arison) whose respective Japanese and Indian cultures come rhythmically together -- think Bollywood film with a Japanese accent. As a musical, Queens Boulevard operated more like a quirkier New Age "Moulin Rouge" with an eclectic fusion of tunes spanning the globe and some of the most mesmerizing choreography of the year.

Ironically enough, Mee has created a distinctly American fairy tale, and with multitude of cultures he's stuffed into his work, it really couldn't happen anywhere else but here.

4 - Xanadu (Helen Hayes Theatre, New York, NY)

You've just gotta love a show that doesn't take itself too seriously. And in the case of Xanadu, how could it? Rather than take a straight approach, literally and figuratively, this Xanadu revels and luxuriates in the extremely dubious nature of its source material about an Australian-accented mythical goddess who's brought to life by the clueless chalk-bearing mortal who drew her, while she flirts with her own mortality by falling in love with him. Indeed, this is the campiest, most outrageous fun I've had all year long. Douglas Carter Beane's super silly, yet surprisingly engaging book, which is simply too preposterous to describe, offers copious amounts of winking and nodding. As the muse Clio/Kyra, Kerry Butler proves a formidible force with a gorgeous voice coupled with plenty of comic timing. Cheyenne Jackson more than ably glides on his rollerskates with charm to spare. Together as Clio's conspiring sisters, Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa conjure up laughing spells that soar so beyond the top I found myself doubled over in fits of glee.

Is Xanadu a great musical? Of course not, and fortunately, it doesn't aspire to be. But if you go into the show with an open mind, don't be surprised if you find this show working its way into your heart.

3 - The Glorious Ones (Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York, NY)

Who said nice things come in small packages? Well, in the case of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's The Glorious Ones, you might instead say naughty things come in small packages. Though it may not exactly have risen to the exalted heights of all things glorious, the accomplished tunesmiths' latest work was certainly good -- if not-so-clean -- fun. With Graciela Daniele's deft touch and Ahrens and Flaherty's comedic and at times compelling score, The Glorious Ones was a debauched little diamond in the rough shining bright with a devilishly funny cast led by Marc Kudisch as the charismatic 16th Century leader of a fledgling band of actors in the commedia dell’arte (comic tradition).

Steeped in vulgarity and slapstick, this little frippery may not have been glorious. But it certainly was delightful fun.

2 - A Catered Affair (Walter Kerr Theatre, New York, NY)

Like a rare vintage wine that deserves to be sipped and savored, the seriously sublime A Catered Affair opens up across the tastebuds into a glorious bouquet. When all is said and done, this beautifully-acted, earnest chamber musical is intoxicating. Rich with integrity, Harvey Fierstein has vividly crafted a genuinely touching book that dares to wear its dry dignity on its sleeve, right alongside its huge beating heart. Fierstein's libretto has been wondrously blended with John Bucchino's stirring score. John Doyle's understated direction strikes the right balance between the many trials and inner demons the musical's principal characters face and the often hidden gentility each possesses, including Faith Prince in the performance of her career.

With a workmanlike realism, this slice of fifties Bronx offers a humungous and unpretentious heart. For anyone who has a palate worthy of the best reserve, A Catered Affair is a must-see.

1 - Passing Strange (Belasco Theatre, New York, NY)

The year's absolute best, most cosmic musical was also the most unusual and unexpected, and yet somehow real. Passing Strange succeeds in taking the Great White Way in an entirely new, infinitely intelligent direction. Its trajectory brilliantly takes a bohemian base and infuses gospel, rock, punk and soul music into a delicious, simmering hot, heterogeneous bouillabaisse, compliments of a musician named Stew. This exacting artist takes us on a wild trip in quasi-strolling minstrel style, expertly telling the story of his own formative adult years with such humor, passion and grace that I found myself tearing up many times over as chills shot down my spine.

Stew's storytelling alter ego, Youth, is played with awkward charm by Daniel Breaker, a sensationally expressive new stage star in an astonishing breakthrough role. Breaker has been duly honored (as I had predicted) with a well-deserved Tony nomination.

Often veering toward the existential when it's not reminding you of "The Wizard Of Oz," Stew's ethereal odyssey isn't as much about saying "there's no place like home" as it's reassuring you that you actually can go home again. I couldn't help but fall head over heels in love with this smoke-hazed tale. Far from strange, I look forward to passing this way again.

What were the best new musicals you saw over the past year? I invite you to join the conversation by sharing your theatre experiences with me.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Related Stories:
SOB's Best Of 2007-08: Best Revivals Of Musicals (May 28, 2008)
SOB's Best Of 2007-08: Best Revivals Of Plays (May 27, 2008)
SOB's Best Of 2007-08: Best Special Theatrical Events (May 24, 2008)
The SOB Five "Worst" Of 2007-08 (May 23, 2008)
SOB's Best & Worst Of 2007-08 Theatre Season (May 22, 2008)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Top Ten Of The Year (June 4, 2007)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best New Musicals (May 22, 2007)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best New Plays (May 21, 2007)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best Revivals Of Musicals (May 18, 2007)
SOB's Best Of 2006-07: Best Revivals Of Plays (May 16, 2007)
The SOB Five "Worst" Of 2006-07 (May 14, 2007)
SOB's Best & Worst Of 2006-07 Theatre Season (May 14, 2007)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #1 - Theater Of The New Ear (May 30, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #2 – Guys And Dolls (May 26, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #3 – Hedda Gabler (May 25, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #4 – A Blameless Life (May 24, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #5 – Reeling (May 23, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #6 – “MASTER HAROLD”…And The Boys (May 21, 2006)
SOB’s Best of 2005-06: #7 – Love Song (May 19, 2006)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #8 - Billy Elliot The Musical (May 18, 2006)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #9 - The Well-Appointed Room (May 17, 2006)
SOB's Best of 2005-06: #10 - Sweeney Todd (May 15, 2006)
SOB's Best and Worst of 2005-06 Theatre Season (May 12, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2004-05 (May 26, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2003-04 (May 25, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2002-03 (May 25, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2001-02 (May 24, 2006)
Flashback: Best of 2000-01 (May 23, 2006)

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At 29 May, 2008, Blogger SarahB said...

I guess you didn't see ADDING MACHINE.

At 29 May, 2008, Anonymous Chris Caggiano said...


I have to agree with Sarah. For me, hands down, the best new musical of the season was Adding Machine. It's brilliant and uncompromising, and as much as I enjoyed Xanadu, Passing Strange, and A Catered Affair, they can't hold a candle to Adding Machine.

I know you're turned off by the title, and possibly the subject matter. But you really ought to take in Adding Machine, if only to tell me and Sarah that you think we're full of beans.

My $0.02.


At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Vance said...

My problem with Adding Machine was that the best thing about it was that it never really seemed to waiver from the source material (or so I'm told) and kept the dark surrealness. Everything new and added (ahem) just became annoying.

Maybe I was just in a weird mood that day and the weirdness on stage didn't help.

Meanwhile Passing Strange was just simply weird and wonderful and seemed fresh and inventive, never going in any direction I thought it was going to.

At 29 May, 2008, Anonymous Chris Caggiano said...


You're right that Adding Machine doesn't stray from its source. I've been re-reading Rice's play, and the musical matches it almost scene for scene. So much of what I enjoyed about the musical Adding Machine comes directly from the original playwright, Elmer Rice.

Yes, the show is dark, and surreal, and sometimes annoying, but intentionally so. It's certainly not a populist musical, and I know a number of people who were simply turned off by it. But in a season of cynical money-making blockbusters, it's a welcome dose of uncompromising theater.

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Sorry folks, I have not seen Adding Machine, although I'd like to. My list is of the top five new musicals I saw and enjoyed this past year.

Given that Joshua Schmidt (Adding Machine) went to my high school in Mequon, WI, my curiosity is piqued further.

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Vance said...

I know. I respected what Adding Machine did and I felt like it was a show I SHOULD love but I just didn't (but then it also made me wonder how much my mood matters and affects the judgements I make. I try not to but I guess it can still have an impact (uh, thus my positive review for Glory Days, the one everyone hated.. ha!)).

And I knew the music and characters were supposed to be annoying but then I was like. wait. Im just annoyed listening! Oh well, maybe I need to see it again.

On the other hand, I also didn't love Grey Gardens last year (I keep hearing the Spelling Bee song "Im not that smart" in my head right now). Loved the second act, felt meh, about the first.

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Vance, If we all loved the same thing, think of what a dull world it would be! As I've said on Glory Days, I think it could have worked better in a smaller space, but Broadway?

But I'm glad you share my affection for Passing Strange

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

I really liked Passing Strange, A Catered Affair and In the Heights. They're all so different, and maybe this means I lack critical judgment, or I'm like Mikey from the Life cereal commercial, but I just found lots to love in all of them.

A Catered Affair is such a little gem, a perfect slice of life. Passing Strange has an amazing performance from Daniel Breaker, among others, lots of witty dialogue, tunes that have stayed in my head, and I love the way it references The Wizard of Oz. And In the Heights has terrific choreography, humor, and I love the way it evokes a New York City neighborhood with such affection.

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Joseph said...

Yes, Steve. You should see Adding Machine. It's very good. And my favorite new musical of the year. Reminds me a lot of Sondheim.

I disliked A Catered Affair enough to slam Harvey Fierstein in a blog post.

Passing Strange was fantastic but not quite as innovative as everyone claims it to be.

Xanadu was hilarious.

In the Heights was touching and energetic. Perhaps the most traditional of the new musicals to come out this year. Simple story. Characters you care about. And great energy. I think it will win at the Tonys. And it's also my preference.

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, Don't sell yourself short. Your opinion is very valid, and given the popular prevailing wisdom on In The Heights, you are not alone in loving that show.

As much as I admired the effort, the show just didn't grab me like the others. And having a difference of opinion, as I've said before, is not a bad thing!

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Joseph, We'll have to respectfully part ways on A Catered Affair -- and Harvey Fierstein. I loved it and him through and through. But I appreciate your weighing in!

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger SarahB said...

What makes Passing Strange a musical. I haven't seen it but the commercials are enough to make me not want to see it.

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Sarah, The score, which in my humble opinion is the best of the year, makes this story of Youth's coming of age - dealing with everything from his personal roots, race and search for self - come alive. It's quite a story told through song.

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Aaron Riccio said...

I'm glad you recognized The Glorious Ones, and actually sort of relieved that you didn't see Adding Machine. I don't know if I could've handled yet another person liking that drone of a show. I respect the harsh reality of Adding Machine, in that the music was used to nag and convey character and bleakness rather than to dance, and the pieces served the show, but I guess my complaint is with Elmer Rice's original work.

I am curious about Queens Boulevard, and you and Chris could probably help me understand this better--what makes a show a musical? I mean, would you call Brecht plays that having song in them musicals? To me(e), Boulevard seemed just as random in the music (particularly the karaoke) as in the scenes, and while I agree that Moulin Rouge and other "jukebox" musicals have done similar things with song, I felt that Boulevard never crossed the threshold from play to musical.

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger SarahB said...

If somebody pays me to go, I'll see Passing Strange, if even to prove a point.

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Aaron, With respect to Queens Boulevard, I certainly appreciate your thoughtful question.

You are correct that there are many plays with songs (and it's amazing how often I've heard Jersey Boys referred to as a "play" rather than "musical"). In categorizing Queens Boulevard, I simply deferred to the Signature's own marketing of the show, which clearly labeled it as "the musical."

Is it debatable, especially since none of the tunes were written specifically for the show? Absolutely.

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Sarah, May I suggest listening to the score of Passing Strange? You may be surprised.

At 29 May, 2008, Anonymous dylan said...

I thought Adding Machine was interesting but not something I'd ever want to see again. In the Heights was colorful but bland. A Catered Affair was a valiant effort with a beautiful score. Cry-Baby and Young Frankenstein were mostly just eye-candy. Glory Days was just plain bad.

That leaves Xanadu, the most fun I had at a new musical this season (though I'm still not convinced it's Broadway material) and Passing Strange, which possesses the most amazing new original music I heard in any musical this season. It's book, however, was underwhelming. So, for me, it's a tie between these two for the best new musical of the season.

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Dylan, Looks like we're not terribly far apart in our assessments. I particulary agreed with your appraisal of In The Heights. I so desperately wanted to love it, but walked away thinking it could have been so much more.

If I had any criticism of Passing Strange, it's that the second act couldn't match the incredible exuberance of the first. But it comes close.

At 29 May, 2008, Anonymous dylan said...

Yes, Steve, I've noticed that I agree with most of your assessments. That's why I trust your opinion and a part of why I love to read your blogs! However, based on many of your entries this season, I've a strong feeling we're not going to agree on the Best New Play. Maybe it's because I'm from the South originally but a certain Pulitzer prize winner didn't exactly steal my heart. Still, I look forward to your next 'Best' list....

At 29 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Dylan, Well, there's always a first time, right?! And I don't consider Oklahoma to be exactly southern. Oops! Did I give it away?!

Of course, I'm from the Midwest, and I sure saw a lot of my family in that show.

Thanks so much for the kind words. Keep your comments comin'!

At 30 May, 2008, Blogger Vance said...


based on all the commercials and everything I saw about Passing Strange, I was SO not excited either but figured I'd check it out anyways.

Boy was I glad I did. it was NOTHING like I thought it was (uh. basically they should maybe fire the advertising agency? granted it IS hard to nail down in a short clip).

I thought it DEFINED the word Theatricality. Surprising for something that at first sounds like a rock concert gone broadway via pretentiousness. It is a bit but it knows it and plays up the humour in that.

And while Esther already knows it, I LOVED In the Heights too! So fun!

(And yah. show showdown guy agrees with me on Adding Machine! ha sorry. not to be negative or anything...)

At 30 May, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Vance, I could not have stated it better. I agree with you on Passing Strange completely. In fact, I was worried in the first five minutes that this was going to be a rock concert, but it turned into a wonderfully told story with a score that I have not been able to get out of my head.

At 30 May, 2008, Blogger SarahB said...

Really Vance? Hmmmm, well, maybe I'll see it. I like rock music. Really I do. But those clips! EWWWWW! I'll be sure to report back everybody if and when I see it.

BY THE WAY, I LOVED IN THE HEIGHTS and will be going again very soon.

At 31 May, 2008, Blogger Dale said...

I missed out on Adding Machine but have a feeling I would have liked it. The only one I saw of this bunch was Xanadu which was a lot of fun. Time and money, lend me some? :-)

At 02 June, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Sarah, Just go see it.

At 02 June, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Dale, Xanadu was a lot of fun. Glad you enjoyed it.

As for the time and money, I'm about spent out myself!!


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