Last month, at Sardi’s Restaurant, with painted characters from the history of the American musical supervising on a folding screen, our panelists convened for their great work. Each brought a list of titles—36 in total—deemed worthy of discussion. The 13 mentioned only once on those lists were eliminated at the outset.
Jesse Green: Some of the 13 singletons we’re dumping are incredible shows: Assassins; Damn Yankees; Fiddler on the Roof; Fiorello!; Hedwig and the Angry Inch; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; Kiss Me, Kate; The Light in the Piazza; The Most Happy Fella; Oklahoma!; Passion; See What I Wanna See; and Shuffle Along. The earliest of the remaining 23 is Show Boat, from 1927, and the latest is Caroline, or Change, from 2004.
Frank Rich: Are we choosing just one in the end?
Green: If possible.
Nora Ephron: It’s like the scene in Guys and Dolls: the strudel versus the cheesecake.
Green: Before we start fighting over pastry, let’s have full disclosure. I was atrocious in school productions of Cabaret and South Pacific, and I later proofread the score of Sunday in the Park with George.
George C. Wolfe: I was in the original company of West Side Story.
Green: You were not.
Jonathan Tunick: I should disclose that I’ve been employed by certain individuals who wouldn’t want to be neglected in this process.
Green: Nor are they. Jonathan, you orchestrated the original productions of five of the semifinalists: A Chorus Line, Sweeney Todd, Follies, Company, and A Little Night Music.
Wolfe: And I directed one of them—Caroline, or Change—but I didn’t write it. So I shouldn’t be disqualified.
Green: Frank, you were the chief drama critic for the Times from 1980 to 1993, so you are pure. Nora, you have a disclosure, I think.
Ephron: I do? I’m so excited, what is it?
Ephron: Oh, well, my parents were involved with the movie of it, that’s true.
Green: On to the strudel. First, a question we need to answer: Is Porgy and Bess a musical?
Tunick: I disagree. For three reasons. It’s through-composed. It has to be sung by opera singers. And while it has popular songs that tilt it toward being a musical, I would call it an opera that sounds like a musical part of the time.
Green: What about the fact that it was written for the legitimate stage? Does that matter to you?
Wolfe: And how does your rule apply to Sweeney Todd, which is also nearly through-composed?
Rich: And you’d have to eliminate Floyd Collins, too, because it had virtually no scenes.
Green: You could make the distinction that Sweeney Todd and Floyd Collins are capable of being sung by theater singers—are perhaps better sung by them.
Rich: And don’t you think Caroline, or Change could be thrown out on this point, too?
Green: Oh, Caroline is certainly a musical. No opera singer could possibly sing it.
Rich: Well, they haven’t tried yet.
Ephron: Considering that we’re talking about a tiny category that almost doesn’t exist—popular American opera—I think we should just consider them all musicals and not get stuck on it.
Rich: Steve Sondheim says that if you perform it in a theater it’s a musical; if you perform it in an opera house it’s an opera. It depends on what people’s expectations are. You could have the same argument about The Most Happy Fella, which was already eliminated.
Wolfe: But aren’t we discussing a form that redefines itself perpetually?
Tunick: I just think that if we’re going to include Porgy and Bess we can all go home. If it’s in the discussion, it is the discussion.
Green: I’m not sure everyone agrees with that.
Rich: I think it should be on the list, and if people want to vote for it, fine.
Green: It’s often performed in theaters and thus meets Sondheim’s genre test, so let’s consider it on the merits. Which for me, even though I voted for it, are not unalloyed. There’s something bloated about the storytelling.
Rich: And it can make you wince in places.
Wolfe: Yes! I’ve been asked to direct it 27 times but I know I could never stage “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’.”
Green: Yet most older musicals have books that are much worse. I assume that’s why Porgy and Bess and Show Boat—not exactly a model of efficiency—are the only two on our list until 1945.
Ephron: Well, the musical was really invented with Oklahoma! in 1943.
Wolfe: To me, Show Boat was the first American musical, the first to have the real texture of this country.
Tunick: Until Show Boat, musicals were disposable: delivery devices for new tunes. Nobody really took them seriously as theater. And when they’re revived you see that they have stock characters and stock plots.
Rich: Which is also true of 98 percent of American plays of that period.
Green: So we’re content not to consider any early musicals but Show Boat and Porgy?
Wolfe: I’d like to make a plea for Shuffle Along. Although it has an incredibly stupid book, it has a great score that brought jazz dance to Broadway and invigorated the form. I don’t think it’s the best musical, but I wanted to argue for recognizing that phenomenon.
Green: Which raises a question: Must a great musical provide an opportunity for great dance? Like A Chorus Line?
Rich: Because Floyd Collins, for example, has none, and really neither does Annie Get Your Gun.
Ephron: Is there dancing in Sweeney Todd?
Green: It’s mostly staged action. Which means, I think, that the answer to the question is “no.” Yet we would all agree, I assume, that while books may vary, a great score is an absolute requirement for a great musical. So looking at the 23 here, are there any we can shoot off the list for perhaps being very good scores but not top of the heap? I’m going to go suggest A Chorus Line. Nora, you look injured.
Wolfe: Wait, I’m confused because if you isolate the elements it’s not a musical. A musical is what happens when text collides with motion collides with song collides with spectacle. And spectacle can be the human heart; it doesn’t necessarily have to be a helicopter crashing. You can go see ballet in its purity; you can go to a recital to hear music by itself. But what the American musical does so thrillingly is bastardize these forms into something that is exhilarating and compelling and deeply moving.
Green: But there might be shows that do that less well than others because one component is simply not up to snuff.
Wolfe: But if one component soars in relation to it, how can you discard it?
Green: Well, with A Chorus Line, for instance, we have the problem of performance versus text. Is a musical that is great largely because of its dancing, or largely because of a performance, still great?
Rich: If the staging exists in a codified form and people can keep reacting to it years after the creator of it is dead, as with Michael Bennett, you can argue that it becomes part of the text. The actual text of A Chorus Line, the book, was considered so insignificant that it was published only after it closed. And yet the proof is in the pudding.
Tunick: Then there are musicals that despite major shortcomings really land. 1776 has a very weak score and yet is mesmerizing.
Ephron: Well, it has a good story.
Rich: And a brilliant piece of stagecraft at the end.
Ephron: That’s the thing with A Chorus Line. Emotionally, it’s so powerful. Let’s talk about the emotional impact of these shows. Long before my parents were involved with it, I saw Carousel and I just couldn’t believe the music. But now you see it and it’s got that political thing that completely interferes.
Green: The unfortunate wife-beating aspect?
Ephron: You could call it that. “If a man loves you, really loves you, sometimes a hit doesn’t hurt.” Or whatever that horrible line is. It seems terrible and politically correct to throw a show out because of something like that, but it does hang me up about Carousel.
Rich: I love Carousel.
Ephron: Yes, but you’re a boy.
Green: Really, a lot of our 23 have these problems. Annie Get Your Gun is, at best, racially insensitive.
Tunick: And Oklahoma!
Green: But we’re back to tearing them down, when Nora wants to compare what’s most powerful about them.
Ephron: Can we each say what our first show was? Mine was Oklahoma! at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Knew every word of the songs before I saw it.
Wolfe: Mine was the West Side Story revival at the State Theater in 1968 or 1969. I was sitting in the front of the mezzanine, and I remember very specifically leaning forward during the Quintet. It defined a kind of aesthetic that follows me to this very day.
Rich: The first show I saw was Damn Yankees in Washington, which I was taken to because I was a Washington Senators fan, and I remember very little about it except Lola turning back to a witch at the end.
Wolfe: It’s a great score. “You Gotta Have Heart” is one of the most ridiculously perfect amazing musical comedy songs ever. And underneath, the show is fueled by this incredible energy of regret: “If I had a second chance, what would I do with it?” That’s what fuels Follies, too. My theory is that really great musicals have something scary and frightening underneath them that are threatening to eat the musical, and that’s what motivates the singing.
Green: So did our first shows determine what we came to think of as the greatest shows? Is it that personal?
Rich: I was tempted to include what was really the first show I saw, the Mary Martin Peter Pan, but that was on TV.
Wolfe: I love that show.
Ephron: See, that was a great show and none of us put it on our lists!
Green: We can add it to the list if we want. Anyone? Okay, then. My first show was Fiddler. My father and brother had very little reaction to it, but my mother and I cried all the way home and for several hours thereafter, earning us a lasting reputation.
Tunick: My first musical was Where’s Charley?
Ephron: Oh! That’s such a great show! It is never revived.
Tunick: But I also want to mention Bye Bye Birdie , which I saw later, when I was a music student, at a time when I was perfectly polite about musicals but thought they were stodgy. Then I saw Bye Bye Birdie and the band swung and the music sounded as good as it did in the movies and I thought to myself, “I could get interested in this.”
Green: Where’s Charley? and Bye Bye Birdie are classically high-spirited American musicals. But we’ve mostly nominated those that are dramatic or even tragic, like Carousel.
Tunick: Carousel has its moments of high spirits.
Green: If you like clams, I suppose. But here’s my question: Are the very greatest musicals those, and only those, that address life tragically or profoundly? Do we condescend to Guys and Dolls or Bye Bye Birdie to think of them as “merely” high-spirited? Six of our semifinalists, from Show Boat to Caroline, or Change, have race as a major theme. It’s no accident.
Rich: Just as with much of American culture. But we don’t say you should only consider Shakespeare’s tragedies as his greatest plays and eliminate Midsummer Night’s Dream. “High-spirited” shows like Guys and Dolls—or indeed How to Succeed, even though it didn’t make the semifinal list—are so perfectly wrought, they’re timeless; their form is indestructible.
Tunick: And She Loves Me.
Rich: Although there is a suicide in that.
Tunick: It’s botched. But I think it’s fair to say that a deep expression of the American character is part of what makes us consider a musical truly great. And I put Guys and Dolls in that category.
Green: I find it curious that none of us proposed Candide. Sondheim says that its lyrics, along with some of Porgy’s, are the best ever written.
Rich: But have you ever seen a good production of Candide?
Ephron: No one has ever seen a good production of it. You’re always there on the wrong night.
Rich: Annie Get Your Gun is also in some ways an incredibly flimsy show, but the score is astonishing, with five standards.
Green: Even so, on the basis of its book, which I find embarrassing and unproducible, I would eliminate it from consideration.
Wolfe: I could argue that, but I don’t disagree.
Tunick: I don’t either.
Green: Finally, one’s off the list!
Rich: Well, you see, I’m being disingenuous. I already know what my choices are.
Ephron: It’d be very sad if we were just going to get down to the cheesecake and the strudel, if you know what I mean. Is it going to be that? I mean no one has mentioned either of them: the cheesecake or the strudel.
Rich: It’s like the elephant in the room.
Ephron: So let’s talk about My Fair Lady.
Green: Okay, but—not to be too negative—let’s also be looking for ways to shoot things down.
Rich: Do we really want to be on the record shooting down shows by living people?
Green: Well, I don’t mind, at least. I’ll start with what I guess is the biggest elephant in the room. I was the only one here who did not have Gypsy as a top-top choice.
Ephron: What’s wrong with you?
Green: It’s a great musical that deserves to be on the list, but I resist certain things about it so strongly that the great things don’t ever fully work for me. The Mr. Goldstone stuff is ridiculous, the opening of Act II is a letdown. Small problems in a brilliant show, yes, but enough to push it slightly down the list for me.
Tunick: With one exception, I can’t think of any musical that doesn’t have one ridiculous thing in it.
Green: What’s the exception?
Tunick: Guys and Dolls.
Ephron: “A Bushel and a Peck” is not a good song, I’m just saying.
Rich: Gypsy is certainly one of the best-written American musicals, period.
Tunick: Like a steel trap.
Rich: Because, to go back to your original question, it has the high-spiritedness—God knows it takes you on a tour of vaudeville and burlesque—as well as the profound insight into American character. It shows how strong a book can be. What I found about this show, having first encountered it when I was ten and seeing it at every stage of my life, is that it constantly changes in meaning. And it never becomes less moving. Even in questionable productions. It can even work when it doesn’t have the world’s greatest Mama Rose. I’ve seen it in a dinner theater in Virginia and it worked.
Ephron: Who’s your favorite Rose?
Rich: Well, I didn’t see Merman.
Ephron: I did.
Green: So who’s yours, Nora?
Ephron: Tyne Daly.
Wolfe: Probably the best I’ve seen.
Tunick: She was great.
Green: Better than Merman?
Ephron: Well, because she’s such a great actress.
Rich: Here’s the thing: If you listen to the record of Tyne Daly you get no sense of it, because she really couldn’t sing. But I think she was probably my favorite, too. The only one I would say that was at all a competitor was Lansbury.
Tunick: I first experienced West Side Story and Gypsy in the same way: I heard the albums long before I saw the shows. And when I saw West Side Story it looked pretty much like what I had imagined. But when I saw Gypsy it didn’t look anything like what I had imagined. No song was about what it said it was about; it was always about something else.
Green: Is the storytelling in any of the other musicals we’re considering at the level of Gypsy?
Ephron: Oh, My Fair Lady, definitely. And The King and I. And She Loves Me. And Guys and Dolls. The Music Man has a pretty good book.
Rich: I know of one politically correct school in New York where they felt that boys and girls should have equal roles so they gave Harold Hill a sister – and it still worked.
Tunick: The Music Man is very underrated. It’s sloughed off as being superficial, or corny, or not deep. But I think it is deep.
Rich: I agree. I think it’s a very touching show, and of course the score is great.
Green: Perhaps it’s underrated because it came out in 1957, the same year as West Side Story.
Wolfe: And it won the Tony over West Side Story, so it’s been punished ever since. Of course, West Side Story also has a significantly underrated book. It’s got all that “jabber jabber” bad slang, but the craftsmanship is really quite exceptional. It’s got a screenplay efficiency to it, and incredible emotional potency. And also the thing I love about West Side Story versus Gypsy is that it’s not connected to showbiz in any way. It breaks free and captures a velocity and an intensity and an energy of this city in a way I don’t think any other show has ever been able to. I think the book of Gypsy is much more sophisticated, but that sophistication exists in West Side Story, too, in a different way.
Green: Both books, of course, are by Arthur Laurents.
Rich: Like West Side Story, Sweeney Todd is a story that is not connected to show business and is really wonderfully told.
Ephron: There’s almost nothing on this list that doesn’t have a good book. I don’t happen to like the book for South Pacific but even the ones that weren’t originally thought to be so strong are strong, like Chicago.
Rich: Follies is a show I love, but I still think that it’s never quite overcome the book. You never quite believe in those two couples. Of course, Follies is a work that remains in flux. There continue to be slightly different versions of it. Same with Cabaret . The Cabaret that’s done now is not the Cabaret that opened in 1966.
Green: Frank, you were one of the ones who had Cabaret on your original list. Having played Cliff at Welsh Valley Junior High School, I can tell you there are book problems!
Rich: But it’s such a powerful show—particularly the original production—in terms of taking the arsenal of the musical and using it to create this whole world that’s in decay.
Ephron: Well, the movie did a lot for Cabaret . One of the few musicals that became better on screen.
Rich: The only one.
Green: In a way, that leads us to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Oklahoma! didn’t quite make the semifinal list; can we eliminate any of the three that did: The King and I, South Pacific, or Carousel? It’s interesting how radically different they are from one another and yet how hard it is to distinguish among them for these purposes.
Tunick: They’re all about sex and violence.
Rich: And imperialism.
Wolfe: And race. “Oh I’ll come into your country, corrupt your child, and you’ll die”: Welcome to King and I.
Rich: I love all three, so I’m no use.
Green: Well, if we can’t get anywhere with Rodgers and Hammerstein, what about Sondheim? The Sondheim shows on this list, not including those for which he wrote only lyrics—which we’ve discussed already—are A Little Night Music, Follies, Company, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday in the Park with George. And yet, no one has yet mentioned any of them as top top top. Is there a reason for that?
Rich: I think Sweeney Todd is top top top.
Wolfe: I love Sunday in the Park. It has flaws, but it’s breathtaking in its intimacy—you can see an artist actually creating art.
Ephron: I’m in love with all of them. But I keep seeing Sweeney Todd over and over.
Tunick: You know, this is like choosing your favorite Beethoven symphony. “Well, the Ninth is the biggest …”
Green: Or your favorite child.
Tunick: So Sweeney Todd is Sondheim’s Ninth.
Wolfe: Although Company is an astonishing score. And sophisticated and smart.
Rich: And Night Music!
Ephron: The book of Night Music is heaven.
Rich: Keep in mind about Night Music that there was no major revival for 35 years. I mean, Assassins had more revivals than Night Music. People just took it for granted. But it is sort of perfect.
Green: Assassins was on your original list, Nora, though no one else’s.
Ephron: I did not see the original; I saw the one that Joe Mantello directed, and I thought it was one of the greatest things I’d ever seen. But why do we keep not talking about My Fair Lady?
Rich: I’m not a wild fan of it.
Wolfe: I’m not either.
Tunick: In my years of summer stock I’ve encountered these shows over and over again from the workman’s point of view. And My Fair Lady only works with a great actor. Have a second-rate Higgins and you could go to sleep.
Green: Is that generalizable? Are the greatest shows not as dependent on particular performances and stagings?
Tunick: Maybe. Like Guys and Dolls. It doesn’t matter who does it, it’s still a great musical.
Rich: That’s true of Gypsy.
Green: And Forum.
Tunick: No, Forum is too difficult. But Guys and Dolls is foolproof.
Ephron: I don’t think anything is actor-proof.
Green: Perhaps you’re right, but Guys and Dolls is one of those shows—She Loves Me is another—that has no cracks in it.
Tunick: Yes, She Loves Me is the rare score that doesn’t have a clunker. It has great variety but at the same time great integrity, which is almost impossible to achieve.
Green: An hour in, and we’ve eliminated only one semifinalist. I thought surely someone would have nixed the recent shows: Floyd Collins and Caroline, or Change. I had them—and The Light in the Piazza—on my list for Nora’s reason: they had a powerful emotional effect on me. Which is terribly subjective, of course. Caroline I’d almost say entrapped me, because it was both deeply personal and rigorously political. And the score is an amazing clash of sounds from the worlds it depicts. But a lot of people hated it.
Rich: I loved it. But I think that with Caroline and the others, first of all, we don’t have the distance of time. Also, they are more chamber pieces; there are just a few characters. I don’t mean this pejoratively, but they don’t employ the huge apparatus of Broadway musicals in the way shows did when they could afford to be extravagant.
Wolfe: The central character of Caroline is just phenomenal. I got my masters from the musical theater program at NYU, where the first question they would ask about something you wrote was, “Is the character likable?” So I’m naturally drawn to musicals where the character is complicated and fucked up. I find it exhilarating and a cause of joy and celebration. Mama Rose is a mess. And if these characters are powerful enough they are able to spray an audience with their mess.
Green: With that lovely image in mind, can we take a first pass at winnowing the 23 to a more manageable number?
Tunick: We haven’t really established our criteria.
Ephron: I think our criteria are: Do we really really, really like it?
Green: So let’s each pick six.
Ephron: That’s impossible! Oh. I feel such pain when I get to 4, 5, and 6. I would be happy to be involved as a set dresser on any of these shows. There, I’m done. But I threw away a vote.
Rich: I did that too.
Green: What do you mean, “threw away a vote”?
Ephron: Well, nobody seems to care about A Chorus Line, but I put it down anyway.
Wolfe: I did that too.
Green: So do you want to reargue for A Chorus Line? No? Okay, the shows with the most votes, in alphabetical order, are Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, The King and I, and Sweeney Todd.
Wolfe: I protest.
Green: Others that got fewer votes are A Chorus Line, Carousel, Porgy and Bess, She Loves Me, Show Boat, South Pacific, Sunday in the Park, and West Side Story.
Ephron: I can live with that.
Wolfe: I cannot live with that. I can’t live with West Side Story not being among the finalists.
Ephron: You can’t? Okay, I can’t either. I might leave.
Green: What you must do is convince somebody.
Wolfe: King and I versus West Side Story? Come on!
Rich: Well, I love the score to West Side Story but I feel there’s something synthetic about the way the gangs are portrayed, and there are some showbizzy parts that just … I don’t know.
Tunick: I agree with you, but I voted for it anyway. I’m prejudiced toward a great score.
Wolfe: My argument for West Side Story is the pure brilliance of all the elements: how dance meets storytelling meets score meets youthful exuberance.
Rich: The Quintet is one of the greatest moments in musical theater.
Green: Your impassioned support seems to have worked, George. So it goes back on the list.
Wolfe: I can live with myself again.
Green: What’s interesting to note is that Porgy and Bess did not end up as a finalist. So there you go. The ones that remain are Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, The King and I, Sweeney Todd—and West Side Story. Let’s each pick three from these five.
Ephron: I just have to say, if you asked any hundred people on the street what the greatest musical of all time is, we have left it off the list.
Rich: What? A Chorus Line?
Ephron: No, My Fair Lady!
Green: Objection noted.
Ephron: I’m not objecting; it just didn’t have any advocates here.
Rich: But this is also generational. I think for people younger than us it’s flown off the map. It’s not done that often, and it’s not done well.
Green: In any case, let’s each pick three.
Ephron: I’m worried about George at this moment.
Wolfe: Yeah, me too. Make sure there are no knives around.
Green: Everyone done? Let me tabulate. Okay, it’s a three-way tie for first place. Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, and Sweeney Todd. Followed by The King and I and then West Side Story. The rest of the top ten are Carousel, Porgy and Bess , Show Boat, A Chorus Line, and Sunday in the Park.
Wolfe: Ah, we can live with that.
Ephron: Oh that’s exactly right. We’re the greatest jury ever.
Rich: I say we just leave it there.
Green: Except to ask if our conclusions are too personal to be meaningful.
Rich: When I was looking back at the shows that had such a great impact on me as a child, what I found was that the common element uniting Damn Yankees, Gypsy, Music Man, and Carousel was that they all had kids with single parents. Even though it was never acknowledged in any of the shows except for Gypsy. Well, in Damn Yankees, there wasn’t a kid, but a marriage technically breaks up for the length of a show.
Ephron: So for you it was just about being a child of divorce?
Rich: But I didn’t figure it out for 30 years.
Green: The theme that informs my love of certain shows is alienation: the outsider who wants to come in, and is usually crushed. Caroline, Bess, Billy Bigelow. I won’t explore the implications.
Wolfe: For me it’s that energy that exists in Gypsy: “It’s bleak out there, but I’m gonna make it.” So I think I’m particularly drawn to defiance.
Ephron: I like too many musicals to have one theme, but I was thinking about why I didn’t love She Loves Me when I first saw it, but then fell so deeply in love with it later on. And its partly that at a certain point in your life you don’t have the intelligence to know that the sentimental show is also great, because you’re so busy being hip and loving the dark shows. And then you get older and you love the ones that are—whatever you want to call them—romantic.
Wolfe: I looked down at Rodgers and Hammerstein when I was a teenager, and then as I got to be older I thought, “What was I thinking?”
Tunick: I’ve always been drawn to shows with some epic element. And when I say epic I don’t mean necessarily grand, but that portray some aspect of life on a generous scale. Guys and Dolls is a picture of all New York.
Wolfe: I also respond when two worlds that don’t belong together end up together. That’s why the musical could only have been born here: New York is all these little countries sharing a city. All the different rhythms of those different communities is what made the American musical possible.
George C. Wolfe