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The Greatest Musical: “I Can’t Live With ‘West Side Story’ Not Being Among the Finalists”

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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.


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