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


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.


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