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

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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.

Rich: Hopeful.

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.


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