By Lucie M. Winborne, ReMIND Magazine
What makes for a great stage production? The tunes? Sets and lighting? Believable performances? They’re all essential, but every theatergoer knows that the heartbeat of a really good show is a really good story — as evidenced by these beloved Broadway hits.
The Phantom of the Opera
French author Gaston Leroux’s 1911 creation, a lonely musical genius and opera “ghost” known for his threatening behavior and the mask he wears to hide his facial deformity, is obsessed with young singer Christine, whom he privately tutors and eventually abducts to be his bride. Her true love, Raoul, races to her rescue … but which man will she ultimately choose? This tale of impossible love, coupled with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s impassioned score, is lauded as “the Broadway musical all others are measured against.”
T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a childhood favorite of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the basis for the musical Cats, features the stories of a tribe of felines who audition for Old Deuteronomy in the hope of being selected to go to the Heaviside Layer (a version of paradise) for rebirth into a new life. Shabby Grizabella’s plaintive ballad, “Memory,” in which she laments her lost days of youthful glamour, remains one of musical theater’s most beloved tunes.
This adaptation of the classic novel was inspired by another novel-turned-musical — Oliver! —when songwriter Alain Boublil saw it in London, noting later that he began seeing Victor Hugo’s unforgettable characters “in my mind’s eye, laughing, crying, and singing onstage” from the moment the Artful Dodger appeared onstage. He and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg developed full analyses of escaped convict Jean Valjean, his indefatigable pursuer Javert, reluctant prostitute Fantine, and the rest of their world before penning songs for a show that became one of the longest-running musicals in the world.
Embittered composer Antonio Salieri confesses in old age to poisoning goofy, wine embibing, divinely gifted fellow composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Never mind that Salieri all but worships the latter’s music: At their first meeting, he is appalled at the gulf between art and flesh. A vengeful Salieri not only renounces his faith, but also plots to destroy the younger man. Amadeus took liberties with the facts (Salieri and Mozart might have indeed been rivals, but they respected each other; there is no evidence that the former had any involvement in Mozart’s death), but it has delighted audiences for more than a thousand performances.
Backed by Roger Miller’s delightful score, this homespun adaptation of Mark Twain’s immortal Adventures of Huckleberry Finn debuted in the novel’s centennial. While trying to accustom himself to respectability, teenage antihero Huck fakes his own death to escape his drunkard father, teams up with escaped slave Jim, scams an unsuspecting family and gets scammed in turn by dishonest peddlers, only to escape “civilization” again by heading West. The Chicago Tribune praised Big River as “the show that came along just in time to rescue a season that had been desperate for decent musicals.”
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