By: Brennan Carley, Taylor Cavallo, and Dan Siering
To celebrate the start of the fall theatrical season, we sat down to hash out the complexities and wonders of theatrical works created in the past 50 years.
Taylor’s Pick: The Phantom of the Opera
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera is widely considered by theatre critics and enthusiasts alike as the most successful musical of all time, and I would have to agree. First staged in 1986 in Her Majesty’s Theatre in London’s West End, it is the longest-running show in Broadway history. The haunting tale of an estranged “phantom” living in the shadows of an opera house and training the young, naive female protagonist Christine to be an opera star is a tale rich with intrigue, obsession, love, and, perhaps most prominently, tragedy.
It is an ironic show in one major way: it is a Broadway show about an opera house. It is, on a very basic level, a look into the intricacies about the production of a show: the competition for roles and the “backstage” of what you eventually see on stage. The show does a fantastic job creating a strong sense of character development and evokes sympathy for the Phantom throughout.
Each production of the show has incredible set design and costumes. Since the show is set in Paris in 1881, the performers are clad in intricate costumes, especially during the Masquerade scene.
While the score for Phantom offers an incredible mix of sound, it is most notable for its soothing and strangely eerie love ballads accompanied by sounds of the haunting opera house organ. The most celebrated portrayal of the Phantom and Christine would have to be Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, who were both members of the original West End and Broadway cast. It is their renditions of the show’s songs that have become staples of any Broadway lover’s repertoire.
The unmistakable, intense organ of the “Overture” gives listeners a preview into the world of the Phantom. The duets between the Phantom and Christine, such as “Angel of Music” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” are fantastic pieces that perfectly juxtapose the Phantom’s deep, emotive voice with Christine’s extreme soprano, opera-esque voice.
The most striking song of the score, however, is “The Music of the Night,” sung by the Phantom. The amazing lyricism of this song combines the imagery of a beautiful dream and the power of music while subtly connecting these ideas with the sensation of being in love. While it may vary from person to person, something about the story, the music and its eerie beauty resonate powerfully with the human soul-that is the simple reason for its success.
I’m not a theater connoisseur, but The Phantom of the Opera is an unbelievable show. Each time I’m not only blown away, but I’m also brought to tears. Do yourself a favor and see the show, don’t watch the movie. It is the only Broadway show whose score I will frequently listen to-I’m completely captivated by it.
Brennan’s Pick: Sunday in the Park With George
There is simply no denying that Stephen Sondheim is one of the most masterful commanders of modern theater. His works range from brilliantly esoteric (the aging Follies, one of the most important musicals of all time) to innovative and groundbreaking (Gypsy, West Side Story, and Assassins).
Then, of course, there’s Sunday in the Park With George, a pioneering adaptation of a painting to the theatrical stage. Based off of pointillist mastermind Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, painted in 1884, the musical traces the story of the artist as he struggles to find inspiration in a seemingly stilted moment of his life.
The musical’s crowning glory is, unquestionably, the moment in which all of its supporting players converge and the audience realizes with a hushed gasp of abject admiration that the actors are all dressed as characters from the iconic painting. Falling at the end of Act I, the scene is arranged by Seurat (a role originated by Mandy Patinkin in 1983) to the tune of “Sunday.” In its most recent (2008) incarnation, the backdrop was three white walls, upon which majestic sketching and eventually a fully fleshed-out La Grand Jatte itself appeared. The moment proves magical upon every viewing: a technical, musical, and choreographed work of art in its brisk but impactful presentation-art, at its most meta and moving.
The second act presents a more fictionalized version of events in Seurat’s ancestry, tracing the life of his great-grandson in 1984, himself a struggling artist about to present the most fully realized work of his career (Chromolume No. 7). More a self-reflective actualization of Sondheim’s relationship to his critics, Act II is more divisive among theater geeks, as it fudges some details here and there and struggles to maintain fluid and believable continuity with its prior act. Ultimately, it stands as an endearing and heartbreaking gap between the past and the present, between a young Sondheim/Seurat at the brink of success, and how little that success can matter years down the line.
Even Sondheim devotees don’t know quite what to make of Sunday in the Park With George, but the show’s 2008 revival did some revisionist history in its staging of Act II, establishing fluidity and eliminating doubts to the show’s utterly jaw-dropping brilliance. Ben Brantley, The New York Times’ stingy theater critic, commented on the revival, noting, “this production goes further than any I’ve seen in justifying the second act’s existence.”
Although it is difficult to imagine the show returning to the stage anytime soon-as its technological difficulty and immaculate staging remain a challenge for even the most seasoned of directors-it lives on through its gorgeous soundtrack. “Order / Design / Tension / Balance / Light / Harmony,” Seurat’s character sings as each of the painting’s many inhabitants rhapsodize on the grass. Gorgeously realized, Sunday in the Park With George stands as brightly as Seurat’s original painting, as one of Broadway’s most lush and inventive modern musicals.
Dan’s Pick: The Book of Mormon
Let’s take a minute to think about the stereotypes that surround a night at a Broadway musical-it’s a stuffy, snooty affair in which patrons slap on their finest suits and dresses to go enjoy a refined song and dance repertoire mixed with stints of sophisticated humor. The Book of Mormon does everything in its latter day power to violate these norms. Written by the stellar trio of Trey Parker, Matt Stone (the notorious masterminds behind South Park), and Robert Lopez (creator of the raunchy puppet Broadway hit Avenue Q), Mormon is the king of religious satire and, for the matter, the best thing to hit NYC’s diagonal street in some time.
The Book of Mormon tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries-Elder Price, the most pure and devout church member since Joseph Smith himself, and Elder Cunningham, the bumbling fool with a knack for compulsively lying and deviating from approved Mormon behavior. While Price has his eyes set on going to the pristine paradise of Orlando, the duo gets assigned to mission in a small town in Uganda. The two find the town in disarray, with famine, poverty, and ruthless war lords running rampant. The two seem helpless to convert any spiteful member of the community, until one day when Elder Cunningham begins to think up a few unique ways to connect with villagers.
The story, which seems innocent enough in the opening scene, quickly turns into a fury of bawdy, albeit genius comedic scenes that go well beyond insulting just Mormons. It is impossible for a viewer not to be slightly offended by the material, but it’s also impossible for a viewer not to burst out in laughter.
After nabbing endless critical praise and a slew of Tony Awards, Mormon has begun to spread its crass cleverness across the U.S., having previewed in Denver and Los Angeles this past month. Positive reactions out of L.A. have jump-started talks of a possible film adaptation. The musical will also make its way to Boston’s Opera House this April.
The Book of Mormon is the best thing on Broadway simply because of its widespread popularity. I found that simply watching the audience react to the action onstage is part of the fun. Seeing a group, elderly women and all, collectively cackle at jokes about sexual relations with frogs seems like something from bizarro world, but it really seems to speak to a higher fact of life. Satire is comedy’s crude way of keeping people’s lofty intentions in check, and a comedian’s means of voicing his contentions. So, really, Mormon is something that is rather intellectual at its core-it’s just wrapped in a silver lining of vulgar dialogue and raunchy antics.