Platform writer and musicals superfan Stuart McComb asked over 50 students about their favourite stage shows and sing-a-long movies – here are the results…
In celebration of the British Film Institute’s ongoing musicals season, I carried out a poll asking you what your all-time favourite musical is. For those who don’t know, a musical is defined as a performance which involves singing, acting and dancing, and are of course one of the most popular types of entertainment today whether you love them or hate them.
22. Dirty Dancing (2006)
Based on the 1987 film, Dirty Dancing takes place in the Catskills Resort. Whilst on holiday, Frances starts to get flattered by the local dance instructor but her father wants to get the two separated but will love prevail? Featuring the Oscar-winning ‘I’ve had the time of my life’ as well as one of the most popular dance routines all time, Dirty Dancing maintains a high popularity both in film musicals and as a stage adaptation that came out in 2006.
21. Beautiful (2013)
This musical is based around the life and music of Carol King (a popular American singer/songwriter). It traces her early life and through her trials and tribulations.
20. The Sound of Music (1959)
The only Rodgers and Hammerstein musical on this list and the oldest pick, The Sound of Music shows the origins of the Von Trapp family singers. A nun, Maria, takes on the responsibility as the group to a group of sheltered motherless children and just from her songs forms a closeness with them and and their stern father. Unfortunately, the increasing threat of the Nazis forces the family to leave Austria. The show maintains popularity especially after the ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria’ competition in 2006 conducted by Andrew Lloyd Webber (a name that’ll crop up a couple more times down the list) to find a potential new actress to play the title character for the performance at the London Palladium.
19. Grease (1971)
Unfortunately, this classic didn’t quite catch on with everyone. Set in the 50s and representing the Greasers high school society, Grease follows 10 working class teenagers including Danny and Sandy (played by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, respectively) at the fictional Rydell High School as they go through a variety of issues. It is one of the longest running shows and Broadway and has being loved for generations not just for ‘You’re the one that I want’, ‘Greased Lightning or ‘Summer Nights’
18. Rent (1996)
Set in the 90s and with the fear of HIV/AIDS looming, Rent follows a group of Bohemians trying to make a career for themselves in New York. It tackles similar issues to Grease but is a lot grittier. One of its most popular songs (and one of my personal favourites) is ‘Seasons of Love’.
17. Sweeney Todd (1979)
Set in the dark dreariness of Victorian London, Sweeney Todd tells the story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Due to a set of unfortunate and unfair circumstances, Sweeney is a serial killer disguised as a barber who murders his customers and disposes of his victims by having his partner Mrs. Lovett into pies. A film adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman was released in 2007. Musical numbers include the title song and ‘Pretty Women’.
16. Kinky Boots (2012)
Kinky Boots is based on the true story of Charlie Price and the 2005 film of the same name. Charlie, having inherited his father’s shoe factory, is struggling to make a profit. He teams with a drag artist Lola to manufacture high heeled boots to help save the company. Whilst overlooked at first, it has gained massive popularity. Its music was written by pop artist Cyndi Lauper better known for ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’.
15. La La Land (2016)
Released to massive popularity, La La Land takes place in present day Los Angeles. An actress called Mia (played fantastically by Emma Stone) and a jazz musician named Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling) meet in the city known for making or breaking dreams and follows their relationship over a year. Winning a variety of awards including Best Original Song for ‘City of Stars’, it also marks the first appearance of Bej Pasek and Justin Paul who would go on to write the songs for The Greatest Showman, which unfortunately did not make the list.
14. Cats (1981)
The first musical Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on this list and the first sung through. It is based on the poem Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot and tells the story of the Jellicles cat tribe as they make the Jellicle choice to decide which of them will ascend to the afterlife. The musical includes the popular songs ‘Memory’. A new film adaptation is coming out soon and has caused controversy with its mix of CGI and human faces to create the cats.
13. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1973)
One of the more unique musicals on the list, Rocky Horror is a parody of horror and sci-fi B-movies from the 30s. It follows a couple, Brad and Janet, who get stuck on the road and enter a castle full of strange created by mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter, “a sweet transvestite from Transexual Transylvania” where chaos and shenanigans ensues. The production includes the massively popular ‘Time Warp’ and is one which encourages its audience to become part of the scene by dressing up for the production and parodying what the actors are often doing on stage for example holding a newspaper over their head to try and keep dry and has grown in massive popularity for its unique sexual obligations.
12. Legally Blonde (2007)
Based on the 2001 film, Legally Blonde is about Elle Woods, a blonde who enters Harvard Law School as a way to reunite with her boyfriend Warner. But as she focuses into her studies and how the law can help people, she helps defend an exercise queen accused of murder staying true to herself in the process. Whilst disappointing on Broadway, it has caught popularity in Britain.
11. Newsies (2011)
This musical is based on the 1992 film and the 1899 Newsboys newspaper strikes. The strikes took place in New York where a group of youths went on strike campaigning for the newspapers to lower their prices so they got better pay.
10. Phantom of the Opera (1986)
The higher Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and one of the biggest shows today. It is based on the book by Gaston LeRoux and tells the story of a soprano Christine who becomes obsessed with a mysterious phantom living underneath the Paris Opera House. The show has enjoyed the biggest longevity on Broadway and one of the highest on the West End and originally starred Michael Crawford (who your parents may better know as the helpless Frank Spencer from Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em) as the Phantom.
9. High School Musical (2006)
High School Musical is about a couple of High School students Troy (a sports captain) and Gabriella (a gifted academic transfer student) who compete to try and get the lead roles in the school play, which sends shock waves through out the school and puts them in conflict with resident diva Sharpay. No wonder this show popular with this target audience.
8. Chicago (1975)
With its unique jazz sound, songs including the ‘Cell Block Tango’ and choreography courtesy of Bob Fosse (whose other works include Sweet Charity), Chicago has made it onto the list. In 2017, it was performed on the West End starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and is one of the longest running shows on Broadway.
7. Hamilton (2015)
One of the biggest musical phenomenons of recent years and the launchpad of Lin Manuel Miranda’s commercial popularity, Hamilton appears to have a somewhat unengaging subject matter: Alexander Hamilton (one of the founding fathers of the USA), but with slick choreography, unusual types of music (including rap), it has become one of the biggest and most popular shows of all time.
6. Billy Elliot (2005)
Based on the 2000 film, Billy Elliot is based around the 1984 Miner’s Strike. During the heated time of conflict, a young boy takes up an interesting hobby: ballet. This act eventually helps bring his broken northern community together. With music by Elton John and an encouragement to try unorthodox things despite what others might say, Billy Elliot is still popular today and has even millions of young boys start their acting careers, including the current Spider-Man, Tom Holland.
5. Hairspray (2002)
Set in the cheesiness of the 60s, Hairspray follows teenager Tracy Turnblad who dreams of performing on the local TV show the ‘Corny Collins Show’ despite her weight. When she succeeds, this leads to massive social changes. The show can be seen as pure escapism as it takes itself not too seriously whilst still covering some serious issues including body image.
4. Mamma Mia! (1999)
Having being partying non-stop for 30 years, Mamma Mia takes place on a Greek island. The hotel runner Donna is under pressure preparing for her daughter Sophie’s wedding but unbeknown to her, Sophie has invited 3 of her former lovers to the wedding. The musical features the most popular music of ABBA including ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘SOS’, ‘Take a Chance on Me’, ‘Voulez-Vous’, ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man after Midnight)’, ‘Super Trouper’, ‘The Winner Takes it All’ and the title track. A film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Colin Firth was released in 2008 and a sequel to the film, Here We Go Again, came out in 2017 starring Lily James.
3. The Lion King (1997)
Based on the 1994 Disney film, this stage adaptation has amazed and captivated audiences for over 20 years. The story is based around Simba, the destined king of the Pridelands until the tragic death of his father by the hands of his evil uncle Scar forces him to run away. After a sheltered life in the jungle, Simba is forced to take on his responsibility and take his place in the Circle of Life – in a nutshell, The Lion King can be summarised as “Hamlet but with less blood”. Unlike the recent “live-action” adaptation, this musical takes creative liberties to bring the African world to life through creative use of costumes and puppets inspired by African culture. All of the songs from the original film (penned by Sirs Elton John and Tim Rice) are included as well as some extras including ‘He Lives In You’ from Lion King 2, but one of my personal favourite unheard tracks is Shadowland.
2. Les Miserables (1980)
It should be no surprise that one of the longest running pop musicals of all time is close to the top of the list. Based on the book by Victor Hugo, Les Mis tells the story of Jean Valjean who, around the time of the French Revolution, campaigns try to redeem himself from his crimes for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister’s child whilst being followed by an inspector. Many of the songs are still loved today including ‘Stars’, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘One Day More’, and a film adaptation of the musical was released in 2012 starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. There is a reason why this is the longest running show on London’s West End.
1. Wicked (2003)
At the top of the pyramid, with almost as many votes as the previous two entries combined, is the untold tale of the witches of Oz. Based on the book by Gregory Porter and with songs courtesy of Stephen Schwartz, Wicked tells the story of Glinda and Elphaba showing how they met, became friends and eventually enemies as Glinda the Good Witch and The Wicked Witch of the West. With fantastic sets, story (despite several improvements and changes from its early production) and musical numbers including ‘Defying Gravity’, it is no surprise that this show tops the list. Although it wasn’t the big winner at the Tony Awards the year it came out (losing to Avenue Q), Wicked is the clear winner of this poll and NTU’s favourite musical.
By Stuart McComb
Feature image credit: British Theatre