Welcome back to Musical Mondays!
In case you’re new here, this column is a peek into the depths of the Musical Theatre archive, where I will showcase a few musicals that I think deserve a little more love. You can read my past posts by clicking here!
They’re the smaller, niche shows that not everyone will be familiar with – and that’s the point! They deserve just as much love as the big name shows, so every second Monday I’ll list a few, give you some comparisons, and a few examples of songs for you to check out.
Ragtime is possibly one of the better known shows I’m featuring in this column – but it definitely deserves as much attention as possible. I was lucky enough to see the show in 2019, The Production Company’s final musical, and to say it was moving would be an understatement. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime follows three distinct groups living in America – the African American community (represented by Coalhouse), the Eastern European immigrants (represented by Tateh), and the upper-class residents (represented by Mother). We see the struggles of the Black community and Jewish immigrants in a White (and somewhat Nationalist) U.S.A, struggles which are still painful to watch in current times. With the constant discourse around these issues, particularly that of the treatment of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) globally, the story of Ragtime is more powerful than ever. Interwoven with these stories are the lives of real life historical figures such as Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, and Emma Goldman. It’s a landscape of life in America at the turn of the 20th century, but does not skirt around the darkness. And the score… my word. It’s beautiful. Possibly one of my favourite musical scores ever. Everyone should watch this show – and bring tissues.
Content Warning – Ragtime contains clear depictions of racial violence and use of anti-Black slurs.
Standout track/s: New Music; Back To Before; Make Them Hear You.
You’ll like this if you enjoy: Shows that deal with racial and class injustice like The Scottsboro Boys and The Color Purple, Ahrens and Flaherty shows like Seussical, Anastasia, and Once on This Island.
Vanities is based on the 1976 play of the same name. The story is centred around three best friends, and their journey from high school to adulthood (and inevitable falling out). It’s a beautiful exploration of friendship and relationships, and how even the most unlikely people can be close friends. Each of the girls has their own distinct personality – Joanne is the naive southern girl, Mary is the confident leader, and Kathy wants to make sure her life goes to plan. The original play had one of the longest off-Broadway runs ever, playing for approximately 1,785 performances in its over 4 year run. And fun fact, Kathy Bates was in it! The musical made its off-Broadway premiere in 2009, starring Lauren Kennedy (Side Show, Sunset Boulevard), Sarah Stiles (Avenue Q, Tootsie), and Anneliese van der Pol (That’s So Raven, Beauty and the Beast). The score is fun, and the fact that the cast is made up of 3 means that it would be a great choice for a smaller independent company or university production.
Standout track/s: An Organised Life; I Can’t Imagine; Letting Go
You’ll like this if you enjoy: Coming-of-age musicals like Is There Life After High School and Glory Days, women-lead musicals like Tell Me On A Sunday and The Life
Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an interesting show. Based on Mark Twain’s novel of the same name, the musical follows young Huckleberry Finn and his friend Tom Sawyer’s discovery of a fortune. Set in Missouri before the Civil War, the show is a snapshot of life in the American south – slavery included. When watching the show back, it does tell a story of two young white boys discovering the horrors of slavery, but the voices of the slaves are faint in comparison. The musical was extremely successful in its Broadway run, playing for over 1,000 performances and winning 7 Tony Awards. It had a revival and an Encores! concert, but otherwise has not seem many modern productions. I think it’s a show that will remain part of theatre history. Interesting to listen to, but more so to understand how far we have come in terms of storytelling and giving agency to BIPOC characters and their experiences – particularly when shows like Ragtime do it so well.
Content Warning – Big River contains reference to slavery, racism, and death.
Standout track/s: River in the Rain; When the Sun Goes Down in the South; Worlds Apart
You’ll like this if you enjoy: The work of Mark Twain, Bluegrass/country musicals like Bright Star and Floyd Collins