As with the plays I wrote about last month, I’ve often been asked to reveal my favorite musical among the thousands of shows I’ve seen over 40-plus years of theater-going in Connecticut. (Add another decade when I was a theater-obsessed boy catching musicals in New York.)
The answer was always easy: A Chorus Line, only recently supplanted — or supplemented, as I prefer to say — by Hamilton. But when it comes to specifically Connecticut-produced musicals, it gets trickier to come up with a singular sensation. Or even 10 of them.
Yes, I missed a few of the great ones at Goodspeed Opera House: Man of La Mancha, Shenandoah and Annie, which happened just before my time here. (Despite Annie’s Broadway success, it was in rough shape here, though came nowhere close to my favorite Connecticut disaster show of all time: Mark Twain: The Musical, a Limburger of a show if there ever was one.)
I’m also excluding touring musicals at presenting houses such as Hartford’s Bushnell or New Haven’s Shubert, though the Shubert was the theater for all Broadway-bound shows during the Golden Age of Musicals. Again, before my time.
I am also not including shows done at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester because these are workshops, oops, I mean “developmental productions,” which exclude critics. Also nixed are shows at the National Music Theater Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford because these shows are staged readings — though musical aficionados would give their aisle seat to have been at the first look-see of In the Heights, Avenue Q or Nine there.
The following is my top 10 Connecticut musicals in the order I saw them:
The Frogs, Yale Repertory Theatre, 1974: This was my first trip to New Haven and it was love at first sight. A Stephen Sondheim enthusiast, I found this show — which featured then-Yale School of Drama students Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang in the chorus — musical heaven, and not just because I was in the rafters at the Payne Whitney Gymnasium’s swimming pool. It was a ribbiting, er, I mean, riveting experience.
Mahagonny, Yale Repertory Theatre, 1978: Rep founder Robert Brustein loved Bertolt Brecht and produced three versions of the Brecht-Kurt Weill show at Yale. This chamber version was conceived, adapted and directed by Keith Hack and featured Ellen Barber, June Gable, John Glover, David Alan Grier, John Seitz and Jeremy Geidt, all showing how fierce a musical that had something to say could be.
Oh, Kay!, Goodspeed Opera House, 1989: This all-black production was dazzling, reinterpreting and reclaiming Gershwin in a tap-happy show that was elegant, silly and a pure joy. Producer David Merrick saw the show here and took it to Broadway, making it the last hurrah for the legendary showman. He had great taste till the end.
Falsettos, Hartford Stage, 1981 and 1990: Taking William Finn’s two one-act musicals that bracketed the decade, March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1990), the whole became so much larger than the sum of its parts, as Frank Rich wrote. Happening at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the musical was directed and choreographed with tender care by Graciela Daniele. I still get chills remembering the show’s finale when a representation of the AIDS quilt was unfurled. The concept and buzz of the production was later appropriated by James Lapine, who would stage the joint work on Broadway. But the heart and the soul of this special coupling was in this Hartford production.
The Most Happy Fella, Goodspeed Opera House, 1991 and 2013: Oh, which fella to choose? In 1991, a stripped-down version of Frank Loesser’s overlooked show used two pianos and it was a revelation of the essence of this musical. But for the full emotional effect I’d go with Rob Ruggiero’s 2013 staging, which returned to the lush orchestrations that were music to my ears and made my heart full.
Triumph of Love, Yale Repertory Theatre, 1997: A comedy of manners by 18th-century French playwright Pierre de Marivaux was turned into a delicious bon-bon of a musical, presented in the very best of taste. Music was by Jeffrey Stock, staging by Michael Mayer, lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, and a smart and witty book by James Magruder. It later moved to Broadway with just two members of the Yale cast and was delightful there, too.
Pop!, Yale Repertory Theatre, 2009: A musical about Andy Warhol, who was famous for his passivity, might not be a natural fit, but newcomers Maggie-Kate Coleman (book and lyrics) and Anna K. Jacobs (music), and veteran stager Mark Brokaw cleverly captured the fun, freedom and attitudes of the era of a superstar culture. It popped for me.
Show Boat, Goodspeed Opera House, 2011: I was on board as this landmark musical was retooled yet again, this time on a more human — and playable — scale. Making it leaner, shorter and, in many ways, sharper under Rob Ruggiero’s director/adapter hand, it zeroed in on the show’s dramatic and emotional core, while still capturing the show’s grand sweep.
February House, Long Wharf Theatre, 2012: What would it be like to have a Brooklyn boarding house with residents including poet W.H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten, author Carson McCullers, and burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, among others? This was the most fascinating, beguiling, original musical I’ve seen in years, as it touched on the role of art, artists and the “real” world in which they live. It also introduced a fresh, boundary-breaking talent to musical theater in composer Gabriel Kahane.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, Hartford Stage, 2012: In my Variety review I wrote, “style was of the essence” in the deliciously dark, elegant and playful musical comedy in this world-premiere production that went on to Broadway, winning the Tony Award for best musical the following season. It was a gorgeous, funny and melodious work that director Darko Tresnjak artfully guided. Plus, it had a killer-diller performance by Jefferson Mays that still makes me laugh out loud when I think about it. (Splat! Those bees! Hedda!)
The musicals that almost made the cut include my first visit to Goodspeed in 1978 and being swept back in time to another musical era with Tip-Toes and Whoopee. Other Goodspeed marvels that could have easily been listed were 2001’s Brigadoon and Carousel in 2012.
I also have fond memories of Spokesong at Long Wharf in 1978. And closer to the present, I can still feel the electricity in the audience for an epic Anastasia at Hartford Stage just last year. On the other hand, Next to Normal at TheaterWorks just a few months ago was bracingly intimate. And for the love of Sondheim, earlier this decade there was a sublime Into the Woods at Westport Country Playhouse, which once again proved that the power of great musical storytelling can be remembered for a lifetime. Mine included.