Sure, some musicals have unmotivated singing and pointless tap dancing, though fewer and fewer these days, and lately, some musicals are built entirely on self-indulgent, Hipster Brechtian humor. Some musicals just have dumb, shallow stories. But there are shitty movies and books, too, yet that doesn't mean movies and books are all shitty. Most contemporary musicals being written today -- and in fact, most written in the last twenty years -- are very smart, very sophisticated, and far more likely to include political content or at least political subtext (like Lysistrata Jones and The Blue Flower).
So here they are, in no particular order, my Top Ten Favorite Political Musicals, from throughout the history of our art form. If you don't know any of these, I encourage you to get to know them. And if you do know them all, wouldn't this be a fun time to get reacquainted...?
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is one of those shows that I will always feel lucky to have worked on. Not only is it incredibly original, it's also one of the most entertaining and most intelligent shows I've ever encountered. Truly one of a kind, with penetrating insights into our culture and our politics, and into the peculiarly American swagger that Jackson embodied. Not just laugh-out-loud comic dialogue, but also heavy, emotional scenes, and piercing, gorgeous, powerful songs like "Second Nature," "The Saddest Song," and "The Great Compromise." I understand why it didn't last very long on Broadway, but it's a remarkable piece of writing and maybe the best look at our political process I've ever seen on stage.
Assassins I've directed Assassins three times for New Line, and every time I found new wonderful and exciting things in it. It's one of the ballsiest musicals ever written, equalled perhaps only by Hair and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Like BBAJ, it's very entertaining, very emotional, and really, really smart. Like BBAJ, it reveals important things to us about our culture and our society, and forces us to think more honestly about difficult questions. It's the show that really freed me as a director, when I first worked on it in 1994, to stop worrying about convention and just go wherever the material took me. The fearlessness of the writing taught me how vitally important fearlessness is to making really great art. And like all great art, it's really about right here, right now. I think every high school in America should produce this show once every four years -- yes, fucks and all...
Hair As radical as BBAJ and Assassins both were when they opened, Hair was even more radical, and it was decades earlier. I've also directed this show three times for New Line (another show that taught me so much), and even the last time we did it in 2008, I was repeatedly amazed at how experimental this piece of theatre still feels to modern audiences. There's so much in this complex script and score that a lot of directors miss, which is why I wrote a whole book just about Hair. The commercial theatre certainly learned from Hair and borrowed many of its devices, but the commercial theatre almost never reaches the level of Hair's true fearlessness. Listen to the original off Broadway cast album (the one with the Native Americans on the cover), and you'll see how unlike anything else (then or now) it still sounds. And by the way, the same thing is true of the original Broadway cast album of Grease, one of the shows that grew out of Hair's experiments.
Evita I saw the original production of Evita on Broadway when I was in high school and it thrilled me. I know that cast album backwards and forwards. When I sing Peron's songs, I unconsciously imitate Bob Gunton. But I also found it kind of cold. Patti LuPone played Eva as the worst kind of ice bitch. When I finally got to work on this show, I found that LuPone and director Hal Prince were not really telling the story Tim Rice had written (and when I made this point in a blog post, Tim Rice himself commented on it!). Evita is a passionate double love story, between Eva and Juan, who love each other deeply, and also between Eva and her people, who also love each other deeply. Populism is both the story's context and one of its love stories. The more I read about the real Eva, the more I saw how much of that reality Tim Rice had woven into his storytelling. What finally made me want to produce the show was hearing the original studio recording for the first time. This was a rock and roll Evita, not a symphonic one like on Broadway. And it was rowdier and wilder and hotter. And the rock and roll vocabulary really underlined Rice's intended parallel between Eva's time and place, and our time and place -- exactly like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
Urinetown I think I laughed more and harder seeing Urinetown on Broadway than at any other show I've ever seen. The whole audience was laughing that hard. It's a dark, nasty show that sort of shits on political populism, but holy fuck, it is funny. The show's hilarious twist at the end is so at odds with my own political idealism and optimism, but I also recognize the uncomfortable, undeniable truth in it. It reminds us that both good and bad people, liberal and conservative people can be wrong. And sometimes people can be most adamant when they're most wrong. Just when we think the roller coaster ride is over, this uber-Brechtian musical throws a wrench into the story at the end that would drive Brecht crazy. What's not to love? The only problem with Urinetown is that people producing the show often misunderstand it, trying to make it into a wacky musical comedy, when it's actually a dark, Brechtian satire. Just because something's funny doesn't mean it's silly.
The Cradle Will Rock The Cradle Will Rock may be my favorite political musical of all time -- its creator Marc Blitzstein said his "labor musical" was "composed in a style that falls somewhere between realism, romance, vaudeville, comic strip, Gilbert & Sullivan, Brecht, and agitprop.” After seeing Tim Robbins' awesome movie about the show and its political context, and seeing Robbins' recreation of that historic opening night, I realized how much I wanted to work on this show. So New Line produced it, as it happened on that first night in 1937, with the cast playing the entire show out in the audience. And while we ran the show, HotHouse Theatre Company ran a play in rotating repertory with our show, called It's All True, about the creation of The Cradle Will Rock. Pretty cool, huh?
1776 I remember seeing this on TV the first time when I was around twelve or thirteen and it blew my mind. My mom was watching something else on the living room TV, but my brother Rick was upstairs watching 1776, so I joined him, not really knowing what it was. It turned out to be an awesome, original, funny, powerful musical, and I fell instantly in love with it. What I loved about it was its crazy mix -- vulgar humor, real rowdiness (I loved the stick fight!), moral complexity, and really serious political questions -- just like real life. I think I was exactly the right age to appreciate this musical, and its very existence opened up so many new possibilities to me. I only found out later that the film boasted much of the Broadway cast and the original stage director, so it's a pretty faithful record of the stage show. A few days after I first saw 1776, my brother bought the movie soundtrack, and I was playing it so much more than he was, that he finally gave it to me. And I wore that fucking LP out. Not only are the script and score exceptional, not only is it an amazing political thriller -- even though we all know how it ends -- but it also gives us the amazing gift of letting us get to know our Founders as real, flawed, damaged, contradictory, passionate people. More than any other single thing, this show made me fall in love with America. I think every high school in America should show this film once a year. Or produce the show.
Fiorello! Okay, I've never seen this one, but I've read the script and I love the original cast recording. It's a very old-school musical comedy, but it's a very smart one, with a strong story about one man's political career, and a great score by Harnick and Bock (Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, The Rothschilds), which contains one of my all-time favorite comedy numbers, "Politics and Poker." The show is a slightly fictionalized biography of one of New York's most beloved mayors, Fiorello LaGuardia, and it's a terrific, on-the-ground look at 20th century American populist politics, a very cool snapshot of a moment in time.
Of Thee I Sing I first saw Of Thee I Sing when I was about ten, when my brother Rick played trumpet for Affton High School's production. And I loved it. Truly, I fell in love with it. Now, if you know this show -- a political satire operetta by the Gershwin brothers and Kaufman and Ryskind, about 1930s Presidential politics -- it's hardly the kind of musical a ten-year-old falls in love with, but this one did. I was not a normal ten-year-old. I have no idea if I fully registered all the political satire, but I thought it was hilarious, and I was singing much of the score for months afterward -- "She's the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoléon..." It wasn't until years later that I caught a lot of the subtle stuff, like how the words "of thee I sing" are taken from one of our most cherished national songs, "My Country 'Tis of Thee," and comically trivialized into a mindless love song -- "Of thee I sing, baby..." -- the song that literally defines the trivialization of politics at the heart of this sharp satire. I don't think this is a show New Line could produce, but if there's some way to shrink it sufficiently, I'd love to work on it. Zak Farmer has to play Vice President Throttlebottom.
Jesus Christ Superstar Here’s the truth: Jesus Christ Superstar is about politics, not religion. It's about a political activist, not the Son of God. And it’s about the 1960s, not the Roman Empire. If Tim Rice’s searing, slangy lyrics and Tom O’Horgan’s trippy original production weren’t enough proof of that, just read the lyric of the title song – sung from the point of view of “today” and of “mass communication.” Rice wrote a show about an authoritarian government and institutionalized religion trying to snuff out the voices of enlightenment and of peace, paralleling the 1960s -- and that's the show New Line Theatre produced. But too often today, this amazing show is dumbed down, softened, robbed of the rowdy, rebellious, youthful arrogance that originally made music and theatre history, and instead marinated in a religious pomposity that Rice and Lloyd Webber never intended (notice that the show does not include the resurrection). Rice approached the story as political thriller instead of revealed scripture, and Jesus as radical political figure (mirroring the activists of the 60s) rather than as the Son of God (a label Jesus himself never used in the Bible to describe himself). This Jesus does not point the way to Heaven so much as he points the way toward social justice and to living a moral, engaged life. This Jesus was a community organizer.
Beyond these shows, there are lots of other musicals that are very political, but not really about politics -- like Bat Boy, Cabaret, bare, Cry-Baby, Hairspray, Camelot, Jacques Brel, Man of La Mancha, Pippin, Finian's Rainbow, Reefer Madness, Purlie, The Threepenny Opera, Passing Strange, Lysistrata Jones, The Blue Flower, Avenue X, Anyone Can Whistle, Pacific Overtures, Hallelujah, Baby!, Chicago, and my own Johnny Appleweed, to name just a couple handfuls.
I'll leave you with the words of President Obama, introducing a concert of theatre songs at the White House: "In many ways, the story of Broadway is intertwined with the story of America. Some of the greatest singers and songwriters Broadway has ever known came to this country on a boat with nothing more than an idea in their head and a song in their heart. And they succeeded the same way that so many immigrants have succeeded – through talent and hard work and sheer determination. Over the years, musicals have been at the forefront of our social consciousness, challenging stereotypes, shaping our opinions about race and religion, death and disease, power and politics."
These musicals are all very cool shows. If you don't know them, check 'em out.
Long Live the Musical!
P.S. If you're into Top Ten lists, I've also written blog posts listing my Top Ten Desert Island Musical Theatre Books, Top Ten Really Cool Musicals You May Not Know, and Top Ten Cool Movie Musicals You Should Know.