They’re not the most critically-acclaimed. They can’t claim many awards. But they’re unapologetically delightful. Weeping through a musical has its merits (oh, hey Aurora’s upcoming production of HUNCHBACK), but sometimes going to a musical means learning nothing except how long you can smile before your mouth loses all feeling. So today, let’s just have a feel-good listening party, ok? This is kind of my way of saying some musicals are better out of context. And heard rather than seen.
- The Story of My Life, music and lyrics by Neil Bartram
The recipient of Ben Brantley’s most fantastic collection of zingers in the form of a review, this two-man show is indeed uncategorizable, absurd, and incredibly cheesy. It even has this weirdly dark rabbit-hole parallel to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE while unashamedly plagiarizing all of WIND BENEATH MY WINGS (the movie). In all of its unoriginal glory, listening to THE STORY OF MY LIFE is a solid hour of joy. There’s something incredibly meta about writing blog posts while listening to a musical about a writer trying to find inspiration.
Smiliest song: “The Butterfly”
Fast-track to smiles line: When you flap your wings to stretch yourself, it might seem small to you, but you change the world with everything you do.
Cringe-worthiest line: And with snow on the back of our pants, we’d wait for our angels to dance.
2. Legally Blonde, music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin
Eyerolls always accompany mention of LEGALLY BLONDE in industry circles- followed of course by one brave soul sheepishly uttering, “…but actually I really like it.” Everyone in the circle subsequently concurs and giggles with relief.
OMG you guys, a bubble-gum pop, screlt-laiden musical version of the quintessential fluffy chick flick? It’s disrespectful to everyone from Antoinette Perry to the actress playing the Star-to-Be in [name that local production of] ANNIE. In spite of it all, “So Much Better” skyrockets my confidence upon every listen. And I believe I’ve never listened to Kate Shindle sing “…best friggin shooooeeess!!” without lip syncing and believing I can conquer the world.
Smiliest song: “Legally Blonde Remix”
Fast-track to smiles line: And soon all y’all gonna know much better! I am so much better than before! [as a Southerner, I relate to the “all y’all” phrase on a spiritual level]
Cringe-worthiest line: I’m not a fool, and as a rule I do not ‘bond.’ [I’m sorry what? What the what does that even mean?]
3. A Little Princess, music by Andrew Lippa, lyrics by Brian Crawley
The second-worst professional musical I have ever seen with my eyes- second only to a B-level tour of a knock-off Cirque du Soleil- I’d advise listening to the album, but you can skip watching it live. Without having any real clue what’s happening in the show, you find yourself happily botching the pronunciation of the African words as you dance to “Good Luck, Bonne Chance” and mirror-belting the “I want song”‘s staunch, yet never-revisited theme, “I want to live out loud.”
Smiliest song: “Let Your Heart be Your Compass”
Fast-track to smiles line: If that makes me headstrong, fine! That’s a fault I’m glad is mine!
Cringe-worthiest line: That moment Lippa rhymed “lucky” with a forced “plucky.” And the irrationally mean but secretly jealous bad guy, played by Julia Murney says it all with a straight face.
4. Chess, music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, lyrics by Tim Rice
Speaking of NYT zingers, theatre critic-at-large of the ’80s-00s Frank Rich cuts CHESS no slack, with unsparing highlights like, “characters onstage at the Imperial yell at one another to rock music,” referring to the score as “a suite of temper tantrums,” with the “theatrical consistency of quicksand.” Speed-round, because we’re having so much fun: “drab,” “pompous pretensions,” “incoherent,” “jerry-built,” “sketchy.”
Rich’s opinions aside, I can go for the in-concert recording from 2009 in a heartbeat. Soaring duet between Idina Menzel and Josh Groban? Yes please! Even its painfully ’80s pop hit, “Bangkok” brings a smile to my face every time. Unlike some of the unabashedly feel-good aforementioned shows, this one is packed with overdramatic wannabe LES MIS tune after another. I think the smiling comes in the nostalgia created therein. And giggling ensues because it’s borderline nonsensical in every way.
Smiliest song: “Nobody’s Side”
Fast-track to smiles line: How could I leave her? Where would I go? I cross over boarders, but I’m still [something? I actually have no clue what word he says there. I’m sure it’s inspirational]
Cringe-worthiest line: And now let us dedicate ourselves to the spirit of chess:
We are one united family,
Black and white.
Our one true guiding light,
The darkest corners
Creeds as one,
In love of chess. [yes this is literally a hymn to chess. What is it, a game or a god?!]