My Top 40


Darren Wildeman
Note: Part of this article was written at the time of Marin Mazzie’s passing. She was involved in some of the shows mentioned in this article and far more that weren’t.  She won an Outer Critics Circle Award for
Kiss Me Kate, she never won a Tony, despite three nominations, including one for arguably what might be her best known role as Mother in Ragtime. She is also remembered by some for acting as a wife to her real-life husband Jason Daniely in Next to Normal. She was a phenomenal actress, singer, and overall talent and the ATB blog and admin teams sends their thoughts, prayers, and condolences to her family and friends. She will not be forgotten.

Pretty much everyone knows what the American Top 40 is. It’s the top 40 songs in America every week. Well as kind of a twist on this I’m going to give you my top 40 musicals. First, I’ll tell you what I love and why it’s on the list, and then I’ll give some criticism on the show, tell maybe why it isn’t higher, and what could have been better. I know already there’s going to be a lot of feedback about “well what about ______?” If a musical you have in mind isn’t here it’s one of three things. 1. I didn’t like it, 2. I haven’t seen it (because I haven’t seen every musical out there), or 3. I don’t even care enough about the music or plot to want to see it. Some shows have a cast album and plot that is very meh to me that I’m not even interested in seeing.

 

Without further ado. Here we go!

 

 Photo by Auldist/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Auldist/iStock / Getty Images

40. The Last Five Years

This intimate, but powerful musical shows the falling apart of two people that probably weren’t meant for each other in the first place. The forwards and backwards story line is a genius story telling method and some of the songs absolutely break your heart, at the same time as it having some absolute bops.

Unfortunately, parts of this musical didn’t flow that well for me, some of the songs were forgettable in my opinion and it just overall lacked some execution. Also, the cast you see can make or break this show. And being cast dependent can be an issue in that some of the writing may not come through as well if the actors aren’t as good, whereas I believe that strong writing can come through even if the actors aren’t as good (obviously they still need to be competent. We’re talking relative to other actors here).

39. Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

Huh, another two-person musical. There is definitely something fascinating about the two-person musical and I wish more of them would get more attention. Anyways, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me is another intimate musical. It’s fun, it’s quirky, and Valerie Vigoda’s violin playing alone made it worth seeing this musical. It’s fun and light hearted and is just a great show to see overall.

I had no major issues with this show but since I am giving criticism of the show here there were a couple things. The writing did fall a little flat at times and while the music is fun and the instrumentation is really good, the songs themselves as well as the lyrics could definitely have been stronger at times.

38. Wicked

Some of you will be surprised Wicked isn’t higher and some of you will be upset it’s even on here at all. I do like Wicked: it has a great score, and the set, costumes, and design properties are an incredible spectacle to behold.

With a score as great as Wicked is, the book really holds it back. Issues with storytelling and holes in the book really crop up. It’s still a good show but in my personal opinion it isn’t at the standard which some hold it up to.

37. Jekyll and Hyde

Jekyll and Hyde makes this list because it’s one of my favourite scores to listen to. The music is absolutely gorgeous. Also, the method of having one actor play both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is brilliant, and flawless execution of this role is worth the price of admission alone. When you get a great actor in this role, it shines brightly.

My big problem with the show is the book. The storytelling is very flawed at times, and there are moments in the show where the story seems to stop. This is definitely a very score-dependent show.

36. Something Rotten

What a brilliant show this is. The humour and references to all other Broadway shows and the way it makes fun of Broadway is absolutely brilliant. The score is fantastic, showstopping numbers, as well as some that tug on your heartstrings. The music ties into the book brilliantly as well.

This is the first show where I don’t have a lot to criticize. The only reason it isn’t higher is more personal taste than anything. The one real criticism is that sometimes the humour feels forced or tries too hard and the song that goes with it doesn’t work as well, but these moments are pretty few and far between.

35. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

This show oozes originality, it obviously is based on a novel but that doesn’t stop the originality from showing. I have never seen anything like this. It’s funny, witty, and just such a refreshing thing to see.

My big problem is that the score isn’t that brilliant and a bit forgettable at times. The story really comes through but the music doesn’t always do the same.

34. The New Picasso

Am I allowed to have a show that doesn’t exist in my top 40? I guess I can since it’s my article. You see The New Picasso is only a concept album and as far as I can tell has never been produced. But it’s a brilliant concept album with great music and totally worth a listen.

Given that it is only a concept album there isn’t a lot to necessarily criticize. Some of the music isn’t as good but really that’s all that can be said.

33. Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is an example of a very well-done adaptation. It didn’t rely on lines from the movie, and in some ways largely feels like an original piece if you didn’t know the movie existed. The use of the turn table (technical difficulties not withstanding) is brilliant, and the plot takes you through both the hilarious, heart warming and heart wrenching of life and being stuck in a town for the same day for possibly years. The second act might be one of my favourite pieces of theatre I’ve seen.

Unfortunately for me, the first act of this musical really fell flat. I get that the point of it was to be repetitive but they over did it in my opinion. Some of the humour doesn’t come through like it should either. As brilliant as the second act is; it’s sad for me that the first act was such a miss.

32. Matilda

This is a fun, upbeat show, with a fantastic score. There isn’t much about this score, or show I don’t like. All the actresses that played Matilda are super talented, and the choreography of Matilda is very good as well. The whole score is an absolute bop and this show could warm even the coldest of hearts.

Matilda is another show that I don’t have too many complaints about. The biggest thing is I really don’t care for the opening number. Other than that, it really is a solid musical. There are some places where the music isn’t as good and the score doesn’t work as well, but otherwise, the whole show flows really well.

31. Sunday In the Park with George

This was my Sondheim gateway drug. As some of the longer term members of ATB know I was not a Sondheim fan at all for quite awhile. This show however changed that. The music is incredibly unique, as well as the premise and the design are gorgeous. Everything about this show tugs on your heartstrings. It’s a beautiful story and such a well written show. Sunday in the Park is a true of example of what theatre can be at its best.

For the most part the things I don’t like about this show are mostly personal preference. I do find the show to be a bit disjointed at times and the music doesn’t always flow as well with the story depending on the production.

30. Aladdin

Aladdin is such a fun show. The music is very well done, and it’s a solid adaptation of a Disney musical. It has some really fun parts that will have the whole family bopping a long to it.

Unfortunately, I also have some big concerns with Aladdin and reasons it’s lower on this list. To me the show hinges very much upon James Monroe Inglehart’s performance (or whoever plays the super intense role of genie). I don’t remember a lot from Aladdin but I remember him. However, if the actor who plays Genie isn’t as talented the show becomes forgettable very soon to me. Don’t get me wrong it has its moments, and the story telling is still well done, but I find at times the story becomes forgettable and it hinges largely on the people acting and singing the roles. Another example is if “Proud of Your Boy” isn’t sung particularly well it loses the moment. It’s a good show, but too often I don’t think the writing comes through like it should.

29. Chess

This show is on here almost solely because of the score. The orchestrations are almost their own spectacle, and the big vocals in all the roles of this show are gorgeous. As just a cast album, Chess is one of my favourites to listen to. “Anthem”, “Nobody’s Side”, among many other songs headline this powerful score.

The thing holding back this show is most of the plot. It’s an odd premise and admittedly I haven’t seen this show in full, but what I have seen the plot seems to not flow that well, and just the whole premise and book seem off to me.

28. Parade

The story of Leo Frank and what he endured in Parade is a heart wrenching journey. The score is absolutely gorgeous and the story drives the entire show so well.

The only major complaint I have about this show is some of the music isn’t as strong as the show lives up to. There’re just a couple songs that aren’t as strong but overall this is a really minor complaint. As a whole this show is fantastic.

27. Phantom of the Opera

Phantom is one of the mainstays on Broadway, and probably one of the most well-loved shows. Many people around the world, some of which aren’t even fans of theatre generally still know and love Phantom, which is really cool. It has a great score, and the Phantom of a character is a fascinating character to look at and analyze.

Unfortunately, while the Phantom is an interesting character to analyze, he gets very misconstrued in the story. What could be a story of mental illness, the effects of abuse, and what trauma can do to a person, instead turns into what is in some people’s eyes: a creepy man luring a young girl to his lair and manipulating her. Instead of focussing on what causes this behaviour and why the Phantom is hurting in this way, it instead focusses on his unhealthy love. I do still like the show, but the story does certainly lack, and could have been a much more interesting tale of hurt, heartbreak, trauma, and possibly healing.

26. SpongeBob Squarepants

This musical is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. The design aspects are absolutely incredible, and it has a really solid score. The music is so much fun to listen to, and the score really comes together really well.

The negative aspects are the score doesn’t always flow well with the book, and the book itself isn’t super strong. There were times where the story stopped for the sake of a song and that isn’t a super good thing to have. There were just too many moments where the book was choppy and didn’t always flow.

25. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

This was such a cool show. I love the set, and the design aspect, the score is incredible, and Josh Groban gave a phenomenal performance. Also, the lyrics are incredible. I love how they literally took full sentences out of the book and put them to lyrics. But they didn’t do it in a way that comes off as lazy either. The show is also hilariously self aware like in the “Prologue” “It’s a complicated Russian novel…” and there are times where characters are literally singing descriptions or exposition of typed text from the War and Peace Novel but it doesn’t come off as lazy. It’s exactly what the writers are going for, the show is self aware to what it’s doing, and it all works really well.

The only issue I have with Great Comet is the plot did get a bit convoluted at times and wasn’t always super easy to follow. This is a little bit personal taste as well is the plot isn’t something I’d normally love so it’s a bit hard for me in that sense too.

24. Island Song

I was fortunate to be able to watch the ATB production of this show (#shamelessplug) and trust me when I say it isn’t just on this list because I’m writing for the ATB blog. This has very quickly become one of my favourite scores to listen to with songs like “Island Song”, “How Far from Pennsylvania” and “One More at Deluxe” to name just a few of the incredible songs on this score. The storyline is also fascinating. It shows how strangers can interact with and effect each other’s lives, how strangers can get to know each other and then become strangers again, and just the impact you can have on people you meet in day to day life. It really does a good job of showing everyone has a story, and everyone has a role, whether you know it or not the people you run into day to day can have an impact on your life.

My main criticisms of the show are at times the plot doesn’t totally come through and can be a bit hard to follow as it goes through different people’s lives. The music always shines through, but sometimes the plot can fall flat.

23. In the Heights

Lin Manuel Miranda’s first big hit. It was a fantastic show in its own right. The troubles the characters go through, and I love the autobiographical telling in it. Also, I thought Lin performed far better as Usnavi than he did as Alexander Hamilton.

The reason this show isn’t higher is largely because of the score. I don’t find all of the music to be that good, for me the score falls flat in a lot of places.

Writer’s Note: Just so we’re clear we’re starting to get into the Musicals where I don’t have many bad things to say about them. So, from here on out some musicals might just say what they did well and not have much or any criticism.

22. Deathnote

This is another obscure one that might have some of you going “wait, what?” but yes, there is a Deathnote musical and it’s fantastic. It played in Japan. The music is really good and it flows with the story really well. The story while obviously not an original musical, is something that you don’t normally see on stage. However, in this case that’s a good thing as the entire thing is just such an incredible story and it’s adapted to stage really well.

21. Bandstand

This is a show that got lost in the shuffle of a very strong Tony Awards season. There is a lot to love about this show. First off, their showing of PTSD before we knew what PTSD was is incredible. At the time I believe “shell shocked” was the term the generally used. They knew there was something wrong with the soldiers but they didn’t understand it. Bandstand depicts this very well. Also, the music. Before seeing Bandstand, I didn’t think I’d like it. Big band and jazz/standards generally aren’t my type of music but something about Bandstand and the way they used the music made me enjoy it. “Welcome Home” and its reprise are both incredible.

As much as I love the music it is also a bit of a criticism. I don’t find all of it to be as good as it should be and it doesn’t always work super well. But these moments don’t occur too often.

20. She Loves Me

This show just oozes the warm and fuzzies. It’s lighthearted while at times still being darker. The recent revival breathed all sorts of new life into this show that perked it up and gave it a much-needed modernization. Everything about She Loves Me is incredibly well done and the direction and addition made in the newest production were all fantastic. The other great thing about this show is all the characters are in some way realistic and relatable, and not everyone is perfect either. There’s just so many layers to this show and so much is woven in to what on the surface seems simple. But as soon as you do any digging there is a lot to unpack.

19. Les Misérables

I had the pleasure of seeing the national tour of this show recently. It was amazing. No matter what production you see of Les Misérables it’s both elaborate and beautiful. The entire show and score is one huge spectacle and it’s incredibly gorgeous.

I do have some issues with the plot. It’s got some holes in it and I don’t love the huge gaps. I feel like certain elements of the story and the flow of the show could have been handled better.

18. Sweeney Todd

If you haven’t noticed by now, I kind of have a thing for dark shows. And Sweeney Todd certainly matches that description. I mean does it get much darker than killing people and cooking them in your food? Strange content aside, Sweeney Todd is incredibly well done. It uses the witty lyrics that Sondheim has become known for as well as his unique melodies. Everything Sondheim does well comes together in Sweeney Todd for an extremely unique, but fascinating Musical Theatre experience.

17. Aida

Aida has a fantastic score and honestly, it’s a show that needs a revival badly. I think this show flies a little bit under the radar of some people but this is a show that deserves to blow and be huge. If it does get the revival I mentioned I think it would be huge and do really well. It just seems like the type of musical many people would embrace. It’s a fascinating story and unique in so many ways. This is also an example of someone who is a pop star (Elton John) writing a great Musical Theatre score.

16. Finding Neverland

This score kills me. If you want to catch all the feels just listen to Finding Neverland. From “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” to the title song of the show “Finding Neverland” to “All That Matters Now” and many other songs. This show’s music will make you bawl. It’s honestly one of my favourite scores just to listen to.

The plot doesn’t always flow super well and there are moments where the book could be better. The score definitely carries this show as opposed to working together with the book. However, the score is so good it also masks a lot of the issues and things that don’t work as well.

 

15. Beauty and the Beast

Obviously based on the beloved animated movie, the stage musical of Beauty and the Beast incorporates everything we loved about the movie and adds a little extra for the stage. A beautiful retelling of a classic fairy tale with songs everyone knows and loves plus some new ones to become new favourites. This is overall what you’d expect from a beloved Disney show.

I do have some minor criticisms of the show. Some of the music doesn’t tie into the book as well as you’d hope and certain parts of it do still feel off.

14. Newsies

This was the first musical I saw live. I absolutely love it. I’m not normally a huge fan of choreography heavy shows (and it probably shows by this list), but in Newsies the choreo, song, and story all blend amazingly well together. This is not an easy show to perform and seeing it done really well is truly an incredible experience.

13. Frozen

I don’t think Frozen is getting the credit it deserves for what it’s doing well. It took the movie and made the plot dive deeper. Some of the typical Disney cheesiness has been taken out of the lyrics. The cast and design are all immensely gorgeous and it’s just a well-thought-out, well-done adaptation of a Disney hit. Capped off incredibly moving 11 o’clock number in “Monster”.

There are moments where the plot of Frozen doesn’t move as well as it could and there are definitely some missed opportunities on Disney’s end. The book could be better at times and it is a bit choppy at times, not always flowing smoothly with the music.

12. Blood Brothers

I absolutely adore this show. I’ve said before that I have a thing for dark musicals and this certainly is. It’s always interesting when you know the plot of a show right from the beginning. Blood Brothers does this, and does it extremely well. The way the narrator tells you what’s going to happen and jumps in at times. But he doesn’t go away. He lingers on stage the entire show almost as a dark reminder of what’s coming. Even when the characters in the show are going through a happy moment you can still see the narrator on stage. The use of the narrator in this show, and the exposition in general is absolutely brilliant.

11. Dear Evan Hansen

Cliché I know, but Dear Evan Hansen is a really well-done show. It has a strong book that for the most part ties together with the score really nicely. Another thing I really like about this show is it’s use of technology. The digital displays and the subtle but brilliant lighting all bring this show together really well. It’s designed amazingly well but in a subtle way.

I do have some minor criticisms about this show. There’re moments where the score isn’t as strong and the pop heavy score does get a little bit redundant at times. I have no problem with a pop score but there are times where different sound and elements could be utilized to give the show an overall better sound at times.

10. Big Fish

This show is incredible. The father and son relationship and how it’s portrayed is incredible and the way they bring the father’s stories to life is absolutely incredible. It’s a gorgeous show full of magic and wonder. The story progresses in a gorgeous way and it has an incredible score to go with it, and the score also just does an incredible job of bringing the magic of this show to life.

9. Ragtime

I believe this is a show everyone should see and is totally needed in this day and age. The message of this show has become even more relevant. This show is a beautiful story that delves into race, relations and tensions between different races and backgrounds, how people see each other, and the American experience.

This score isn’t one of my favourites. It certainly has its moments with “Your Daddy’s Son”, “Back to Before” among others, but there are times where it falters and stumbles a little bit. That’s really the only thing that holds this show back is some weaker moments in the score.

8. Hamilton

Hamilton is an absolute masterpiece. I don’t have time to break down all the nuances, references, and intricacies here but Lin truly wrote an incredible piece of theatre. The music is the story and yet the book of the show is still incredible despite it all being sung through. Nothing gets lost and every character stands out in their own way. Everything in Hamilton is so incredibly done.

7.  Into the Woods

I like shows with layers. You can probably spot a few shows with layers in this list and oh boy, does Into the Woods have lots. On the surface it’s a witty retelling of the original stories of well-known fairy tales. However, do any digging and you will see the show is full of real-life lessons and deep characters. This show has the witty lyrics that we’ve come to expect from Sondheim as well as the weird melodies that still somehow work.

6. Once

This show is beautiful. From the minimalistic set and characters to the subtle yet incredible score. Once really comes to life on stage. The indie style score is full of incredible yet individual songs and it all comes together for a beautiful theatre experience

5. October Sky

So most of you probably haven’t heard of this show. It played for a limited run in California and got an NYC workshop, but to the extent of my knowledge, didn’t go much further beyond that. Which is quite a shame because it is a fun story on the surface but like a lot of other shows it goes deeper. It’s a story about growing up and time for change. And it has an incredible score to go with it. Even if the show doesn’t go anywhere I hope it at least gets a cast album somewhere a long the way. This show needs to be heard.

4. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Another Disney show, another dark show, and another show with layers. Man, I’m getting predictable. But Hunchback of Notre Dame is far different from your typical Disney musical. It sticks closer to the original novel and is a dark and grisly tale. But it’s told so beautifully and all the characters come to life through another show that has one of my favourite scores to listen to. It sucks you right in with it’s opening “The Bells of Notre Dame” and for the next 2 hours you’re glued to the show.

Hunchback does have some issues with the book that holds it back a little bit. It has some holes, and just overall is a little bit messy at times. The mistakes aren’t huge but there’s enough. The mostly gorgeous score does have some weak spots. These mistakes aren’t huge, but there’s enough that they hold it back from an incredibly high potential.

3. Bright Star

This show is quite the roller coaster. It will both make you laugh and cry, and take you through all the ups and downs of life. Normally you wouldn’t expect a country/bluegrass score to work well in a musical but it does. Incredibly well. This score works so well with the story and it’s an absolutely gorgeous telling of a story that takes place in what many consider to be a simpler time, yet as you see in the show not everything is roses for the family.

Objectively speaking there are times where the score stands out and the story stops for the music. The score does have a couple weak points and the story falters a couple times because of it. These flaws aren’t major but they’re enough where things do get held up a couple times.

2. Come from Away

Being Canadian I’m pretty sure it’s required by law that I like this show. I normally have some qualms about a score that’s partially talked through. However, in the case of Come from Away, it works. It’s an incredible telling of one of America’s darkest days. It will make you both laugh and bawl and you go through what the plane people went through and how the Newfoundlanders had to get the town ready. You’ll experience joy in the kindness and hospitality of the Newfoundlanders but you will also experience the heartbreak of a country in mourning. The story is just so beautifully told.

 

There are moments where the book suffers from the story being sung/talked through the entire time. Also, it feels like the show could be longer. With a longer show with intermission we could get a larger and more complete character arc for some of the people in the show and it would be nice if we could’ve gotten to know some of them better.

1.  Next to Normal

Anyone who knows me or read my “I Don’t Need a Life that’s Normal” article for ATB awhile ago knows how much this show means to me. It connects to me so personally. I went into great detail on Next to Normal in my other article so I won’t say too much here. However, it’s representation of mental illness and how it affects everyone involved is incredible and an accurate portrayal.

My only real criticism of this show is that the ending feels a little bit incomplete. I understand what they were trying to do but I also feel like the execution lacked a little bit

Well there you go. That’s my top 40 musicals. I hope you enjoyed it. I obviously haven’t seen every musical ever and this list will obviously change over time. Some musicals I haven’t seen yet that I think could be added to this list eventually are Fiddler on the Roof, Once on this Island (2018 revival), King Kong, among a few others. Thank you for reading and I look forward to your feedback on what you think of my list and what you like and don’t like.