I have come to you this evening to praise my top five favorite theater composers/composing teams. This may or may not have been somehow inspired by a random thread on the internet at which I glanced earlier. In any case, here we go. What follows are very strong opinions. They are, of course, only that. Opinions. Also? This entry is rife with adverbs and cliché. Read at your own risk.
1. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.
Some of their work may be considered corny, and certainly it is old-fashioned. I am here to say, however, that nobody and I mean NOBODY today understands or has mastered the art of musical theater they way these gentlemen did. Writing natural and believable music out of dialogue is the most difficult challenge of writing for the musical stage (why do you think so many musicals these days are “sung-through”?), and these two rose to that challenge like no one before or since. The first 20 (or so) minutes of Carousel are, in my opinion, the most perfectly written marriage of music and dialogue in theater history. I will be forever awed by what they manage to do between Carrie Pipperidge’s “Julie! Julie!” and the end of that scene, flowing from song to dialogue and back again, the likes of which I have never seen successfully maintained in any other work. Rogers and Hammerstein were truly the masters of this art form, and I don’t expect to see their work surpassed in my lifetime.
Richard Rodgers certainly did some fine work with Lorenz Hart (“My Funny Valentine”, for instance, will always be a beautiful classic, among many others), but it was Hammerstein who was able to inspire Rodgers’ real genius with his own. Listen to “Bali Ha’i” with a full orchestra, and you’ll understand what I mean. Breathtaking. I suppose one day, when I am dead and gone, their work may fade and be forgotten. It may be that my grandchildren will never go to a clam bake. Perhaps the farmer and the cowman never can be friends! Still… this team will remain, as always, my favorite.
2. Stephen Sondheim
When I was in the ensemble of Sweeney Todd at the Papermill Playhouse in Milburn, New Jersey, back in my increasingly distant youth, I used to stand in the wings every night, eyes closed, soaking in the heartwrenchingly beautiful orchestrations of “My Friends” as George Hearn and Judy Kaye sang their twisted love song, one to the other and one to a box of razors. I could have died happy on any of those nights.
There are passages from Sunday in the Park with George that make me weep from the beauty of them. There are scenes from Company and A Little Night Music that leave me on the floor in hysterics. If I could watch a performance of Sweeney Todd every day for the rest of my life I would be the happiest musical theater geek on earth. Gimme Sondheim anytime anywhere. Yeah.
3. George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
Perhaps it is unfair of me to include only Ira here as a lyricist, because certainly George Gershwin wrote with many, but I truly believe he did his best work with his own brother to bounce off of. Their wonderful songs really speak for themselves (do I even have to name them?) and their mostly ignored, absolutely sublime satire, Strike Up the Band (with a hilarious book by George S. Kaufman) was a musical and lyrical masterpiece. Come one, come all and worship at the temple of Gershwin. It’s pretty crowded, so get there early.
4. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt
You wonder how these things begin… Never have I been so carried away by the poetry and exquisite delicacy and humor of a musical as I have been consistently by The Fantasticks. I’ve often considered it to be my family musical, as all three women in my immediate family have played Luisa at one point or another in their lives, and my father has frequently played her father, Bellomy. It is a true work of art… one that I will treasure in my soul for all time. Add to this the spine-tingling pageantry of Celebration and the perfect heartache of 110 in the Shade and… well, I’m starting to think I should have put them higher on the list.
5. Frank Loesser
This was a rough one for me to pick… number five. The Most Happy Fella, Guys and Dolls, and perhaps my personal favorite, despite its flaws and the fact that I’ve never even seen it performed, Greenwillow (“Never Will I Marry”… *swoon*). This is classic musical theater at its best.
Honorable mentions to Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Lowe for having written the score to Brigadoon, but mostly “Come to Me, Bend to Me”… to Leonard Bernstein for… well, duh, West Side Story and Candide… and to Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty for showing incredible promise for the future of the genre.
Thus ends my ranty thing-a-ma-bob.