From Cats to Company: My musical influences

Read on to understand why this is a thing.

I guess this period of self-isolation has inspired me to self-reflect. I thought it would be a kick to outline shows that have influenced me throughout my 40 years on this earth, organized by decade. As I’m sure you’ll agree, in our earlier days we’re sponges. The list of my teens is vast, basic and not nearly complete. My 20s I get less precious about things. And I guess in my 30s it took a lot for new things to permeate my jaded soul.

My teens:

  • Cats: My first Broadway. I covered a lot of it here, but the experience struck me like a thunderbolt. It was so pure, so full of magic. I wish I could bottle it and revisit it.
  • Phantom: What a glorious time the Toronto theatre scene was in the ’90s, despite it being funded by laundered money or whatever (thanks, Garth Drabinsky). Toronto will pop up a lot in this list – my mom and I saw shows there every spring. I’ve seen Phantom in other iterations (West End, a few tours), but the Toronto production at the Pantages was an EVENT. Original Les Miz stars Rebecca Caine and Colm Wilkinson headlined the Canadian premiere. Having been obsessed with the Broadway cast recording and Sarah Brightman’s chirpiness, I was not ready for Ms. Caine’s darker, more robust-sounding Christine. To be honest, as a tween I was not having it. But as an adult, I now prefer it. As a trained opera singer, Caine’s Christine could actually be a talent to rival the reigning diva on the world’s greatest stage. It’s clear why POTO sacrificed everything for her.
  • Les Miserables: As a 13 year-old, I did not care about this strange-sounding musical. It looked dirty and boring. But at intermission in the Fisher Theatre in Detroit where my family saw the first national tour (which featured Hollis Resnik as Fantine, Victoria Clark as Madame Thénardier, and Melissa Errico as Cosette) I was hooked. It was my first time experiencing a show that had a BIG MESSAGE. It was about fighting for what you believe in, struggling to belong, redemption. Sure, Cats and POTO had some major themes, but these revolutionaries were toothless and stuff. Grittiness onstage was new for me. And that first national tour was MASSIVE. That turntable! That barricade! No LED projection screens will better good, old-fashioned stage craft. I also recall sitting next to the sound booth, and marveling at the women hitting all the buttons to control the mics. Observing the technical aspect of the show while experiencing said show stuck with me. We were seeing a LIVE THING that people were making happen RIGHT NOW.
  • Crazy for You: Following the BASIC BIG THREE above, I started exploring shows by randomly buying whatever cast recordings existed in the “soundtracks” section of the Camelot Music in the Alpena Mall. Following a string of heavy British imports, this was my first American Musical Comedy. And this original Broadway cast recording remains one of my favorites. It simply sparkles. During one of our annual spring Toronto theatre trips I saw this show, and it blew my mind. While it didn’t have crashing chandeliers or rotating barricades, it had Susan Stroman’s choreography. My active teenager imagination, which had mentally staged the show from the cast recording, was not ready for what I saw in the Royal Alex theatre — starting with the chorus girls popping out of the limo to the Busby Burkley finale. And that first act finale still boggles my jaded self. Stro’s a master at building a number.
  • Stop the World I want to Get Off. I know. Random, right? This is simply due to the fact that in my rabid pre-internet desire to see stage musicals, I devoured whatever I could find. Such is the case with this show. Thanks to a long-forgotten TV series called “Clairol on Broadway Presents,” this random broadcast of a regional production of Stop the World found its way in my living room and, eventually, on a well-worn VHS. It starred – get ready for it – Stephanie Zimbalist (from Remington Steele) and Peter Scolari (from Bosom Buddies). In retrospect, the show, which follows a man-child as he makes bad decisions at the expense of all the well-meaning women in his life (all played by Zimbalist), is DATED. But the score! It’s damned charming and for whatever reason, this show and this (very) scrappy production captivated me.
  • Anything Goes (1987 version). And so begins my love affair with Patti LuPone. Sure, I’d known of her through the original London cast recording of Les Miz, but her song in that was boring to me (it still kind of is, TBH). The Anything Goes cast recording introduced me to what a proper BELT is. Patti hasn’t sounded better on a cast recording. It sounds like they put Patti in one end of the recording studio and the mic at the other end and said, “Let ‘er rip!” And she does. Also, I experienced this album through the VINYL release. I don’t know how I got my hands on the record, but I’m glad fate stepped in and I did. I’ve probably bought this cast recording in more formats than any other – cassette, CD (2 times because I wore out the original) and iTunes. And this Tony performance I watch at least once a month (I will never get over her belt 22 seconds in) .
  • Sunset Boulevard. Despite my newfound LuPone love, I wasn’t aware she originated Norma Desmond and all the drama that ensued until years later. Again – this was essentially pre-internet. (In fact, I firmly recall the first time I logged onto the internet, the term I searched in AltaVista was “Sunset Boulevard”).  At any rate, as I’ve discussed at length in this podcast, I bought the cast recording because of the cover art, which featured Glenn Close in her Norma drag. I knew nothing about the story – never seen the Billy Wilder movie. In fact, on the recording, I was kind of bored and didn’t listen through the second act until weeks after having the album. And when I finally did get around to finishing act 2 and the final 15 minutes happened (Spoiler: Norma loses it), I was all “WUT?” and rewound and listened from beginning to end. (This also happens to be the precise moment I became gay.) My amazing mother knew of my obsession (I dunno, maybe it was the fact I made turbans with whatever I could find in the house and my dad walked in on me singing along to Glenn’s performance of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from the ’95 Tonys) and got us tickets to see the Canadian Premiere starring Diahann Carroll. When we got to the theatre, she revealed that we had FRONT ROW CENTER seats. And, oh boy. Did Diahann deliver. This was my first time experiencing a STAR performance. My body wasn’t ready. Unfortunately little video evidence exists of Ms. Carroll’s Norma – but we have this moment, which captures her magic.
  • Betty Buckley’s An Evening at Carnegie Hall album. While this is a bit of an outlier given it’s not a musical, this album informed a lot of what I came to appreciate in musicals. I’d discovered Betty through my Sunset obsession, and got this album (which is currently out of print – a dirty, dirty shame) simply because she sang Norma’s two arias. What I wasn’t expecting were her renditions of “Rose’s Turn,” “Pirate Jenny,” “Every Day A Little Death” and so much more. My first exposures to these songs. Not to mention her thrilling opener – a medley of “Hello Young Lovers/Almost Like Being in Love.” Many of Betty’s interpretations from this album remain my definitive performances of those songs (including her Rose’s Turn – it’s a marvel. Just listen).  This album cemented my love of stage divas and their solo shows.
  • The Sondheims. This requires its own blog post. As I spoke about previously, it all began with the televised production of Into The Woods, followed up by the OBC of Sweeney Todd. And then all the rest. I wish I could relive this period just to re-experience these shows for the first time. Additionally, his shows introduced me to Bernadette Peters, Donna Murphy, Elaine Stritch, and so many other amazing stage ladies.
  • Chicago/Cabaret. Ah – we’re now into the gritty Kander and Ebb phase. Something about the combination of lingerie and Bob Fosse-esque hip thrusts combined with a story about corruption and the desire for decadence enchanted me then, and does to this day. I remember basically bullying my parents to take me to see the tour of Chicago in Toronto because Chita Rivera was supposedly in it. But by the time we got around to seeing it, the cast had changed and we had Donna Marie Asbury and Charlotte D’Amboise. As for Cabaret, we’re talking about the 1998 revival and my long-standing crush on Alan Cumming.
  • Ragtime. True story: In freshman year of college, our social issues class went to Chicago for a week-long trip to learn about Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods (it was 1998, so Chicago wasn’t fully gentrified – if you can imagine an Andersonville not teeming with martini bars and gay antique shoppes). On that trip, I made up some lame excuse that I had to visit a family member, and ditched an evening class event to see the full-scale production of Ragtime at the Ford Theatre (which became the Oriental and is now the Niederlander). While we didn’t have Audra, Stokes or Marin, we had LaChanze, Hinton Battle and Barbara Walsh. Which was just fine. I do believe I made the 8 hour round-trip to Chicago a few more times to see this production before it prematurely closed (due to the Canadian money-laundering issue I mentioned above. Same producer). Also, Marin Mazzie’s performance of “Back to Before” is probably my favorite performance of a musical theatre song.
  • City of Angels. The great Cy Coleman managed to integrate jazz into a musical language, and this cast recording rarely left my CD booklet when I was studying in Germany. Regretfully, I’ve never seen a production of this show. But the cast recording is one of my favorites and I listen to it on the regular. 

My 20s:

  • The Ravinia Sondheim Series. We didn’t know how lucky us Chicagoans were in the the early 2000s. And not just the lower property taxes. Each summer we were blessed with a full-scale concert production of Sondheim’s greatest works with a repertoire cast that included Audra McDonald, Michael Cerveris, George Hearn and Patti LuPone. Sweeney, Sunday, A Little Night Music, Anyone Can Whistle, Passion, Gypsy. This series is how I earned the nickname Ravinia Bob. For half a decade, our friends gathered on the Ravinia lawn for one glorious weekend to dine on Trader Joe’s cheeses and wines, crowd watch, and listen to Sondheim’s glorious score over the chorus of Cicadas.
  • A Chorus Line. Here’s the tea. For nearly a decade my only exposure to this show was the very mishandled film adaptation. My mom had that soundtrack, which I listened to and said whatever the ’90s version of “hard pass” was. Somehow I heard “The Music and the Mirror” – which was cut from the movie version – and realized my grave error. Another strong memory of this show is when this performance of Donna McKechnie emerged in the early days of YouTube. Gay internet broke that day. As did I.
  • Sweet Smell of Success. Theatre nerds talk about shows that never got their due. Sweet Smell of Success is the top of my list. Maybe it was fallout from 9/11, maybe it was the dark material. But the Marvin Hamlisch score is a masterpiece, and “At The Fountain” is one of the best “I want” songs ever written for the stage. Plus, I’m a huge sucker for an ensemble that’s used as a sort of Greek chorus.
  • Legally Blonde. Listen. Shut up. I will go to the mat for this show. Prior to this, most of the shows I was drawn to were serious, high-minded affairs. Legally Blonde is FUN. And it’s a well-structured show. The first act closes with our protagonist deciding to drastically change the course of her efforts – focusing on her vs. her boring man. In fact, “So Much Better” is one of the best first act closing numbers out there – and this includes “A Little Priest,” “A Weekend in the Country,” and yes, “Defying Gravity.” Plus, the song is a BOP. My fellow LB fan friend Jamie and I try to see every local production we can.
  • Dreamgirls. Speaking of first act closing numbers… I mean, come ON.  Admittedly, I was a late bloomer when it came to this show, but thanks to The Actors Fund concert recording with the fabulous Lillias White (and Audra “opera riff” McDonald), I later came to discover the great Jennifer Holliday and her iconic Tony performance by way of Sidetrack video bar. Also, one of the very best things I’ve ever seen in Chicago was Porchlight Music Theatre’s Dreamgirls starring Donica Lynn. At intermission I was simply wiped out. I’ve never seen that level of vulnerability and power before. Donica left it all on the stage, and won the Jeff Award that season (beating both Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole).
  • Gypsy. My favorite musical – and one I’ve seen more productions of than I can recall. 2005/2007/2008 was a major period for this show, as LuPone played the iconic Madame Rose at the Ravinia Festival which led to City Center and her triumph on Broadway. I bought her a dirty martini after a performance one – and it didn’t end well (you can listen all about it here). I should also mention of all the Gypsys I’ve seen, one of my favorites was a super scrappy production at Chicago’s now-defunct Bailiwick Theatre starring the great Alexandra Billings. She was FIERCE. As was E. Faye Butler in Porchlight’s production last season.
  • Caroline, or Change. The combination of mega-talents Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori created one of the most explosive musicals of the early 2000s. I saw a THRILLING production at the Court Theatre in 2008 starring E. Faye Butler. When I left the theatre that crisp fall day, I had to walk in dazed circles in the nearby park because It was all my brain would let me do.
  • Grey Gardens. Fun fact: I learned of the Beales through this 2006 musical – not the legendary Maysles documentary. So, my first exposure to the iconoclastic Little Edie was by way of Broadway’s Christine Ebersole. In fact, I resisted the documentary because I was so enamored by what Ebersole was doing. I luckily got to catch her performance the day before the show closed. Ebersole had just returned from being super sick (her understudy, Maureen Moore, had been going on), but she pulled herself together for the final performances. And seeing her do this huge dual role (she played Big Edie in act one and Little Edie in act two) while clearly not 100% was, for me, a masterclass in how to adjust a performance without sacrificing the impact. She was luminescent. And “Another Summer in a Winter Town” as sung by Ebersole will never not give me the tingles.

My 30s:

  • The Light in the Piazza/Floyd Collins. I’d summarize my 30s as the decade of Adam Guettel. I went DEEP into these two scores. In fact, to this day when I need to concentrate, I play “Floyd Collins” on loop. I truly think the man is a genius. Though, his 2018 Twitter posts supporting Brett Kavanaugh have made him lose his luster.
  • Follies. I’ve enjoyed Follies well before my 30s. But 2011 was The Year of Follies, with both the Broadway revival and a stellar production at Chicago Shakespeare theatre playing at the same time. I saw both and lived to tell the tale.
  • Next to Normal. A rock musical about mental illness? Broadway wasn’t ready. I saw the National Tour with the Tony-winning star, Alice Ripley – and MAN did she leave an impression. I’ve seen nothing like it since.
  • War Paint. I simply need to list this because I saw this show more than I’ve seen any other single production. I mean, a NEW musical starring TWO stage legends (Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole) as they parade around in gorgeous Catherine Zuber gowns, hats and gloves? That’s like my catnip. I think I saw it in Chicago seven times, and on Broadway once? Listen: this musical about dueling makeup gurus Helena Rubinstein (LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole) isn’t great. The book is flat and does exactly what I think it was trying to avoid: it makes these two woman catty caricatures. HOWEVUH. The score (by Michael Korie and Scott Frankel) was tailor-made for these ladies, and featured stunning solo moments for each. I considered the affair a beautifully staged and designed concert with some annoying book work between the numbers.
  • Hello, Dolly! (2017 revival and tour) This sparkling revival was a joy machine. I’d seen Bette (Midler), Bernadette (Peters) and Betty (Buckley). Each lady was remarkable in their own delightful way. In fact, I spent my 39th birthday seeing Betty strut her way down those Harmonia Gardens stairs. And each time that damned train rolled out onstage I teared up a bit. I haven’t been so blissfully happy in a theater in a long time. A testament to the material and the late, great Jerry Herman, but also to this particular revival’s design team (the show LOOKED delicious) and Jerry Zack’s highly attuned comedic direction.
  • Six. Everything about this show seemed specifically designed to annoy me. A pop musical with no real set or story line that seems catered toward a Snapchat culture? Barf. BUT, let me tell you, those 80 minutes flew by. I immediately bought the cast recording and regularly work out to it. WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME?

My 40s:

  • 2020 Company revival. Welp. So far, this is it. If this is the last thing I’ll ever see (I’m kidding, I hope), I guess it went out with a bang. This revival was everything I wanted and needed (read my thoughts here). Getting upgraded to the second row at the interval elevated it all, not to mention sitting with new friends. God, I miss the communal theatre experience.


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