book now   


Jonathan Larson’s enduring and beloved rock opera Rent holds a special place in the hearts of musical theatre lovers around the world – a startling achievement when you consider that Larson was writing about a very specific community in a very specific time and place. But the musical holds an important place in the history of American theatre more broadly, as a winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama is one of seven Pulitzer Prizes awarded most years in the United States, and of the 82 prizes for drama that have been awarded since it was established in 1917, only eight have been musicals.

Three of those musicals have had major stagings in Sydney this year (and two more have been performed in recent years), so now seems like the perfect time to take a look back at what made these works stand out across all the American drama in their respective years and the impact they had, both in artistic terms and in the way we view the world more broadly.

Of Thee I Sing (1932)

Satirical musicals have a longer history than most people know, with their roots stretching back to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and even further back to some of the politically charged operas of the baroque period.

But George and Ira Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing popularised satire on the Broadway stage with its light but very funny take on American politics.

The musical has been seen rarely in the last few decades, but in 1932, the Pulitzer Prize Committee said:  "Of Thee I Sing is not only coherent and well-knit enough to class as a play, but it is a biting and true satire on American politics and the public attitude towards them ... The play is genuine and it is felt the Pulitzer Prize could not serve a better purpose than to recognize such work.”

The Prize only went to lyricist Ira Gershwin and the writers of the book George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind as George Gershwin was considered ineligible as the musical’s composer (although all future Pulitzer Prizes for musicals recognised composers).

Of Thee I Sing has fallen out of popularity in recent decades, although a 2006 New York concert revival was met with critical acclaim. Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times: “the laughter that greets the show today is tinged with surprise at how eerily some of its jokes seem to take precise aim, from decades back, at current affairs.”

The musical specifically lampoons American Depression-era politics, but its stylistic legacy is still felt strongly in satire today.

And Sydney audiences recently had the chance to see the full musical performed with an orchestra, a 400-voice choir and seven of Sydney musical theatre’s greatest actor/singers last month in Squabbalogic and Sydney Philharmonia Choir’s production at the Sydney Opera House.

South Pacific (1950)

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific remains one of the world’s most loved musicals more than six decades after its premiere. It recently received a critically and commercially successful Australian tour from Opera Australia and John Frost as its central progressive messages about equality still resonate in the 2010s.

It’s difficult to imagine today, given the brightness of the show and its glittering score, but there have been few musicals as controversial as South Pacific. When two of the most successful creators of musical theatre – one of the world’s most popular art forms of the last century – decided to create a work with a progressive anti-racism message at its core, it shook conservative middle America.

The musical was based on James Michener’s 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific, based on Michener’s observations from his time stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. His book won the Pulitzer for literature, but the musical attracted plenty of criticism for its content, especially the song You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught, which contends that racism is a product of social conditioning and that nobody is born truly racist.

When the musical travelled to America’s south in the years after its premiere, lobby groups and politicians in several states tried to have the song You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught removed from the show. A bill was introduced in Georgia to have it outlawed with one legislator stating that: "a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life."

Of course, now Rodgers and Hammerstein’s portrayals of the characters Bloody Mary and Liat are seen as the uncomfortable stereotypes that they are, but the underlying political message of South Pacific is what resonated so widely and attracted the Pulitzer.

Fiorello! (1960)

Fiorello! is one of the lighter and least performed of the Pulitzer-winning musicals, but it was very successful when it first premiered in 1959. Based on the life of New York City mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, the first act of the musical follows Fiorello as a major in World War I with the second focused on his campaign to become New York’s mayor.

With a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and a book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, Fiorello! was an instant critical and commercial hit, and yet the musical has never played on the West End and was never filmed or turned into a movie.

Several of the songs from the musical have endured, including the second act opener When Did I Fall in Love, which has been made popular again recently by Audra McDonald.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1962)

Frank Loesser’s comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was the perfect musical for New York City in the early 1960s, capturing the dramas and colourful characters of businesses and offices of the time.

The musical, which traces the rise of a young window washer J. Pierrepont Finch to the chair of the World Wide Wicket Company is full of a delicious cynicism, which saw it adapted into a popular film in 1967. Like Of Thee I Sing, there are satirical elements in How to Succeed, and it was praised as groundbreaking when it premiered.

Book writer Abe Burrows directed the premiere production, which featured choreography by Bob Fosse, although he was only credited with “musical staging” as he was brought in to replace a lesser-known choreographer who proved to be not up to the task.

The musical mightn’t be quite as beloved as Loesser’s other major hit Guys and Dolls, but there’s still plenty of love around for it. It’s had two major Broadway revivals: one in 1995 starring Matthew Broderick and Megan Mullally and one in 2011 with Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe in the leading role.

But during its latest revival, critics questioned whether the book was now too dated and clunky to retain its relevance.

A Chorus Line (1976)

In 2015 it can be easy to forget just how innovative the beloved dance musical A Chorus Line was when it premiered. The musical with a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante and a score by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban was developed out of a series of workshops with Broadway dancers. Those dancers told stories from their lives and career – including sexual discoveries, personal traumas and why they initially chose to become dancers – which were taped and went on to form the basis of the musical.

The show, which spawned the hit pop ballad What I Did For Love, features 17 Broadway dancers competing for a place in the chorus of a new show. In early performances, different dancers would be picked for the “roles” at the end of each performance to create a genuine sense of excitement, but the winning dancers were locked in by the time it made it to Broadway.

The musical ran for nearly 15 years, making it the longest running show on Broadway until it was surpassed by Cats in 1997. It’s regularly revived around the world, was adapted into an unsuccessful film in 1985, and has a massive cultural legacy, with both the opening and closing numbers – I Hope I Get It and One – etched into the memories of people the world over.

Sunday in the Park with George (1985)

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George is widely considered to be one of the most artistically ambitious and intelligent musicals ever written. Much like A Chorus Line, it’s a musical about the process of making art and the cost that has on its creators.

Inspired by Georges Seurat’s huge pointillist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the first act follows Seurat as he creates the masterpiece. The second act focuses on Seurat’s fictional grandson (an artist also called George) who, in 1984, is unveiling his latest work, a lighting installation called "Chromolume #7".

The musical has been called Sondheim’s most personal work. Frank Rich wrote in his review for the New York Times: “Both at the show's beginning and end, the hero is embracing not a woman, but the empty white canvas that he really loves - for its ''many possibilities.'' Look closely at that canvas - or at Sunday in the Park itself - and you'll get lost in a sea of floating dots. Stand back and you'll see that this evening's two theater artists, Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine, have woven all those imaginative possibilities into a finished picture with a startling new glow.”

The original Broadway production, featuring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters, was filmed for a PBS special and is now available on DVD.

Rent (1996)

Rock musical Rent has the honour of being the only Pulitzer Prize-winning musical with music, lyrics and a book by the same person, Jonathan Larson. Set in a poor artists’ community in New York City’s East Village, it was a bold response to the HIV/AIDS crisis that was claiming many young lives in the 1980s and early ‘90s, as well as the gentrification of the city.

The musical is loosely based on Puccini’s La Boheme, and was developed Off Broadway over several years. The idea was to “bring musical theatre to the MTV generation”, a goal which it well and truly achieved.

When it finally made it to Broadway in 1996, it became the hottest ticket on Broadway, and has had many tours all around the world over the last two decades.

Rent also went some way to making Broadway more accessible by introducing rush tickets available to those who might otherwise be unable to afford tickets. The producers made 34 seats available two hours before each performance for $20 each, a system that has been replicated by many of the most popular Broadway shows in the last decade.

The musical is currently enjoying a sell out season at the Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, in a new production directed by Shaun Rennie.

Next to Normal (2010)

Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s rock musical Next to Normal explicitly deals with a subject matter rarely dealt with on stage and even more rarely dealt with in musical theatre – mental illness.

The story of Diana Goodman, a suburban mother dealing with bipolar disorder, resonated widely with audiences and critics. The Pulitzer Board described the show as a “powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals."

But the win didn’t come without its fair share of controversy, which was well-documented by the media. The full Pulitzer Board overrode the three finalists recommended by the theatre jury, and the decision drew some criticism from those who felt the show was at an unfair advantage because, unlike the three recommended finalists, it had a current production on Broadway.

In a strange coincidence, the original production of Next to Normal was directed by Michael Greif, who also directed the original Broadway production of previous Pulitzer-winner Rent. As far as this writer can work out, he’s the only artist who has had significant involvement in more than one Pulitzer winning musical.

The musical had its Australian premiere in 2012 in a Melbourne Theatre Company production directed by Dean Bryant. It had its Sydney premiere earlier this year at the Hayes Theatre Co (after a 2012 Capitol Theatre season was cancelled).