5 Forgotten Musicals of the 1990s
Last week in “Broadway School,” otherwise known as the MFA in Musical Theatre at San Diego State University, I was assigned the task of giving a partnered, two-hour presentation on Musical Theatre in the 1990s. I have to admit, I am on the younger side and all I could remember about musical theatre in that particular decade consisted of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast– definitely not enough to fill two hours!
In my research I came across shows that have been lost in the shuffle. While you might know of some of these shows, I wanted to take time to give the more underrated pieces their due. There are plenty of reasons why these musicals were not successful on Broadway: lack of star power, lack of spectacle, lack of a strong book, difficult subject matter, and simple bad timing, to name just a few. I hope, though, that some of them might go through revisions or be presented at a better time and surprise us with the gems they hold.
I’ve included my favorite songs for each show, as well as a bit of information, to whet your pallet and encourage you to go research your favorites even further!
1. Aspects of Love (1990)
Frank Rich carefully called this show “an earnest but bizarre career decision” for Andrew Lloyd Webber in his New York Times review of this show. Aspects of Love is ultimately a show about people, “human beings with human feelings”- and processing these feelings can be a bit slow. This musical centers on the characters Alex Dillingham, his uncle George, artists Rose and Giulietta and their quest to find love – of course with complications – over a 17-year period. With some cuts from a bookwriter and finesse when approaching the characters from the actors, this show could be a touching story about family and close friends and their entanglements.
Favorite songs: “Love Changes Everything” –duh!, “The First Man You Remember” (not actually a love song), “Seeing Is Believing” and “Anything but Lonely”
2. The Life (1997)
This Cy Coleman/Ira Gasman show was actually quite a success in its day- it ran for 466 performances on Broadway! It had been workshopped off B’way in 1990 and had produced a cast album before dreams of putting it on THE BROADWAY had even been considered. This resulted in the public’s (or at least musical theatre nerds’) anticipation for the show, once the Broadway run had been announced. This show might have been a bit seedy for newly polished, Disneyfied Times Square, but portraying the underbelly of what Times Square used to be in the 1980’s (pimps, whores, drug dealers, etc) was nostalgic for some theatregoers. The whole story centers around a group of prostitutes, one of whom, Queenie, is trying to escape the brutality of her pimp, Fleetwood, and “the life” she has created for herself. This musical takes an amazing cast to pull off (especially women), but just look at the original – it is possible!
Favorite Songs: “My Body” (watch it here!), “The Oldest Profession,” “My Way or the Highway”
3. My Favorite Year (1992)
Somebody give this show a chance! Ahrens and Flaherty started working on revisions to this musical highlighting a TV comedy sketch writer (think SNL) in 2007, but we have not seen them come to fruition as of yet. Keep your eyes out- I wouldn’t be surprised if they came around soon. An original producer says it might’ve failed as a “victim of bigness,” so maybe try to keep this show as intimate as possible. Side note: this is where Andrea Martin made her Broadway debut!
Favorite Songs: “Funny,” “Larger than Life,” “Twenty Million People”
4. Big (1996)
Speaking of a victim of bigness, this Maltby and Shire show was just that! Most people would think a blockbuster movie plus Susan Stroman choreography plus big spectacle sets would equal a hit, but the public couldn’t see the real drama and emotions through all the Broadway magic. By using the scaled down tour version and making sure the poignant moments of the piece are highlighted, the result might be some much deserved success for this darling musical.
Favorite Songs: “Dancing All the Time,” “Stop, Time,” “Little Susan Lawrence” (in the tour version) and of course “Fun” with the big piano from FAO Schwarz.
5. The Capeman (1998)
There were way too many issues with this show to list them all here, but know that despite the misguided direction, weak book, and tough subject matter, the music could still be powerful with some help. The story focuses on the true-life story of Salvador Argon, a Puerto Rican gang member who allegedly shot two teenaged white boys and was sentenced to prison. While serving his time, he turns his life around and vows to do good in the world. Paul Simon’s score has some great melodies, uses the music of the Latin and African American cultures seamlessly and really is pleasing to the ear. This show enjoyed a good cutting and revision, which resulted in Diane Paulus’ successful concert production at The NY Public Theatre in 2010. I will be interested to see if this version has a new life in larger regional houses someday!
Favorite Songs: “Born in Puerto Rico,” “Trailways Bus,” “Adios Hermanos” and “Quality”
Honorable mentions: High Society, Civil War, Victor/Victoria, Kat and the Kings, and Triumph of Love.