Which musicals have the best scores and soundtracks?
Sunday in the Park with George (1984) – Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece throws light on some eerily resonant truths about the process of making art, and the effect that process has on the lives of those around the artist.
Its central character is George Seurat, the post-impressionist painter whose most celebrated work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, is created out of a multitude of tiny multi-coloured dots.
Sondheim parallels that pointillism and colour in the harmonically adventurous score and orchestration in a most ingenious way. Probably its most famous song is ‘Finishing The Hat’, a soliloquy on the artist’s preoccupation with his work while the outside world – the rest of life – passes by his window.
Jake Gyllenhaal singing ‘Finishing the Hat’ in the 2017 Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George
Sweeney Todd (1979) – Stephen Sondheim
Nowhere in Sondheim’s output does music feature so heavily, or arguably in such a central way to the drama, than in the score for Sweeney Todd.
Its epic scale, dramatic force and sheer scale of underscoring and sung material puts it more in the realm of an opera than a musical.
Sweeney Todd Live at the Lincoln Center (2014)
Floyd Collins (1996) – Adam Guettel
The plot for this 90s musical is simple enough: Floyd is a caver who gets his foot trapped deep underground. Yet the score is striking for its highly original (and unlikely) fusion of styles; one description of it might be ‘Bartók meets country and bluegrass’.
There are delightful numbers everywhere in this score, including ‘Lucky’ in Act 1, and ‘The Dream’ in Act 2. But the emotional highlight for me is the moving final number, ‘Where Glory Goes’, in which the dying Floyd Collins wonders what he can expect in the afterlife.
London Road (2011) – Adam Cork
Composer Adam Cork and playwright Alecky Blythe’s ground-breaking musical about the community affected by the Ipswich serial murders of 2006 broke new ground in musical theatre.
It used a ‘verbatim’ style, in which interviews with members of the community were recorded, transcribed and performed by the actors exactly as they were spoken, but the genius of Adam’s score was that this principle extended to having the music’s rhythmic patterns and pitch contours all following this scheme too. London Road was subsequently turned into a film, directed by Rufus Norris and starring Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy.
The trailer for London Road (film)
Oklahoma! (1943) – Rodgers & Hammerstein
These days we take for granted that a musical should integrate its stage elements in a seamless believable way, with the songs and dances springing naturally from the dramatic demands of the characters and the text and advancing the plot.
But this wasn’t always the case; in the early days of American musical theatre, the focus was very much on superficial humour and show-stopping numbers and effects that interrupted the flow of what (little) story there was.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma was one of the first important musicals to change this pattern. Alongside a story that features rounded and developing characters, the score is full of highly memorable tunes. The song ‘Out Of My Dreams’ and the ballet sequence based on it are utterly mesmerising.
The song ‘Oklahoma!’ from Oklahoma
The BBC Music Magazine team choose their favourites…
Oliver Condy, former editor:
Carousel (1945) – Rodgers & Hammerstein
The cast of Carousel perform ‘Blow High, Blow Low’ at the 2018 Tony Awards
Jeremy Pound, acting editor:
Hair (1967) – Galt MacDermot
The cast of Hair: The 50th Anniversary Production at West End Live
Rebecca Franks, former managing editor:
Kiss me, Kate (1948) – Cole Porter
Prologue from West Side Story
Freya Parr, editorial assistant:
Into the Woods (1986) – Stephen Sondheim
The trailer for the Disney film adaptation of Into the Woods