In continued trying times, we realise just how much we miss the light, love and live music that regularly gushed from London’s West End, New York’s Broadway, Paris’ glorious cabaret scene and countless other theatres across the globe every night, eight shows a week, until March 2020. Yes, The Masked Singer is back on our screens, but it’s no substitute for a proper night of live entertainment at the theatre, is it?
It’s now widely accepted that Churchill did not retort, “Then what are we fighting for?” when it was suggested he help the war effort by cutting arts council funding. However, he did say this: “The arts are essential to any complete national life.” Hear hear.
Until the hard-working stars of our stages can get back out there, chuck a leg, belt out a solo and knock the live crowds for six (or, quite literally, for Six) again, we might not be able to fight it on the beaches, but we can fight it in our homes – on our sound systems. That’s why we’ve collated our list of the best musicals to test your speakers.
To all the performers, musicians, conductors, directors and stage managers who’ve tackled these incredible works and made them look easy: we applaud you. Never before in the field of light entertainment was so much owed by so many to so few. Stay strong. Now, let’s face the music, and dance!
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein (1945)
The mystical, rousing and celebratory Carousel Waltz is tough to beat in any show-tune lineup. This 1945 musical was the second born of the magical partnership between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, after Oklahoma!. The story revolves around Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, a carousel barker and a millworker in Maine.
The very first track, The Carousel Waltz, does away with the traditional concept of an overture comprising a medley of the best songs from the show. Instead, you get an original barn-stormer – a jewel of a piece in its own right. A solo flute plays a pensive melody. It is joined by another, and soon we’re we’re thrust into a dream-like sequence of action – and a complete orchestra playing at full pelt.
Come for this, and stay for Billy’s Soliloquy (a demanding, stripped back baritone solo, sustained for seven and-a-half minutes), the ballet sequence, and of course, You’ll Never Walk Alone. Yes, despite ongoing spats between Liverpool and Celtic football fans over who sang it first, the song was actually first performed by Christine Johnson, in the role of Nettie Fowler, at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway in April 1945.
Apparently, Steven Sondheim (a teenager at the time) attended that premier of Carousel and was moved to tears. Rodgers later wrote that of all his musicals, Carousel was his favourite.
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss (2017)
When Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss presented Six at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, what “started as a kind of fun university project” (according to Marlow) soon took on a life of its own. The premise: the six wives of Henry VIII will perform an X-Factor style concert, where the coveted role of lead singer will be awarded to whomever the audience decides had the worst experience at the hands of their common husband. OK it doesn’t necessarily scream stone cold hit at first, but then again, Cats is based on a 1939 collection of poems about four-legged felines. And despite a global pandemic, look what’s happened in three short years! Six‘s Broadway debut was pulled hours from curtain-up in September due to Covid-19, but that has only served to strengthen its popularity.
Eurovision electro-pop meets boom-bang-a-bang German schlager in the standout ensemble track, Haus of Holbein, which could’ve been written by Israeli Eurovision darling Netta herself, but Don’t Lose Ur Head and the genuinely moving Heart of Stone make this show one of the best new musicals in the past decade. Think Queen Bey’s vocal range meets Queen’s English – stunning.
Into The Woods
Stephen Sondheim (1986)
That teenager who watched the first ever performance of Carousel with watering eyes went on to greatness, didn’t he? We’ve chosen to share the inaugural 1986 San Diego production, but the 2014 Disney motion picture soundtrack (starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Johnny Depp) is also very well done indeed.
The musical cleverly mixes the plots of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales, exploring the consequences of the protagonists’ various wishes and goals. The main characters are borrowed from Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella among others, all tied together by a baker, his wife and their quest to have children – the original beginning of Brothers Grimm’s Rapunzel. Oh, and there’s a witch who has placed a hex on them. Annoying.
From the detailed, layered passages in the prologue onwards, there’s a verbatim feel to the songs, making them both very difficult to perform (as these copy the rhythm and pitch of voice patterns, like speech) and laugh-out-loud funny. If you need an adult take on your favourite childhood stories right now (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) with challenging music and vocal frequencies galore, you’ve found it.
Stephen Sondheim (1970)
The first track in this musical – another from Sondheim – begins with various groups of female voices calling “Bobby”, and it’s as good a test of the clarity and stereo imaging of your system as you’re likely to find. The voices are joined by male vocals building to a crescendo, all simply desperate to get hold of our protagonist Robert.
See, Robert has three girlfriends and can’t seem to commit to any one of them. There are five married couples also hanging around, whom Bobby considers his best friends. And all of them seem hell-bent on talking sense into him.
The big hitter here is the epic Being Alive. Despite this musical having no clear linear storyline, we’d strongly advise you listen to the whole thing. That said, if you take only one thing from this particular segment, do please listen to Being Alive.
Leonard Bernstein (1974)
The luminous Kristen Chenoweth is, in our book, all over the song Glitter And Be Gay (filmed in concert with the New York Philharmonic in 2005). But that’s the thing: any musical theatre aficionado can tell you whom, in their opinion, sang the finale the best.
Leonard Bernstein’s overture from this 1974 musical-slash-operetta is one of the most frequently performed orchestral compositions by a 20th century American composer, but the solo has become a calling card for the gifted soprano. Like Billy Bigelow’s Solilioquy (listed above), the song requires an incredibly high level of performance throughout and poses some particularly mind-bending challenges.
If sung as written, for example, there are no fewer than three high E-flats (that’s three semi-tones above high C), plus several smatterings of high C and D-flat for the artist to get their lungs around. If that doesn’t test your system (as well as theirs), not a lot will. Go much higher and we’re into the sonic realm of dogs.
The whole musical has a raucous, satirical quality – several writers, including Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim are listed as co-lyricists – and it’s nothing short of glorious in its entirety.
The Who’s Tommy
Pete Townshend (1992)
A rock opera based on The Who’s 1969 concept album Tommy and a musical that’s considered one of the tougher pieces for sound engineers to stage.
That’s thanks to the band’s ridiculously strong lineup from 1964 to 1978 – guitarist Pete Townshend, vocalist Roger Daltrey, bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon – each of whom could make any ‘top ten best rock musician’ list in their own right, let alone together. The Who’s gigs were also notoriously loud, and this musical is no exception.
Not convinced? Then let’s add Pinball Wizard, which Elton John decided to grace with his own inimitable vocal and piano wizardry in 1973. It’s an absolute banger of a track. In 1996 and 1997, a production ran in London’s Shaftesbury Theatre, starring Paul Keating as Tommy and Kim Wilde as Mrs. Walker.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (1970)
It wouldn’t be a musicals roundup if Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t feature, would it? If you just want to test the agility of your speakers, Gethsemane is the track.
The time signatures are all over the shop – and that’s to say nothing of the incredible vocal range on show. Again, lovers of musical theatre will tell you which Jesus sang the high notes the best, in their opinion.
It’s not considered the cleanest recording, this, so it’s a grand test of the transparency of your system. You’ve also got the baying crowds at Jesus’s trial, plus Judas’s shocking and astronomical tenor vocal as he takes his own life. (Oh, it is hardly a spoiler. We all know the story.)
John Kander and Fred Ebb (1966)
Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome to this deliciously dark musical set in 1930s Berlin, at the Kit Kat Club, where anything goes and everyone is beautiful – even the orchestra. Although Liza Minnelli made the lead role of Sally Bowles famous in the 1972 feature film, Judi Dench had actually performed the role four years earlier, at London’s Palace Theatre.
From the racy Mein Herr, to the devilish Money Money and the poignant yet defiant Maybe This Time, these songs aren’t afraid to get down into some outrageous bass registers. Sally isn’t meant to be an incredibly gifted singer (if she were, she wouldn’t be singing in a dive like the Kit Kat Club) and, as such, some extremely talented singers have had to ‘dirty up’ their vocal to play the role. See if your system reveals it.
Kander and Ebb also created another great musical, Chicago, and while it isn’t on this list, if it’s a pristine recording you’re after then you’ll be hard pressed to better the 2002 film soundtrack, starring Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
After a successful revival in the West End in 2006, directed by Rufus Norris and choreographed by Javier de Frutos, Cabaret toured the UK in 2008 and 2009. You can see the trailer below. (No reason. One of the What Hi-Fi? team might be in it, but that’s by the by.)
West Side Story
Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (1961)
Anyone who’s ever watched the 1991 movie Sleeping with the Enemy will remember Kevin Anderson’s great al fresco performance of Jet Song as Ben – complete with his own personal jet and a sprinkler.
With spritely timing to test the snap of your drivers, the West Side Story score is perky, expansive and varied, requiring a full orchestra and one of the larger casts of triple-threat singer/dancer/actors.
From the staccato I Feel Pretty, to the spicy, Vaudevillian Dance at the Gym, to the moving ballad Maria, this timeless work was a shoo-in for this list.
Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice (1986)
You know you’re in safe hands when the music is co-written by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.
The story does actually revolve around a chess tournament, which might not sound like a greatest of premises for a musical, but Queen’s Gambit did alright didn’t it? And just like in ABBA, there’s a cracking love triangle involved.
A notable ballad here is I Know Him So Well, but to listen to Chess is to enjoy a huge selection of styles, from pop to orchestral, with huge bass tones nodding to the Cold War tension between Russia and America in the 1980s.
As with Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who’s Tommy, a highly successful concept album was released prior to the first theatrical production.
Claude-Michel Schonberg and Trevor Nunn (1980)
In times like these, the rousing call of solidarity and persistence is a panacea for the soul. This layered, detailed and emotive musical will rev up your resolve. And, if you want to get off the sofa, the choreography is surprisingly simple. There’s not much to it other than a rock-step forward and a rock-step back – although you can level it up with a flag wave if you want.
The song, of course, is One Day More, but never was a musical more heavily packed with stand-out set pieces. Bring Him Home will give your tweeters a run for their money, while Master of the House will sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of low-end punch.
For now though, stand tall and sing along: “They will walk behind the plough-share, they will put away the sword. The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward! Do you hear the people sing?”