Welcome back to Musical Mondays!
In case you’re new here, this column is a peek into the depths of the Musical Theatre archive, where I will showcase a few musicals that I think deserve a little more love. You can read my past posts by clicking here!
They’re the smaller, niche shows that not everyone will be familiar with – and that’s the point! They deserve just as much love as the big name shows, so every second Monday I’ll list a few, give you some comparisons, and a few examples of songs for you to check out.
Anyone Can Whistle is a fantastic Sondheim show… that catastrophically flopped. And I don’t understand why. The plot follows a fictional American town that’s gone bankrupt, and a corrupt Mayor who decides to creates a fake ‘miracle’ to draw in tourism and save the town economically – but of course, all goes awry. It’s a satire of life in a small town, as well as concepts of capitalism, government, and religion. And Angela Lansbury originated the role of the mayor! On paper, it seems like everything should work. Sadly, reviews of the show are pretty tragic, and the original 1964 Broadway production closed after 9 performances and 12 previews. The book was criticised for lacking in a ‘fantasy’ element, and that none of the songs really hold their own. However, as with many early closures, Anyone Can Whistle has become something of a cult favourite, and I’d argue some of its songs are amongst Sondheim’s most recognisable. Just listen to the score. It’s brilliant.
Standout track/s: Everybody Says Don’t; Anyone Can Whistle; There Won’t Be Trumpets
You’ll like this if you enjoy: The Music Man, Sondheim and Laurents shows like West Side Story and Gypsy
The Grinning Man is a fabulously unique piece of theatre. I was really fortunate to watch a recording of the show released last year by Bristol Old Vic, and I can emphatically say it was one of the most unique theatrical experiences I’ve ever watched. The musical takes its plot from Victor Hugo’s tragicomic novel, The Man Who Laughs. We follow a young boy (dubbed Grinpayne), who is horribly disfigured – he has slices on either side of his mouth, giving him his titular ‘grin – and the search for answers of why this happened to him. The show did incredibly well in its 2016 Bristol premiere and 2017 West End season, so well that director Andy Serkis decided he wanted to turn the show into a motion-capped piece with his production company. He has captured the cast performing the full show, and intends to distribute it to be viewed through VR headsets to truly immerse audiences in a way that has never been seen before, as well as to be more inclusive for those who may not be able to attend the theatre. This footage has not yet been released, but I am counting down the days. The music of The Grinning Man is eerie and dark but almost folky at points, and it really captures the tone of the show. It feels Kurt Weill-esque, and is definitely worth having a look at.
Standout track/s: Stars in the Sky; Born Broken; The Smiling Song
You’ll like this if you enjoy: Dark musicals like Nevermore, musicals based on Victor Hugo novels like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables
Sadly I can’t find a proper recording of the show’s score, so click here to listen to selected songs from The Grinning Man. There are assorted clips around the internet, so if you are interested I strongly encourage you to have a search around.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is technically not a musical. It’s classed as a play with music. But since I make the rules for this column, it’s being included (plus, the same applied to the Threepenny Opera and that didn’t stop me!). And honestly, I have two words that should convince you to give this show a go – Audra McDonald. While the play premiered in 1986 to great success, it is possibly most well known for its 2014 revival with theatre legend Audra in the lead role, one she won her 6th Tony award for. Lady Day a one woman show about famous jazz singer Billie Holiday, set during one of her last performances before her death. She recounts stories about her life, increasingly getting more and more incoherent and intoxicated. It’s a show that I would absolutely love to see in person, but for the time being, I will enjoy the recording over and over again. It includes some of the dialogue interludes between songs, so you really can close your eyes and imagine the show. I highly recommend it.
Standout track/s: What A Little Moonlight Can Do; Baby Doll; Strange Fruit
You’ll like this if you enjoy: Biographical musicals like Beautiful and Jersey Boys, the work of Audra McDonald.