I love musical theatre. I especially love good musical theatre. A good musical is like a good album: it tells a story with a couple of bangers, a few filler tracks that you can appreciate for what they are, and one or two real stinkers. This article is about those stinkers.
1.‘A Sentimental Man’ from Wicked
Wicked is one of the most successful musicals of this century, and this is in no small part due to its soundtrack. With songs like ‘Defying Gravity’ and ‘Popular’ rocketing the careers of Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth respectively, the show is full of iconic numbers. I can’t help but get emotional whenever the two leads reunite for yet another heart-warming rendition of ‘For Good’, and ‘No Good Deed’ is one of the most epic rants on moral anguish ever put to stage.
The leads then, aren’t the problem – it’s the secondary characters who too often get lumped with bad songs. Doctor Dillamond’s ‘Something Bad’ is objectively terrible but is more of an exposition dump than a song. It’s definitely one to skip on the soundtrack, but arguably vital to the show (a criterion I will be infuriatingly inconsistent in valuing as we go through this list). The secondary character I have more of a problem with is the Wizard.
It’s just a stand-out skippable snooze-fest compared to the many awesome power ballads Wicked is packed with
The role, originated on Broadway by Joel Grey, is an odd one because the Wizard is (spoiler alert) not all he appears to be. Because of his mysterious façade, he only has a couple of numbers in the show. ‘Wonderful’, his duet with Elphaba in Act II, is a clear commentary on the idea of history being rewritten by the victors, and happens to also be very fun. Conversely, in Act I, ‘A Sentimental Man’ is not fun. It’s incredibly boring – literally the song Sarah Smallwood Parsons sings about. It’s not poorly written; composer Stephen Schwartz is a genius and the number incorporates several themes/lyrics from other songs in the show. It’s just a stand-out skippable snooze-fest compared to the many awesome power ballads Wicked is packed with.
2.‘A Little Bit of Good’ from Chicago
Chicago is a sexy Jazz-age satire on the concept of the celebrity criminal. Packed with Vaudeville-esque showstoppers from the two leads, originated on Broadway by Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera (although the Renée Zellweger / Catherine Zeta-Jones film is probably my favourite movie musical adaptation ever), the show is often my immediate pick when asked my favourite musical by somebody with whom I don’t wish to elongate the conversation.
It’s almost operatic in nature, an incomprehensible vibrato very much contrasted against the sultry jazz of the rest of the soundtrack.
Even though ‘Mr Cellophane’ is referenced in the same Sarah Smallwood Parsons bit I mentioned above, I’ve always quite liked it. It’s good to hear Amos’ side of things and helps us empathise with him instead of with the murderous Roxie, which can be easier to do when the plot focuses so much on her. My choice is a number I argue is more irrelevant: ‘A Little Bit Of Good’. Occasional drag queen Mary Sunshine is an optimistic (read: gullible) reporter who interviews Roxie in the lead up to her trial. She’s a minor character who only really shows up again at the very end of the show, and I don’t think she needs her own solo. The song describes how she’s always seen the world through rose-tinted glasses, and was raised to look for the good in every person she met. Delightful. Again “bad” might be too harsh, it’s a fine song, but I’ve always found it jarring. It’s almost operatic in nature, an incomprehensible vibrato very much contrasted against the sultry jazz of the rest of the soundtrack. While film adaptations don’t always make the best song-cutting choices (*cough* Into the Woods *cough*), leaving this number out is a decision I can get behind (although I have no doubt Christine Baranski would have killed it).
3.‘Judith Ford’ from 36 Questions
When asked my favourite musical by somebody I actually want to talk to, my answer is 36 Questions. A podcast musical from 2017, its accessibility is matched only by its obscurity. It is FREE as a three-part podcast. You can listen to it RIGHT NOW. And not just listen to the soundtrack, you can actually experience the show in its audio-only entirety – perfectly soundscaped and incredibly well-acted by Hamilton and Frozen legend Jonathan Groff and incredibly talented Jessie Shelton, as well as, briefly, a small child and a duck.
I have spent the last six years of my life hooked on this show and I always recommend it to anybody who will listen
I feel like choosing such a lesser-known musical, however amazing, is a bit rogue, so allow me to pitch it to you briefly before I continue. The show is about a young married couple attempting to reconcile after one of them lied about her name, and several other things, very early on in their relationship. This reconciliation is structured by the famous 2015 New York Times article ‘The 36 Questions That Lead to Love’, a compatibility quiz which the pair repeat to see whether anything has changed since those early days, or whether this fake identity one of them had been using perhaps wasn’t that fake after all. On paper it doesn’t sound that interesting to me either, but as somebody already incredibly susceptible to good podcasting and good musicals, I have spent the last six years of my life hooked on this show and I always recommend it to anybody who will listen.
The music is difficult to describe, but is very story-based. All the duets, namely ‘One Thing’ and ‘We Both’, are delightful – incredibly believable and quite funny at times. ‘Our Word’ is one of the standout numbers; Shelton’s character Judith/Natalie reveals some darker parts of her past, and is probably the best bop out of context. Again my pick, ‘Judith Ford’, isn’t a bad song per se, it’s just one I’d skip in the soundtrack. It’s an almost manic number where Groff’s character Jase admits that, despite himself and his anger at her lies, if he was given the choice of anyone in the world to come over for dinner (one of the 36 Questions), he would choose her, his wife. Or at least, the woman his wife was pretending to be. The lyrics are decent, although Groff could sing the phonebook, and it is an important story beat, but musically it has limited range and a few quirky and dissonant choices that don’t work for me.