Helena’s Musical Theater Essentials

South Pacific (1949)

  • Plot: Set on an island during World War II, American nurse, Nellie Forbush, falls in love with Emile De Becque, a French planter, but she initially struggles to accept his mixed-race children. In a parallel story, a young marine, Lt. Cable falls in love with Liat and contemplates the implications of interracial marriage. It is an attempt to write an anti-racism musical by two white men in the 1940s. It is not perfect, but the intent is clearly anti-prejudice.
  • Writers: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
  • Major Awards: 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1950 Tony for Best Musical, 2008 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical
  • Most Recent Broadway Production: 2008
  • Movie Adaptation: 1958
  • Helena’s Favorite Songs: “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Honey Bun”
  • Helena’s History with the Show/Why Helena Loves It: I fell in love with this show when it was revived in 2008. I saw the beautiful production filmed for PBS, and I caught the tour in San Francisco. This show has my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein score. “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” remains eerily relevant, even over 70 years after the show premiered on Broadway.

Little Shop of Horrors (1982)

  • Plot: A man-eating plant takes advantage of a down-on-his luck experimental botanist and convinces him to commit murder.
  • Writers: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman
  • Major Awards: 1983 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical
  • Most Recent Broadway Production: 2003, but it is currently playing off-Broadway
  • Movie Adaptation: 1986
  • Helena’s Favorite Songs: “Grow for Me,” Suddenly Seymour,” “Dentist”
  • Helena’s History with the Show/Why Helena Loves It: I vividly remember seeing a Summerstock production of Little Shop in 2001 and being immediately entranced. I got the chance to be in the show a year later and had the best time. I was reminded how much wacky fun this show is when the off-Broadway production opened off-Broadway opened in 2019. I mean, how could you not love a spoof horror musical brought to you by the men who gave us The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Sunday in the Park with George (1984)

  • Plot: Painter Georges Seurat is working on creating his famous painting “Sunday on La Grande Jatte” inspired by his lover, Dot, and the people he sees in the park on Sundays. He is so consumed by his work that he drives Dot away (when she is pregnant with his daughter) and into the arms of a baker who takes her to the United States. The second act skips forward about 100 years, and the audience finds Georges’ great-grandson in a similar state of artistic turmoil.
  • Writers: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
  • Major Awards: 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1985 Drama Desk Outstanding Musical, 1991 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical
  • Most Recent Broadway Production: 2017
  • Helena’s Favorite Songs: “Color and Light,” “Finishing the Hat,” “Move On”
  • Helena’s History with the Show/Why Helena Loves It: Sunday grabbed my heart when I worked as a dresser on the show in college. The score is stunning and contains some of Sondheim’s most iconic lyrics. There is something magical about watching an iconic painting come together in front of your eyes.

The Last Five Years (2002)

  • Plot: This musical is based on JRB’s first marriage. Jamie and Cathy are the only characters in the piece. Cathy starts the show singing about their divorce and goes backwards in their relationship. Jamie starts with their first meeting and ends his version of the story with their divorce. They only appear onstage together at their wedding in the middle.
  • Writers: Jason Robert Brown
  • Major Awards: 2002 Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Music and Outstanding Lyrics
  • Most Recent Broadway Production: It has never been on Broadway, but it was revived off-Broadway in 2013
  • Movie Adaptation: 2014
  • Helena’s Favorite Songs: “Moving too Fast,” “A Part of That,” “I Can Do Better Than That”
  • Helena’s History with the Show/Why Helena Loves It: I wore out the original off-Broadway cast recording of this musical when it was first released. I will also never forget watching the film with my husband during a blizzard on Valentine’s Day in 2014. Whenever my husband and I take a road trip, we play a game where I see how quickly he can identify which version of the show I’m playing. The score is absolutely iconic. It manages to be funny and heartbreaking and catchy. The structure of the show is so fascinating. No other musical ends in a song that combines a break up with a first date.

The Light in the Piazza (2005)

  • Plot: Clara and her mom, Margaret, are two American tourists from North Carolina in Florence. Clara meets Fabrizzio, a young Italian man, in the Piazza, and immediately falls in love with him. Margaret tries to discourage their romance as it becomes more serious, and she eventually reveals to the audience why that is.
  • Writers: Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas
  • Major Awards: 2005 Tony Award for Best Original Score, 2005 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music
  • Most Recent Broadway Production: 2005
  • Helena’s Favorite Songs: “The Beauty Is,” “Love to Me,” “Say it Somehow”
  • Helena’s History with the Show/Why Helena Loves It: There is something magical about this show. I first saw The Light in the Piazza when it was filmed for PBS, and I fell in love with the story. I love that the central relationship this show explores is a mother and her adult daughter. The soaring score is something truly special. This show is returning to New York at City Center starring Ruth Ann Miles in 2023, and I cannot wait.

Waitress (2016)

  • Plot: A pie-making prodigy dreams of winning a pie-making contest to get her and her unborn baby out of her abusive marriage. She ends up having an affair with her married OB/GYN.
  • Writers: Sara Bareilles and Jessie Nelson
  • Major Awards: 2016 Drama Desk Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (It was up against Hamilton for awards)
  • Most Recent Broadway Production: 2016, remounted in 2021
  • Helena’s Favorite Songs: “What Baking Can Do,” “She Used to be Mine,” “You Matter to Me”
  • Helena’s History with the Show/Why Helena Loves It: Sara Bareilles has been my favorite musical artist ever since I first heard “Love Song.” She is the only person who has gotten me to a concert in literal decades. When I heard she was writing a musical, I knew I would be obsessed. I was right. Waitress is cozy and comforting while being empowering and inspiring. There are few who can tell a story through music like Sara Bareilles.

Six (2019)

  • Plot: Queens of Henry VIII reclaim their stories as they retell (his)tory through pop music
  • Writers: Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow
  • Major Awards: 2022 Tony Award for Best Original Score
  • Most Recent Broadway Production: 2020
  • Helena’s Favorite Songs: “Don’t Lose UR Head,” “Get Down,” “All You Wanna Do”
  • Helena’s History with the Show/Why Helena Loves It: Believe it or not, I was late to the game on this one. It was a sensation on the West End for a while before I listened to the studio album. Six is witty and smart, but it also addresses deeply rooted issues of sexism and abuse. I am fascinated by the Tudor Queens, and I am eager to learn more about the often overlooked women of history.

Other Favorites

  • Fiddler on the Roof (1964)
  • Rent (1996)
  • Spring Awakening (2006)
  • Legally Blonde (2007)

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