The showstopper number in Stephen Sondheim’s Company (1970), was Joanne’s complaint about the bored women of her generation, “The Ladies who Lunch.” This concept musical didn’t tell a story but, rather, showed its characters in a series of vignettes, all centred around the birthday celebration of the 3 couples’ friend Bobby.
Company (Original Broadway Cast Recording) (arr. W. Harper): Act II: The Ladies Who Lunch (Joanne)
Sondheim was on Broadway the next year with Follies, set in an about-to-be-destroyed theatre. The showgirls of the musical revue from the 1920s and ‘30s return and perform their old hits, accompanied, at times, by the ghosts of their former selves. Sally (Barbara Cook) sings a 1920s style torch song about her spent passion for someone else’s husband, “Losing My Mind.”
Follies: Losing My Mind
Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi was a return to the musical of the 1940s, yet instead of being about boy meets girl, it’s about girl being trained as a courtesan and, unexpectedly, the man she’s being trained for falls in love with her. When Gaston realizes he’s in love with Gigi, his song ‘Gigi’ conveys his changing attitude. The two older lovers sit in the sunset of their lives and tell each other how they met, or what they remember of that night.
Marvin Hamlisch’s unsentimental look at Broadway’s hoofers resulted in A Chorus Line. Set as the 17 dancers are auditioning for a new show, the musical shows us the personalities behind the normally ignored performers. Two songs, “What I did for Love,” and “One,” characterize the performers: why they became part of a seemingly thankless and arduous profession, and how glorious they appear together, when we can no longer differentiate them.
A Chorus Line: What I Did for Love (Diana, Company)
A Chorus Line: One (Reprise) – Finale (Company)
John Kander’s Chicago (1975) takes the story of Chicago criminals from the 1920s and the creation of the ‘celebrity’ criminal in Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, vaudevillians and murderers. The loose tone of the town is set by the opening number, Velma’s “All That Jazz.”
Chicago: Act I: All that Jazz (Velma, Company)
It’s unusual that real political history makes the Broadway or West End state but Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita (1978) took the life of Eva Perón, the wife of the Argentine President Juan Perón, and her rise from a rural village to becoming the toast of the country. The well-known song “Don’t Cry for Me Argentine,” was seen on one level as the spirit of the dead Evita asking the country not to mourn her and by the more cynical as ‘don’t cry for me, cry for your poor exploited selves.’
Evita: Don’t Cry for Me Argentina
Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, was Stephen Sondheim’s take on a tale first published in the 1840s. The sorry tale of Todd and his relationship to Mrs Lovett’s pie shop were enhanced with elements from both Jacobean tragedy and The Count of Monte Cristo.
Sweeney Todd: Act I: Prologue: Attend The Tale Of Sweeney Todd (Todd, Company)
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (1981) took the poetry of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and turned it into a musical without a story, at the request of the Eliot estate. The only song to a text not by Eliot was the breakout song “Memory,” with words by Trevor Nunn.
Les Misérables, or, as it’s more informally known, Les Mis, had its debut in Paris in 1980 before moving first to the West End (1985) and then to New York (1987). Based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, this story of the down and outs of Paris is the longest running musical in the West End.
Les miserables: I Dreamed a Dream
Andrew Lloyd Webber dipped again into old novels for his take on The Phantom of the Opera (1988) and came up with one of most financially successful musicals until the advent of The Lion King. The Opera Garnier in Paris is the setting for the tale of the beautiful soprano Christine and her mysterious mentor, the Phantom. It is the longest running show on Broadway, having now been there for nearly 30 years.
The Phantom of the Opera: All I Ask of You
The Phantom of the Opera: Music of the Night