All right, the next three musicals in my top favorites list!
#4 Jekyll and Hyde (1994 concept album)
Doctor Jekyll creates a serum that will divide human nature into its good and evil sides, hoping to do away with the evil. Failing to secure a test subject for his serum, he uses it on himself, creating the personality of Edward Hyde. But Jekyll finds himself unable to control and do away with Hyde.
This is another musical I never thought I would like, but I listened to it after Bella mentioned it on her blog. After a few songs, I was intrigued. After listening to the whole thing, I liked it. After listening to it a few more times, I became obsessed and lived attached to my laptop via earbuds to listen to the music on a YouTube playlist. (And then got the CD for Christmas.) But let me reiterate that this is the 1994 concept album, not the final Broadway version The Broadway version had dirtier subtext, a choppier story, and didn’t have Anthony Warlow as Jekyll (yes, that’s a deal-breaker here).
The 1994 concept album, however, provides a lot of food for thought. The musical asks why man’s nature is the way it is, why he is capable of both justice and corruption. Of both compassion and hatred. “Why does he revel in murder and madness; what is it makes him be less than he should?” Jekyll asks in one of the opening numbers. But Jekyll is incorrect in his theory about how to fix the problem; his solution relies completely on science and man’s effort. Not that either of those are bad in and of themselves—but if man’s nature is truly “a deal with the devil he cannot disclaim,” then can man really free himself by his own effort?
On the flip side, Jekyll does not blame the devil or God or anyone for mankind’s sinful nature. It is something to be overcome, but it is not a victim status inflicted on him by some higher evil. (I intend to do an in-depth post about this musical and its themes later.) Jekyll also reexamines himself after his experiment goes wrong. In the earlier number “I Need to Know,” Jekyll speaks generally of man’s sin, man’s weakness, mankind’s failure. A sweeping generalization. But then, in “Streak of Madness,” after Edward Hyde has been created, Jekyll refers only to himself, his own nature, his own sin. Hyde is an extension of his own personality, after all.
Ultimately, this story is a cautionary tale. It shows a man (even a well-intentioned one) who tries to play God and rid himself of his evil nature through his own effort—and this he cannot do, and the experiment fails. Oops, spoilers, but we all knew the story, right? Speaking of the failed experiment, the overall feel of this musical is somewhat dark (thanks to the subject matter and to Edward Hyde). I would have preferred it if it had a redeeming character like the Bishop from Les Miserables as a contrast to the mistakes the characters make. There are also a lot of caveats: scattered cursing throughout, misuses of the Lord’s name, and a couple of songs with sexual subtext. I skip the numbers “Bring on the Men,” “A Dangerous Game,” and “Bitch, Bitch, Bitch,” entirely. And on other in Act II, but I can’t remember its name.
The score of this musical reflects the emotion and undertones of the story remarkably. Minor chords, minimal orchestration during the quiet, tense moments, swirling, soaring melodies of triumph, blaring chords during Hyde’s rampages, they all compliment the lyrics perfectly. The piano is a major player (ha!) in this musical score, and I think it contributes to the feel of the story better than another instrument would have done in its place. Often, a piece starts out with a meditative piano introduction or slow, minor chords, and then builds to fuller orchestration.
It’s incredibly hard to pick a favorite number from this one. As with Jane Eyre, it would be easier to list the songs I don’t care for, but after some consideration, I’m going with “This is the Moment.” I’ve heard that this is a cliché number at sports events, but I think it fits writers just was well. If not better.
#5 Les Miserables
Released convict Jean Valjean returns to stealing, and gets himself arrested again–but a Bishop shows him unexpected mercy. Thereafter, Valjean resolves to become a better man and build a new life. But to do so, he breaks his permanent parole and must constantly run from Inspector Javert, a man dedicated to justice, with no room for mercy in his life.
Yes, I left out several other themes of Les Mis. But it’s hard to describe everything succinctly. The story has themes of justice, mercy, forgiveness, friendship, redemption, fighting for your freedom, fighting for what you believe in, and probably others I haven’t noticed.
But I’d like to talk about the Bishop. This character appears only in Act I of the stage show and in only 1—2 numbers (depending on how you count), but his brief presence affects Valjean’s life and therefore, the rest of the musical. The Bishop probably knew that Valjean was an ex-convict, but nonetheless gave him shelter and food for the night, treated him like an ordinary guest. And when Valjean was dragged back to the Bishop’s house the next day, with stolen silver in his bag, the Bishop said he gave the man that silver. Which wasn’t true, and I don’t think the Bishop did the right thing to lie. On the other hand, if he decided to gift the silver right then and there upon hearing the accusation, then it was technically true. His intent was to show this convict God’s mercy. Not only did the Bishop drop charges for the theft, he gave the silver to Vajlean, and also the fine silver candlesticks that Valjean had left behind.
But the Bishop’s mercy comes with a charge: “You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.” Valjean isn’t getting a get-out-of-jail-free ticket for stealing the silver. He must repent and change his ways. Of course, the Bishop has no way of knowing for sure that Valjean will do this—but that almost makes his mercy the more poignant. This man is willing to give his silver to an ex-convict who might see the treasure, not as a second chance, but as an easy way out.
Though the Bishop has no way of knowing how Valjean uses the gift, Valjean does repent of his ways and use the silver to become an honest man. He takes the charge so seriously that, when he hears that a man has been mistaken for him and is going back to prison, the real Valjean shows up at court and reveals himself to be prisoner 24601 instead. Valjean’s kindness and industry and faithfulness uplifts many other characters in the musical. And it all started with a simple act of mercy.
I do have to mention some problems with the musical: there is scattered cursing through out, some suggestive lines, and a couple of songs inappropriate for general audiences. “Lovely Ladies” is about prostitutes, and “Master of the House,” is completely inappropriate and does nothing for the story. We just skip those two songs. 🙂
Having waxed eloquent about the Bishop, my favorite song from Les Miserables is not one of his numbers, but the Epilogue. It’s a bittersweet ending to the story, but a beautiful one, especially once the choir joins in the melody and the music soars.
# 6: The Secret Garden
Spoiled orphan Mary Lennox comes to live with her uncle Archibald Craven on the Yorkshire moor. There is nothing to do in that old house with over a 100 shut up rooms—but when she goes outside, Mary discovers the waiting world of the gardens of the manor.
Yech, I did it again. Turned the story totally cheesy. Ahem. This was another musical Bella recommended. It had to grow on me, but it quickly became a favorite.
Though adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel of the same name, the musical focuses on not only the children seeking a place to belong, but on the grown-ups of the story coming to terms with the past and moving on. It’s an interesting dynamic that was hinted at in the book, and the musical expands upon it. Which changes the story a good deal, but I think that expanded them works well in the musical and makes it a good story on its own terms.
The music is my favorite aspect of this musical. Yeah, I say that a lot, but since these are stories told through music, the music does have to be good. It has almost a turn-of-the-century opera feel to it, an old-fashioned, classical style of music and singing.
And my favorite number from this story is “Come to My Garden.” In fact, I was learning to sing that song during voice lessons when the pneumonia hit last year (and lasted for 3 months). The sickness revived the asthma I had as a kid, and so long story short, I’ve had to quit voice lessons. And for a while, I feared that listening to that song, the beautiful number I wanted to learn, would just remind me of what I’d lost. But oddly enough, it doesn’t hurt to listen to that song. “Come to My Garden,” actually gives me hope that perhaps I can heal from this; something about the lyrics and melody, gentle yet soaring, just says “hope”.