While watching a nifty production of The Fantasticks in Manasquan, New Jersey, I was again reminded of what a terrific score this is. In fact, I wondered: Is it the best score ever written for an Off-Broadway musical? Needless to say, Off-Broadway musicals are different animals from their big brother Broadway counterparts. Their history isn't as lengthy, either -- for while Broadway musicals trace their origins to The Black Crook in 1866, Off-Broadway is harder to pin down. We had The Cradle Will Rock in the '30s and The Golden Apple in the '50s, but Off-Broadway really didn't hit its stride until the 1960s.

Some of you may say that The Golden Apple shouldn't be on the list because it later moved to Broadway. I agree. So, in choosing the 50 best scores for Off-Broadway musicals, I've decided that a production that moved to Broadway and had a run longer than its Off-Broadway stint is a Broadway show, despite its more humble origins. Thus Rent, Urinetown, and Avenue Q have lost their eligibility for this list. So, for that matter, has The Golden Apple, which played six weeks downtown and 16 weeks uptown, though Godspell -- which played 2,651 performances downtown before moving to Broadway for a 527-performance run -- is on the list.

As for revivals: Shows that started on Broadway and later got an Off-Broadway revival, be it The Threepenny Opera or Billy Bishop Goes to War, aren't eligible, either. Let's add Annie Warbucks, originally the road-killed Annie 2, to that category, too. On the other hand, Little Shop of Horrors, which lasted more than five years Off-Broadway and less than a year on Broadway, is still categorized as an Off-Broadway show. I'm not allowing any composer catalogue shows of old songs (e.g., Oh, Coward!) but I will allow composer catalogue shows of new brand-new songs (e.g., Elegies). Nevertheless, I've barred nightclub revues (Dime a Dozen), musicals with second-hand scores (Forever Plaid), and "half-new musicals" wherein pre-existing melodies buttressed new lyrics (Menopause).

Of course, you and I won't agree on all of the choices on the alphabetically ordered list below. I'm looking forward to your writing me and telling me what I forgot -- not to mention what I remembered that you wished I hadn't.

  1. After the Fair (1999): Matthew Ward's elegant music and Stephen Cole's incisive lyrics do wonderful justice to that sentimental ol' favorite, The Day After the Fair.

  2. All in Love (1961): Bookwriter-lyricist Bruce Geller was so discouraged by the failure of his musical version of The Rivals that he went to Hollywood and created Mission: Impossible. Every now and then, you'd hear one of Jacques Urbont's melodies from this tuner as background music on the TV show.

  3. A Backer's Audition (1983): Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell showed what really goes on in those apartments when a producer needs to raise money. There's a wonderfully sentimental song, "The First Time You Went to the Theater" that needs to be recorded.

  4. Bat Boy (2001): Composer-lyricist Laurence O'Keefe took a tabloid sensation and miraculously made us care about the poor thing.

  5. Birds of Paradise (1987): If you can't find the cast album, you can at least hear "Imagining You" -- quite a beautiful song -- as background music in the film Camp.

  6. Boy Meets Boy (1975): Everyone who knows this landmark gay musical always quotes the final bars of the title song -- "Boy meets boy, boy loses boy, but boy gets boy in the end." That's just the beginning of the inventiveness in Bill Solly's score.

  7. Brownstone (1986): Peter Larson's and Josh Rubins' nifty look at a group of New Yorkers living in the same building produced "Since You Stayed Here," which has since stayed around through multiple recordings.

  8. The Cradle Will Rock (1937): You know the story about the famous opening night, but do you know the astonishing Marc Blitzstein score?

  9. Dames at Sea (1968): Though you'd never guess it from the way it's abysmally sung in the current revival at the Jean Cocteau Rep, this show has a wonderful score.

  10. Elegies (2003): In an era when fewer and fewer people seem to remember Joe Papp, bless William Finn for writing a song to keep his memory alive.

  11. Ernest in Love (1960): All right, it certainly isn't as good as The Importance of Being Earnest. But lyricist Anne Croswell captured the right spirit, and you'd never know that the composer, Lee Pockriss, also wrote "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini."

  12. The Fantasticks (1960): Try to remember another score as good.

  13. Festival (1979): A medieval tale set to Stephen Downs' pop-rock music, with lyrics mostly by Randal Martin and a few by Bruce Vilanch. Best song: "When the Lady Passes."

  14. Floyd Collins (1996): Though I do often wonder what Adam Guettel's grandfather would have thought of it, this is a fine score.

  15. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1979): Why hasn't there been an album of this early Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical, which has great additional lyrics by Dennis Green?

  16. Godspell (1971): Stephen Schwartz sure made an auspicious debut by giving us a score with all good gifts.

  17. Hello Again (1994): Michael John LaChiusa's new take on La Ronde needs to have another go-around.

  18. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1998): Damn good glam rock by Stephen Trask.

  19. I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road (1978): The first important feminist musical, courtesy of Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford.

  20. Inside Out (1994): Another important feminist musical, courtesy of Adryan Russ and Doug Haverty.

  21. In Trousers (1979): Seriously, if I were allowed only one score to listen to for the rest of my life, William Finn's debut effort just might take the prize.

  22. I Sing! (2001): All right, a few things in this score could use some polishing, but Eli Bolin and Sam Forman were college students when they wrote it.

  23. The "It" Girl (2001): Paul McKibbin wrote positively wonderful '20s music, ranging from ragtime to silent movie, for this show. Best song: "Coney Island," a swirling waltz wherein BT McNicholl's lyrics show people having such a good time that I weep with happiness for them.

  24. Joan (1972): Al Carmines' updating of Joan of Arc set in the East Village. The whole show was recorded on two LPs, and you should try to find the album.

  25. The Last 5 Years (2002): The fact that the story is told simultaneously backwards and forwards may have kept this show from being a long-running success. Certainly, Jason Robert Brown's score didn't.

  26. Last Sweet Days of Isaac (1970): Another Cryer-Ford hit, though the first act ("The Elevator") was better than the second ("I Want to Walk to San Francisco").

  27. Little Mary Sunshine (1959): I'd like to see Rick Besoyan's wonderful spoof of operettas produced by -- I'm serious -- the New York City Opera.

  28. Little Shop of Horrors (1982): The show that put Alan Menken and Howard Ashman on the map was a delicious Suppertime for theatergoers.

  29. Lucky Stiff (1988): And now we have a new recording of this Ahrens-Flaherty debut show with even more material, some of the original cast, and some exuberant newcomers.

  30. Man with a Load of Mischief (1966): And now we have a new recording of this score, too -- except that it was done with a synthesizer, which ruins the period atmosphere.

  31. A New Brain (1998): The old brain that William Finn had was good enough to create this mini-masterpiece.

  32. No Way to Treat a Lady (1996): A musical about a serial killer? But Douglas J. Cohen knew how to handle it without making it too grisly.

  33. Now Is the Time for All Good Men (1967): The first score by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford is still their most charming.

  34. O Say Can You See (1962): Bill Conklin and Bob Miller's affectionate look at life on the home front during WW-II. Best song: "Someone a Lot Like You."

  35. Parade (1960): Jerry Herman's tune-up for bigger and better things.

  36. Philemon (1975): Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones' look at the struggle that early Christians had with non-believers. Best song: "On the Streets of Antioch."

  37. Promenade (1969): We're in a smoke-free era now, but Al Carmines' "The Cigarette Song" should live forever.

  38. Riverwind (1962): "I Want a Surprise," demanded the heroine, and theatergoers sure got a delightful one from John Jennings' score.

  39. Ruthless! (1992): Play the new DVD of The Bad Seed and you'll discover where Marvin Laird and Joel Paley got their title.

  40. Saturday Night (2000): Yes, Sondheim's "first" musical was originally planned for Broadway. But given that it never got there, I say we should include it here.

  41. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1964): Songwriters Leon Carr and Earl Shuman made a smart decision in making Walter not just a daydreaming klutz but also a wonderful father -- although why they named his daughter "Penina" is beyond me.

  42. Songs for a New World (1995): I am convinced that when Harold Prince heard Jason Robert Brown's "Just One Step," he immediately said, "Kid, you've got the job of writing Parade."

  43. Streets of New York (1963): The cast album, recorded by Capitol but unreleased for decades, was a Holy Grail for many collectors. Now it's readily available on CD and well worth getting.

  44. 3 Guys Naked from the Waist Down (1985): We all know that Michael Rupert is a charming and wonderful performer, but who knew that he was such a terrific composer, too?

  45. Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi (1993): Right from Theda's first song, "There Are So Many Things That a Vampire Can't Do," you know you're in good hands (those of Bob Johnston and Jeff Hochhauser).

  46. Thrill Me (2003): A musical about Leopold and Loeb? It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it -- and Stephen Dolginoff did it superbly.

  47. Trixie True, Teen Detective (1980): I'm still angry at every critic who didn't get this terrific show by Kelly Hamilton.

  48. The Wild Party (2000): Hearing the first six seconds of "An Old-Fashioned Love Song" made me know that I'd soon be clapping my hands off.

  49. You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (1967): Little Shop wasn't the only delicious Suppertime for theatergoers.

  50. Your Own Thing (1968): Sure, it's dated, but the work itself is still terrific.

The sad thing is, we haven't had the chance to get to know many wonderful scores for Off-Broadway shows -- like Up Eden (1968), of which I have fond memories but which few people saw. I've always heard great things about Wally Harper's musical Sensations (1970), but Mercury didn't exercise its option to record it, so I have no opinion. And who knows about the late, great Fred Ebb's Morning Sun (1963)? So many shows, so many possibilities. Still, of the Off-Broadway scores that I do know, I think The Fantasticks is the best

********************

[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]