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The 20 Best Titles for Musicals

Sifting through 60 years' worth of musical theater, Filichia selects a few dozen of his all-time favorite show titles. logo
"I'm disappointed in you," writes Brigadude. "In a recent column, you cited the 20 Worst Titles for Musicals. It's so unlike you to stress what's bad. I'd expect many other columnists to write about the worst of something, but I expect you to write about the best of something. Why didn't you write about the 20 Best Titles for Musicals?"

Maybe because that's a much harder task, Brigadude. But I'll give it a shot, going chronologically and starting, as I always do, from the beginning of the original cast album era, which means Oklahoma! "What about The Cradle Will Rock, six years earlier?" carps my buddy David Wolf, referring to the made-on-the-fly disc of that 1937 epic. Be that as it may, from the '40s I like On the Town, Carousel, The Day Before Spring, Billion Dollar Baby (sounds like a hit, though it wasn't), Make Mine Manhattan (like the double meaning there), and Kiss Me, Kate.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes stopped me right in my tracks, though. Great title, but can we include ones that were already established before they became Broadway shows? That seems a little like cheating to me, so I won't include titles like The Phantom of the Opera or Ragtime. Moving on to the '50s, there's Alive and Kicking, a Gwen Verdon show. While I've never cottoned to the cast album of Arms and the Girl, I sure like the twist on the famous George Bernard Shaw play Arms and the Man. Guys and Dolls is good, as are Out of This World (a big expression at the time), Top Banana, and Wonderful Town. Much was made of the playful naughtiness of "Cole Porter's Can-Can," but I do believe it's a good title even if you don't haul in the Cole. But do haul in Gwen Verdon, as you must for Damn Yankees, a pretty racy -- and pretty terrific -- title for its era. Pipe Dream sounds a lot better than it was, which is also true of Mr. Wonderful, but The Most Happy Fella lived up to its joyous name.

Shangri-la is a beautiful word for a musical that had a beautiful set (until it crashed). Happy Hunting is good, but so is any title that uses the term happy, from Happy End to The Happiest Girl in the World -- not be confused with New Girl in Town, which is also a good title, as is Redhead, which means that every Gwen Verdon title has made the list so far. (Let's go for a clean sweep; Sweet Charity and Chicago are good titles, too.)

Once Upon a Mattress and Take Me Along are more famous than my next choice -- The Girls Against the Boys (16 perfs.) -- but I'll stand by it. Recently, I wrote that the name Fiorello! may have hurt future productions of the show because many people outside of New York might not recognize the name of the erstwhile New York mayor, but it was a great title for Broadway in 1959.

Ushering in the '60s, there's Bye Bye Birdie (and, for that matter, Bring Back Birdie much later on). Camelot is such a beautiful word, isn't it? And Wildcat sounds exciting, just as Sail Away sounds restfully exotic. I'll break my rule about pre-existing titles to include How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, because I don't believe that Shepherd Mead's book was as well known as Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Stop the World, I Want to Get Off both sound playful and intriguing. Here's Love! sounds as if it's going to be one of the best shows in the world (it wasn't), as does Hello, Dolly! (it was). By the way, plenty of you wrote me to say that had this Stewart-Herman musical kept its original title -- Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman -- it would have have had to make my 20 Worst list.

You might expect to find Funny Girl on my best list, but not Pleasures and Palaces. Yet, just after the latter show closed in Detroit in 1965, a young woman with the unlikely name of Thelma Mummey said to me, "Does that title just roll off your tongue deliciously?" I still believe she was right. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Skyscraper, and especially Cabaret -- all wonderful. I'm inclined to include Sherry! and wouldn't consider omitting How Now, Dow Jones -- especially given that William Goldman, in The Season, makes such a strong case for why it's a great title.

You may not have heard of Love and Let Love, the Off-Broadway musical version of Twelfth Night that opened just 10 days before another Off-Broadway musical version of Twelfth Night that had a lousy title: Your Own Thing. But the latter ran 67 times longer, proving you can't judge a libretto by its cover. Celebration is a great title, though it doesn't quite suggest the avant-garde piece that this excellent Jones-and-Schmidt show was. Come Summer sounds warm and winning (it wasn't) and 1491 lets us immediately know that we'll be seeing a show about Columbus getting to America.

We're in the '70s now, where Applause (originally Applause, Applause), Company, Two by Two, and Follies all promised (and some delivered) greatness. Jesus Christ Superstar sure told us we were in for something new, and A Little Night Music suggested something elegant. Over Here is good, as is Mack and Mabel; alliterative titles always appeal (that goes for Nick & Nora as well). The Wiz is snazzy and The Prince of Grand Street offers two lush words in its title. And while The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was already the title of an article in Playboy magazine, I'm sure that few musical theater enthusiasts had read it before this title double-barreled its way to Broadway.

The '80s brought Dreamgirls, Cats, and Lucky Stiff. And what was the last great title of the 20th century? Why, Band in Berlin, for it had a nice pun there in reference to band that was banned in Berlin. So, Brigadude, how can I settle on just the 20 Best Titles for Musicals when I've already named something like six dozen? I hope my saying that Broadway is just too full of good titles makes you forgive me for my earlier column that accentuated the negative and eliminated the positive.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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