1. Les Misérables
Not the 2012 Hollywood, let’s overuse extreme close-ups and ‘oh-did-we-mention-we-sang-live-aren’t-we-just-great’ version. The original London stage production is the world’s longest-running musical and undoubtedly the greatest of all time. That’s all.
There is nothing more satisfying than ‘uncovering’ the ‘true’ story behind a classic. It turns out that Elphaba, soon to become the Wicked Witch of the West, is just an awkward, green-skinned, and thoroughly relatable young woman, whose strong will clashes with authority in Gregory Maguire’s reimagined, and rather Orwellian, Oz. Wicked is a visual feast, complete with top-class comedy, fantastic set and costume design, and goose bump inducing music.
Jonathan Larson’s rock opera masterpiece revolves around a group of struggling, bohemian artists in New York’s East Village during the AIDS epidemic of the late 80s. It is a musical that tries hard to shake off the stereotype of cheesy musical theatre and, in my view, succeeds triumphantly. Its searing portrayal of love in the midst of addiction, poverty, and loss cannot fail to affect even the most hard-hearted of musical theatre sceptics.
4. The Phantom of the Opera
Andrew Lloyd Webber is the undisputed king of West End theatre and The Phantom of the Opera is his acknowledged magnum opus. It is Lloyd Webber’s breath-taking music that earns Phantom a place in my top ten. He has a knack for music which sounds operatic enough to be impressive, but popular enough to remain palatable for a wide audience. All the melodrama and visual impressiveness of opera blended with a dark psychological thriller.
5. Billy Elliot
The story of an aspiring ballet dancer from County Durham during the 1984-5 miners’ strike did not just make the list because of obvious links (Sir Thomas Allen, our Chancellor, has been credited as an inspiration by the writer Lee Hall). Billy Elliot is the very definition of heart-warming. Hilarious in places, but also bitterly poignant and heartbreakingly honest, it deals sensitively with the raw emotion of recent history in the North-East. Dance plays a vital role (obviously), charting Billy’s against-the-odds journey with stirring and awe-inspiring finesse.
6. Blood Brothers
Another intensely human musical, Blood Brothers invokes the nature vs nurture debate in the tragedy of the Johnstone twins, separated at birth and raised at different ends of the socio-economic spectrum. It’s not a terribly original idea, but it is still worth pondering, along with the damning indictment of the class system presented in the show. In Mrs Johnstone, the mother of the twins, Willy Russell has created one of the most powerful characters in musical theatre, a study of desperation, superstition, and the effects of poverty and deprivation.
7. Singin’ in the Rain
Just about as far away as you can get from inner-city Liverpool in the depression of the 80s, Singin’ in the Rain is one of the most cheerful musicals out there and has consistently ranked among the greatest shows of all time. It has everything you would expect from a musical: catchy tunes, manic tap dance routines, an attractive central couple who face obstacles to their love, and an easy-to-follow story, centring on the difficult transition from silent movies to ‘talkies’ in the late 1920s. And it is gut-bustingly hilarious.
8. Avenue Q
Another comic masterpiece from across the Atlantic, the foul-mouthed puppets of Avenue Q (the less child-friendly cousin of Sesame Street) are sure to cheer you up after a tough day of lectures. Especially if you’re an Arts student who loves to be reminded how ‘useless’ your degree really is. Avenue Q tackles the messy reality of life out in the big bad world in a humorous and unforgettable way. And if muppet sex is your kind of thing, I’m sure you’ll be delighted.
9. Sweeney Todd
Who would have guessed that a musical about cannibalism could be so entertaining? The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and his pal Mrs Lovett, with her deeply suspicious meat-pie shop, are Sondheim’s most deliciously evil characters. This vengeful partnership is genuinely scary and the songs are blackly humorous. The only thing I would change about this show is the infuriatingly naïve sailor Anthony, however one could argue that resisting your violent urge to punch him adds further potency to the malevolent atmosphere.
10. The Lion King
This list would not be complete without the musical spectacular that is The Lion King. There are not many shows in which you are likely to meet an enormous papier-mâché rhinoceros trudging through the audience in time to the spine-tingling wails of Rafiki the monkey. This show is simply glorious, leaving you with the sights and sounds of the African Savannah spinning round your head for hours on end, and giving you a nostalgic glance back at the Disney films of childhood, now repackaged for audiences of all ages.
Photograph: Ludovic Bertron