I love watching theater!
Growing up in Northern New Jersey, I was thankfully able to watch a few shows growing up, including The Lion King, Hairspray, and even Shrek (which – plot twist – was not bad!). However, I didn’t really get back into watching live theater until the past few years, when my brother became obsessed with Hamilton (and then other shows) and would play them on our many drives back and forth home.
After watching a few touring shows, I decided to go all-in on a season pass for shows in Boston, and it’s been one of my favorite big-ticket purchases, by far! It’s an expensive hobby, for sure, but one that has given me a lot of joy (and heartbreak) that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Read on to see which of the shows I’ve seen fell flat, and which were my favorites!
9. Miss Saigon (Touring)
I was really excited to watch Miss Saigon because it has a reputation as an important show in Filipino history for including one of Lea Salonga’s most famous and enduring roles. While I respect the show, especially the emotionally taxing and vocally demanding role of Kim, I sincerely did not enjoy the show, making it an easy pick for the bottom of my Broadway show ranking.
I was immediately put off by the treatment of its Asian characters, especially the women. One early scene included having them paraded out in a brothel. I understand that this is probably (and unfortunately) a historically accurate depiction, but that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable to watch, especially as an Asian American women myself. Similarly, though I was proud to see fellow Filipinos playing lead roles in the show, it felt very weird to me that they were playing Vietnamese characters.
Ultimately, as my ranking will probably reflect, I watch Broadway shows as a release from my everyday life. Because of this, I gravitate toward happier or more superficial shows. I don’t completely discount a show because it is sad, but I do tend to enjoy it more if there is some sort of release or takeaway at the end. Just as the Vietnam War in real life, Miss Saigon does not have a happy ending (in fact, spoiler, it has a very abrupt and sad ending), and I was generally unhappy and unfulfilled as I left the theater. It was just sad, sad, sad. Not for me!
8. Cats (Touring)
I have nothing to say about Cats that hasn’t been said already!
My favorite review of the show referred to it as a fancy, drawn-out dance revue, and I like that assessment a lot. Though it lacks a cohesive story and the song lyrics are basically gibberish, it was nice to see it live as an exhibition of different styles of professional dance. That’s something, right!
That said, I don’t think that’s enough to justify seeing it live. Sorry, Mr. Mistoffelees!
7. Dear Evan Hansen (Toronto)
I know this is probably a very! unpopular! opinion, but I was not a big fan of Dear Evan Hansen.
As someone who is acutely interested in mental health awareness, I came into the show with high hopes. I think the show did its best with its very heavy subject matter, I was pretty disappointed! I thought the minimal set design was boring, I didn’t come to like or understand any of the characters too deeply, and I thought the story dragged on way too long.
The biggest thing that I did like about the show was the music. This will be a running theme of the list, but I still walk around the house singing “Waving Through a Window” (linked above) and I did get a sincere laugh out of the song “Sincerely, Me”.
Unlike Cats, I do think this show is worth watching if you have the chance. I recognize that my criticisms of the show are very much based in my own tastes, and I’ve talked to many other people who legitimately love the show. In retrospect, my low ranking of this show may be an indication of how disappointed I was by the show, given the hype. However, the songs and emotionally charged performances alone are definitely still worth the cost of a ticket in my opinion.
6. Hello, Dolly (Touring)
Hello, Dolly! was a pleasant surprise!
I knew literally nothing about the show before going to watch, but was on a high from the previous shows we’d seen and just wanted to keep going when we bought the tickets.
The story was relatively simple and easy to follow and charmed me with its subtle jokes and intricate production. The “Hello, Dolly” sequence that is linked above was especially dazzling and stuck with me long after the show.
5. Book of Mormon (Touring)
Book of Mormon was actually one of the first musicals that got me interested in watching theater. I grew up hearing bits and pieces of it on the radio and was always curious about what it was actually about.
The thing that surprised me the most about this show was that it is hilarious. I learned afterwards that the book was written by the creators of South Park, which explained it! I never really thought of Broadway shows as being “funny,” so this was my introduction to legitimately funny theater, and I will always remember it for that.
This musical also had some of the catchiest songs that I’ve heard. Years later, I still go around singing bits of “I Believe,” “Hello,” and the “Orlando” part of “Two by Two” (“I LOVE YOU, ORLANDO!“).
My top 5 picks are going to be tough – I’ve been spoiled with great shows! – but ultimately, I ranked Book of Mormon at the “bottom” of my “top” picks solely because of it’s very strange (at best) and racist (at worst) treatment of Uganda and its Ugandan characters. In true South Park style, I laughed at the jokes, and then felt bad about laughing, and then re-examined why I laughed, and then why I felt bad about laughing, and then didn’t know what to think (though, to its credit, this show did get me to think in ways that the others did not).
I don’t think Book of Mormon is the only show that I would apply this critique to (the other big example of this is pick number 3 below), but it did stick out to me. Honestly, again, this top 5 is so strong that I needed to find any reasons to stack shows against each other! Sorry, Robert Lopez!
4. Mean Girls (Touring)
Again, these are nearly impossible to rank!
Honestly, I was ready to write this show off as a money grab, capitalizing off of the movie’s enduring success to get butts in seats on Broadway. I don’t know why I doubted Tina Fey so much!
I was happy to find that Mean Girls, the Broadway musical, is just different enough from the movie that it stands on its own, though it does have enough in-jokes and references to the iconic movie that it doesn’t leave it completely behind. The balance was perfect!
The only disappointment from this show was the music – while they served their purpose throughout the show, none of them were catchy enough to get stuck in my head like others on this list. Some actually seemed to drag on, unfortunately. On the flip side, similar to Book of Mormon, I did appreciate how funny a lot of the songs were (“Sexy,” linked above, actually made me cry with laughter in the theater!).
3. Hamilton (Touring)
It’s really hard to rank these top 5!
Again, what can I say about Hamilton that hasn’t already been said? Nothing!
The only possibly-unique thing that I could say is that I kind of actually preferred watching the show on Disney+ last summer instead of live. It was very cool to watch live – I even have tickets now to see it again when the tour comes back to Boston (someday) – but there were so many little details, including choreography and lyrics to songs, that I missed up in my balcony seat. Funny how that works!
2. Wicked (Broadway)
This is another show that needs no introduction!
I treated myself tickets to this show last minute during a long weekend in New York City as a birthday treat. Though I had spent a lot of money on them, I was still skeptical of it overall and walked into the show completely expecting it to be all hype and no substance.
We were first pleasantly surprised when we were lead to our seats and realized that they were in the dead middle, three rows from the front! I had never sat this close to the stage before – let alone for a major Broadway show – and found that I could appreciate the little details, like costumes, actor’s expressions, and the ensemble, even better from up close.
I was even more surprised to find that I loved the show! The biggest surprise for me was the story, especially that the two main characters were very well developed and I grew to appreciate them in different ways as the show progressed.
1. Come From Away (Touring)
Honestly, even going through a clip to link above has got me on the edge of tears – this show touched me that deeply!
When I saw Come From Away listed on our Broadway season pass, I didn’t think much of it because I hadn’t heard of it before. I went into the show knowing vaguely what it is about and expecting to maybe sniffle once or twice. Admittedly, I was still confused at the very beginning, but as reality set in throughout the show, I became more emotionally attached to almost all of the characters. By the end of the show, I had full-on sobbed at least two separate times.
It feels weird to put this show above all of the other, more well-known shows that I’ve seen on this list – but that is precisely why it needs to be first! I want to hype it up! Everyone needs to watch this show!!!