I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in a theatre-going family. We saw large-scale Broadway musicals at least twice a year – sometimes more. We lived in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, but all of the major shows came here after they were done playing in New York. It’s also easy enough (a 3-4 hour train ride) to get to New York to see a show. I don’t go to the theatre as often anymore. In fact, this was probably the first summer I can remember where I did not see a show. That said, I wanted to reflect back on some of the musicals I remember from my childhood. For the sake of ‘80s/’90s nostalgia, I’m sticking to shows that actually came out during those decades, as opposed to older musicals that had revivals then.

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Cats
This show debuted in the early 1980s, before I was born. My parents saw it on their honeymoon in New York. My mom remembered the cats coming into the audience. One sat next to her and stroked her hand during the performance. Cats was still playing when I was 14 (for a time, it was the longest-running Broadway musical ever). One year over the holidays, my family and I went to New York and saw Cats at the Winter Garden Theatre. Honestly, the show didn’t do much for me. It’s one of those shows that’s entirely singing and dancing, with minimal plotline. I sometimes have trouble following those because I tend to pay more attention to the music rather than the lyrics. One bright spot in this show was when the cats broke into a typical, Broadway-style tap dance. It looked exactly like something I would have learned in the dance studio at that time.

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The Secret Garden
This musical came out in the early 1990s. It was based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s book by the same name. The beginning of the book and show are set in early 20th century India, when it was still a British colony. The main character Mary’s parents die in a cholera epidemic, so she is sent to live with her uncle in England. On the way to the show, my mom asked me if I knew what it meant when the characters dropped a red handkerchief. The reason she asked was because when my cousins saw the show, they did not know what that meant. I said it meant that the characters died, which was right. I felt so smart at that moment, but probably the only reason I knew was because I had read the book, or rather my mom read it to me. I loved The Secret Garden – especially the music. The songs “Lily’s Eyes” and “Come to My Garden” were particular favorites. I got the soundtrack (on cassette tape), and listened to it in my room. I later found out that the music was by Lucy Simon, sister of Carly Simon.

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Beauty and the Beast
I remember seeing this show in 1996. My family and I had just gotten back from a vacation to Disney World, and thought we would be “Disneyed-out” by the time we saw the show. We were wrong. This show was more dazzling than the animated movie, or anything we had seen in Disney World. When the woman who played Belle first came on stage, my mom and I weren’t so sure about her. She looked almost too old for the part, and not ‘sweet’ enough for Belle. By the end of the show, she had won us over with her voice and raw talent. The stage version of Beauty and the Beast had all the familiar songs from the movie, but also a few that were written specifically for the show. The production went all out on the “Be Our Guest” scene. At one point during the song, the characters did a can-can number. It made perfect sense since the show was set in France. I always thought that the movie version should have had a can-can or G-rated Moulin Rouge scene, maybe with those three blonde girls who are in love with Gaston.

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Titanic
I saw this show in the late 1990s. Despite the name, it was not a stage version of the wildly-popular movie of the time. This show had a different plot. It won numerous Tony awards, but I did not care for it. The show was a downer. That’s all I can say. I remember there were three characters named Kate who were known collectively as “the Kates.” The scenery changed frequently from simple and sparse (to represent third class) to more elaborate (first class). The show had a haunting and depressing song called “Titanic” that the cast sang during and at the end of the show. My problem with this show was that you knew the whole time what was going to happen: the boat was going to sink. Unlike the movie, the writers of the show did not create a compelling storyline for the few days that the Titanic was at sea. The characters seemed doomed from the start. In my opinion, that made the whole show fall flat.

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The Lion King
The Lion King debuted in New York a few years after the movie came out. The show was so popular at first that it was almost impossible for anyone who wasn’t ‘someone’ to get tickets. When Rosie O’Donnell had her talk show, she told a story about when she took her kids to see The Lion King. A child in the audience threw up in the aisle. Unfortunately, this was the type of show where the characters come down the aisles to get to the stage, so they ended up stepping in vomit. Rosie must have had that experience in the late 1990s, but I didn’t get to see the show until 2008. The costumes and scenery were amazing, and the talent awe-inspiring – especially the two young actors who played Simba and Nala (as lion cubs). Like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King features the familiar songs from the Disney movie, but also some that were written specifically for the show, including my favorite song, “He Lives in You.” One of the most impressive things about this show was that after a few minutes, I forgot that I was watching people in costumes. The characters really seemed like animals on stage.

Admittedly, some of my memories are hazy, and the reviews may seem oversimplified, but I wanted to stick to what left an impression on me as a child, rather than what I’ve read or been told as an adult. Meanwhile, I’d be interested to hear what others remember about these musicals, or any shows that came out around the same time. I haven’t seen much talk about live theatre on Retrojunk, so let’s get the conversation going!