What is it about Broadway musicals that we love so much? What keeps us coming back for more? What entices us to get lost in a world of song, dance, escapism, and heightened emotion? So many musicals have resonated with audiences in the roughly 150 years since the Broadway musical became one of New York City’s most popular forms of entertainment. Let’s take a look at the Broadway musical throughout history and examine 20 of the benchmark titles that have evolved the form, impacted audiences, and demonstrated that extra something special.
The Black Crook
As the Broadway song says, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,” and it’s true that The Black Crook is seldom (if ever) revived today. But then, its actual importance lies not in the content of the show itself, but instead in its symbolic place as Broadway’s first musical. Scholars debate the actuality of it being the first, but it certainly holds as one of musical theater’s first big phenomena, establishing the structure that we would collectively accept as that of the modern musical. The 1866 piece came to be when a struggling play and a displaced dance company were brought together, some songs were added, and a hit was born. Voilà! Instant musical theater. The show ran for 474 performances and then toured the country.
The 1927 musical Show Boat, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, and P.G. Wodehouse, is adapted from Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel of the same name. Hammerstein also wrote the book, a serious story that dealt with topics such as racism and miscegenation. Show Boat marks musical theater’s first serious step toward maturation and evolution. It featured an early stab at the integrated musical where the music and lyrics grew out of the plot, themes, and characters.
Of Thee I Sing
Of Thee I Sing, the 1931 musical with a score by George and Ira Gershwin and a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, was a glorious satire of American politics and a witty lampoon of a presidential election. What makes Of Thee I Sing particularly significant is that it was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an indication that American musical theater was being taken more seriously as a legitimate art form.
Porgy & Bess
Is it an opera or is it a musical? That is the ongoing debate surrounding Porgy & Bess. The 1935 piece — with a book by DuBose Heyward, music by George Gershwin, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin — remains one of the most revered shows of the Broadway stage and a serious turning point in the telling of the African American story through musical theater. The story of a crippled man living in the slums of Charleston who falls in love with a beautiful drug-addicted woman continues to resonate to this day, and it enjoyed a revival a few seasons back.
In 1943, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein first came together to collaborate on a musical version of Lynn Riggs’s play Green Grow the Lilacs. The result, which would ultimately be dubbed Oklahoma!, would become the template for musical theater for decades to come. The story that takes place in pioneer territory about to become a U.S. state may, on the surface, seem like a simple tale of a girl at the center of a love triangle between a cocky cowboy and an emotionally disturbed farmhand. In its execution, however, the musical became the first that fully integrated plot, character development, music, lyrics, and dance, all holding equal weight in moving the story forward. Of special note was the choreography by Agnes de Mille, whose dream ballets used dance to explore characters’ psychologies.
The 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow is significant for a few reasons. The E.Y Harburg and Fred Saidy book deals with topics that were controversial for their time, such as whites and African American cohabiting, as well as bigotry, socialism, and corruption in politics. Slightly more significant is that Finian’s Rainbow is the first Broadway musical to feature a racially integrated ensemble, blacks and whites singing and dancing together to the Burton Lane and Harburg score.
Kiss Me, Kate
There is nothing particularly revolutionary about 1948’s Kiss Me, Kate in terms of evolving musical theater as an art form. It is, however, a masterfully constructed, complex musical comedy, a brilliant show-within-a-show wherein each story sheds light on the other one. Sam and Bella Spewack wrote the clever book (adapted from William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), and Cole Porter the sparkling score. Where Kiss Me, Kate became an important benchmark among Broadway’s evolving story is that it is was the first to win the Tony Award for Best Musical.
West Side Story
If Agnes de Mille’s work in Oklahoma!, Carousel, and Brigadoon pushed the boundaries of storytelling through dance in musical theater, it was Jerome Robbins who reached the form’s apex with the 1957 musical West Side Story. Utilizing movement to show the tension between rival street gangs, as well as to convey a budding romance between a girl from one side and a boy from the other, Robbins brought dance to the forefront, making it a principal factor in how musical theater stories are told, putting it on the same level as the book and score.
Fiddler on the Roof
Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), and Joseph Stein (book) created a musical theater masterpiece in 1964 when they crafted the musical version of Sholem Aleichem’s tale Tevye and His Daughters into the groundbreaking Fiddler on the Roof. To date, musicals had predominantly conveyed Christian Americans, occasionally exploring some Jewish themes. Fiddler on the Roof, however, was a poignant, funny, heartfelt, and ultimately tragic story about a town of Jewish families whose lives were about to take a drastic turn. It was also the first musical in history to surpass 3,000 performances.
John Kander and Fred Ebb would become one of Broadway’s most revolutionary musical theater composing teams, particularly with their dark and probing edge, satirical wit, and willingness to explore subjects that many would deem “unmusical.” Indeed, look at their pieces like Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and The Scottsboro Boys, which seem to defy the musical theater form and also seem so perfectly explored within it. With a book by Joe Masteroff, direction by Harold Prince, and choreography by Ron Field, their most influential piece, 1966’s Cabaret, evolved content and form. The foundation they laid by taking us into a show-within-a-show inside a Berlin nightclub would change musical theater forever.
Not only did Company launch a decadelong partnership between composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince, but the 1970 musical opened the door for a new way of musical theater storytelling. With Company came what we now refer to today as the “concept musical,” which explores a theme rather than a linear story. It had been tried before a handful of times, but the success of this piece, which followed the ups and downs of the institution of marriage, was how it demonstrated a compelling, alternative structure for musicals that defied the Rodgers and Hammerstein model.
The 1968 sensation Hair ushered in the complete rock musical, though Bye Bye Birdie had hinted at the possibilities of the genre for storytelling in 1960. But Hair was a cultural phenomenon, utilizing contemporary musical styles to comment on current issues such as the Vietnam War, the environment, women’s issues, racial stereotypes, homosexuality, the generation gap, and drug use. It was unlike anything that Broadway had ever seen, with its band of hippies providing commentary on the turbulent world the young generation was facing in the late 1960s.
A Chorus Line
At one point it was Broadway’s longest-running musical, lasting 6,137 performances (it has since been surpassed several times over). The 1975 musical A Chorus Line seemed to speak to everyone, conveying the vulnerability we each feel when interviewing for a job. Michael Bennett directed, and co-choreographed with Bob Avian, a show about dancers vying for a spot in a Broadway chorus, each revealing their hopes, dreams, and secrets during the audition process. What is more, this was achieved on practically a bare stage with almost no spectacle at all. The characters, the dance, and the Marvin Hamlisch/Ed Kleban score were the only things in the spotlight.
Dreamgirls makes this list because it proved to be the height of what the super-director could achieve. In this case, it was the innovative staging by Michael Bennett that gave the musical an almost cinematic quality — performers, scenery, and lighting all moving in tandem, seamlessly propelling the action forward. When this was married with the electrically charged Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen score, Dreamgirls exploded with originality, so much so that playwright Neil Simon recounted members of the audience standing on their seats cheering during the show’s 1981 opening night.
La Cage aux Folles
In the 1980s, the evolving AIDS crisis created growing concern in the gay community, and the mood of the decade was one of fear. It is perhaps because of this that the 1983 Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein musical La Cage aux Folles acted like a salve to the unthinkable: It was a musical comedy that centered on a gay couple who were for all intents and purposes married. La Cage aux Folles was the first major achievement in musical theater that embraced telling the story of the gay experience. Not only did it catch on with the gay community, but it became a hit with all audiences. In the 1980s, it was an enormous risk to broach homosexuality, and yet audiences, gay and straight, cheered its anthem “I Am What I Am.”
The Phantom of the Opera
It is not so much a benchmark musical as it is a landmark musical, holding the distinction as Broadway’s longest-running musical of all time. The Phantom of the Opera opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre on January 26, 1988, and it has remained ensconced there ever since. The Andrew Lloyd Webber–Charles Hart–Richard Stilgoe musical about an opera ghost and the ingenue he mentors shows no signs of stopping. The combination of the richly romantic score and its no-cost-spared spectacle proved to be a must-have ticket when it opened more than three decades ago.
The Secret Garden
It is no secret that musical theater authorship — composers, lyricists, book writers, and directors — has been male-dominated. How refreshing it was, then, when the 1991 musical The Secret Garden boasted an all-female writing team. The musical, itself based on female novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved novel, featured a book and lyrics by playwright Marsha Norman and music by composer Lucy Simon. The show even had a woman director, Susan H. Schulman. The Secret Garden would pave the way for musicals like Fun Home and Waitress that brought a woman’s voice to the musical theater experience.
Rent was more than just an iconic musical: It was an international phenomenon that reframed the cultural and social relevance of musical theater. Jonathan Larson’s 1996 work about a community of struggling bohemian artists living in Manhattan’s Alphabet City under the specter of HIV struck a powerful chord with an entire generation. Rent also reaffirmed there was an audience for musicals that explored more contemporary sounds and subject matter.
In the Heights
Though they had been employed in fits and starts in prior musicals, the sounds of hip-hop and rap truly cemented themselves as part of the musical theater language with the arrival of the 2008 Broadway musical In the Heights. Composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda brought to life the world of the largely Hispanic neighborhood of Washington Heights, utilizing the music that helped to define that world, and lyrics that shifted between English and Spanish.
Continuing with his penchant for breaking musical theater molds, like he did with In the Heights, composer-lyricist-book writer Lin-Manuel Miranda brought us the musical Hamilton, a piece of revisionist history that cast nonwhite performers depicting America’s founding fathers. The musical sought to give minorities a voice in their country’s history, imagining the perspective of what it would have been like if they had been their equal due. It also makes the list because it is pulling people into the theatre in droves, particularly young people, significantly helping to create the next generation of Broadway musical theatergoers.
Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.