Broadway has had its successes and Broadway has had its flops. Over the years, so many shows have come and gone, but a few have dug their roots deep into the ground and shown real staying power. Today we look at the 10 musicals that had the longest runs on Broadway and examine some of the history behind them and their historic milestones.
Beauty and the Beast
(5,461 performances. The original Broadway production closed on July 29, 2007.)
Opened: April 18, 1994
From the moment the 1991 Disney animated film Beauty and the Beast hit movie screens, critics were quick to point out that the Alan Menken–Howard Ashman score felt like that of a Broadway musical. With such numbers as “Belle,” “Be Our Guest,” and “Gaston” tipping their hats to the classics of the Great White Way, it was not a difficult stretch to imagine Beauty and the Beast playing out just beyond the footlights. Disney was quick to pick up on the suggestion, and by 1994, had secured a home at the Palace Theatre for that “tale as old as time” to win our hearts. Disney was new to Broadway, and its first attempt at producing a Broadway musical was a mammoth hit. With a cast that included Susan Egan, Terrence Mann, Tom Bosley, Beth Fowler, Gary Beach, Burke Moses, and Heath Lamberts, and under the direction of Robert Jess Roth, Beauty and the Beast went on to be nominated for nine Tony Awards including Best Musical, winning for Best Costume Design (Ann Hould-Ward). During its run, Beauty and the Beast changed theatres (vacating the Palace so that Disney could bring in Aida), finishing its run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Besides being an enormously popular source of family entertainment and Disney’s first major venture into theatrical production, the advent of Beauty and the Beast marks the beginning of the transformation of Times Square and the Theatre District from a seedy den of iniquity into a visitor-friendly playground of entertainment and dining.
(5,758 performances. The original Broadway production closed on September 12, 2015.)
Opened: October 18, 2001
Arguably one of the better jukebox musicals and certainly Broadway’s longest-running one, Mamma Mia! came to the United States via London, and it prompted audiences to dance in the aisles of the Winter Garden Theatre. In the 1970s, the Swedish pop band ABBA took the world by storm with infectious hits such as “Dancing Queen,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “The Winner Takes It All,” “Super Trouper,” and “Mamma Mia.” With that catalogue of recognizable (and danceable) music, producer Judy Craymer tasked British playwright Catherine Johnson with creating a story that could sandwich as many of these ditties into a plotline. The result: a musical about a young woman trying to track down her father, who she’s never met, so she can invite him to her wedding. ABBA members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, who had composed the hits, were skeptical of using their songs as musical-theater properties, but they nevertheless agreed. Under the direction of Phyllida Lloyd, Mamma Mia! opened at London’s Prince Edward Theatre on April 6, 1999, then transferred to the Prince of Wales Theatre, then the Novello Theatre (where it still runs). The musical crossed the Atlantic in 2001, setting up shop in Toronto (where it remained for five years), and on October 18 of the same year, it finally made it to the Great White Way. On Broadway, Mamma Mia! was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The Broadway production starred Louise Pitre, Judy Kaye, Karen Mason, and Tina Maddigan.
Oh! Calcutta! (1976 Revival)
(5,959 performances. The original Broadway production closed on August 6, 1989.)
Opened: September 24, 1976
A musical that likely few members of the current theatergoing generation have heard of, but that has held its own in the Top 10 for decades, is the musical revue Oh! Calcutta! One should never underestimate the power of nudity and sex to fill seats in a theatre. Created by British drama critic Kenneth Tynan, the musical originally played Off-Broadway in 1969 and then transferred to Broadway. The 1976 revival of Oh! Calcutta! was, at one time, the most salacious offering to be found on Broadway, the promise of naked people singing just titillating enough to peak curiosity. Comprised of a series of sex-related sketches, the musical featured a score by Peter Schickele, Robert Dennis, and Stanley Walden. Critics generally panned Oh! Calcutta!, finding the piece juvenile and without substance. That didn’t seem to matter, because audiences came and continued to come to the tune of 5,959 performances. The musical was directed by Jacques Levy and choreographed by Margo Sappington. Though the revue has not aged well and we are unlikely to see a revival any time soon, at one point it was a big hit.
A Chorus Line
(6,137 performances. The original Broadway production closed on April 28, 1990.)
Opened: July 25, 1975
Everyone has suffered through the vulnerability and anxiety of searching for employment. How interesting that one of Broadway’s most successful musicals of all time became a metaphor for that common experience. A Chorus Line, with a score by Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban, and a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, tells the story of a handful of dancers going through an unconventional audition to be one of the chosen few to join the ensemble of a Broadway show. Directed by Michael Bennett and co-choreographed by Bennett and Bob Avian, A Chorus Line started out Off-Broadway at The Public Theatre in April 1975, when it was heralded as groundbreaking musical theatre and was soon whisked off to Broadway’s Schubert Theatre, where it would remain for the entirety of its 6,137-performance run. The musical dominated the Tony Awards that season, where it won 9 of its 12 Tony nominations, including Best Musical. What arguably made A Chorus Line so special was that it was knitting together real-life stories of professional dancers. Michon Peacock and Tony Stevens had hosted a handful of sessions where these artists shared their experiences in the world of dance. These conversations were the impetus for what would eventually become A Chorus Line.
(Still running, 6,431 performances as of February 17, 2019)
Opened: October 30, 2003
L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been a cultural phenomenon since the book was first printed in 1900. Of course, the 1939 MGM film version The Wizard of Oz would rocket the property to icon status, becoming a beloved classic of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Again, the tale would resurface in the African American Broadway musical retelling The Wiz (1975). The Wizard of Oz just refuses to go away, and nobody wants it to. In 1995, author Gregory Maguire decided to put a new spin on the story with Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, reimagining the loathed villain of Baum’s book as a compelling, empowered heroine. Composer Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell) and book writer Winnie Holzman saw musical potential in Wicked and set about adapting the hit novel for the stage, taking some liberties with Maguire’s novel along the way. Settling into Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre (where it remains to this day), Wicked just celebrated 15 years on the Great White Way. Under the direction of Joe Mantello, with choreography by Wayne Cilento, Wicked was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning three, including Best Actress for star Idina Menzel. The cast also included Kristin Chenoweth, Norbert Leo Butz, Joel Grey, and Carole Shelly.
(6,680 performances. The original Broadway production closed on May 18, 2003.)
Opened: March 12, 1987
When it opened in London in 1985, the critics were not big fans of Les Misérables, suggesting that the show was a watered-down version of Victor Hugo’s epic novel, dark and dreary, overly long, and without nuance. Someone apparently forgot to tell the audiences, as that London production continues to run more than three decades later. By the time it arrived on Broadway in 1987, word of mouth from across the pond made Les Misérables one of the most eagerly anticipated shows of the decade, solidifying the concern of a “British invasion” taking over Broadway. The story of ex-convict Jean Valjean, who breaks his parole in an effort to start a new life, and the relentless hounding he endures from the rabidly fanatical Inspector Javert hell-bent on putting Valjean back in prison, appealed to the masses. Subplots of war and romance, not to mention breathtaking spectacle, ensured that there was something for everyone. The Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg score enjoyed a popularity, with songs such as “On My Own,” “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Bring Him Home,” “Stars,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” finding play outside the context of the show. The cast featured a bevy of heavyweights including Colm Wilkinson, Terrence Mann, Randy Graff, Judy Kuhn, Frances Ruffelle, and Michael Maguire. Directed by Trevor Nunn, Les Misérables won 6 of its 10 Tony nominations, including Best Musical.
(7,485 performances. The original Broadway production closed on September 10, 2000.)
Opened: October 7, 1982
In the 1980s, there were few kid-friendly offerings on Broadway. Musical theater was generally tailored to an adult crowd. It would not be until 1994, when Disney’s Beauty and the Beast would open the door for a string of musicals that catered to the whole family, that Broadway would truly embrace young people as a potential audience. This is not to say that there weren’t family-friendly offerings along the way: The Sound of Music, The Wiz, Annie, and, of course, the cultural phenomenon Cats. Based on T.S. Eliot’s series of poems Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and featuring a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats was already a box-office smash in London when it arrived at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre on October 7, 1982. The concept was simple: A group of cats gathers in a junkyard and each tells their story, making the case for why they should be taken up to the Heavyside Layer where one of them will be given their next life. The show’s atmospheric production design gave Cats an environmental feel, and Trevor Nunn’s direction and Gillian Lynne’s choreography kept the show lively for audiences. The Broadway cast starred Betty Buckley, Terrence Mann, Kenneth Ard, Harry Groener, and Ken Page. Nominated for 11 Tony Awards, Cats took home trophies in seven categories, including Best Musical. Cats soon went on to become a tourist favorite, with people filing in from all over the world to see the piece.
(Still running, 8,896 performances as of March 25, 2019)
Opened: November 13, 1997
After Disney found success on Broadway with its musical adaptation of the animated hit Beauty and the Beast, other recent musical film hits were looked at that might make a suitable choice for the Broadway treatment. Everyone agreed that the Elton John–Tim Rice score for the 1994 film The Lion King was screaming for Broadway, but how could they make a world of animals come to life on stage without looking like a parade of sports mascots? Enter Juie Taymor. Taymor, a well-regarded director and designer for the stage, known for incorporating international theater techniques, mask-making, and puppetry in her projects, was secured to not only direct The Lion King for Broadway, but also to take charge of shaping and designing it. The result was a breathtaking musical that was elegant of movement and culturally evocative. The musical’s opening sequence, “The Circle of Life,” rivaled the majesty of its film counterpart, with ingenious puppetry practically re-creating it on the stage of Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre. The Lion King was nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning five, including Best Musical. The Lion King now resides at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre, where it continues to be a crowd-pleasing entertainment for the entire family.
Chicago (1996 Revival)
(Still running, 9,291 performances as of March 25, 2019)
Opened: November 14, 1996
For its original run in 1975, Chicago was admired, enjoyed a healthy run of 936 performances, and, despite a cast that included Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon, and Jerry Orbach, was relegated to an “also-ran.” The show was eclipsed that season by the immense popularity of A Chorus Line. Well, some great shows are celebrated at once, and others are celebrated eventually, over time. Chicago, on the strength of the unforgettable Kander and Ebb score, not to mention the stylized, iconic choreography of Bob Fosse, would reemerge more than 20 years later! In 1996, Chicago was chosen by City Center’s Encores!, a concert series that “celebrates the rarely heard works of America’s most important composers and lyricists,” for rediscovery. Directed by Walter Bobbie and with choreography by Ann Reinking (in a tribute to the Fosse style), and armed with a cast that included Reinking, Bebe Neuwirth, and James Naughton, Chicago was an enormous hit. Soon it was ushered to Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, then it played the Shubert, and it currently resides at the Ambassador. The revival was nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning six, including Best Revival.
(Still running, 12,967 performances as of March 25, 2019)
Opened: January 26, 1988
Only one musical has outrun every show in the entire history of Broadway, and we all know which one that is. The Phantom of the Opera has been ensconced at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre since it opened on January 26, 1988. The show, which just celebrated its 31st birthday on Broadway, is based on Gaston Leroux’s novel of the same name. Featuring a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Richard Stilgoe, and Charles Hart, The Phantom of the Opera was brought to the stage by the inventive mind of legendary theater director Harold Prince. The musical started out in London’s West End (where it also continues to run), and then came to Broadway in January 1988, when advance ticket sales were through the roof. For years, getting a ticket to see The Phantom of the Opera was like finding a unicorn, a near impossibility that theater fans only dreamed of. The Phantom of the Opera featured the stars of the London production — Michael Crawford as the spooky title character, and Sarah Brightman as the young ingenue Christine, who was the object of the Phantom’s interests. Also in the cast were Steve Barton, Judy Kaye, Leila Martin, Nick Wyman, and Chris Groenendaal. Of course, The Phantom of the Opera won the Tony Award for Best Musical that year, as did Michael Crawford for his portrayal of the opera ghost.
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.