What Are the Five Greatest American Broadway Musicals?
A brief preface: As publisher of Lightwood magazine, I recently tossed this question out to friends, who along with my wife and me, meet every year for a Thanksgiving Dinner in Manhattan. We’ve all made this a tradition since the mid-1980s, and few have missed this celebration year after year. This wonderful group of between 18 and 22 people meet at the same place, bring the same potluck dish (We bring the pies.) and enjoy a day of catching up and often animated discussions, much of which revolve around the theatre. Almost all of these friends have spent years (decades, really) connected to New York theatre and to say that they (and we) are avid theatre goers would be an understatement. I would not be exaggerating to say that among this group, we have seen every (or nearly every) produced Broadway show (even many one-night flops) over the last 50 years. An impressive track record. When we met this year via Zoom, I asked them a question: “What are the five greatest American musicals produced on Broadway?” Here are some responses:
Frank Shanbaker (Manhattan, NYC) opened by calling these “Five Significant American Musicals.”
He writes: I’ve tried to apply various criteria in picking my five finalists: First and foremost, quality, followed by popularity, financial success, relevance today and the degree to which each show might have influenced subsequent generations and how well each has withstood the test of time.
SHOW BOAT (1927) This was a ground-breaking show back in 1927, based on a sweeping, popular novel by one of the country’s popular writers and playwrights, Edna Ferber. It spanned some 40 years and was a far cry from the moon-June / boy-meets-girl musicals of the day. And it introduced some pretty serious themes, such as alcoholism and miscegenation, something you won’t find in No, No, Nanette. It was set aboard a riverboat, which gave the creators opportunities to tell a backstage story and create songs for the “show-within-a show.” This has been a recurring device in various musicals ever since whereby a specific theatrical form, whether it be vaudeville, a musical trying out of town, a sleazy Berlin cabaret of the 1930s, or a reunion of former show girls as their theatre is about to be demolished were the backdrops for, respectively, Gypsy; Kiss Me, Kate; Cabaret and Follies. The backstage component drove the plot and determined the tone of the score. Show Boat not only was successful in its own time but produced a number of hit songs (by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II) at a time when Broadway musicals contributed regularly to the Great American Songbook. The show, which will be 100 years old later this decade, has had six New York revivals and been filmed three times, first as a mostly silent movie followed by two popular talkies. Hammerstein also wrote the libretto, and we will find his hand on the next show on the list and his influence on many others that followed.
OKLAHOMA! (1943) Hammerstein picked up where Show Boat left off with a musical that was even more organic. There was no “show-within-a-show” device to act as an excuse for some entertaining musical interludes. The songs sprang from within the characters and their interactions with their neighbors in the Oklahoma Territory before statehood. And perhaps even more revolutionary was the concept of the “dream ballet” which enabled the audience to get inside the psyche of the leading female character, Laurey, and see her face her anxieties. Dance thus became an integral part of the action, not a mere diversion. The score produced a staggering number of standards and the show remained the longest running musical on Broadway until overtaken by Hello, Dolly more than 20 years later. In the intervening years there have been six Broadway revivals. The most recent one in 2019 pared the show down so that it was no longer a big, splashy Broadway extravaganza, but an intimate comedy-drama with a hint of bluegrass. It appealed to most of the critics and audiences and showed how a 21st century take on a 70-year-old show could infuse it with new life and relevance for a contemporary audience. As a footnote, choreographer Agnes de Mille used to speak with great passion about the show’s impact when it opened in 1943. She said that she would never forget the triple rows of soldiers standing at the back of the St. James watching “this folksy tale with tears streaming down their faces, because it symbolized home and what they were going to die for.”
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1964) went on to surpass Hello, Dolly as Broadway’s longest running show, disproving the naysayers who predicted that a show set in a shtetl at the turn of the century and subjected to a pogrom could never find an audience. The poignant final scene depicts the villagers all leaving their homeland forever to make new lives elsewhere. The stuff of musical comedy, you say? Sounds crazy, no? Yet Fiddlermanaged to maintain that delicate balance between humor and pathos in its book and its score. The subject matter predated Hitler’s rise to power and the Holocaust, which were still raw for many audience members less than 20 years after the end of WWII. Because the libretto manages to transcend the specifics of Russian-Jewish life to show the townspeople struggling the way most people do – to make a living, raise a family and get along with their neighbors – it achieved a broad universal appeal. The musical was successfully adapted for the screen while the Broadway production was still running. Its universal themes of struggle, triumph and pain have brought it back to Broadway five times in the last 50 years and made it popular within other countries and cultures. There are countless YouTube videos, including a Japanese version and a high school production with a 17-year-old Josh Groban as Tevye. There’s an anecdote about the Japanese production in which one of the players was astonished to find out that the show had been written by Americans. “But it’s so Japanese,” he protested. Fiddler did not produce a slew of Billboard hits, although several of the songs, such as “To Life,” “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” are well known. But by 1964 the musical was changing and a totally integrated show like Fiddler did not lend itself to catchy hit songs that could stand alone. Those were becoming less frequent, with the occasional exceptions such as Hello, Dolly and Mame. Possibly the last show to produce a stream of popular songs was Hair, (1968) with its title song, plus “Good Morning, Starshine,” “Aquarius,” “Let the Sun Shine In” “Easy to be Hard,” etc.
INSERT SONDHEIM SHOW HERE— It is so difficult to select just one Stephen Sondheim musical to bridge the development of the American musical from Fiddler in the 20th century to Hamilton in the 21st. Why Sondheim? He was mentored from his teenage years by none other than Oscar Hammerstein who already has been represented in 40% of the shows selected here. And although Sondheim was writing musicals as early as the fifties, including the lyrics to two groundbreaking shows (West Side Story and Gypsy), it wasn’t until Company (1970) that his genius was on full display in an entertaining, yet biting and occasionally cynical show about relationships and commitment – all with no real plot and a very contemporary sounding score. This was followed by Follies; A Little Night Music; Pacific Overtures; and to round out the decade, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sondheim continued to push the envelope in the 1980s with three more unconventional musicals whose subjects were alien to anything Broadway had seen before: Merrily We Roll Along; Sunday in the Park with George; and Into the Woods. He kicked off the nineties with Assassins, which explores the American Dream through the eyes of Presidential hitmen (and women), and continued with Passion, which on the surface is the story of a stalker. And while these shows have gained in popularity over the years, some from movie adaptations, most did not make money or break attendance records in their initial runs. Yet most have been revived on Broadway, in some cases more than once, and been adapted for televised concerts. Sondheim paved the way for writers to musicalize difficult subjects (Side Show; Next to Normal, etc.) His experimentation with form, content and musical styles made it okay for writers to write songs that only make sense when sung by the characters for whom they are written. Accordingly, Sondheim’s influence on the next generations of composers and lyricists has been acknowledged by everyone from Stephen Schwartz (Wicked) to Lin-Manuel Miranda.
HAMILTON (2015) Normally one might be reluctant to say that a show had become a classic only five years out, but the success of Hamilton has been so extraordinary that I am willing to venture out on this particular limb. Almost as many people would gather outside the theatre in New York every day for the few rush tix as would attend the performance. And when a performance video was announced for streaming on the Internet during the pandemic, there were fears that the World Wide Web would crash because of the traffic. What set Hamilton apart from the pack was its eclectic score which included almost every contemporary musical style plus some old-fashioned Broadway razzmatazz, insistence on non-traditional casting and a compelling story told against the backdrop of the formation of the United States— something that the creators of 1776 had also done rather well back in 1968, although with traditional casting and music. Hamilton has won every prize in the book, including the Pulitzer (only one of a handful of musicals to do so) and seems destined to run forever once theatres reopen here, in London and elsewhere. And because of its saturation, it’s inevitable that it will influence the next generation of writers of musicals for the theatre. The New York Post reported on November 30 that Hamilton may be the first show to reopen on Broadway following the pandemic and that it would aim for July 4th, which would add another notch to its long list of firsts.
Frank Shanbaker adds several runners-up:
My Fair Lady— Perhaps the best of the “Golden Age” musicals.
West Side Story— An updated tale told with breathtaking music and dance that still resonates today
Hair— Like Hamilton nearly 50 years later, very much of its time and struck a chord with younger audiences.
A Chorus Line— Perhaps the most fluid of all musicals, taking place in real time over a couple of hours, with show-stopper upon show-stopper and virtually no scenery!
Evita— One of many musicals directed by Harold Prince that dealt with socio-political themes in an almost Brechtian style.
Bruce Klinger (Manhattan, NYC) wrote: I agree with Frank Shanbaker on the first four although I would insert Company as the Sondheim choice since this musical did away with a linear story and was more a state of mind, which I don’t think had been done before.
Gary Mathias (Hawaii) offered as the five greatest American Musicals:
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street— Perhaps Sondheim’s best score; the closest thing to an opera by him.
Gypsy— The ultimate backstage musical.
A Chorus Line— The second ultimate backstage musical.
The Sound of Music— Rogers and Hammerstein’s most beloved musical.
Candide— Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece musical.
And Honorable Mention to Show Boat and Porgy and Bess
Drew Tabone (Florida) listed:
Porgy and Bess
A Chorus Line
Beauty and the Beast
Kevin P. McAnarney’s list included:
COMPANY: My # 1 Favorite musical. One of the first musicals to use individual stories (sketches) as a linking to the main character as well as pit singers (Vocal Minority) for additional vocal arrangements. (I have seen 26/27 different professionals (AEA) productions of this.)
WEST SIDE STORY: The first to use dance in the presentation of the major musical numbers (songs) throughout. Also, No overture to open the show, instead a huge dance Prologue.
GYPSY: The best book of a musical using the score to tell the story. It has one of the best full scores for any musical plus The BEST Broadway musical Overture.
The KING AND I: My favorite R & H shows. It was an intriguing story (book) with a wonderful score that includes main songs for 5 different principals. The use of staged (dance-ish) song (March of the Siamese Children)
RAGTIME: In my opinion the last of the Great large-scale musicals. The brilliant staged opening of the 3 different groups in the story (African Americans, Jewish immigrants; and the white society). One of The Best scores of the past decades.
I was at The opening in Toronto and the reaction was so strong; at intermission I have never seen (and still not witnessed) an audience (men & women) emerge with tears and red in their eyes, mascara running down the faces of many.
From Lightwood Publisher, Laurence Carr: The above NYC theatre-goers and professionals have offered thoughtful and thought provoking lists. They can and will be argued by our readers and even within our holiday group. I can’t add to these Broadway musicals from 1927 through the present, however, I’d like to offer some productions that established the roots of American musical theatre and laid the groundwork for this great American artform.
The Black Crook (1866). The argument will continue without end: Is The Black Crook America’s first musical? I’ll leave this to the “chicken and egg” theatre aficionados and doctorial candidates. I think it has to be said, however, that the American musical, like the other arts developed year by year, layering its components and then refining these components until it transformed into the theatre that we all recognize.
The Black Crook was a patchwork: a melodrama, a romance, a comedy: set in 1600 in the mountains of Germany, the evil Count Wolfenstein is foisting himself upon the sweet and innocent Amina (Shall I stop here?). Comic relief is provided by servants and its music and dance threaded the plot together. The play opened on September 12, 1866 at the 3,200 seat Niblo’s Garden on Broadway and ran for 474 performances, not a shabby run for its time. And speaking of running time, the play lasted 5.5 hours which made it akin to our modern theatre’s day-long productions, such as TheMahabarata and Einstein on the Beach. The book, with generous purloining from Goethe and Weber was by Chares M. Barras with music, much of it arranged from existing works, by Thomas Baker. However, a few newly composed songs did appear including the blockbuster hit, “You Naughty, Naughty Men.”
I now quote from one of the books from my American Theatre collection: They All Had Glamour: From the Swedish Nightingale to the Naked Lady by Edward B. Marks (1944), founder of the Edward B Marks Music Company in 1894. His first chapter on The Black Crook is a fun and insightful read: “A revival of The Black Crook [1879, again at the Niblo Theatre] was up on the boards, and the crowds were jamming the sidewalk to get in. As Jarrett, the original producer, had remarked: ‘Legs are staple articles, and will never go out of fashion…’” Not only did The Black Crookhave melodrama, comedy, song and dance, but to this was added a chorus line of young women in tights and rather full tops. In contrast to today’s music videos, it would look like a like a line of women wearing snowsuits. But to the mid-19thcentury audiences, especially the young men-about-town, it sold tickets (and probably spyglasses). A marketing ploy for the American theatre and beyond was born. And nothing much has changed in 150 years. It brought to mind that memorable song from A Chorus Line, “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three.” But the refrain of that song in the mid-19th century would be “Napes and Calves.”
I’m not sure that the question, “Was The Black Crook the first American musical?” is so important now. If it starts a trend, it’s up there with the others.
The Mulligan Plays (1873-1880) by Edward (Ned) Harrigan and Tony Hart. The prolific team of Harrigan and Hart started in minstrelsy then moved on the vaudeville and variety shows with their song and dance acts. They started to solidify song, dance and story into The Mulligan Guard (1873), which lampooned the Irish neighborhood “militia.” The music was composed by David Braham, who would remain with the Harrigan and Hart for subsequent pieces. The “Mulligan” series, which included The Mulligan Guard’s Picnic (1878) and The Mulligan Guard’s Ball (1880). These prototypes of the later American musical form were filled with popular music, physical comedy, ethnic humor and presented stereotypical stories broadly satirizing Irish, German and Black characters in their lower east side NYC communities. We would no doubt wince today if we saw these pieces, but they were a product of their time and place.
Note: An older but comprehensive book about this creative team is: The Merry Partners: The Age and Stage of Harrigan and Hart by E.J.Kahn, Jr. (Random House, 1955)
In Dahomey: a Negro Musical Comedy (1903) is recognized as the first American musical written and featuring African American artists. It opened on February 18, 1903 at the New York Theatre on Broadway. (An earlier African American show, Clorindy (1898), was produced at a rooftop Broadway theatre, not a legit indoor B’way house.) In Dahomey had music by Will Marion Cook. (Bert Williams has also been credited.) The book was by Jesse Shipp and lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The play ran 52 performances, toured the U.S. twice and then landed in London, where it became one of the most popular musical plays of its day. The plot, both thin and complicated, involved conmen (veteran vaudevillians Bert Williams and George Walker), a missing heirloom and an attempt to colonize Dahomey.
There is an interesting link to a later show, the 1927 Show Boat by Kern and Hammerstein II. These two creators wrote a song, “In Dahomey” to be a last song in Act II, scene 1 of Show Boat. The song showed African Americans portraying Africans “performing” at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1898, but when the crowds leave, they drop their guise and long to go back to their homes in NYC. The song didn’t further the plot and was dropped from the show and score. But it can still be heard on several cast recordings of the complete score.
Shuffle Along (1921). Broadway offered an all African American production with music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake and featured a Black cast. The thin book of mostly snappy dialogue served as transitions between musical numbers and centered around a race for mayor. It was written by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles. The show was a true Broadway hit and ran for nearly 500 performances, a long run at that time and it helped to desegregate theatres. One of its signature songs was, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” The production helped launch the careers of Josephine Baker, Florence Mills and Paul Robeson and was revived in 1933 and 1952. In 2016, playwright and director George C. Wolfe adapted the original musical into Shuffle Along, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. This new version told the story of producing the original Broadway musical and about the race relations surrounding that event. The production starred Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Brandon Victor, and Billy Porter and won four Drama Desk Awards including Best Musical.
Endnote: It was a joy to hear these responses from a group of theatre professionals and theatre lovers, and I’m sure that this is not the end of this discussion, or many others. We hope to hear your responses to this question also.