The history of the Great White Way is filled with great performances, show-stopping dance numbers and soaring scores. Although dozens of shows open each season on Broadway, only some stand the test of time and are revived on stages large and small across the country.
Top Musicals Pre-1960
Show Boat (1927)
"Show Boat, " Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's masterpiece, may not seem unique to modern Broadway fans, but it was the first show to explore serious subjects, like interracial marriage and alcoholism. This piece helped establish the musical as a real art form, rather than a collection of songs and jokes.
By the time he wrote the lyrics for "Oklahoma!, " Oscar Hammerstein was working with a new partner, Richard Rogers. Although this team was responsible for several of the greatest musicals of the 20th century ("The Sound of Music, " "South Pacific, " and "The King and I"), "Oklahoma!" was considered their groundbreaking musical, due to its use of dance to tell the story instead of providing a break from the action.
The Music Man (1957)
"The Music Man" is Meredith Wilson's masterpiece and is a love letter to his hometown in Iowa. This charming period piece is the most popular musical of all time and is still performed by theater groups all over the world. The Music Man won five Tony awards, including Best Actor in a Musical for Robert Preston and Best Musical.
West Side Story (1957)
By the 1950s, the American musical had come into its own as an art form, and it's no surprise that two of the greatest musicals of all time were staged during the same year. Although "West Side Story" didn't win Best Musical, its innovative score by Leonard Bernstein and use of dance for fight scenes make this retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" a classic. It also marks the debut of one of Broadway's greatest lyricists, Stephen Sondheim.
Top Musicals Post-1960
Fiddler on the Roof (1964)
"Fiddler on the Roof" is the signature achievement of the prolific team of Bock and Harnick, who also wrote the Pulitzer prize winning "Fiorello!" and "She Loves Me." "Fiddler on the Roof" is a personal project that captures the experiences and culture of Russian Jews before the world wars destroyed these communities. The overwhelmingly popular musical was a breakthrough in the representation of ethnic minorities on the stage.
Hello, Dolly! (1964)
Jerry Herman's "Hello, Dolly!" was a breakout success in the 1960s and has been continually revived since its debut to showcase the greatest female performers in Broadway history, including Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand, Ethel Merman, and Pearl Bailey. It's a classic comedy about matchmaking in turn-of-the-century New York. Dolly Levi is still one of the greatest female roles of all time.
Into the Woods (1987)
"Into the Woods" is the most popular show by the prolific Stephen Sondheim. The creative retelling of classic fairy tales may seem commonplace to today's audiences, but this show did it first. This musical showcases Sondheim's signature, recitative composition style and intricate, humorous rhymes.
Les Misérables (1987)
"Les Misérables" is a juggernaut of a musical that took the world by storm in the 1980s and 90s. Based on the French novel by Visitor Hugo, its sweeping, operatic score matches the scope of the story about lovers caught up in a doomed, 19th century French uprising. "Les Misérables" has been performed almost continuously on Broadway since its opening.
Jonathan Larson's "Rent" provided an injection of modernity into Broadway musicals that made them popular among young people once again. With its treatment of Gen-X struggles during the AIDS epidemic and its rock-and-roll soundtrack, "Rent" paved the way for a whole slew of musicals featuring young actors and pop soundtracks.
"Wicked" is still going strong over a decade into its run. This retelling of "The Wizard of Oz" features not one, but two, strong female leads, setting the bar for increased gender equity on Broadway stages in the 21st century.