It is difficult to narrow down Broadway musicals to a top ten. I enlisted the help of my Broadway-savvy sister, Elle Casey, on this one. We tried to consider what really were the top ten and not just our personal tastes. Included are brief paragraphs explaining the plot of each show and the name of one song per show that we feel defines it. They are listed in no particular order. We hope that you will tell us your opinion in the comments.
Cabaret– this classic originally opened in 1966, has enjoyed a number of revivals, became a movie in 1972, and has some of the most recognisable songs of any Broadway musical. Set in Berlin of 1931, the story centers on the Kit Kat Club and its seedy nightlife in contrast with the growing Nazi menace outside. The plot revolves around Englishwoman Sally Bowles and the American writer Cliff Bradshaw. There is also a second couple, Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, the former a German boarding house keeper and the latter a Jewish fruit vendor. The emcee of the Kit Kat Club watches everything unfold while what in the beginning are the twisted stories of love, lust, and revenge become intertwined with the Nazi horror that invades. Defining song: “Cabaret”.
Chicago– this satire of corruption and the concept of the celebrity criminal first opened in 1975. It is set during the Prohibition in Chicago and has a subplot of the allure and immorality associated with jazz at the time. It has also had a revival which has become the sixth longest running show in Broadway history. A film adaptation was made in 2002 that starred Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, and Queen Latifah. Much of the story takes place on Murderess Row in Cook County Jail. Roxie Hart is accused of murder and faces hanging until Billy Flyn enters the picture. Defining song: “All That Jazz”.
A Chorus Line– the original production was in 1976. It has nineteen main characters, each auditioning for the same show. The set is very sparse. Each character is revealed as an individual vying for their bit of spotlight and sometimes the competition is ruthless. In the end, however, they all become indistinguishable just as a chorus line would be. It was adapted to film in 1985 and has enjoyed several revivals and reincarnations. Defining song: “What I Did For Love”.
Hair– No list would be complete without this Rock musical. After an off-Broadway debut in 1967, “Hair” came to Broadway in 1968, stirred up much controversy, and defined the Rock musical genre. It came directly from the Hippie culture of the time and many of its songs became anthems in the Anti-Vietnam movement. It was also innovative in that the audience was invited onstage for a “Be-In” finale. A movie adaption was released in 1979 and some of its songs became Top Ten hits. A revival opened on March 31, 2009 to rave reviews and received a Tony Award. Defining song: “Hair”.
Phantom of the Opera– Another must for this list. Andrew Lloyd Weber has reigned as the undisputed king of Broadway for decades now and this is his crowning acheivement. Originally written as a vehicle for his then-wife Sarah Brightman, it opened in the West End in 1986 and on Broadway in 1988. It is the longest running show in Broadway history and has long made its home at the Majestic Theatre which was the only theatre to have the mechanics to house the show. It celebrates its twenty-third year in January 2011. The reincarnations and movie adaptions of it are numerous. It opened in Las Vegas in 2006 with everything appropriately glamoured up. The most recent movie adaption was in December 2004 starring Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler. Defining song: “Music of the Night”.
West Side Story– this is also one of the most beloved stories to grace Broadway. It opened in 1957 and spawned a movie classic in 1961 starring Natalie Wood. Set in 1950s New York City and based loosely on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, the play raises interesting questions about the forces that divide mankind. The 2009 revival uses Spanish lyrics for some of the songs sung by the immigrant population while the original had them singing in English. This adds to the reality of the story and reflects the prominance of the Spanish language today. Defining song: “Tonight”/ “I Feel Pretty”.
American Idiot– this rock musical is fantastic in that it is based largely on one album and has redefined what the average ticket-holder expects from Broadway. The music of alternative-punk band Green Day are the backbone of this production. After a run at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2009, it moved onto Broadway in March 2010. The reviews are stellar and ticket sales ar strong. The list of awards given to this show is impressive. A concept ablum turned Broadway success. Defining song: “Whatsername”/ “St. Jimmy”.
Memphis– this is loosely based on Dewey Phillips, a Memphis DJ who was one of the first white DJs to play African-American music. It lived in various cities around the U.S. between 2003 and 2009 before finally coming to Broadway on October 19, 2009. REviews are mixed, but it appears that the plot is alluring enough that it just might become a classic. Defining song: “Memphis Lives In Me”.
Rent– just a few years ago this show was all one heard about. A rock opera based on “La Boheme”, it centers around a group of artists struggling to survive in New York’s Lower East Side in the best days of Bohemian Alphabet City. The show enjoyed an off-Broadway life starting on January 25, 1996 and made a home on Broadway on April 29, 1996. It enjoyd immense popularity and explored the theme of AIDS which was most prominent in people’s minds throughout its run. It closed on September 7, 2008, after a 12-year run, but has enjoyed various incarnations and an off-Broadway revival is set for 2011. Defining song: “”Seasons Of Love”/ “Will I?”.
Spring Awakening– this is one of the most melancholy offerings to date. It is a rock musical remake, so to speak, of the controversial 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind. The original play was banned in Germany. It is set in 19th century Germany and follows teenagers just discovering sexuality and all the painful consequences of fornication, etc. It also explores the horrors of abuse. The result is tragic for every character. It premiered off-Broadway on May 19, 2006 and opened on Broadway on December 10, 2006 . It’s run was short, ending on January 18, 2009, after 888 performances and 29 previews. The soundtrack continues to sell well. Defining song: “Touch Me”.
Cabaret (musical), Wikipedia.
Chicago (musical), Wikipedia.
A Chorus Line, Wikipedia.
Hair (musical), Wikipedia.
The Phantom of the Opera (1986 musical), Wikipedia.
West Side Story, Wikipedia.
American Idiot (musical), Wikipedia.
Memphis (musical), Wikipedia.
Rent (musical), Wikipedia.
Spring Awakening, Wikipedia.