10 Groundbreaking Broadway Musicals

By: Alia Hoyt
West Side Story' musical
Actors and dancers perform in a 50th anniversary production of 'West Side Story,' at Paris' Chatelet Theatre, 2007. PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images

Back in 1866, a New York theater producer was juggling two shows: One was a melodrama about man who'd sold his soul to the devil and then regretted it (as people are wont to do). The other was a revue featuring a troupe of sexy — for the 19th century — French dancers. The theater he'd booked for the dancers was damaged in a fire. Not having anywhere else to hold that second show, he decided to incorporate the dancers in the melodrama.

The result was the first Broadway musical. By that we mean, a live play featuring music and a "book" — the narration that moves the story forward and keeps the production from being just a collection of songs. That first musical was called "The Black Crook" and was enormously popular — it toured for decades and was even revived in 2016 [source: Viagas].


Since then, there have been musicals on just about every topic under the sun, whether it's a group of cute orphans ("Annie"), some foul-mouthed puppets ("Avenue Q") or the wife of an Argentinian dictator ("Evita"). Not all musicals originate on Broadway, but the most iconic have spent some time there. Broadway, of course, is the famous district in Manhattan spanning 41st to 53rd streets (between Sixth and Ninth avenues), with 40 theaters to its credit. Ironically, only four of these actually have Broadway addresses. Broadway is big business for NYC, too, selling more than 13 million tickets and injecting more than $16 billion into New York's economy during 2017 [source: Broadway League].

The list of impactful musicals is enormous but the 10 we've chosen to feature stand out as exceptionally groundbreaking. Here they are in chronological order, using the date of their Broadway debuts.

10: 'Show Boat' (1927)

Show Boat' musical
The opening scene of 'Show Boat' (shown here at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles) takes place at the levee at Natchez on the Mississippi River in 1887. Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Based on a novel of the same name, "Show Boat" was the first production where songs were written to fit the story, as opposed to just being added in. Set in late-19th century Mississippi, the play was produced by Oscar Hammerstein (who wrote the book and music) and Jerome Kern.

"What Oscar clearly did," said Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim in an NPR interview, "was to take operetta principles and wed them to American musical comedy, say, song and dialogue intermixed that would tell a story and tell a story of some emotional truth and reality."


Although "Show Boat" featured a beautiful score, as well as stunning choreography and sets, the musical took on dark and grown-up subject matters, like alcoholism, gambling and race. In fact, it was one of the very first musicals to have an integrated cast [source: Lunden].

Possibly best-known for the breakout song, "Old Man River," it is at its core a tale of love and unconditional friendship of performers aboard the riverboat "Cotton Blossom." One of the central characters, Julie, is kicked off the boat when it is discovered that she is of mixed-race (she narrowly avoids being arrested for the affront of her existence). Although bad habits take a major toll on the characters, they also experience redemption and forgiveness.

9: 'Oklahoma!' (1943)

Oklahoma!' musical
Dancers from 'Oklahoma!' perform at the dress rehearsal for 'On Broadway! A Glittering Salute to the American Musical' at City Center on Oct. 27, 2008 in New York City. Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

With World War II in full swing in 1943, the world had a lot to worry about. "Oklahoma!" offered some much-needed relief, but this light-hearted show also took Broadway musicals into completely new territory. Everything about the production propelled the story forward, rather than taking gratuitous song-and-dance breaks as was the usual pattern for musicals. Instead, the dance choreography, music and lyrics gave insight into each character's personality.

Based on a 1931 play titled "Green Grow the Lilacs," the musical is set in turn-of-the-20th century – you guessed it – Oklahoma. It also marks the first collaboration of the legendary Broadway team Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein wrote the lyrics first and then handed them over to Rodgers who composed the music. The pair actually had difficulty raising money to fund the production, since they hadn't worked together before and Hammerstein was in the midst of a significant success rut.


But the show struck a major chord with audiences, despite its decidedly un-sexy setting (middle America farmland, anyone?) So popular was the score, which features now-indelible classics like "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," and "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," that it inspired the now-common practice of recording albums performed by the original cast. The show's run also shattered all existing Broadway records of the day, lasting for five years and nine months [sources: Malet, Kenrick].

8: 'West Side Story' (1957)

Rita Moreno
Rita Moreno (lilac dress) and others take part in a high school dance in the 1961 film adaptation of the 1957 broadway musical 'West Side Story.' Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

This show reinterprets Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" for 1950s Manhattan. It follows the short, ill-fated romance of Tony and Maria, incorporating blockbuster singing and dancing. The star-crossed lovers came from completely different ethnic backgrounds: Maria, a Puerto Rican immigrant, is forbidden to love Tony, an American of Polish descent. The musical also delves into the social issues of the time, like gang violence, racism and even police bias — issues that still concern Americans today.

Brilliantly composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and directed by Jerome Robbins, "West Side Story" originally was given mixed critical reviews, incredibly taking home only two Tony Awards (for choreography and set design) in 1958. But after the film version starring Natalie Wood debuted in 1961, the tide turned. The movie won 10 Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture, and the musical was revived on Broadway as a result and still tours today [source: History.com].


One criticism of the original play and movie was that most of the Latin characters were played by whites. The 2009 Broadway revival not only remedied that, but also translated much of the dialogue into Spanish. The person enlisted to do this was none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda, who went on to create another show on our list [source: Pilkington].

7: 'Cabaret' (1966)

Cabaret' musical Joel Grey
Joel Grey (back, center) shines as the Master of Ceremonies in the 1972 film 'Cabaret.' Grey created the role on Broadway and won an Oscar for his performance in the film. He was the only Broadway cast member to make it to the film. John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Before "Cabaret," even musicals that featured fairly grownup subject matter did so in a family-friendly way. But this show took all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and mashed it up with an European art house feel. It was this tone and tenor that caused one critic to call it a "musical for people who don't particularly like musicals."

Set in pre-World War II Berlin, the musical tackles some pretty heavy topics, like Nazism, anti-Semitism and bisexuality, while also incorporating a love story of sorts. The play on which the musical is based is partially inspired by true events (as well as some short stories by Christopher Isherwood), making it very relatable to the late 1960s audience in the thick of yet another war. It won eight Tony awards.


The film adaptation would go on to make a massive star out of Liza Minnelli, who played the lead role of cabaret singer Sally Bowles. Ironically, Minnelli was rejected for the Broadway role because the casting experts believed her to be too talented to play the part of a so-so performer. The film went on to win eight Academy awards and cement the show's place in musical history [source: Tropiano].

6: 'Hair' (1968)

Hair' musical
Members of the original Broadway cast of 'Hair' (from right) Lamont Washington, Leata Galloway and Marjorie LiPari rehearse a scene. Bettmann/Getty Images

Even if you don't know much about "Hair," (known also by its full title of "Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,") you probably know that it features a nude scene. But "Hair" introduced more than nudity to the Great White Way. It was the first rock musical to enjoy mainstream Broadway success. Songs from the show, including "Aquarius" and "Good Morning, Starshine" even made it to the pop music charts, something that's still uncommon for musicals [source: History]. So successful was the sound and feel of "Hair" that it paved the way for future rock musicals like "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

"Hair" broke all kinds of rules with its explicit talk about sex, drugs, race and the Vietnam War. During an era when blacks were not seen much in major plays, one-third of the cast was African-American. The musical, which was short on plot, but long on tunes, featured a group of hippies living in New York City during the Vietnam War. One of the group must decide whether to join the army or refuse to go to war. The 20-second scene where the original cast disrobed was only possible because show writer James Rado found a city ordinance stating that nudity was OK as long as "as long as the actors didn't move" he said in an interview with Broadway Buzz [source: Henderson].


5: 'Cats' (1981)

Cats', musical
Performers get into character during the Bogota, Colombia tour of 'Cats' in 2009. Gal Schweizer/LatinContent/Getty Images

Conceived by now-famed British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, "Cats" was improbably inspired by a book of poems by T.S. Eliot, called "Old Possum's Book Of Practical Cats." The musical itself tells the story of a hodgepodge collection of junkyard felines who emerge one night per year for the Jellicle Ball, during which they sing their story to their leader, who chooses one to "ascend to The Heaviside Layer and be reborn into a whole new Jellicle life" [source: Cats the Musical].

Now, Broadway was used to some pretty wacky ideas by this time, but turning cat poetry into a major musical was met with serious skepticism. However, the pushback Webber faced during development and initial production (he even had to take out a second mortgage on his home to finance the show) faded quickly with the success of breakout song, "Memory." Arguably, "Cats" was Broadway's first blockbuster musical — complete with over-the-top sets and costumes and devoted fans — which paved the way for others like "Les Misérables" and "Miss Saigon" to have enormous runs.


Critical reception was decidedly mixed. But in the end, it didn't matter. The show played on Broadway for 18 years, closing in 2000 after 7,485 performances. Once the record-holder for longest run, it was eventually surpassed by another Webber hit, 1988's "Phantom of the Opera," which was still playing on Broadway in January 2018 [sources: Playbill, Biography].

4: 'Rent' (1996)

Rent' musical Cuba
Cuban-American actor Andy Señor Jr. (center) directs Cuban and U.S. actors at the Bertolt Brecht Theater in Havana, during a staging of 'Rent' in 2014. This was the first time in 50 years that a Broadway show was produced in Cuba. ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

You might call this one, the "anti-Cats" musical. Drawing on his memories of his first apartment in New York — with rotting floorboards, no heat and a shower in the kitchen — and the friends he'd made then, writer Jonathan Larson created the musical "Rent." Based on the Puccini opera "La Bohéme," "Rent" tells the story of a group of struggling artists, and while it's meant to capture the passion and love often associated with the Bohemian lifestyle, it also illustrates the dire aspects of being a "starving artist," so to speak [source: Gioia].

The re-imagining of the famed opera takes it from tuberculosis-riddled Paris to the East Village in New York City, at a time when AIDS was causing much distress. It depicts love and passion in spite of progressive, incurable illness. The musical, which dispensed with many Broadway staples, like dimming the lights and starting with an overture, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. It was only the seventh musical ever to earn the distinction. Sadly though, Larson never got to grip his Pulitzer, or even see the show in all its glory. The musical genius, who fought for years to see his production on Broadway, died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35 in 1996, just hours before show previews began [source: Viagas].


3: 'Mamma Mia!' (2001)

Mamma Mia!' musical Singapore
'Mamma Mia!' cast members (from left) Geraldine Fitzgerald, Sara Poyzer and Sue Devaney perform on stage during a media call at the MasterCard Theatres in Singapore in 2014. Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

Some of these musicals on our list have been downright dark, so it's not surprising that "Mamma Mia!" was welcomed with open arms, helping to kick-start an entirely new genre, the jukebox musical (a musical featuring well-established songs, usually from a famous pop singer or group) [source: Ellen]. Not only is the plot full of whimsy — a daughter tries to figure out which of three men is her biological father, amid much singing and dancing, naturally — "Mamma Mia!" is also set to the music of beloved '70s group, ABBA. Songs like "Dancing Queen" and "Take a Chance on Me" served to create a nostalgic production for disco-lovers of the past, while also introducing the score to an entirely new generation [source: Broadway in Chicago].

So successful was the Broadway run, that "Mamma Mia!" became a major motion picture in 2008 starring Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried. It has since inspired a number of other jukebox musicals, like "Jersey Boys" (featuring the music of the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), "Movin' Out" (songs courtesy of Billy Joel) and "Motown: The Musical" (no explanation needed, hopefully).


2: 'Avenue Q' (2003)

Avenue Q' musical Las Vegas
The cast of the Broadway musical 'Avenue Q' performs during a news conference to announce the arrival of the show at the Wynn Las Vegas Resort on Aug. 16, 2005 in Las Vegas. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Don't let the puppets fool you — "Avenue Q" is not a musical meant for kids ... or even prudish adults. The show unapologetically handles any number of mature themes, like internet porn, sex and alcohol use. In fact, it is often described as "Sesame Street" meets "South Park," the long-running adult cartoon show featuring foul-mouthed elementary school-aged children [source: Osborne]. Indeed, some of the original "Avenue Q" cast members worked at "Sesame Street" and some of the puppets are take-offs of well-known "Sesame Street" characters.

More than half of the cast members are puppets operated by visible puppeteers. Complicating matters is the fact that the actor voicing the puppet may not be the one holding it — and different puppeteers may operate the same puppet in different scenes. The show's success is said to have laid the groundwork for the blockbuster Tony Award-winning production, "The Book of Mormon," created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the hilarious, but potty-mouthed guys behind "South Park." The beauty of both musicals is that they push the boundaries of the standard, respectable Broadway show, and can likely be credited for enticing many theatergoers who probably wouldn't have bothered to otherwise fill theater seats.


1: 'Hamilton' (2015)

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of 'Hamilton', Tony Awards
Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of 'Hamilton' perform onstage during the 70th Annual Tony Awards at The Beacon Theatre on June 12, 2016, in New York City. Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Want to see "Hamilton"? Get in line. Literally. The wildly hit show, which opened in 2015, sold out its initial run, and its popularity continues today. "Hamilton" is the unlikely marriage of old-school American history with rap/hip-hop music. The brainchild of creator and co-star Lin-Manuel Miranda, "Hamilton" uses a multi-ethnic cast to rap its way through some true tales of Revolutionary War-era America, all the while depicting the Founding Fathers as ambitious, skirt-chasing OGs [source: Kelley].

The show was inspired by Miranda's enjoyment of the biography, "Alexander Hamilton," in which he clearly saw a man full of ego, ambition and talent. Thus, the concept for the show was born, but Miranda modernized it with a score that is so very current. It includes Beyoncé-style ballads and a rewrite of a Notorious B.I.G. song, as well as references to hip-hop legends like Grandmaster Flash. The show goes all "8 Mile" on us with cabinet meetings that discuss boring political stuff like federalism in true rap battle fashion [source: Rosen]. "Hamilton" received a record-setting 16 Tony nominations and won 11, including best musical, a Grammy for best musical theater album and the 2016 Pulitzer prize for drama.

With its premium seats going for around $900 each, "Hamilton" helped give Broadway its highest-grossing season in history in 2017 [source: Seymour]. And if the show's popularity continues as it is now, that stat's likely to be surpassed.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Groundbreaking Musicals

Writing this story was as if the mothership was calling me home. A lifelong lover of dance and music, I grew up watching musicals like "Bye Bye Birdie," "Guys and Dolls," and "Grease" on TV, doing my best to memorize the scores and choreography. I was finally able to make it up to the real Broadway when the show "Spamalot," opened in 2005, starring David Hyde Pierce, Tim Curry and the incomparable Hank Azaria. Because as much as I love good old-fashioned show tunes, I love Monty Python more.

Related Articles

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