By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
Did you grown up singing along with the cast recording of Broadway musicals? If you are of a certain age, perhaps you did. My mother had many of them, and I enjoyed singing along, whenever I knew the words. Home was so very far away from New York in those days, so the cast albums (I’m talking old 78s and 33 1/3s) were the closest you could get to the plays themselves. This was before the internet, when many areas of the country only got three television channels. This was before cable. Yes, I am old. But I always remember how much fun I had listening to the musicals. And I know I am not alone.
So what musicals have been the most popular through the years, popular enough to keep bringing them back, that is?
1. Porgy and Bess (music by George Gershwin, book and lyrics by Ira Gershwin , based on the book by Dubose Heyward)**
Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935 on Broadway, and has been brought back to Broadway seven times! Part of the popularity is the story and part, possibly the larger part, is the music by George and Ira Gershwin. And it is the most revived musical on Broadway.
2. The Threepenny Opera (music by Kurt Weil, book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht)
The Threepenny Opera premiered in 1933; it has been revived six times. This play was adapted from the book The Beggar’s Opera written in 1728. This musical may qualify as being from the oldest extant source!
3. Show Boat (music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II)
Before Hammerstein teamed up with Richard Rodgers he was famous in his own right. He just became more so in the famous partnership. This musical has also been revived six times. “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” are always show stoppers.
4. Peter Pan (music by Mark Charlap and Jule Stine; book and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh)
Peter Pan is the fourth most restaged musical. I’m sure you thought it would be on the list somewhere! It’s a perennial favorite for all ages, and those of us old enough will remember that Mary Martin starred as Peter in the first show in 1954. She was the mother of Larry Hagman who became a star in I Dream of Jeannie, and became a megastar in Dallas.
5. Guys and Dolls (music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows)
This musical premiered in 1950. Some from younger generations may be surprised that Marlon Brando starred in the film adaptation, singing and dancing. Nathan Lane starred in the 1992 revival. I’m sure that was a good one.
6. Fiddler on the Roof (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein)
Next is one you probably thought should have been higher up on the list. The book was based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem, telling the story of the Jews living in the Soviet Union and how they lived there. It first premiered in 1964 and was an immediate hit. The movie was wonderful, too.
7. Carousel (music by Richard Rodgers, and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II)
Now we come to the famous pairing of Rodgers and Hammerstein. This was the second play in their partnership. Oklahoma was the first, and it changed the way musicals were written and performed. Carousel only cemented their fame, and they were even nominated for a Tony award.
8. West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents)
West Side Story is the eighth most popular revival. I’m surprised it’s not higher on the list. But perhaps because it was based on one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays was what made it so popular (aka Romeo and Juliet). You can’t go wrong with Shakespeare… It premiered in 1957, and was so popular it came back to Broadway three years later.
9. Pal Joey (music by Richard Rodgers; book and lyrics by Lorenz Hart, based on the book by John O’Hara)
The character and stories from this musical were based on short stories by John O’Hara that appeared in the New Yorker; he later published these stories as a novel. The play received mixed reviews from the critics, but ran for ten months, so it was popular. Not smash hits like with Rodgers and Hammerstein…
10. Oklahoma (music by Richard Rodgers, and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II)
Speaking of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Oklahoma is the next most revised musical. This one was the first by the duo. This musical broke the mold. The singing was part of the dialogue, not just song and dance numbers interspersed in between dialogue.
Some people in the business aren’t sure all of the old favorites should be revived. Some of the shows continue stereotypes, while others deal with abuse or misogyny. And what about the revivals taking away room for new musicals to come to town; others have concerns about this possibility too.
In a November New York times article, Georgia Stitt, a composer, lyricist and musician, posted this on social media last fall as the 2017 season was being announced:
“With respect to the creatives who will be employed by these projects, I will say I’m concerned about a Broadway season that includes PRETTY WOMAN, CAROUSEL and MY FAIR LADY all at the same time. In 2017 is the correct message really “women are there to be rescued? It’s frustrating that the material people seem to want to throw their energy into is old properties where women have no agency, and then there is the real scarcity of women on the creative teams.”
–Georgia Stitt (@georgiastitt) November 22, 2017
Creative teams have sought to rework problematic classic musicals, either by changing wording (only possible with permission from the writers’ representatives), or by rethinking staging.
Critiques of My Fair Lady have focused not only on the show’s final exchange, but on the Pygmalion narrative itself. “Oh gosh, it is very, very sexist,” Julie Andrews, who originated the role of Eliza on Broadway in 1956, told an interviewer last year. “Young women in particular will and should find it hard.”
Pretty Woman, which will be staged for the fall 2018 season, faces different challenges, as a new musical with no pre-existing book or score. It will have a production in Chicago this spring and is then scheduled to open on Broadway in August.
Some artists think that there are a few musicals that need to be revived. What about Funny Girl, 1776, Titanic or A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum? Grand Hotel, anyone??
A few final words about musicals: This year Love Never Dies will be shown in North America for the first time. The sequel is set in New York, ten years after the ending of the Phantom of the Opera ends. It started in Detroit and now is coming to TPAC. And yes the music and lyrics are by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
** So what exactly do these musical terms mean? The music itself, often called the score, is often written by a different person than the person who writes the lyrics, (a.k.a. the words in the songs). Think of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Then think of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Stephen Sondheim. Both of these men often wrote the words and music for their productions. The book is the words, the actual story of the musical, sometimes based on a book, as in Phantom of the Opera.
- The 23 Most-Revived Musicals in Broadway History Since 1927
- 10 Musicals Due for a Broadway Revival
- The Problem With Broadway Revivals: They Revive Gender Stereotypes, Too
- Do Revivals Inhibit New Broadway Musicals?