10 Musicals That Changed Broadway

From Show Boat to The Producers, these shows made their mark on Broadway

A list of 10 musicals that changed Broadway will include Oklahoma and Company, and that means Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. Then, let the arguments begin.

To make my list a show had to break ground, started a trend and still have a place in our cultural memory. No “worst shows” made it, though some could have (that’s another list). And I’m certain I left off some you would have included. Here’s my list, beginning with the oldest. What’s yours? Or what musicals touched you in some way? You can respond to that question below.

Creators: Music, Jerome Kern; Book and Lyrics, Oscar Hammerstein II

Opened/Closed/Performances: December 27, 1927/May 4, 1929/572

Notable Songs: “Ol’ Man River,” “Make Believe,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”

Why Is It On the List?: Show Boat broke ground thematically and artistically. Oscar Hammerstein’s book confronted racism in the reaction of characters to a then-illegal interracial marriage. It also took pains to portray the second-class status of blacks. Artistically, this is a play with music and lyrics that help amplify the emotions of the characters and move the plot forward. Before Show Boat, American musical theater fed on a diet of light opera or reviews, which were a series of unconnected skits.

Creators: Music, Richard Rodgers; Book, John O’Hara; Lyrics, Lorenz Hart

Opened/Closed/Performances: Dec. 25, 1940/Nov. 29, 1941/374

Notable Songs: “I Could Write A Book,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”

Why Is It On the List?: Pal Joey features a total cad for a leading man who isn’t changed at all by the emotional havoc he wreaks on the women who can’t help falling for him. Joey tries, fails and only learns he’ll likely keep trying and failing. With its overt sexuality and anti-romanticism, Joey was the harbinger of the late ‘50's and 1960's anti-hero. The incredible songs by Rodgers and Hart aside, this show's frank look at the darker side of human nature put it ahead of its time, with a brilliance not recognized for a decade.

Creators: Music, Richard Rodgers; Book and Lyrics, Oscar Hammerstein II

Opened/Closed/Performances: March 31, 1943/May 29, 1948/2,212

Notable Songs: “Oklahoma,” “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning,” "People Will Say We’re In Love"

Why Is It On the List?: Oklahoma is the one show that must be on the list. It's the first collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein, ironically, among the creators of the first two shows on this list. Oklahoma united plot, music, dance and conceptualization in a way that hadn’t been done, including an innovative dream sequence choreographed by Agnes De Mille. Quite simply, it took the change begun with Show Boat to the next level and wove it inextricably in the fabric of Broadway. American musicals were never the same.

Creators: Music, Leonard Bernstein; Book, Arthur Laurents; Lyrics, Stephen Sondheim

Opened/Closed/Performances: September 26, 1957/June 29, 1959/732

Notable Songs: “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “Something’s Coming”

Why Is It On the List?: West Side Story took the integration of elements that Oklahoma popularized and added to it a present-day, gritty, urban setting. Among the creators, perhaps director and choreographer Jerome Robbins should be mentioned for making this both real world and fantasy, athleticism and ballet, grit and grace. West Side Story is a bridge between the so-called “Golden Age” musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Sondheim era about to begin. Interestingly, it lost the Best Musical Tony to The Music Man.

Creators: Music, Galt MacDermot; Book and Lyrics, James Rado and Gerome Ragni

Opened/Closed/Performances: April 29, 1968/July 1, 1972/1,750

Notable Songs: “Hair,” “Aquarius,” “Let The Sun Shine In” “Good Morning Starshine” “Easy To Be Hard”

Why Is It On the List?: Hair broke all the rules en route to creating a new sub-genre. The show's feeble plot is like the string on which a bunch of pearls are hung. Outrageous comic vignettes. Infectious, seditious songs. Hair was created by the ‘60s and the anti-war movement, but it created the rock musical, a form continuing to be explored and expanded today. Given the number of Top 40 hits that came out of the show, it’s safe to say Hair added a new lane to Broadway.

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Company, 10 Musicals That Changed Broadway
Image courtesy PriceGrabber

Creators: Music and Lyrics, Stephen Sondheim; Book, George Furth

Opened/Closed/Performances: April 26, 1970/January 1, 1972/705

Notable Songs: “Being Alive,” “Another Hundred People,” “The Ladies Who Lunch”

Why Is It On the List?: Company completed the move from gritty exterior realism to gritty interior realism. It premiered in 1970 but showed the effects of the ‘60s on a group of friends and lovers in New York. The dominant theme of the last half of the 20th century is how we dealt with societal changes. Sondheim set this smack in the middle of our living rooms. Book music and lyrics all reflect it, and to the integrated elements in musical theater, we now add the psyche. A generation of musical theater writers was affected.

Creators: Music, Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics, Tim Rice

Opened/Closed/Performances: Oct. 12, 1971/June 30, 1973/711

Notable Songs: “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” “Superstar"

Why Is It On the List?: Should Jesus Christ Superstar be considered a new step or the next step from Hair? I decided the rock opera and the rock musical are different subsets of Broadway, and I think it’s fair to say Rice and Lloyd Webber created something new. It’s sung through, which is opera. It’s definitely rock. And following its “children” as it were, you would never think of Les Miserables as the descendent of Hair. No, this show created a new thing which continues to have practitioners right down to 2008’s A Tale of Two Cities by Jill Santoriello.

Creator: Book, Music, Lyrics: Jonathan Larson

Opened/Closed/Performances: April 29, 1996/Sept. 7, 2008/5,123

Notable Songs: “Rent,” “Seasons of Love”

Why Is It On the List?: Ultimately, Rent must be here not because it created a new sub-genre (which it might have), but because of all the changes it caused. First, it brought producer Kevin McCollum to Broadway's forefront, and he’s been shaking things up since. (Lottery tickets? Rent started that.) Second, it is credited with creating a whole new generation of theater fans among young people drawn to the story and music. Finally, it continues to influence so many new creative voices today. You can debate whether Rent was a new thing or the next thing, but you can’t debate its impact.

Creators: Music, Elton John; Book, Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi; Lyrics, Tim Rice

Opened: Nov. 13, 1997 (Still running) 

Notable Songs: “Circle of Love,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”

Why Is It On the List?: The Lion King didn’t make the list because of the “cartoon to stage” transition. Too many musicals to name preceded it. The Lion King was the first of a new, family-friendly subset on Broadway. And, it coincided with and helped facilitate the resurgence of Times Square as it shed its seedy reputation and became the tourist mecca it is today. It changed Broadway inside and out. Now, the movement has gone beyond Disney with DreamWorks’ Shrek and Marvel’s Spider-Man.

Creators: Music and Lyrics, Mel Brooks; Book, Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan

Opened/Closed/Performances: April 19, 2001/April 27, 2007/2,502

Notable Songs: “Springtime for Hitler,” “Keep It Gay”

Why Is It On the List?: I can hear the collective “Huh?” But with The Producers Mel Brooks created (or re-created) a new era of “wink wink,” self-referential, fourth-wall-destroying musical theater. Before The Producers, you don’t find any Tony nominated musicals like it. In the eight Tony Awards since 2001, six feature at least one nominee, and often a winner, that can trace its roots to Brooks. (Can you say Spamalot?) Many shows on this list elevated musical theater. No one would accuse Mel Brooks of that. But he certainly liberated it.