In the beginning, none of it started on the stage. That’s how it seemed to go for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. The pair began their musical partnership in the 1960s, but it took years for their work to find its way into the avenue that would make them famous: the stage musical. Even Jesus Christ Superstar, which would hit the stage to great success and acclaim in 1971, began life on vinyl as a rock opera concept album. Released 50 years ago this month, Jesus Christ Superstar was the true launch pad for two of the most successful careers in theater. Here’s how a failed Eurovision submission and a new look at the New Testament became a musical classic.
Webber was born into a family of musicians and was composing his own material by age nine. He studied at the Royal College of Music in the mid 1960s. In 1965, he met Rice, who had a talent for lyrics and would soon be working in the music industry for EMI. The pair collaborated on a musical about the Irish philanthropist Thomas John Barnardo; called The Likes of Us, it wouldn’t be performed in public until 2005. However, the work led to the duo being asked to write a cantata for London’s Colet Court school; the result was a 15-minute, embryonic version of what would become Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Webber and Rice revised and expanded it for years until it got its own release in 1972.
In 1969, Webber and Rice tried to get into the Eurovision Song Contest with an entry titled, appropriately, “Try It and See.” Though the song wasn’t chosen, it would be rewritten and woven into their next big project as “King Herod’s Song.” Rather than put their story straight to the stage, the duo recorded it as a rock opera concept album first. Based loosely on the last few days of the life of Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar takes its inspiration from the New Testament, but isn’t a literal interpretation. It’s a “sung-through” show, meaning that all of the dialogue is sung, with no breaks for simply spoken passages. The point-of-view character for much of the show is Judas, whose struggles with Christ’s approach to his mission lead to his betrayal of his friend and his eventual suicide.
To make the album, Webber and Rice brought in a mix of performers from both the U.K. stage and British rock acts. The role of Jesus was filled out by Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan, while Judas was performed by Murray Head (many Americans know him from the single from the musical Chess, “One Night in Bangkok;” he’s also the brother of Anthony Stewart Head, best-known as Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Mary Magdalene was brought to life by Yvonne Ellman, who would go on to reprise the role in the film version; Ellman also sang the #1 hit “If I Can’t Have You” from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
The disc began making waves around the world upon its September release, and by 1971, it was selling strong before the musical had even been produced in the States. The show was first performed in the U.S. as a concert in Pittsburgh in July of 1971; Ellman played Mary Magdalene, and Carl Anderson played Judas (as he would in the later film adaptation). The album went to #1 in the U.S. In October, the show opened on Broadway (with Ellman). Though some groups objected to the musical (notably, those that thought that the text wasn’t religious enough, and those that found the Jewish characters to be depicted as more villainous), the show proved to be enduringly popular.
The 1973 film adaption, directed by Norman Jewison, earned Golden Globe nominations for Ellman, Anderson, and Ted Neeley, who played Jesus. An adaptation filmed for television in 1999 won an International Emmy Award for Best Performing Arts Film. More recently, NBC mounted a live concert version on Easter Sunday in 2018; notable cast members included John Legend as Jesus, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalane, and Alice Cooper as King Herod.
The success of the original musical catapulted Webber and Rice into fame. It allowed them to mount Joseph as a successful production; they reteamed for Evita in 1976 and collaborated on The Wizard of Oz in 2011. On his own and with other collaborators, Webber has had enormous success, including Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Sunset Boulevard. Rice has also done extraordinarily well, co-writing Chess with Benny and Bjorn of ABBA, co-writing Aida with Elton John, and providing lyrics for Disney films like Aladdin and The Lion King. Webber and Rice are two of only sixteen people to have an “EGOT,” having won at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony in their careers.
The ongoing popularity of Jesus Christ Superstar can be attributed to a number of factors. Obviously, its subject matter is based on a major world religion, and one of the most well-known stories on the planet. But Webber and Rice transformed it into incredibly memorable pop tunes, and tried to express the story in more relatable, human terms. It’s that level of connection that sticks with the watcher or the listener, and its why the album, and the show, still retain their power 50 years later.
Featured image: Dutchmen Photography / Shutterstock
Having performed in both the touring and London productions of Hair in the early 1970s, Richard O’Brien combined his love of science fiction, horror, and comic books with his stage background into writing the musical The Rocky Horror Show. The play rapidly grew in popularity, moving from theatre to bigger theatre in England. When the opportunity came to take the tale to the screen in 1975, little did anyone involved know that their film would still be playing around the world 45 years later. I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey . . . this is the story of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
O’Brien was born in England in 1942 and moved to New Zealand with his family in the 1950s. After college, he went back to England in 1964 and began working on stage and in film. O’Brien played both an Apostle and Leper in the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar; the director who cast him was Jim Sharman. Sharman would cast him again, and O’Brien shared his idea for They Came from Denton High, a musical send-up of the things that he loved, like 1950s science-fiction movies. Sharman came on board as director and gave O’Brien the idea for a new name: The Rocky Horror Show. In June 1973, the show kicked off at London’s Theatre Upstairs; it quickly became a hit, moving to bigger venues until making it to the U.K’s equivalent of Broadway, the West End.
Lou Adler was already a big name in American music when he saw Rocky in London. Adler had produced Carole King’s Tapestry, the Monterey Pop Festival, and six hits for The Mamas and The Papas, including “California Dreamin’.” He bought the U.S. theatrical rights, taking the show to the Roxy in L.A. Soon after, Michael White, who had produced the London shows, Adler, O’Brien, and Sharman were collaborating on a film version. Adler and White produced with Sharman directing and co-writing the screen adaptation with O’Brien.
In terms of casting, several members of the London cast made the jump to screen. Tim Curry (Dr. Frank-N-Furter), O’Brien (Riff Raff), Patricia Quinn (Magenta), and “Little Nell” Campbell (Columbia) had all been in productions in England. The ostensible lead roles of Brad and Janet were trickier, as studio 20th Century Fox wanted American actors in the parts; those ended up being filled by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon. Charles Gray, a two-time Bond villain, played the criminologist/narrator and Jonathan Adams was cast as Dr. Scott. Marvin Lee Aday, better known as Meat Loaf, was a veteran of Broadway’s Hair and had played Eddie in the L.A. cast; he reprised Eddie for the movie, two years before the release of his massively successful Bat Out of Hell album. Background character Betty Munroe (whose wedding Brad and Janet attend early in the film) was played by Hilary Labow, which was the screen name of Hilary Farr, known today as the designer on the long-running renovation series Love It or List It.
Much of the Gothy, classic horror mood of the film came from the location at Oakley Court. The estate had been used in several Hammer Studios films, including The Brides of Dracula and The Plague of the Zombies. In Sharman’s direction, you can occasionally note some of the same wide angles and sudden zooms prevalent in Hammer features, which were meant to echo styles prevalent in the genre. Richard Hartley produced the soundtrack and handled musical arrangements on the songs that O’Brien had written. The soundtrack lists 21 official numbers, although “Once in a While” came from a deleted scene and “Super Heroes” was only seen in the U.K. until the eventual video release.
The film opened 45 years ago this week in London, with the U.S. opening a few weeks later. It was not an immediate success. Outside of L.A., it was quickly pulled from theatres. Tim Deegan, a Fox executive, suggested an alternative strategy; figuring that the film might do well on the midnight circuit, as John Waters films had, Deegan got the ball rolling in New York. The Waverly Theater became ground zero for a cult phenomenon, fostering audience participation in the form of recited remarks and props. Audience members began coming to the show in costume, and screenings started to have live casts that would act out the film as it ran on the screen. Within a couple of years, the movie had become a legit cult sensation and defined the notion of the “Midnight Movie.”
The movie has actually never closed, making it the longest-running release in the history of film. Some fans and film history buffs were concerned about the status of the film when the Walt Disney Company finished its acquisition of 20th Century Fox in 2019. However, even though Disney “vaulted” a number of Fox titles, they were conscious of Rocky’s status and fandom and decided to keep it in release so that the screenings would go on.
So, just what has made it endure? At the top, the music is insanely catchy, particularly “The Time Warp.” The notion of attending a movie as a sort of costume party is fun, and the props and interaction make it a shared experience that you can join in over and over. But a deeper undercurrent is that Rocky Horror celebrates the outsider. It’s been embraced by the LGBTQ+ community, theater kids, punks, goths, comic book fans, horror and science fiction fans who get the in-jokes, and more, all of whom find connection to the film. Its influence has reverberated through the years, turning up in sitcoms like The Drew Carey Show or a 2010 episode of Glee or in films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Fox’s 2016 TV remake. It has endured for four-and-a-half decades, and there’s no sign that it will go away anytime soon. One supposes that it’s comforting to know that as much as some cult phenoms come and go, there will always be a light over at the Frankenstein place.
Featured image: UA Cinema Merced. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, opening night, January of 1978. (Photo by Robin Adams, General Manager, UA Cinema, Merced California, 1978. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.; Wikimedia Commons)
The history of the movie musical comes packed to the rafters with classics. You’ve got Singin’ in the Rain and The Sound of Music. There’s Cabaret and West Side Story and an armada of Disney films led by Mary Poppins. From The Wizard of Oz to Hedwig and Angry Inch, it’s easy to name beloved films that are powered by amazing music. But, like every other genre, the musical has seen its fair share of sour notes. 40 years ago this week, the critically reviled Xanadu hit theaters. And while people all over the world still enjoy a number of the Olivia Newton-John and ELO songs contained in the film, it stirred up enough dislike as a movie to inspire the creation of the Golden Raspberry Awards. In that spirit, and with full awareness that someone out there probably loves each and every one of these, here are the Worst Movie Musicals Ever.
10. Xanadu (1980)
Perhaps the biggest problem for Xanadu’s detractors is that its disparate elements just never really hang together. Gene Kelly brings in a classic vibe, and the attempt to blend the ’40s and ’80s is commendable, but seeing Kelly frequently just reminds you how much better old Gene Kelly musicals were. The Greek mythology elements come off as more of a distraction. And frankly, there’s just way too much roller-skating. It’s also hard not to laugh when the nightclub they’ve been creating turns out to look like the set of Solid Gold. Bonus Track: dancer and actress Sandahl Bergman played one of Newtown-John’s Muse sisters two years before she made a big impression in Conan the Barbarian.
9. Cats (2019)
The Cats trailer (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Trailers)
Here’s a caveat: time may move this up the list. Let’s face it: regular Cats is nobody’s favorite musical. Yes, Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige slayed “Memory” on both sides of the Atlantic, but that’s it. The basic story is this cat does this, this cat does that, no one likes the cat that has sex until it’s time to ritually sacrifice her, and so on. (Note to self: A Midsommar musical would be awesome.) But what really sets the film apart is the complete Uncanny Valley-ness of it all. Somehow, Marvel can make a tree and a raccoon into tactile, emotionally believable characters, whereas the unholy mélange of cat and human in Cats look like cut-scenes from the PlayStation I era. It’s just inherently bad. Bonus Track: Taylor Swift only has three words of dialogue.
8. Can’t Stop the Music (1980)
It’s the fictionalized origin story of the Village People, starring the Village People! It was also the other half of a double-feature with Xanadu that inspired John J.B. Wilson to create the Golden Raspberry Awards; Can’t Stop the Music was the first winner for Worst Picture. Plot-wise, the movie is a disjointed mess as it tries to follow multiple plotlines, like a romance between Valerie Perrine and then-Bruce Jenner (Jenner’s film debut, roughly 25 years before coming out as trans and taking the name Caitlyn), the struggles of Steve Guttenberg’s songwriter, the recruitment of the six Village People, and more. The only well-known VP song in the film is “Y.M.C.A.;” it appears during a musical number set at the, of course, Y, and features full-frontal male nudity (something that generally never happens in a film not rated R). Bonus Track: The director was Nancy Walker, best known as Rhoda’s mother on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda, and character Rosie for 20 years of Bounty paper towel commercials.
7. Grease 2 (1982)
Producer Allan Carr was a successful producer of films like Grease, a Tony and People’s Choice Award winner, and an agent that discovered talents like Mark Hamill, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Olivia Newton-John. He also produced Can’t Stop the Music, Grease 2, and that career-killing Snow White/Rob Lowe Oscar number, so . . . win some, lose some? You can hardly blame anyone for wanting to follow the insanely successful Grease with a sequel. On the other hand, the original film had the bedrock of the stage musical to build on. And on the other, other hand, it’s just bad. The lone bright spot is Pfeiffer, who had the distinction of being one of the few elements that wasn’t savaged by critics. Bonus Track: Male lead Maxwell Caulfield went on to a different kind of musical immortality as Rex Manning in Empire Records.
6. The Pirate Movie (1982)
It’s the 1980s, so that must mean it’s time for dueling . . . Gilbert & Sullivan adaptations? One uses the original name of the stage musical, The Pirates of Penzance, and the other opts for, simply, The Pirate Movie. One has Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Angela Lansbury, and the other stars the guy from The Blue Lagoon. One failed because of a bad business decision, and the other failed because, well, it’s The Pirate Movie. The film starts badly, by shoehorning in a “let’s start in modern day and make it a dream, sort of” premise, and goes more wrong from there. Bonus Track: 1983’s Penzance with Ronstadt was cut off at the knees because Universal tried to simultaneously release it in theatres and pay services; subsequently, many theatre chains boycotted it, destroying its box office chances.
5. Rock of Ages (2012)
Would you go into a musical thinking that Tom Cruise is going to be the best part? That’s nothing against Cruise, who has proven that he’s literally willing to hang off of a plane to entertain us. But the absence of musical work on his resume turned out to be an advantage, because nobody expected that he’d be that good as hair-metal god Stacee Jaxx. Unfortunately, nothing in the rest of the movie lives up to that. There’s not really even a chance for a transformative breakout hit, as it’s a jukebox musical filled with previously known hits with only one original song. Another strike is that Mary J. Blige doesn’t get a number of her own. Possibly the biggest letdown is that the movie trades the spirit of the stage show (which is, “hey, this brand of rock is kind of silly, but huge fun”) for treating it all like a big goof. If the filmmakers aren’t convinced, then no one else is. Bonus Track: While a number of well-known rockers appear in cameos, so does pop star Debbie Gibson, who hit #4 on Billboard’s Dance Club chart just last year with “Girls Night Out.”
4. Nine (2009)
Nine is the rare case of a movie that gets a ton of award nominations (including four Oscar nods) but ultimately no one seems happy about it. The creative pedigree is astounding. Based on Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston’s stage musical, which was itself inspired by Federico Fellini’s 8½, the film was written by Michael Tolkin (The Player) and Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago). It stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Sophia freaking Loren, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, and Fergie. And yet . . . blah. Maybe it’s because 19 of the original songs were excised. Maybe it’s because the story of a director’s mid-life crisis just didn’t connect with audiences. Maybe it’s not even that bad, but just seems egregious in the face of SO MUCH TALENT going nowhere. Bonus Track: Remarkably, given their status as Italian icons, Loren and Fellini never did a film together, though she did present him with his Honorary Oscar in 1993.
3. From Justin to Kelly (2005)
The Golden Raspberry Awards went in hard on this one, calling it “Worst ‘Musical’ of Our First 25 Years.” Kelly Clarkson won the inaugural 2002 season of American Idol on Fox; Justin Guarini was runner-up. They found themselves contractually obligated to do a movie for 20th Century Fox, and this utterly terrible spring break musical was the result. Sure, we understand that they called Kelly’s character “Kelly,” but her movie last name of Taylor means that she inexplicably and distractingly shares a name with Kelly Taylor of Fox’s 90210 franchise. Much of the plot is a series of contrivances to keep the two leads apart, which makes little sense. It’s really not good. Bonus Track: Clarkson has of course had 28 Hot 100 hits since, and Guarini has stealthily appeared for years as Lil Sweet in an ongoing series of Dr. Pepper commercials.
2. Shock Treatment (1981)
How do you follow the success of The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Apparently, you can’t. It had the original director (Jim Sharman), the original writers (Sharman and Richard O’Brien), the original songwriter (O’Brien), two of the original characters (Brad and Janet, though played by different actors), and several members of the original cast as new characters. But it just doesn’t connect. While the idea of a whole town inside a studio dominated by constantly running TV programming is ahead of its time, it never totally comes off and you constantly wonder as a viewer why O’Brien and Patricia Quinn aren’t just their fantastic Riff Raff and Magenta selves again. Bonus Track: Jessica Harper, who replaced Susan Sarandon as Janet, had the female lead in another frequently panned musical, Phantom of the Paradise; however, she was also the lead in the horror classic Suspiria and appeared in its 2018 remake.
1. The Apple (1980)
Apparently 1980 wasn’t exactly the best year to try a musical. Director Menahem Golan co-owned The Cannon Group with his cousin, Yoram Globus. They made some cheesy but popular films, like Breakin’, American Ninja, and Missing in Action. They were also responsible for disasters like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and the famously bad 1990 version of Captain America that never made it to American theaters. The Apple somehow tries to combine a future version of the Eurovision Song Contest (here, the 1994 Worldvision Song Festival) and a parable of the dangers of the entertainment industry with, wait for it, The Bible. You have analogues for Adam, Eve, and The Devil (Mr. Boogalow, who owns a label, of course). You have variations on temptation scenes (title song The Apple, which includes a sort of tour of Hell with dumb as anything lyrics “It’s a natural, natural, natural desire/Meet an actual, actual, actual vampire”). The climax of the film is The Rapture. Seriously, this is a real movie. Utterly crazy doesn’t even really cover it. But sadly, it’s not an eminently rewatchable kind of crazy. It’s just terrible.
Featured image: (Aleutie / Shutterstock)
We can’t all travel to New York City and shell out for theater seats (and we certainly can’t travel back in time), so a cast album is often the best way to experience our favorite musicals. Here is a list of the best of the best Broadway cast albums, ranked with their popularity, critical acclaim, influence, and staying power in mind.
50. Pacific Overtures
Rarely performed, Stephen Sondheim’s musical about 19th-century Japan combines traditional Japanese musical forms and theater with his signature complex compositional style. Most importantly, Pacific contains Sondheim’s favorite of all of his own songs, “Someone in a Tree.” The song is also featured, perhaps in its best version, in the live concert album A Stephen Sondheim Evening.
49. Dear World
Angela Lansbury plays a French countess who foils an oil corporation’s plan to drill under a Parisian bistro in this 1968 production that was ultimately a critical failure. In spite of the Times’ review claiming the show “stubbornly refuses to get off the ground,” Jerry Herman’s (Hello, Dolly!, Mame) charming score is perfectly matched to his leading lady, and his songs about alienation in the modern world still resonate.
48. Spring Awakening
Pure teenage angst in a rock musical that takes place in 19th-century Germany. Songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally F#@%ed” express the sexual frustration and “sadness in your soul” when you’re an adolescent ill-prepared for life’s disappointments. Glee’s Lea Michele Sarfati and John Gallagher, Jr. star in the original cast recording.
Uploaded by The Julie Andrews Archive
It was John F. Kennedy’s favorite musical, and the utopian lore Camelot evoked was a sort of metaphor for the Kennedy administration for many throughout the “Turbulent Sixties.” It was also Richard Burton’s rare musical role and the only time he appeared with Julie Andrews. Their chemistry shines through the show’s endearing songs as they convince listeners “that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot.”
46. The Most Happy Fella
Uploaded by Jim Berg
The stars of Frank Loesser’s epically long musical, Robert Weede and Jo Sullivan Loesser, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on October 28, 1956 to perform a few songs from the show. It just so happened to be the same night Elvis Presley would make his second appearance on the program, so they found themselves with the lion’s share of American television viewers tuned in to their performance. The musical is somewhat of an underrated classic, filled with catchy tunes and operatic voices.
45. The Wiz
A racial barrier-breaker on Broadway, The Wiz told L. Frank Baum’s story with an all-black cast and soul and disco music. Plenty had their doubts about whether the costly venture was worthwhile — and it was even left out of the 1975 Tony Awards — but the show has proven its critics wrong, generating a movie adaptation with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Lena Horne, and gaining entry into the Library of Congress in 2017.
44. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Part horror, part comedy, and part tragedy, there isn’t another musical like Sweeney Todd. Make no mistake: Tim Burton’s film adaptation will never deliver the same vocal excellence as Len Cariou’s and Angela Lansbury’s 1979 performance. As proof, sink your teeth into the original recording, if you can find it, and “have a little priest.”
43. I Love My Wife
An incredible, but mostly forgotten, Cy Coleman musical from 1977, I Love My Wife brought both folk music and wife-swapping to the Broadway stage. The cast recording is a unique time capsule of fun, risque showtunes that could only be the product of ’70s New York.
42. The Lion King
Audiences knew there was something different about this Broadway experience when giant elephant and rhino puppets strolled down the aisles in the opening number. The soundtrack retains the magic of Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s music, along with some new tunes, like “He Lives in You.” Disney’s best Broadway venture remains one of the longest-running shows in history.
41. In the Heights
Before Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical depicted Dominican immigrants in his home neighborhood of Washington Heights. The hip hop score is contagious and moving, and the film adaptation is on its way. The movie was set to hit theaters just last week, but the pandemic pushed it back a year.
40. On the Twentieth Century
A big musical farce featuring Kevin Kline and Madeleine Kahn on a train in the Roaring Twenties. Cy Coleman turned the 1932 play into a driving operetta that entertains and practically begs for a film adaptation.
Uploaded by Cats the Musical
We’re going to have to choose to forget about the bizarre bomb of a movie adaptation released last winter and make a collective decision to remember Cats for the Broadway smash hit it was. The record-breaking Broadway engagement inspired a cult following and introduced scores of audiences to T.S. Eliot’s whimsical poetry through an eclectic mix of genre- and reality-bending songs. Taylor Swift? James Corden? I have no memory of that movie.
38. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
A sharp satire of the Mad Men business world of mid-century America, the joint effort of Frank Loesser, Bob Fosse, and Robert Morse follows a man who rises through the ranks of a business by reading a book and taking its advice.
This electric, edifying musical about the bold, reformist New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was a hit, and its cast album was on the Billboard chart for more than a year. Though it seems to have been largely forgotten, Fiorello! offers a relevant history lesson on grassroots politics along with a dynamic, catchy score.
Long before he composed the Broadway sensation Wicked, Steven Schwartz made this humble rock musical adaptation of the New Testament. A favorite for high schools and community theaters across the country, Godspell also produced a hit album in 1971 (technically an Off-Broadway cast album) and a popular song in “Day by Day.”
35. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
The seeming rise in youth competitiveness is sent up hilariously in this 2005 Broadway musical. Six child spelling bee contestants — played by adults, including Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson — face the sexual tension, familial disappointments, and paralyzing failure that comes with adolescence. The music ranges from sing-songy to full gospel as one by one the spellers are eliminated and their stories are revealed.
34. Man of La Mancha
Uploaded by The Ed Sullivan Show
“The Impossible Dream” inspired covers by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, The Temptations, Glen Campbell, Aretha Franklin, and so many others. The 1965 musical that popularized the song was a telling of the ridiculously noble knight Don Quixote that ran for 2,300 performances at ANTA Washington Square Theatre in Greenwich Village.
33. Dear Evan Hansen
A unique modern musical in its treatment of youth anxiety, suicide, and social media, Dear Evan Hansen has taken pop-rock music to its most interesting and dynamic edge.
32. The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Uploaded by Original Broadway Cast of ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’
After striking it rich with her oil man husband in Colorado, the famous Margaret Brown traveled Europe and sailed back on the RMS Titanic — until it sank, that is. Meredith Willson, of Music Man notoriety, wrote the songs and lyrics that immortalize the feisty socialite and all-American personality.
31. Avenue Q
The racy puppet musical that upset Wicked to win the Tony for Best Musical in 2004. Its cast album, like albums by 50 Cent and Ludacris that year, had a “Parental Advisory” sticker for its adult themes. Ultimately, the Sesame Street-style treatment of racism, homosexuality, and post-college ennui became a household name and breathed new life into Broadway.
30. Pajama Game
Of all the musicals about labor struggles (and there are a lot), Pajama Game is perhaps the campiest. The show introduced “Steam Heat” — and Bob Fosse’s minimalist choreography style — to American theater. Directors George Abbott and Jerome Robbins butted heads over whether to keep the number in the show after tryouts, but Fosse won the Tony for Best Choreography because of it.
Before performing his most well-known role in Blazing Saddles, Cleavon Little starred as the traveling preacher Purlie Victorious in this Jim Crow-era sendup of racism. The play’s author, Ossie Davis, and his wife and Purlie star Ruby Dee were avid Civil Rights activists and friends of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson.
28. The Book of Mormon
The creators of South Park struck gold with an irreverent musical about Mormon missionaries in Uganda. It’s one of the funniest musicals in history and, perhaps surprisingly, touching for its wide-eyed and well-meaning characters.
27. Into the Woods
The fervent fanbase of this fractured fairy tale amalgamation is made up of “musical-theatre fans who were children in the eighties and thought they were too good for Andrew Lloyd Webber,” if one is to believe Michael Schulman in The New Yorker. But Into the Woods, and Sondheim more broadly, have likely gained wider audiences with the spike in film adaptations and stage revivals of his work. This one is a masterful satire of fairy tales that can work its magic on any willing audience or listener. Even Cats fanatics.
A musical that brings the turn of the century to life, featuring figures from the era like Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, and Booker T. Washington. Ragtime is a sprawling show, using historical music genres to tell dramatic stories of inequality and persistence with heart and humor.
25. Anything Goes
A wild ensemble of characters board a London-bound ship, and, as the title and famous number suggest, anything goes. This legendary collaboration between P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, and Cole Porter starred Ethel Merman and William Gaxton in its original 1934 production, but there are plenty of worthwhile recordings, including the 1987 revival with Patti LuPone.
24. Mr. President
Irving Berlin’s last musical — opening when the composer was 74 years old — received a lukewarm critical response. Mr. President was possibly “behind its time” when it ran in 1962, but it remains a refreshingly perky and underrated score from the man behind Annie Get Your Gun and White Christmas.
Uploaded by London Theatre Direct
In the long tradition of musicals that distill and celebrate the youth of an era, Rent depicted the artistic scene of New York City in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. But the late Jonathan Larson’s rock opera was also channeling something else: Puccini’s La Bohème, an Italian opera about a strikingly similar bohemian group of friends in Paris in the 1830s.
22. Merrily We Roll Along
The recent documentary The Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened chronicles the epic disappointment the young cast of Sondheim’s 1981 musical faced when they discovered their big break was a flop. Running for only 16 performances, Merrily received poor reviews (mostly due to the backwards, hard-to-follow plot). The show has resurfaced, however, many times over the years, and Richard Linklater is currently filming it in a Boyhood-style 20-year-long production to be released in 2040.
21. The Phantom of the Opera
With more than 13,000 performances, Phantom is the longest-running Broadway show by far. The original cast recording, featuring Michael Crawford’s haunting phantom and Sarah Brightman’s iconic soprano, is a staple of any showtunes collection.
20. Tie: West Side Story and The Sound of Music
Uploaded by The Ed Sullivan Show
The artists behind West Side Story — Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Carol Lawrence — were a group of Broadway all-stars: diehard perfectionists out to make their modern Romeo and Juliet a theatrical hit. They succeeded, turning the rough gang story into a classic.
The thrilling and heartwarming true story of Maria Von Trapp and her romance, and escape from Germany, with an Austro-Hungarian naval captain. The songs have entered modern cultural parlance, and the musical spawned an adaptation that has become a cult film over the years. Mary Martin’s original Maria set the bar for many others, including Florence Henderson, Petula Clark, and, of course, Julie Andrews.
19. Hello, Dolly!
Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman was the original title of this Jerry Herman classic. Carol Channing originated the role of the Brooklynite matchmaker (and she played it at least three more times). Hello, Dolly! carved out a month and a half on the top of the album charts in the summer of 1964 (first as a cast album, then as a Louis Armstrong’s release) in a sea of top Beatles’ albums.
As the second-longest-running show in Broadway history, the 1996 revival of Chicago, and its cast album, has become the standard for the Prohibition-era musical. The Fosse-inspired dance sequences, captivating story, and never-miss song list have made it a mainstay musical in American theater.
17. Sunday in the Park with George
At the Art Institute of Chicago, you can see A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, the famous pointillist painting that took Georges Seurat two years to complete. In Sondheim’s Pulitzer-winning musical, you can see a — greatly — fictionalized account of the artist’s life during those years and long afterward. Sunday is a brilliant meditation on art and expression, love and resentment. Mandy Patinkin’s vocal control in singing high notes one minute and barking like a dog the next is reason enough to experience the cast album (or the American Playhouse video recording).
16. The Music Man
It’s hard to overstate how popular The Music Man was upon its debut in 1957. The cast album was the most popular album in the country for three months, and it stayed on the Billboard charts for almost five years. After The Beatles covered “Till There Was You,” Meredith Willson’s estate made more money from royalties off their recording than the play.
15. Caroline, or Change
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The immensely innovative musical drama set in Civil Rights-era Louisiana combines soul, jazz, and folk music to tell a powerful, nuanced story about the American dream. Caroline, or Change has flown under the Broadway radar for mass audiences, but its commentary on race and class has never seemed more relevant. The cast album is a transcendent collage of American culture and a testament to African-American excellence in musical theater.
14. South Pacific
Critic John Kenrick wrote of South Pacific’s 1949 cast album, “this classic recording is essential to any civilized home.” From summer through winter that year, Americans snatched up the album, making it the best-selling record of the year, and possibly the decade. South Pacific takes a bold stance against racism that was a major theatrical risk in the 1940s. Its catchy songs and early adoption of antiracism have made it a centerpiece of American musical theater.
13. Funny Girl
In her second and last Broadway role, Barbra Streisand sings her heart out, launching a long recording and acting career. Her voice on this original cast album is indomitable, from “I’m the Greatest Star” to “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” playing the comedic entertainer Fanny Brice.
If you’re only listening to the movie soundtrack, you’re missing a lot of music from the original show, songs like “Don’t Tell Mama” and “So What.” From the musical’s “overture” (a long drum roll and cymbal crash) to the ongoing juxtaposition between Berlin’s raucous cabaret scene and the rise of Nazism, Cabaret zeroes in on a particular intersection of history and entertainment and remains as both an exuberant exultation and a dark warning.
A simultaneously political and touching backstory that will change the way you think about The Wizard of Oz, Wicked shines a spotlight on the Wicked Witch of the West, retelling her redeeming story and creating a fantastical, steampunk Oz in the process. Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel inhabit their roles, giving dynamo vocal performances and complicating the lore of the good witch and the bad witch.
10. Les Miserables
When Les Mis first opened in London, more than a few critics panned the musical, calling it a witless “Victorian melodrama.” Then, it became a record-breaker, drawing audiences adding up to the tens of millions over the years. At its heart, it is a story about injustice and tyranny over oppressed people, and its popular appeal probably owes to those universal themes as well as a killer score. Sometimes, the critics are just wrong.
9. A Little Night Music
Sondheim’s best-reviewed musical, and the one with his most popular song, “Send in the Clowns.” The musical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night is a “heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting … orgy of plaintively memorable waltzes,” according to the Times’s Clive Barnes. The original cast recording also features some of the best cover art to ever grace showtunes: at first glance, a nighttime elm, and with a closer look, nude reposing bodies in its branches.
8. My Fair Lady
George Bernard Shaw, ever the difficult playwright, refused to allow his play Pygmalion to be adapted into a musical. After he died in 1950, however, he could no longer object. Chase Manhattan Bank controlled the rights, and composers Lerner and Loewe preemptively scored the whole thing to have the upper hand over their competitors, MGM. The result was a critical and popular success that continues to delight audiences.
7. A Chorus Line
A disco album that holds up. A Chorus Line is a Broadway record-breaker that tells the stories of New York dancers with all of their ugliness, hilarity, and heartbreaking triumph or failure. The musical swept the Tonys in 1976 and became the longest-running American show for a time.
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Oklahoma! was the first Broadway musical smash hit. During its run, one radio announcer quipped, “Look at that play Oklahoma! A man died last week and left his place in line to his wife. If she dies before she gets her tickets, her place in line goes to an uncle in Baltimore.” Reportedly, the $4.80 tickets were going for as much as $50 on the street.
Ethel Merman plays the role of her life, radiating from the stage (and stereo) as Rose, the ultimate stage mom. Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, this backstage musical expresses the ecstasy and terror of show business ruthlessly.
4. Guys and Dolls
Gamblers, dancers, and good, Christian teetotalers make up this double romantic comedy that launched songs with serious staying power. Just a few weeks ago, Chris Thile was singing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” on NPR. According to some accounts, Guys and Dolls was supposed to win the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but writer Abe Burrows’s ties to the Communist Party turned off the Pulitzer committee and the award was cancelled.
As long as the performers stood stationary, James Rado said, a New York City ordinance allowed nudity in theatrical productions. Rado, along with his collaborator Gerome Ragni, took this opportunity to include a scene in their free-spirited musical in which the cast of over 20 performers shed their beads and jeans to sing a number stark naked. Before Hair, there was The Sound of Music and Camelot; after Hair, anything was possible. The cast recording was an irreverent favorite in Baby Boomer record collections. It was the last musical to hit number one on the Billboard album chart, until …
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Maybe the American history lesson is a tad romanticized and sexed up, but there’s no doubt that Hamilton has changed musical theater forever. In a sea of remakes and jukebox musicals, Lin-Manuel Miranda carved his name on Broadway, making space for hip hop and minority performers in a story about a founding father. If you’ve managed to snatch up tickets in the five years this show has run in New York and toured the country, good for you. If you haven’t, you can finally see the video recording on Disney Plus.
1. Fiddler on the Roof
The political and the personal intertwine and unfold beautifully in this story of fading tradition. Every one of Jerry Bock’s songs manages to entertain, tell a story, and carry its audience to a remote Jewish village in Imperial Russia. Fiddler‘s themes of the pain of progress couldn’t possibly be more relevant. Anatevka might as well be America, and we are all fiddlers on a roof.
Ineligible Honorable Mentions:
Promenade, Off-Broadway Cast Recording
Show Boat Complete Recording
Chess, Original London Cast Recording
Featured image: Scene from Oklahoma, 1943-1944, Theatre Guild production, Library of Congress, U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs
The 1940s were a financial low point for Broadway. The rise of the cinema, and subsequently television, provided a cheaper outlet for people seeking escapist entertainment, and the expensive production costs of Broadway shows paired with dwindling viewership led to closure (and conversion to movie houses) of many theaters. By the late 1940s it was necessary to call a meeting of theater unions and discuss the future of the industry.
Despite financial concerns, the 1940s also provided some iconic Broadway musicals, which could be seen for less than $5. Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town debuted in 1944, and Carousel opened in 1945 to critical and audience acclaim. Cole Porter provided the lyrics for the comedic musical Kiss Me Kate, which opened in 1948. In 1946 Ethel Merman starred as the titular Annie in the hit show Annie Get Your Gun. And of course there was 1944’s Oklahoma!, Rogers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration.
With shrinking profits, sacrifices had to be made in some areas, but costuming wasn’t one of them. The gingham shirts and calico frocks of Oklahoma! may have looked simple, but the musical’s costume budget – in 1944 – was $75,000. Where did the clothes come from, and why did they cost so much?
In 1944, The Saturday Evening Post published “How to Dress a Broadway Musical” in which writer Maurice Zolotow claimed, “lavish costumes pay off at the box office.” Zolotow described the Brooks Costume Rental Company, which at the time was one of the largest manufacturers of Broadway and circus costumes. Brooks offered an extensive collection of ready-made costumes for rent (everything from hula skirts to nun’s habits) to schools, community theaters, and off-Broadway houses. But their real calling was making custom costumes for Broadway productions, employing 250 costume makers who could create 20 new costumes a day.
The stars and designers of Broadway would come in for three fittings of each costume to make sure that the garments not only fit perfectly but also fulfilled the designer’s vision. The creation process was so painstaking because the costumes had to be up to task:
A theatrical costume must be made of the best and strongest material, it must be tailored perfectly, it must fit onto a body like a tight, wet bathing suit. It must be made to stand intense punishment, as the character goes through her performance eight times a week. It must stand an intense dry-cleaning once or twice a month. A society woman who has an evening gown made for her may wear the dress six times a year. But the similarly gorgeous evening gowns worn in, say, One Touch of Venus, are worn—and worn to the hilt— every night and twice on matinee days.
This thorough treatment led to hefty costume bills of around $75,000 for a show like Oklahoma!, or about $1 million in today’s dollars. (Circuses were even more expensive, costing upwards of $300,000.)
In those days, costume production for any given show happened within one building. The designer provided the sketches to the manufacturers, who then not only put the design to fabric but created the necessary accessories and wigs. William Ivey Long, a nine-time Tony award winning costume designer who has outfitted The Producers, Hairspray, Cinderella, and dozens of other shows, claims, “Back then there were several big costume shops that would deliver everything from soup to nuts.” Indeed, Brooks also provided “gloves, hats, shoes, sashes, scarves, petticoats, sweaters, berets, stockings.”
In the 75 years since Zolotow explored the Brooks company, many things have changed. Today, instead of bringing a design to one large costume house, Long shops around. He brings his pieces to different specialists and works hard to get the best work at the best price. Where “one-stop-shops” previously dominated the costume scene, modern manufacturers specialize in one aspect of costume. And budgets for modern productions are smaller. While it can cost around $300,000 to outfit a show, that’s only half of the budget for 1944’s Oklahoma! when adjusted for inflation.
In addition, the technological changes to theater have necessitated a change in costume design. “As we speak lighting is changing,” Long explains. The prevalence of LED lighting in theaters casts a blue tint onto the actors, requiring an alteration in the color of their clothes. Long noticed that costumes taken on tour into theaters that have not made the switch to LED lighting looked different than in their original performances and did not provide the same effect.
Today, the large costume houses no longer exist. Costume companies continue to rent out retired Broadway costumes to smaller-scale productions, yet these rental companies do not have nearly the dominance of years past. The Brooks company itself went through several sales, eventually becoming Dodgers Costumes, which closed its doors for good in 2015.
Broadway itself has experienced a surge of popularity in recent years. Despite rising ticket prices, 2019 marks the sixth record-breaking year for attendance in a row. Elevated tourism, recognizable show titles, longer show-runs and run-away hits like Hamilton keep people coming back for more. After all, despite changes in production or ticket prices, the show must go on.
Featured image: Photograph by Richard Beattie