One way of measuring success in musical theatre is the length of a musical’s Broadway run. Of course, that’s just one measure of success and it certainly doesn’t always take craft and artistry into account. As Julian Woolford says in How Musicals Work, it’s easy to write a bad musical, bad musicals can be produced and they can even be huge hits. There’s certainly at least one stinker in the ten longest-running Broadway musicals – but of course, there are more here that have brought years of joy and fandom to show tune-lovers around the world! For the purposes of this list, I’m mostly looking at the shows as dramatic works rather than ranking the particular productions as seen on Broadway – although sometimes the production elements are inseparable from the show itself.
10. Oh! Calcutta!
Let’s get the uncontestably stinky Oh! Calcutta! out of the way first. This so-called erotic musical revue is little more than the gold standard for sexism, misogyny and tastelessness. Well, at least it was the best at something other than raking in the big bucks over its thirteen-year run of 5959 performances starting in 1976, when the show was revived – what an indictment on us as human beings. Conceived by Kenneth Tynan, the sketches were written by Samuel Beckett, John Lennon, Sam Shepard, Leonard Melfi, Edna O’Brien, Sherman Yellen, Jules Feiffer and Tynan himself, while Peter Schickele, Robert Dennis and Stanley Walden provided the score. Beckett withdrew the rights for the use of his scene following the debut of the original off-Broadway production in 1969. At that time, Tynan was so desperate to give the show an air of legitimacy that he tried to seduce Harold Pinter into directing it. That task eventually fell to Jacques Levy, who would return to stage the long-running revival. This one isn’t so bad it’s good, it’s so bad that you can hardly begin to fathom how deeply awful it is.
9. Beauty and the Beast
On film, Beauty and the Beast is one of Disney’s greatest animated features. It’s pretty much perfect, once you get over little flubs like Gaston not noticing the rather prominent pictures in Belle’s book in an early scene in the film. On stage, there were certainly moments of magic to keep it running for 5461 performances, but the show feels a little padded with book-writer Linda Woolverton not having enough of a sense of where this adaptation was going in its transition from one medium to the other. Tim Rice provided additional lyrics for the new songs in the stage show, but “If I Can’t Love Her” aside, the songs don’t really live up to the small masterworks they augmented. The law of diminishing returns was further proved when the property was developed for a live-action adaptation. Still, at the heart of it all, we have Alan Menken and Howard Ashman giving the show its heart and soul in the original set of songs they crafted for the film. For those musical moments, we can very eternally grateful.
8. The Lion King
The Lion King is a show that causes a bit of cognitive dissonance, for want of a better word. It has an incredibly moving opening and some astounding sequences that pop up throughout the show, but it is a little bitty as it shifts modes in pursuit of the different members of its wide target audience. I mean, did anyone really need “The Morning Report,” “Chow Down” or “The Madness of King Scar,” the new numbers provided by Elton John and Tim Rice to augment the 1994 film’s score? The song spots might not be badly identified and the last of the three works in a crucial plot point, but the execution is forgettable. The development of Hans Zimmer’s themes from the film score and the extension of Lebo M’s contributions to the film and on its follow-up concept album, Rhythm of the Pridelands. The thing that really elevates the show, though, is Julie Taymor’s staging and her ingenious use of puppets to tell the story. After all, a little “Circle of Life” goes a long way – so the show’s play for the audience’s love is won at the top of the show and it continues to run more than 9000 performances after its opening night.
Wicked is a proper blockbuster. Like the perfect summer popcorn movie, it is a super piece of popular entertainment. While its tone is much lighter than the book by Gregory Maguire upon which it is based, Stephen Schwartz proved a wiz at filling the score with memorable tunes and incorporating Oz/was rhymes, while book-writer Winnie Holzman leaves no word unozzified – although she does duff up the ending for the sake of sentiment. Even so, as the years go by, Wicked is a bit of a gift that keeps on giving almost 7000 performances in as we hear new Elphabas riffing it up in “The Wizard and I” and “Defying Gravity” in pursuit of their re-interpretation of the iconic Wicked Witch of the West.
6. Mamma Mia!
Mamma Mia! ran for 5758 performances before it closed on Broadway and remains the longest-running jukebox musical at the time of writing this column. It’s a bit of fluff that has become something of a franchise, with a hugely successful film version that led to a sequel and inspired Cher to record an album of ABBA covers. The first-rate ABBA songs aside, what makes Mamma Mia! work where other jukebox musicals have missed the mark is in Catherine Johnson’s knowledge of what she was writing and the subsequent way she exploits this by weaving that knowledge into its overall tone and including several asides that let the audience into the joke. In many ways, this is the ultimate party show and it a joy to experience.
7485 performances on Broadway. A studio proshot that has a huge fanbase. A misguided film that was the cat-butt of all jokes and sent composer Andrew Lloyd Webber in search of a pet dog. These are some of the key moments in the history of Cats, the musical that divides musical theatre lovers into superfans or superhaters. But here’s the thing: despite the endless (and, it has to be said, sometimes valid) nitpicks that the haters list about the marriage of the T. S. Eliot lyrics to Lloyd Webber’s tunes or the lack of a plot (although I wonder whether those who claim this actually understand the definition of the term), Cats works theatrically. When a top-notch cast performs the show and totally understands the nuances of the world it is creating, it makes for a funtastic couple of hours in the theatre. Let the memory live again!
4. The Phantom of the Opera
Having clocked more than 13 000 performances on Broadway, The Phantom of the Opera is another show that divides people into superfans and superhaters. I mean, this appears to be the general trend when it comes to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, no matter who he chooses as his collaborators, in this case, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. Lloyd Webber’s work here, layered in style and rich in allusion, played a key role in the trend of musicalising the nineteenth century with elements of pop music, but it never works as well in the copycat shows, in which old vs new music isn’t a key thematic element. What elevates this show is Harold Prince’s approach to it as a campelisious melodrama and his original staging of the piece, which embraces old theatre tech and mixes it with then-current theatre tech to make for some wonderfully entertaining moments of pure theatre. In many ways, the further it strays from its roots and the more seriously it takes itself, the less compelling it becomes. But when it all comes together just right, it’s a blast.
3. Les Miserables
The 6680-performance Broadway run of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s modern classic, Les Miserables, seems short in comparison with how long it feels the show has been around. This is likely because of the London production which ran twice as long, making the show a ubiquitous part of the modern musical theatre landscape. While it has a few head-scratchers when it comes to the way it uses musical motifs and so on, the show’s overall redemptive narrative arc and liberal use of pathos throughout the show connects with all of us who long for a time when we can hear all the people sing rather than the few at the top who set up systemic structures to keep them in their ivory towers. It’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re watching something significant happen in this story about social and personal transformation, the nature of morality and faith. It cuts deep.
Still running as it heads for the 10000-performance milestone, Chicago is a show that came into its own two decades after its original run. Yes, I am aware that this is not how the show looked in the 1970s and that yes, there was a different approach to the set and costumes back then and that yes, there is are loud arguments about how inferior the approach of the revival is in comparison. In my view, both approaches are valid so that’s not an argument you’re going to win with me. You prefer the old one? Fine. You prefer the revival? Fine! Yes, I’m aware that – shock, horror! – Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse’s book has been tweaked. Fine by me – the show is better off without things like Billy’s homophobic jibe at his tailor and I have no problems with revivals that rebuild a show from the ground up, an approach that works wonders as often as it doesn’t. Chicago was in many ways ahead of its time, but it’s difficult to argue that it didn’t find its stride until the 1990s in a very different world with very different aesthetics. The traditionalists can clutch their pearls, but this streamlined Chicago is all that jazz and then some too. After all, it has what counts most: a convincing concept and a fantastic score from Ebb and John Kander as well as a way of telling a story as old as time in a way that means something to us today.
1. A Chorus Line
A Chorus Line is a classic, one of those great pieces of art that attests to the principle that the more specific a piece of theatre is, the more universally it resonates with its audience. Its memorable score by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban is studded with numbers that are by turns thrilling, moving and rib-tickling, while the vignettes relayed by the company of dancers in James Kirkwood Jr and Nicholas Dante’s book match them step for step. Paul’s heart-rending monologue about his journey to becoming a dancer is unforgettable, as is Cassie’s laying everything on the line in “The Music and the Mirror.” The show is bookended by two thrilling sequences, “I Hope I Get It” and “One.” The extended “Montage” is a brilliant piece of dramaturgy. Everything that it takes to be a dancer is scaffolded into a story of what it means to be human. There was a time when nobody could imagine a show surpassing the length of the original production’s run of 6137 performances and when revisiting the show today, it is easy to understand why.
Have any thoughts you’d like to share? Think we’ve ranked something too high or low? Head to the comments and let us know!