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6 Broadway Shows and How They Shaped NYC Theater

Here are six musicals that have not only changed the game on Broadway, but have stood the test of time.

Broadway shows come in all varieties: the instantly forgettable (and forgotten); the critical darlings that never catch on with the public; and the shows that make a huge impact for a season or two, but still end up relegated to the dustbin of history. But the impact of some shows lasts long after the curtain has fallen—forever changing the way audiences look at theater through their subject matter, craftsmanship, and ingenuity.

'Cats'

Few people might have thought that a book of poems about felines by the legendary T.S. Eliot would translate into a vivid piece of musical theater—never mind one that and would herald the so-called “British invasion” of mega-musicals. But few people are Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has shown for more than 40 years that he has an unerring sense of what will please the public’s imagination. So is it really that surprising that the composer’s “Cats,” which began its then unprecedented 18-year-run on the Great White Way in 1982, would delight thousands of audience members? Its clever characterizations, sublime choreography, stunning sets and costumes, and, above all, timeless tunes ensure this show always remains in our memory.

Screenshot of Falsettos on BroadwayHD
(Courtesy BroadwayHD)

'Falsettos'

Openly gay people had emerged from Broadway’s closet every now and then before 1992, but they would never feel like second-rate citizens again after the emergence of William Finn and James Lapine’s “Falsettos.” Combining two previously written one-act musicals into a full-length evening, “Falsettos” dared to expose all the complexities of gay life in 1970s and 1980s New York City through the story of Marvin, a formerly married man who tries to maintain a “family” with his ex-wife and teenage son while also dating Whizzer, a pretty boy who proves to be deeper than his looks (and who eventually succumbs to AIDS). If you aren’t crying and laughing (sometimes simultaneously) during this landmark show, then you’re probably not breathing either.

'Gypsy'

By 1959, musicals had come a long way from just being sunshine and lollipops. But “Gypsy” packed a punch in a way no other musical ever had. In bringing to life the true story of the unexpected rise to fame of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, the brilliant team of Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim created one of the most complex, and indelible characters ever to demand our attention: Gypsy’s own Mama Rose. A woman who essentially gives up her life for her children’s happiness, and alienating them—and her husbands and lovers—in return, Rose is sometimes endearing, sometimes terrifying and endlessly fascinating. No wonder she’s the holy grail of actresses; watch legends Bette Midler and Imelda Staunton tackle the role in the 1993 and 2015 revivals.

'Long Day's Journey Into Night' 

The great Eugene O’Neill knew that his semi-autobiographical drama “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” was so explosive that he never wanted it actually produced or published. But history—in the form of his widow, Carlotta—intervened. And that’s how the Tyrone family came to life on Broadway in 1956, with a brutal force that showed just how frail, both physically and mentally, people could be—from the egotistical, alcoholic father James to the morphine-addicted, unhappy mother Mary, the preening, irresponsible older son Jamie and the delicate younger son Edmund. These were flawed people almost everyone could empathize with, in some way or another, giving the work a measure of universality that O’Neill never predicted. 

Oklahoma! cast
Oklahoma! (Courtesy BroadwayHD)

'Oklahoma!'

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had each experienced enough success on their own by 1943 to last a lifetime. Nonetheless, they decided to collaborate on “Oklahoma!,” an adaptation of the play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” and musical theater would never be the same. Yes, the plot still revolved around a classic formula of boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back. What made the show not just an instant classic, but a historic event, was the integration of Hammerstein’s book, the pair’s hit-filled score and Agnes DeMille’s magnificent choreography—a combination that still makes many audiences feel like they are watching a play with music and dance. No wonder it’s still going strong more than 70 years later!

'Phantom of the Opera'

Countless readers and film fans had already been terrified by the story of “The Phantom of the Opera” long before Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyricist Charles Hart, and librettist Richard Stilgoe took their shot at translating this tale of a mysterious man who haunts the Paris Opera House and lures naïve soprano Christine Daae into his web. The story thrilled. The score enchanted. The chandelier fell—in spectacular fashion. It was impossible not to sit up and take notice. Still, no one could really know that their show would still be putting its own spell on Broadway audiences nearly 30 years after its first performance at the Majestic Theatre, earning its well-deserved place in the theatrical record books.

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