The Most Interesting Musicals Throughout History

Back in 2005, a college theatre teacher emailed me and asked me to recommend a good musical theatre history book he could use for a musical theatre history class he would be teaching the next semester. He had read my books, and I guess he generally shared my point of view. To my surprise, it was very hard to recommend anything. There aren't a lot of books on the history of our art form to begin with, and quite a few of them are out of print, and so old that they don't know about rock musicals, much less the ironic musicals of this Golden Age.

We needed a new musical theatre history book. But that felt like a project way bigger than I wanted to take on, so first, I suggested to my editor that she find someone to write this new history book. Still though, the idea percolated in my head, and twenty-four hours later I was deciding maybe I would do it. I had already written several books, all divided up into discrete essays. I realized I could approach a history book the same way, as a series of essays on the evolution of the musical theatre, one decade at a time. That seemed way less intimidating. What would be different this time is that my history book would not be built on the premise that the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was the pinnacle of the art form, like every other history book is, but instead look at our history from the point of view of where we are right now in the art form.

When I first started work on my book, eventually called Strike Up the Band, I began by making a list of every show I wanted to include, though ultimately I could have never included them all, without making it a two-volume set (which was discussed, briefly).

My first draft was more than twice as long as the limit they'd given me. So I had to cut out a lot of shows I wanted to write about. I got my editor to raise my word limit, but I still had to cut about half of what I had written. (Yes, I kept everything I cut.) But that original list of shows is still such a great chronicle of the most interesting work our art form has produced, from a few not-quite-but-almost modern musicals in the late 1800s, up to the early 2000s, when I wrote my book.

It occurred to me recently that no one has seen this full list but me, and it's such a cool list. So I've decided I should share it. For some of my readers, it will be a test to see how many of these you already know, and which sound like they're worth exploring. For others, it will be an eye-opening excursion through an American musical theatre you maybe didn't know existed. If you don't understand why a particular show is on my list, you might find the answer in Strike Up the Band (shameless plug).

So here's the original list. BTW, the years sometimes refer to the show's original debut, not necessarily its Broadway opening.

OVERTURE: PRE-1900

Evangeline (1874)
The Brook (1879)
A Trip to Chinatown (1890)
In Town (1892)
A Gaiety Girl (1893)
Clorindy (1898)
A Trip to Coontown (1898)
Florodora (1899)

AN ERA EXPLODING: 1900—1919

The Governor’s Son (1901)
Little Johnny Jones (1904)
The Wizard of Oz (1903)
Babes in Toyland (1903)
In Dahomey (1903)
The Shoo-fly Regiment (1906)
The Pink Lady (1911)
The Whirl of the World (1914)
Watch Your Step (1914)
Very Good Eddie (1915)
Oh Boy (1917)
Irene (1919)

I WANT TO BE HAPPY: THE 1920s

Shuffle Along (1921)
Lady, Be Good (1924)
No, No, Nanette (1925)
Dearest Enemy (1925)
The Cocoanuts (1925)
Deep River (1926)
Peggy-Ann (1926)
Show Boat (1927)
Strike Up the Band (1927)
The Threepenny Opera (1928)
Chee-Chee (1928)
Whoopee (1928)
Deep Harlem (1929)

ANYTHING GOES: THE 1930s

Brown Buddies (1930)
Singin’ the Blues (1931)
Of Thee I Sing (1931)
Love Me Tonight (film, 1932)
Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (film, 1933)
42nd Street (film, 1933)
Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933)
The Jolly Fellows (film, 1934)
Anything Goes (1934)
Porgy and Bess (1935)
On Your Toes (1936)
The Cradle Will Rock (1937)
Pins and Needles (1937)
Volga Volga (film, 1938)
The Boys From Syracuse (1938)
Too Many Girls (1939)

OH, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNING: THE 1940s

Pal Joey (1940)
Cabin in the Sky (1940)
Lady in the Dark (1941)
Oklahoma! (1943)
Carmen Jones (1943)
Carousel (1945)
St. Louis Woman (1945)
Carib Song (1945)
Annie Get Your Gun (1945)
Finian’s Rainbow (1947)
Love Life (1948)
Kiss Me, Kate (1948)
South Pacific (1949)
Lost in the Stars (1949)

SOMETHING’S COMING: THE 1950s

Musical Comedy Time (TV, 1950-51)
Guys and Dolls (1950)
The King and I (1951)
Paint Your Wagon (1951)
Singin’ in the Rain (film, 1952)
Threepenny Opera, translation by Blitzstein (1954)
The Pajama Game (1954)
Jamaica (1956)
My Fair Lady (1956)
Candide (1956)
shinbone alley (1957)
West Side Story (1957)
The Music Man (1957)
Flower Drum Song (1958)
Expresso Bongo (1958)
The Nervous Set (1958)
Gypsy (1959)
Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be (1959)
The Fantasticks (1959)
Once Upon a Mattress (1959)

LET THE SUN SHINE IN: THE 1960s

Bye Bye Birdie (1960)
Camelot (1960)
How to Succeed in Business…(1961)
Black Nativity (1961)
No Strings (1961)
Oh What a Lovely War (1963)
Hello, Dolly! (1964)
Marat/Sade (1964)
Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
Fiddler on the Roof (1964)
Man of La Mancha (1965)
Promenade (1965)
Sweet Charity (1966)
Evening Primrose (TV, 1966)
Cabaret (1966)
Viet Rock (1966)
Hair (1967)
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (1967)
Hallelujah, Baby! (1967)
The Believers (1968)
Jacques Brel (1968)
Joseph and the Amazing… (1968)
Zorbá (1968)
That’s Life (TV, 1968)
Promises, Promises (1968)
Celebration (1968)
1776 (1969)
Oh Calcutta! (1969)
Tommy (1969)

IN COMES COMPANY: THE 1970s

Purlie (1970)
Company (1970)
Godspell (1970)
The Me Nobody Knows (1970)
Don’t Play Us Cheap! (1970)
Stag Movie (1971)
Follies (1971)
Grease (1971)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)
Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971)
Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971)
Cabaret (film, 1972)
Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope (1972)
Pippin (1972)
Rainbow (1972)
Candide (1973)
The Rocky Horror Show (1973)
Let My People Come (1974)
Lovers (1974)
The Robber Bridegroom (1974)
Mack and Mabel (1974)
A Chorus Line (1974)
Chicago (1975)
Boy Meets Boy (1975)
Pacific Overtures (1976)
The Club (1976)
Annie (1977)
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1977)
Zoot Suit (1977)
Runaways (1978)
Evita (1978)
I’m Getting My Act Together… (1978)
Sweeney Todd (1979)

DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?: THE 1980s

Cats (1980)
Les Miserable (1980)
March of the Falsettos (1981)
Dreamgirls (1981)
Pennies from Heaven (film, 1981)
Nine (1982)
Little Shop of Horrors (1982)
Sunday in the Park with George (1983)
La Cage aux Folles (1983)
The Gospel at Colonus (1983)
A…My Name is Alice (1984)
Big River (1985)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985)
Absolute Beginners (film, 1986)
Phantom of the Opera (1986)
Into the Woods (1986)
Sarafina! (1987)
Miss Saigon (1989)
Grand Hotel (1989)

SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD: THE 1990s

Cop Rock (TV, 1990)
Jekyll & Hyde (1990)
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1990)
Once On This Island (1990)
Assassins (1991)
The Secret Garden (1991)
Jelly’s Last Jam (1992)
The Song of Jacob Zulu (1992)
Wings (1992)
Rent (1993)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1994)
Passion (1994)
The Ballad of Little Mikey (1994)
Avenue X (1994)
Violet (1994)
Songs for a New World (1995)
Splendora (1995)
Faust (1995)
Bring on da Noise, Bring on da Funk (1995)
Floyd Collins (1996)
Everyone Says I Love You (film, 1996)
Bat Boy (1997)
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1997)
The Lion King (1997)
Ragtime (1997)
The Capeman (1998)
A New Brain (1998)
Heading East (1998)
Dream True (1999)
South Park (film, 1999)
Bright Lights, Big City (1999)
Urinetown (1999)

AN ERA EXPLODING, A CENTURY SPINNING:
THE NEW MILLENNIUM

bare (2000)
Bamboozled (film, 2000)
The Wild Party (x 2) (2000)
The Producers (2001)
Moulin Rouge (film, 2001)
Big River (Deaf West, 2001)
The Visit (2001)
The Last Five Years (2002)
Bombay Dreams (2003)
Chicago (film, 2002)
Zanna, Don’t! (2003)
Avenue Q (2003)
Hairspray (2003)
The Light in the Piazza (2003)
Radiant Baby (2003)
Amour (2003)
Spelling Bee (2004)

Cool list, isn't it? My book was released in 2007, so my list stops mid-2000s. But there are so many wonderful shows since then that I would add to the list now:

Caroline, or Change (2004)
Taboo (2004)
Spring Awakening (2005)
Jersey Boys (2005)
High Fidelity (2006)
Bukowsical (2006)
Love Musik (2007)
Passing Strange (2007)
In the Heights (2008)
Next to Normal (2008)
Love Kills (2009)
The Story of My Life (2009)
American Idiot (2010)
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2010)
The Scottsboro Boys (2010)
Fela! (2010)
Night of the Living Dead (2010)
Bonnie & Clyde (2011)
The Blue Flower (2011)
Follies (2011 revival)
Rent (2011 revival)
Lysistrata Jones (2011)
Kinky Boots (2012)
Fortress of Solitude (2012)
Hands on a Hardbody (2013)
Here Lies Love (2013)
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (2013)
Holler If Ya Hear Me (2014)
Atomic (2014)
If/Then (2014)
Fun Home (2014)
Hamilton (2015)
Something Rotten (2015)

I know, I know, I'm leaving out Wicked and Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder and [fill in the blank]. Yes I am. Those are perfectly good shows and many people love them, but this is a list of what I personally think are the most interesting – usually the most artistically interesting, but sometimes interesting for other reasons, like their impact on the art form or the sheer audacity of their conception. No judgment implied against shows not listed.

And it really is all just my opinion...

What would you add to the list?

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

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