America’s obsession with musicals seems to ebb and flow every so often, with opinions sometimes shifting as quickly as the wind blows. It all started in the so-called “Golden Age” of musicals, when individuals like George Gershwin and the dynamic duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein brought the world a combination of opera and dramatic plays that took the world by storm. Folk operas such as “Show Boat,” “Porgy and Bess,” and “Anything Goes” gave birth to the first true musical, “Oklahoma!” which started the musical revolution. It paved the way for classic shows, such as “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” and “The Sound of Music.” Since then, the role of musicals in our society has changed. Some serve as reflections of our social climate, such as “Hair,” “Godspell,” and, later, “RENT,” while others reflect a throwback to the older traditions of big, bombastic operatic shows with grand visual spectacle, such as “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Misérables.” And, unfortunately, there are some dogshit musicals written and designed just to make a quick, cheap buck off of a movie. Looking at you, “Shrek” and “Billy Elliot.” (I will never forgive “Billy Elliot” for beating “Next to Normal.” Ever.)
Regardless of how you feel about a musical adaptation of a movie beating one of the most underrated shows of all time, the musical is as strong now as it ever has been. For those of you who aren’t as well-versed in musicals and would like to be, or saw this clip of Anna Kendrick singing her face off and wondered what the hell “The Last 5 Years” was, allow me to inform you by taking you on a trip through musical theater history. Presented for your approval, here are the 50 best musicals of all time.
50. “How To Succeed In Business Without Even Trying”
While not one of the most notable or noteworthy shows on Earth, “How to Succeed” was a tremendous critical and box office success (for the film adaptation) and is constantly being revived. Also, I saw it with Daniel Radcliffe and John Larroquette (AKA the dude from “Night Court”) and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Harry Potter soft-shoe.
49. “South Pacific”
Despite a weak second act and the fact that it’s, well, vaguely racist, “South Pacific” is considered one of the best classic musicals of all time. The infectious songs and wacky, ridiculous characters give the show a tremendous amount of staying power.
48. “Guys And Dolls”
No retrospective of musical theater would be complete without the inclusion of “Guys and Dolls.” It’s been revived about 1,000 times, and just about anyone who’s anyone has been in either one of the revivals or in the 1955 movie adaptation, from the great Robert Alda to Marlon Brando, Nathan Lane, Ewan McGregor, Jane Krakowski, Patrick Swayze, Don Johnson, and even the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra. It’s a timeless musical.
47. “Jesus Christ Superstar”
Ahh, now we’re getting into the possibly blasphemous musicals. Don’t worry, there are a lot more of these. “Jesus Christ Superstar,” one of the very few Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals I can actually stand, basically turned Jesus into a hippie. But wasn’t he kind of a hippie already?
46. “My Fair Lady”
It’s impossible to do a writeup on the best of musical theater without including the show that many consider to be “the perfect musical.” It’s grown somewhat old-fashioned in recent years, but back when it first premiered, the Julie Andrews/Rex Harrison-starring musical won a ton of awards, spawned a movie starring Audrey Hepburn, and set the record at the time for longest-running show on Broadway. It has been spoofed and homaged by just about everything, from “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” to “Glee.”
45. “Into The Woods”
Full disclosure, I partially put “Into The Woods” on this list to avoid angry emails and tweets from musical theater die-hards who are militant about this show, and anything Sondheim. While not a personal favorite, it has made a major impression on the musical theater community, even spawning a highly-anticipated Disney movie, which will be released later this year.
44. “The Music Man”
Even if you’ve never seen the musical, you probably know exactly how many trombones hit the morning sun, with one hundred and ten cornets close at hand. The answer is 76. Seventy-six trombones.
43. “Bye Bye Birdie”
This is another classic musical with a famous film adaptation, which has starred tons of celebrities throughout its various revivals and versions. This satirical take on life in 1950s America is about as wacky and irreverent as it gets. Despite being a classic, it was very much ahead of its time.
42. “Hedwig And The Angry Inch”
All you need to know about “Hedwig” can be summed up in five words: Neil Patrick Harris in drag. This rock musical about a transgender singer from East Germany has had a cult following since the late ’90s/early ’00s, thanks to a 2001 film adaptation. The musical was actually, surprisingly, never on Broadway until this year, when NPH starred and turned it from a cult hit to a must-see show.
41. “The Sound Of Music”
The hills are alive, bitches. Who knew a musical about the Nazi occupation of Austria could be an incredibly popular, universally beloved show, spawning a critically and commercially acclaimed movie, and still be so poignant to this day?