Musicals That Changed Broadway

Milestone shows that altered the course of musical theater, for better or worse

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Throughout the history of musical theater, there have been certain landmark shows that have raised the quality standard for the entire art form. There have also been shows that have set some unfortunate precedents, cynical trends that opportunistic writers and producers have leaped upon in search of success. For good or for ill (mostly good), here are ten shows that have shaped the Broadway musical as we know it today. 

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Very Good Eddie

Easily the most obscure musical on this list, "Very Good Eddie" (1915) was the first success of the so-called Princess musicals, a series of shows with music by Jerome Kern, book by Guy Bolton, and lyrics mostly by P.G. Wodehouse. Most musicals at the time were a hodgepodge of unintegrated elements, filled with preexisting songs, irrelevant dances, and lavish spectacle. "Very Good Eddie" changed all that, featuring songs that arose naturally from the drama, intimate stories with real people, and a cohesive narrative. It took decades for the innovations to really take hold, but "Very Good Eddie" represents an important turning point in the development of the integrated musical. 

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Show Boat

After "Very Good Eddie," musical theater puttered along with various claptrap conglomerations -- Cinderella stories, collegiate romps, Prohibition-inspired adventures -- until composer Jerome Kern teamed up with the redoubtable Oscar Hammerstein II for the serious and soaring "Show Boat" (1927). Finally, a show with thoughtful subject matter, significant in particular for its sympathetic portrayal of African-American characters (paving the way for "Porgy and Bess" and "Lost in the Stars"among others). "Show Boat" also made great strides in the ambition of Broadway music, and its embrace of the notion that content dictates form (i.e. that a musical scene should take the shape that its dramatic intention dictates).

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It's easy to dismiss "Oklahoma!" (1943) today as quaint, old-fashioned. In its day, however, "Oklahoma!" was revolutionary. In the 16 years since "Show Boat", musical theater had grown in fits and starts, with individual innovations here and there. It wasn't until "Oklahoma!" that someone brought all those innovations together. Not surprisingly, that someone was Oscar Hammerstein II (in partnership with composer Richard Rodgers), the same man who had created "Show Boat". "Oklahoma!" took the integrated elements of "Very Good Eddie", the verisimilitude of "Show Boat", and the mature intent of such shows as "Pal Joey" (1940) and "Lady in the Dark" (1941), and set the standard for every single musical that has followed it. 

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West Side Story

Another theme that followed the evolution from "Show Boat" to "Oklahoma!" and beyond was the increasing importance of dance as a communicative element. "West Side Story" was pivotal in this progression, really the apex of meaningful dance (following such seminal dance shows as "On Your Toes" and "On the Town"). With "West Side Story", dance becomes the mode of communication for these street-wise but inarticulate characters and is absolutely essential to the story. "West Side Story" also featured a unified, symphonic score by Leonard Bernstein that was unprecedented in its ambition. Plus, "West Side Story" was the first Broadway credit of someone who would continue to expand the artistic ambition of musical theater: Stephen Sondheim.

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The Rodgers & Hammerstein revolution established the framework and techniques for creating the integrated musical. In the 1960s, musical-theater practitioners began to look for ways to break with that tradition and move on to something new. With director Harold Prince at the helm, "Cabaret" is the boldest of the shows that came out of these efforts, experimenting successfully with multi-layer storytelling and sharp social commentary. The show made some compromises in its initial outing -- softening references to anti-Semitism and bowdlerizing the main character's sexuality -- but the 1998 revival included revisions that brought "Cabaret" to its full artistic fruition.

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After "Cabaret", creators began experimenting even more with alternative storytelling techniques and edgy subject matter. "Company", also directed by Harold Prince, was the first significant Broadway musical to reject linear storytelling in favor of thematic exploration. The theme here: modern marriage and its ​discontents. "Company" is also the show that set the tone -- and the bar -- for the rest of Stephen Sondheim's illustrious career as a composer/lyricist. "Company" ushered in an era of dark, fragmented shows ("Pippin", "A Chorus Line", "Chicago") and freed creators from the constraints of conventional form and structure.    

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OK, so here's where we enter "for worse" country. Like it or not, "Cats" is a watershed. It not only continued in the line of "Company's" nonlinear presentation style, it also represents the advent of the technology-laden Broadway spectacle. "Cats" began the trend in musical theater of spectacle for its own sake, and made possible the twin phenomena of "Les Misérables" and "The Phantom of the Opera". It's easy to dump on "Cats", but much of the music, especially the instrumental passages, is quite ambitious, reflecting the 20th-century predilection for dissonance and rhythmic invention. If the "Cats" total is less than the sum of its kitty parts, we can at least thank the show for creating an atmosphere in which more cohesive spectacles such as "Wicked" are now possible. 

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Mamma Mia!

"Mamma Mia!" did alter the Broadway musical landscape by solidifying the place of the "jukebox" or "songbook" musical. There had certainly been shows previously that focused on the musical output of one particular recording artist, or classic songbook composer. However, it wasn't until "Mamma Mia!" that the genre became a box-office bonanza, spawning numerous copycats, only some of which have been successful. Yes, "Mamma Mia!" itself is pretty much drek, but the show made at least two superior shows possible: "Jersey Boys" and "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical". 

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The Producers

Quick quiz: Name a musical comedy that premiered on Broadway between 1970 and 2000. It's pretty difficult, isn't it? That's because musical comedy pretty much disappeared after "Hello, Dolly!" and didn't really reemerge until "The Producers" in 2001. (FYI: There were a few musical comedies in the period, including "Annie" and "City of Angels", but for the most part, comedy was rare.) We have Mel Brooks to thank for bringing laughter back into vogue, with his musical version of his classic 1968 film. Since the success of "The Producers", musical comedy has come back in force, resulting in such hit shows as "Hairspray", "Spamalot", and "Kinky Boots".

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Avenue Q

After the enormous success of "Cats", "Les Mis" and "Phantom", producers began to assume that the key to Broadway success was creating shows that were huge and that more intimate shows didn't really stand a chance. Then along came "Avenue Q", which not only won the Tony Award for Best Musical (over "Wicked", of all things), but also went on to a highly successful Broadway run, followed by an Off-Broadway transfer that is still running today. Suddenly people saw that small, smart musicals could make money, which led to the financial success of such shows as "Once", "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee", and "Next to Normal".