10 of the Best Broadway Musicals of All Time

Broadway theater billboards, New York
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The best Broadway musicals leave a legacy that lasts long after the final performance has ended (if it has ended). Some, like "Gypsy" become staples of high school drama classes. Others, like "My Fair Lady" or "Mamma Mia" live on as hit Hollywood films. And some, such as "Hair" or "Once," spawn hit songs that reach the top of the popular music charts.

These 10 Broadway musicals are some of the best of all time, according to critics and audiences alike. Even if you've never seen these shows on stage, odds are you know at least one of their songs by heart.

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Gypsy (1959)

Gypsy Playbill cover

The story is loosely based on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, a famous stripper, and her mother, who pushed Rose into a life of show business. The play was a huge hit when it opened with Ethel Merman in the lead role of Mama Rose. The play spawned such hits as "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Rose's Turn," and has been revived on Broadway several times. 

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My Fair Lady (1956)

My Fair Lady Playbill cover

This musical, originally starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, is loosely based on the George Bernard Shaw play "Pygmalion." With a book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe, the play was a smash and ran for a then-record 2,717 performances on Broadway. Harrison and Andrews repeated their roles for the London version, and Rex Harrison also appeared in the 1964 film opposite Audrey Hepburn.

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Steet (1979)

Sweeney Todd Playbill cover

Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for this Tony Award-winning musical about a homicidal barber and his wife, a cook who served his victim's remains in the form of meat pies to unsuspecting customers. Angela Lansbury will be forever identified with the role of Mrs. Lovett, Sweeny Todd's accomplice, but Sondheim had to persuade her initially to take the role.

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Fiddler on the Roof (1964)

Fiddler on the Roof Playbill cover

This tale of a Jewish family's life in rural Russia of the early 1900s became the first musical to run for 3,000 performances on Broadway. With Tony-winning performances by Zero Mostel in the title role of Tevye and Maria Karnilova as his wife Golde, plus rousing numbers like "Tradition" and "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," the show has become a Broadway classic.

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Guys and Dolls (1950)

Guys and Dolls Playbill cover

Stories of hard-boiled gangsters of the 1920s and '30s don't seem like fodder for a hit Broadway play, but they were the secret to the success of "Guys and Dolls." Based on the short stories of Damon Runyon, the play won five Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. The musical also spawned a hit film in 1955 that starred Frank Sinatra.  

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Oklahoma! (1943)

Oklahoma! Playbill cover

Composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II are remembered today as titans of Broadway who created such memorable musicals as " South Pacific" and "The Sound of Music." "Oklahoma!", a simple romantic tale of a Midwestern farm girl and her two suitors, was Rodgers and Hammerstein's first project. It ran for 2,212 performances, won a special Pulitzer Prize, and yielded the 1955 film, which won an Academy Award.

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Cabaret (1966)

Cabaret Playbill cover

Based on novelist Christopher Isherwood's memoirs of life in Weimar-era Germany, "Cabaret" was an instant hit when it opened. Directed by the legendary Harold Prince, the play starred a young Joel Gray as the emcee, a role that he would recreate in later revivals and in the 1972 film adaptation starring Liza Minelli. The play also featured Lotte Lenya, who was a young starlet during 1920s Germany and the wife of Kurt Weill.

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West Side Story (1957)

West Side Story Playbill cover

With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, "West Side Story" seemed destined for greatness for the beginning. A retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" set in the Puerto Rican community of New York City, the play was Sondheim's first on Broadway. It won two Tony Awards and later inspired a film version.

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The Music Man (1957)

The Music Man Playbill cover

The tale of a fast-talking salesman who tries to snooker a small town but falls in love instead won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The soundtrack also was a huge hit, spending more than 200 weeks on the charts and earning the first Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. Robert Preston, who originated the role on Broadway, also starred in the 1962 film version.

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A Chorus Line (1975)

A Chorus Line Playbill cover

A Broadway musical born out of a behind-the-scenes look at Broadway itself, "A Chorus Line" tells the story of dancers auditioning for a spot on a chorus line. The musical was the longest-running production in Broadway history until it was surpassed by "Cats" in 1997.

Other Broadway Musical Greats

As cultural and social mores loosed in the 1970s and '80s, and Broadway began to attract big-money investors, hit musicals got bigger and more creative. Musicals such as "Into the Woods" (1987), "Rent" (1996), and "Wicked" (2003) all earned strong critical reviews and enjoyed strong runs on Broadway and on tour.