Sometime around the first pressing of Meet the Beatles, Broadway lost its hold on America’s consciousness. This list reflects the more adventurous and productive steps taken to get it back. Driven by downtown innovation bubbling up to Broadway stages, these plays found new ways of telling stories, new stories to tell, or both. It favors homegrown work over imports (and thus omits, say, Peter Brook’s radical white-box staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It also emphasizes premieres over great revivals like Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst in A Moon for the Misbegotten. Though some stories don’t concern New York, they are all, in the end, New York plays. The nightly give-and-take with a Manhattan crowd molded them into a different form than if they’d played one of the cities orbiting this one in the cosmology of American theater.
A generation before Spring Awakening, composer Galt McDermot and lyricist-librettists Gerome Ragni and James Rado didn’t just prove that rock music could work on Broadway—they created a soundtrack (and name) for the Age of Aquarius. Just as important, this story of a “tribe” of Greenwich Village hippies inaugurated Joe Papp’s Public Theater—which, for all its ups and downs, has been the heart of the New York stage world ever since.
In George Furth’s account of an emotionally blocked bachelor’s birthday, on Boris Aronson’s Manhattan-writ-small set, Stephen Sondheim captured the isolation amid the frenzy of New York life. His first success as a serious composer-lyricist (after the comic A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) brought new complexity and darker shadows to Broadway. Even now, other songwriters are struggling to catch up.
FRAGMENTS OF A GREEK TRILOGY, 1974
Performed mainly in foreign languages, and all around its audiences at La Mama, Andrei Serban’s staging of ancient myth schooled a generation of New York artists on how to blow up a classic. It liberated directors to stage work that’s primal, ritualized, dangerous.
A CHORUS LINE, 1975
With the radical idea of building a metashow from interviews, Michael Bennett and his writers captured the joy and ugliness of Broadway dancers’ lives. Its fifteen-year Broadway run also kept the Public solvent, thereby making it the rare show to all at once celebrate, challenge, and fund the theater culture of New York.
Title aside, this musical tale of murderous vixens has always seemed a perfect fit for tabloid-happy Manhattan. Bob Fosse’s slinky genius and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s retro-ragtime score were a hit when the show premiered and again when it returned in 1996 for a run that looks more or less permanent. The film version reinvigorated the movie-musical genre.
27 WAGONS FULL OF COTTON/ A MEMORY OF TWO MONDAYS, 1976
In the Tennessee Williams one-act that began the show, she appeared as a fat southern wife; in Arthur Miller’s short play after intermission, she reappeared as a sexy New York secretary. So complete was her transformation that, according to legend, some in the audience failed to realize they were seeing the same actress—a recent drama-school graduate whom the city would soon come to revere, Meryl Streep.
AMERICAN BUFFALO, 1977
By 1977, Chicago audiences had grown accustomed to David Mamet’s profane poetry. But that year, when Robert Duvall burst onto a Broadway stage with the filthiest entrance speech ever written (“Fuckin’ Ruthie,” it begins), the world got its widest exposure yet to Mametspeak—which, frankly, sounds more like some corners of this town than Chicago anyway.
THE THREEPENNY OPERA, 1976 REVIVAL
For 40 years, Richard Foreman has ensured that no matter how smoothly gentrified this city might get, it’s still home to work that’s odd and challenging and original. The East Village maestro is also responsible for one of New York’s great downtown-uptown cross-pollinations, directing Brecht and Weill’s masterpiece on the big Lincoln Center stage—a huge, grotesque production starring the seductive Raul Julia at his best.
“AND I AM TELLING YOU I’M NOT GOING,” FROM DREAMGIRLS, 1981
According to New York myth, four minutes can make you famous. Rarely has that been truer than in the case of Jennifer Holliday, whose monumentally showstopping solo made her synonymous with Broadway diva. Jennifer Hudson did fine in the movie, but if you want to hear somebody turn the volume and the soul up to 12, find the cast album.
THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP, 1984
The odd, ingenious Charles Ludlam and his partner, Everett Quinton, gender-swapped their way through nearly a dozen roles while sending up cheap horror stories. Today, the 1984 comedy stands as one of the great achievements of a generation of downtown artists decimated by AIDS. Ludlam died in 1987, too soon to enjoy his play’s worldwide success. (Weird fact he’d have liked: It became the longest-running play in Brazil’s history.)
THE NORMAL HEART AND AS IS, 1985
As theater artists were dying by the score and American society refused to face AIDS, two dramatists demanded that it do so. In The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer was fierce and angry; William M. Hoffman, in As Is, was gentler and more restrained. Both proved that social drama still works, that New York playwrights can help force an issue onto the agenda.
August Wilson’s ten-play cycle about the African-American experience in the twentieth century is one of the epic achievements of the past few decades, and Fences is its crown jewel. In 1987, Wilson’s story about the battle between Troy Maxson and his son Cory won everything in sight, thanks in part to the towering performance of James Earl Jones.
THE HEIDI CHRONICLES, 1988
Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer winner traced one woman’s trip through the rewards and disappointments of the feminist revolution. Along the way, she captured the way that success and failure (and friends and family) get all jumbled up in this town. Long before Sex and the City followed her lead, she became the first woman writing solo to win a Tony for Best Play.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, 1988
Like it or loathe it, this unkillable juggernaut defines the British megamusical invasion. With Cats and Les Misérables, it made Broadway bigger and blander in the eighties, but also tourist-friendly enough to keep the lights on.
ANGELS IN AMERICA, 1993
Tony Kushner’s sprawling chronicle of Reagan-era New York life offered the best evidence in decades that American theater could transcend little domestic dramas. The seven-hour epic dared to be both intimate and political, and to give Roy Cohn the best lines. (See Q&A, here.)
Jonathan Larson’s death on the eve of the premiere created the legend. But it’s his just-edgy-enough pop score that has endeared this East Village La Bohème to the city’s youth culture ever since.
THE LION KING, 1997
Julie Taymor, already revered for her puppet artistry on shows like Juan Darien, turned a middling Disney film into a major aesthetic triumph. A high point of Broadway theatricality, the show also marked the rehab of the New Amsterdam Theatre, an early leap in the recovery of Times Square.
THE PRODUCERS, 2001
Maybe it flamed out early, and maybe Young Frankenstein couldn’t repeat the trick. But the mix of Mel Brooks’s shtick and the chemistry of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick became a phenomenon like none in living memory. It set records for box office, for Tony awards, for desperate measures taken to secure a ticket.
THE ARGUMENT STARTER
TAKE ME OUT, 2003
Richard Greenberg’s play doesn’t have the stature of some major plays left off this list, but a story this smart and vibrantly theatrical is too exciting to omit. Much more ambitious than its synopsis (“the play about the gay baseball player”) suggests, the best play of the decade so far tackles the way race, money, and sexuality collide in New York today—and also happens to be hilarious.
SWEENEY TODD, 2005 REVIVAL
In the 1979 debut of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s demonic musical, Hal Prince tried to capture a corrupt society onstage. In the reimagining by John Doyle, a gifted cast of New York actors doubled as its own orchestra. The feverish, stripped-down result was a rebuke to megamusical bloat, and testified to the pure power of audience imagination.
THE COAST OF UTOPIA, 2006–2007
Arcadia and Rock ’n’ Roll are better plays, but director Jack O’Brien made Tom Stoppard’s epic about nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals a once-in-a-generation showcase for New York talent: Brían F. O’Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Billy Crudup, and Martha Plimpton, plus their co-stars, plus genius designers, plus an audience that kept the trilogy running long past Lincoln Center’s expectations. It was a milestone even before it broke the record for Tonys for a play.
IN THE HEIGHTS, 2008
It rode to Broadway in the wake of Spring Awakening, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score sets this show apart. By incorporating salsa and hip-hop, it captures the musical identity of the city—the other New York, the one Broadway doesn’t see—more than any show since Hair. Here is where the next 40 years might lead, if we’re lucky.