Best of Broadway

Whitney Spaner

It takes pluck, luck, a mountain of greenbacks and a dash of star power to get a show to opening night on Broadway. But as every theater lover knows, every now and then that effort yields a long-running megahit. To make a classic Broadway performance it might take a memorable score (The Phantom of the Opera), ties to pop stardom (Jersey Boys) or pure hilarity (The Book of Mormon), but whatever the magic combination of ingredients, it's no secret that some shows just have it. Here are a few of the spectacles that have entertained Broadway fans for years—sometimes even decades—able to survive revolving casts, evolving musical tastes and economic upheaval on their way to legendary theater status.

"Aladdin." Photo: Cylla Von Tiederman

Aladdin, which opened just in time for spring 2014, still has its original cast members: Courtney Reed as Princess Jasmine, Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Tony Award winner James Monroe Iglehart as the Genie and Jonathan Freeman, who voiced Jafar in Disney's 1992 animated film, as the villainous sorcerer. Memorable songs from the movie, like "A Whole New World," "Prince Ali" and "Friend Like Me"—plus a few new ones by Disney's Oscar-, Grammy-, Tony- and even Razzie-winning composer Alan Menken—are satisfyingly recreated for the stage. Disney has had its hits (The Lion King) and misses (TheLittle Mermaid) in transferring its repertoire to Broadway, and while this production is not quite as visually arresting as the stage adaptations of Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, it's a solid reproduction of a beloved film—and features a few original surprises.

"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical." Photo: Joan Marcus

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
When Beautiful first opened on Broadway, legendary singer-songwriter Carole King refused to see her life played out on stage—claiming the breakup with her ex-husband and co-writer Gerry Goffin was still too painful. After the jukebox musical garnered mostly positive notices and a slew of Tony nominations, King finally attended a performance. Her review says it all: "It is effing awesome!" King had a lot to do with the awesomeness, of course. The musical not only pulls from her extensive song catalog, it also gives King final say over the actress who plays her. The brilliant Jessie Mueller was first, winning a Tony for her portrayal of the shy native New Yorker turned music industry powerhouse. Canadian actress Chilina Kennedy is currently in the role. Beautiful offers a candid look at King's start at the Brill Building in the 1960s, her magnetic relationship with Goffin and her struggle to balance family with fame. Songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," "Up on the Roof" and "I Feel the Earth Move" never get old.

"The Book Of Mormon." Photo: Joan Marcus

The Book of Mormon
This worldwide hit by South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker made stars out of its original cast members: the cartoonishly handsome Andrew Rannells, now a regular on HBO's Girls, and his goofy sidekick Josh Gad, who will star as Roger Ebert in the upcoming film Russ & Roger. Now several cast changes in, Stone and Parker's musical still has the unparalleled ability to be smart, crude and touching—sometimes simultaneously—while selling out premium seats. Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez (more recently of Frozen fame) is responsible for clever and catchy songs like "Turn It Off," a satirical number about religious fundamentalism, and the now-infamous "Hasa Diga Eebowai," one of the funniest responses to despair ever written.

"Chicago." Photo: Jeremy Daniel

This beloved revival celebrates 20 years of jazz hands this fall. Everyone from Bob Fosse disciple Ann Reinking (who choreographed this production in Fosse's style) to stars like Melanie Griffith, Brooke Shields and Brandy has played sexed-up murderess Roxie Hart. Meanwhile, Alan Thicke, Usher and Jerry Springer have each taken on the role of Roxie's slick lawyer Billy Flynn. No matter whose name is on the marquee, this musical, inspired by the real-life story of murderous young women in 1920s Chicago, keeps hip-swiveling choreography and clever music (courtesy of John Kander and Fred Ebb) right where it belongs—on the Broadway stage.

"Hamilton." Photo: Joan Marcus

This multilayered new musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and has garnered rave reviews all around. Lin-Manuel Miranda plays the title character, chronicling Hamilton's complicated life as he goes from orphan child to war hero to political mastermind, via a hip-hop-infused musical. The show has received worldwide acclaim—the sort usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters—and so at present, tickets are a hot item.

"Jersey Boys." Photo: Joan Marcus

Jersey Boys
High-flying success, love affairs, fraught friendships, mob ties and a killer falsetto are what hit musicals are made of—or so indicates the box office at the August Wilson Theater, where Jersey Boys has been playing for the past decade. Based on the lives of the Four Seasons—Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito—Jersey Boys is one of the most successful jukebox musicals in Broadway history, seamlessly weaving together 1960s chart toppers like "Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry" with the story of four neighborhood toughs who came together on a New Jersey street corner and ended up in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. The innovative and energetic staging by director Des McAnuff does the Four Seasons justice and has revived interest in the band's lengthy roster of hits.

"Kinky Boots." Photo: Matthew Murphy

Kinky Boots
Based on the 2005 British film about a struggling small-town shoe company that starts manufacturing fetish footwear, Kinky Boots has an earnest lesson about acceptance at its core. It is kept funny and fresh with a book by the sharp-tongued Harvey Fierstein, a pop score by '80s icon Cyndi Lauper and a fierce performance by Tony Award winner Billy Porter as the thigh-high-boots-wearing drag queen Lola. In November Porter will cede the role to TV host Wayne Brady, who last appeared on Broadway a decade ago in the part of Chicago's Billy Flynn. Brady has very big boots to fill, but the show's mix of high-energy rockers and affecting ballads—along with the dazzling costumes—can always carry the day. Then there's the positive message: take, for instance, the cast's canny response to social-media backlash from their 2013 appearance at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. There's no telling what those red, sparkly boots could do with 10 more years on Broadway.


"The Lion King." Photo: Joan Marcus

The Lion King
Julie Taymor's adaptation of the 1994 animated film is the biggest hit Disney has had on Broadway—proof that her venerable reputation, despite the negative press that came as a result of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, is well deserved. The Lion King's heart-swelling opening number, "The Circle of Life," is performed by actors controlling safari-animal puppets and wearing towering bird hats as they gather on an African plain. The song has entered the circle of everyday life, having been performed practically everywhere: twice on the Tony Awards, during subway and airplane flash mobs, and millions of times on Taxi TV. But nothing compares to seeing the masterful puppetry, costumes and Elton John and Tim Rice songs coming together in front of your eyes—and even next to your seat—live at the theater.

"Matilda." Photo: Joan Marcus

"Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty," sings one of four messy-haired, elementary-school-aged actresses who rotate as Matilda's telepathic title character. Adapted from the beloved Roald Dahl novel by book writer Dennis Kelly and British musical comedian Tim Minchin, Matilda is neither cutesy nor cloying. Rather than use cliché-strewn ballads to teach honey-glazed life lessons, Matilda's story argues that adults aren't always right, the world can be a harsh place and, yes, that sometimes being a little bit naughty is a good thing. With this modern attitude, and insightful songs like the musical's anthem, "When I Grow Up," Matilda is wise beyond her years.

"The Phantom of the Opera." Photo: Matthew Murphy

The Phantom of the Opera
When the current production of The Phantom of the Opera opened on Broadway, Ronald Reagan was president, big hair was in and Tiffany topped the Billboard charts. The longest-running show on Broadway (and in Broadway's history), Phantom tells the story about an "opera ghost" who uses his power and musical genius to place an ingenue in the opera's leading role. Developed and written by the king of pop musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Phantom has stood the test of time, attracting crowds—and first-rate casts—nearly 28 years after transferring to Broadway from London's West End. Elitists often turn their noses up at Webber, whose other works include Cats, Evita and the upcoming production of School of Rock, thinking of him as the McDonald's of the Broadway scene, but as Frank Rich wrote in his 1988 New York Times review: "It may be possible to have a terrible time at The Phantom of the Opera, but you'll have to work at it."

"Wicked." Photo: Joan Marcus

Stephen Schwartz's 2003 hit musical based on Gregory Maguire’s novel is not only a Broadway fixture but also a star generator; original leading ladies, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, are now Broadway royalty, and other well-known performers like Megan Hilty (Smash), Shoshana Bean and Adam Lambert got their big break in this prequel to The Wizard of Oz. The family-friendly show follows the backstory of Glinda the Good as a sorority-girl-in-the-making, befriending green-faced outcast Elphaba (later known as the Wicked Witch of the West). Wicked's theatrical fantasy is incredibly popular, with songs like "Popular" and "Defying Gravity” inspiring countless karaoke and piano bar performances. Fans have also held on tight to the show’s earnest message of acceptance, girl power and friendship, proving that more than a decade on, there's still no place like the Gershwin Theatre.