The musical is one of America’s chief cultural exports of the 20th century. Indeed, the murky history of the preceding century, unfortunately, has demanded that all the best plays are of the 20th century. Theater in America during the 1800s was a mix of morality plays and minstrel shows. By far the most popular work was the theatrical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin before the Civil War. After the war theater got worse with melodrama taking over, and depictions of Jim Crow becoming even more popular in the days after Reconstruction. Of note is James Herne, who began introducing modern theatrical (read: Ibsen) norms to his plays. In the stuffy North they were not well-received.
But it is important to recall the racial struggles, the minstrel show, and the view of theater as wanton, to understand how musicals in the 20th century started and why America’s first great musical deals with the subjects it does…
1. Showboat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, 1927
Out of the 19th century’s past comes a truly modern take on the race relations and American legacy of the South. Showboat has a plot that can still effortlessly bring audiences to the edges of their seats – it’s subject matter is as important now as it was then. The songs that have become famous, especially the heart-wrenching “Ol’ Man River” delves into a nuanced portrait of characters and actions that took Broadway by storm. Serious theater had arrived in America.
2. The King and I by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, 1951
The Fifties were the golden age of the musical in America. Not only was Broadway thriving, but MGM was at its height producing movie musicals. If we look past the treacle of The Sound of Music the best collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein, by far, is The King and I, with classic songs like “Shall We Dance?”. It avoids the down home-sy feel of Oklahoma! or Carousel while remaining very American (the adaptation of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”).
3. My Fair Lady by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe, 1956
Lerner and Lowe are the best musical team in American history, perhaps barring Rodgers and Hammerstein. Rex Harrison reprised his role as Professor Higgins in the successful film adaptation, whereas Julie Andrews was replaced with Audrey Hepburn, and Marni Nixon singing. Great songs include “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “The Rain in Spain”. Andrews’ best vocal performance, the stage adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion is a marvel from start to finish.
4. West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins, 1957
Bernstein’s only successful foray into musical theater is also one of America’s best. The updated telling of Romeo and Juliet that involves street gangs in New York, white and Puerto Rican, was a bit of a shock during the Eisenhower era. The forbidden love, this time interracial, the adolescent menace, and the incredible songs such as “America”, “I Feel Pretty” and the jazzy “Cool” determined that West Side Story was to be another watershed of American theater.
5. Fiddler on the Roof by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, 1964
The Jewish experience is brought to life set in Russia during 1905. One of theater’s most famous creations, the milkman Tevye, tries to raise his daughters right. Famous songs include “If I Were a Rich Man” and “To Life” originally performed by Zero Mostel on Broadway. The generational conflicts that would come to define the back half of the decade are reflected in Tevye’s struggles to make sure his daughters keep the faith – and the loving parent’s concessions when they don’t.
6. Cabaret by John Kander and Fred Ebb, 1966
As the Sixties got into full swing Cabaret won the Tony for Best Musical – a radical departure from the friendlier titles that had won in previous years (the only other musical to win the award and deal with Nazis was The Sound of Music, after all). Hedonistic, sexual, violent, and brazen the show deals with the declining days of Weimar Germany, and reminded viewers that free love was not a new phenomenon. Memorable songs include “Willkommen” and the title, “Cabaret”.
7. 1776 by Sherman Edwards, 1969
What could be more American than Ben Franklin in a kick line? Wildly inaccurate from a historian’s point of view 1776 is just too fun to ignore. It also got flak from Richard Nixon who opposed the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” sung by the conservatives of the Constitutional Convention. There are very serious moments, dealing with the Revolution as well (the wartime plea of “Mama, Look Sharp”) which elevates this musical to the top tier of America’s canon.
8. A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim, 1973
Starting in the 1970s Sondheim came into his own (initially with Company). This adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night brought Sondheim yet another Tony, and a series of classic numbers, “Send in the Clowns” and “The Miller’s Son” in particular are excellent. Unlike the broad farce of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Music’s humor is gentler, while still remaining delightfully funny. Not his most famous, but the best.
9. A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine by Frank Lazarus and Dick Vosburgh, 1980
The 80s was dominated by British musical wunderkind Andrew Lloyd Weber (Evita, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera). This little-known work written by Americans initially had a short debut in the West End, but came to Broadway where it garnered nine Tony nominations. The first half is the lives of ushers at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in the 1930s (“The Best in the World”) – the second act is that night’s ‘feature film’ the new Marx Brother’s hit “A Night in the Ukraine”.
10. Rent by Jonathan Larson, 1996
After the shame and fear of the 80s, the AIDS epidemic began to be openly talked about in the 90s (the track “One Song Glory” is the most poignant). Larson’s musical, based explicitly on the plot of Puccini’s opera La Boheme (for example the track entitled… “La Vie Boheme”) updates the story to present-day New York and swaps violins for electric guitars. Arguably America’s best rock musical (sorry Grease), Rent captured the feeling of a decade – no small task.
Besides the musical, however, the American play also came into its own in the 20th century. A mix of comic and tragic masterpieces and authors rose to prominence. Unlike in musicals, radical themes took a hold much earlier in straight plays - both comically and tragically. And, like musicals, certain playwrights have become household names, and even more essential to the canon, due to their works being not only performed, but frequently read, in schools.
1. Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring, 1939
The darkest of American comedies, Arsenic is a wildly funny, and totally American, play. Two old ladies who go about poisoning people, a brother who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt (handily digging locks in the basement that double as shallow graves) and a mobster with the face of Boris Karloff. Stuck in the middle is poor Mortimer who tries to deal with these lunatics, who, after all, are his family. Kesselring never really got the madcap chemistry quite right ever again.
2. The Skin of Our Teeth by Thorton Wilder, 1942
Winning Wilder his second Pulitzer, The Skin of Our Teeth is not as famed as Our Town but is miles better. Our Town deals with the everyday struggle of everyday Americans…and so forth. But Teeth goes further with a bizarre but somehow totally apropos mashup of New Jersey in the first half of the 20th century and the Ice Age, while cleverly underscoring the timeless characters and symbolism of the acts. The second act, after a seven year war, was all too prescient in 1942.
3. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, 1947
It seems as though all great playwrights have to take a crack at dysfunctional families and tragic homes in American theater. Williams’ two most famous plays deal with these topics, one, more heavily, Glass Menagerie, one, as a side element, Streetcar. Blanche and Stanley have become iconic characters, and the theme of delusion and Williams’ steamy sensual/sexual tones made the play a landmark, bringing a Southern tone to the New England dominance of Broadway.
4. The Crucible by Arthur Miller, 1953
Miller, like Wilder, is best known for a more American tragedy, in Miller’s case Death of a Salesman from 1949. But O’Neill does it better in Journey (below). The Crucible, as is well-known, deals with an allegory of McCarthyism in Puritanical America. Dealing with a troubling aspect of our American history –indeed, our very founding – as ignorant, ruthless, and fanatical the play has great American, and universal appeal. It is Miller’s most important work.
5. Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill, 1956
Written the same year as Teeth, above, O’Neill didn’t publish it in his lifetime and it is easy to see why. O’Neill is America’s master tragedian, and the story of Connecticut family’s dysfunction and multiple addictions were way ahead of the times for theater. The mother, Mary Tyrone, is particularly poignant, and one of the most remarkable female characters developed in American drama. O’Neill had won the Nobel without this play, but his reputation sits squarely upon in.
6. The Sandbox by Edward Albee, 1959
As with musicals, the 1950s was a particularly rich time for playwrights in America. Albee’s most famous work, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is admittedly powerful and a great play. But Albee’s forays into the absurd are more interesting, most notably in Sandbox. The play is extraordinarily funny at times, and the whole absurdist premise sometimes masks the deeper message that the audience is, themselves, part of the play – and playing the role of an audience.
7. The Odd Couple by Neil Simon, 1965
Neil Simon was talented both with stage plays and musicals (Sweet Charity) and is deservedly given credit as one of America’s best theatrical writers. With its many adaptations, The Odd Couple may be Simon’s best known work. Two writers live together, one a neat-freak, the other a slob – and try their best to get along without killing each other. The play easily picked up best Author and Best Actor for Walter Matthau. It is still wildly funny to this day.
8. Fences by August Wilson, 1983
For a long time the de facto African American play was Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which is unfortunate, since that play is, well…lacking. Fences accomplishes what Raisin does only mediocrely by showing a family that made it, has the house, and is trying to stay together – or not. In the initial Broadway production the lead was portrayed by James Earl Jones as the father who does not love, or even like, his son. Of Wilson’s ten-part series, this is the best.
9. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe by Jane Wagner, 1991
A one-woman showcase for Lily Tomlin, written by her wife Jane Wagner, Signs has as a narrator a bag-lady named Trudy, who communes with aliens. And it only gets stranger from there. Tremendously funny (especially the scene where Trudy tries to show the aliens the difference between soup and Andy Warhol’s art) there are nonetheless some characters whose stories are painfully human, and even tragic. Signs therefore has it all – and then some.
10. Angels in America: The Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner, 1991
Part one of two comprising Kushner’s masterpiece, Millennium deals with AIDS and visions, religion and hypocrisy. A number of real-life characters appear, from the noxious Roy Cohn to Ethel Rosenberg. It would be difficult to find a more fundamentally American play – and indeed, the full title when combined with the second half, Perestroika, is Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Kushner was awarded the National Medal of Arts for the work.