The heart of American theatre lies in the Great White Way and the shows that make their way there have to please both audiences and the critics alike. If they fail to do so, the curtains shall drop. It’s a big thing to premiere on Broadway, but it’s another thing to sell to the audiences long enough to make it run for a long time.
What makes a Broadway hit? Is it the performers, the music, the story, or the hype? Most likely, it’s a combination of all these things, leaving audiences hungry for more. Let’s look at the most successful musicals and plays that became a hit on Broadway:
The live musical version of Disney’s The Lion King is currently the highest-grossing Broadway production of all time, surpassing the record previously held by The Phantom of the Opera. Since it debuted in 1997, it consistently packed the theatres. It generated the highest total box office of any production in any entertainment medium – raking over $8 billion globally by 2017. It has been going strong for more than 20 years and is still showing until today, but temporarily postponed due to the pandemic. It’s also widely acclaimed by critics, as it won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
The Lion King presents an unforgettable, beloved story of an animal kingdom in the African wildlife. It’s a story about family, responsibility, and identity that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike.
Wicked is a beloved musical featuring an alternative telling of the classic 1900s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. It’s told from the perspective of the witches from the Land of Oz, taking place before the story in the novel began.
Wicked one of the only three Broadway shows to earn more than $1 billion. It was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, winning three, and was nominated for 11 Drama Desk Awards, winning six. The production opened in 2003 and is still showing as of writing. However, productions were suspended due to the pandemic.
The Phantom of the Opera is one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals. Based on a classic novel of the same title, this musical tells a story of a disfigured and murderous musical genius living in the labyrinth beneath the Paris Opera House, who became obsessed with a young soprano. This musical won five Tony Awards and earned a gross of more than $6 billion worldwide.
It opened on Broadway in 1986 and is still being staged until today. However, the production was suspended due to the pandemic.
The ultimate feel-good musical, Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical you can relate to. It features the songs of the famous pop group ABBA. It was the first true mega-hit jukebox musical to grace the Great White Way, paving the way for a number of jukebox musicals over the years.
Mamma Mia! tells the story of a young bride to be married on a small Greek island and on a mission to find her birth father. It opened on Broadway in 2001 and closed in 2015, being the longest-running jukebox musical in Broadway.
Chicago holds the record for the longest-running Broadway revival and the longest-running American musical in Broadway. Set in the jazz age Chicago, the musical is based on a 1926 play of the same title, featuring real-life murders and trials reported by a Chicago Tribune reporter.
Chicago was originally launched on Broadway in 1975, but it wasn’t the year for the show. That same year, the highly successful A Chorus Line beat them in the box office. Thankfully, the show’s 1996 revival was a hit – it won six Tony Awards, which was more than any revival in Broadway history at the time. As of March 15, 2020, the revival had 9,692 performances.
Jersey Boys is a jukebox musical that followed the success of Mamma Mia!. This is a show presented in a documentary-style format, telling the story of the 1960’s rock ‘n roll group The Four Seasons, inspiring the audiences with its rags to riches story from the formation and eventual breakup of the band. It nabbed four Tony Awards and has been produced around the world.
This musical premiered on Broadway in 2005 and lasted until 2015, making it the 12th longest-running show on Broadway.
The Book of Mormon is a musical comedy that won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical. And it’s not just critically acclaimed – it has grossed more than $600 million in the box office, making it one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time. It became an unlikely hit since it tackles a sensitive subject of religion. The story follows a pair of mismatched Mormon missionaries, presenting a satirical yet optimistic examination of the beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Since its opening in 2011, the musical took Broadway by storm. It’s also one of the Broadway shows temporarily suspended due to COVID-19.
Disney’s first-ever musical brought to the Broadway stage, Beauty and the Beast is a tale as old as time. It follows a classic love story about a smart and beautiful woman who falls in love with a beast-turned-prince. Based on the classic French fairy tale and 1991 Disney’s award-winning film, the show was a delight to watch on stage. Its lavish sets and costumes, unforgettable characters, and winning performances, as seen by more than 7 million audiences.
The musical ran on Broadway since 1999 and closed in 2007, becoming the 10th longest-running production in Broadway history. It got nine Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical.
Les Misérables is a French epic set in 19th century France turned into a musical. It follows the heartbreaking story of a peasant seeking atonement after being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. It’s one of the most popular shows in Broadway and West End, as it features some of the most memorable theatre scores of all time.
The Broadway production of Les Misérables won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It ran on the Great White Way for 16 years, from 1987 to 2003, becoming the second-longest-running musical on Broadway.
Cats are another musical featuring, well, cats. This show about felines that is basically plotless, but showcases the different stories in a tribe of cats. It’s an unlikely Broadway hit, but it’s one of the longest-running shows until The Phantom of the Opera overtook it. It even won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It debuted on Broadway in 1982 and closed in 2000, but it had a lot of revivals.
This musical is completely told through music with no dialogue. It also started the trend for the megamusical phenomenon in Broadway, establishing a global market for musical theater.
Pioneering the use of pop-rock music in Broadway, Rent ushered a new genre of music in Broadway. This musical is loosely based on an 1896 opera, telling the story of a group of struggling young artists trying to create a life and survive in New York while battling with HIV.
The musical gained critical acclaim, as it won four Tony Awards. It opened in 1996 and closed in 2008 after a 12-year run. Rent also pioneered the concept of the Broadway ticket lottery, giving audiences a chance to buy seats at a bargain price.
One of the highest-grossing musicals ever, Miss Saigon opened on Broadway in 1991. It features a moving yet tragic love story of a Vietnamese woman and her American lover. It’s a daring adaptation of a 1904 opera, telling a tragedy of passion and beauty.
This musical won three Tony Awards and closed in January 2001. The show first premiered in London, and its 2014 revival set a world record of opening day ticket sales.
A show featuring the uncredited Broadway dancers on a chorus line, A Chorus Line, became a phenomenon when it first premiered in 1975. The musical’s entire run sold out immediately after word about the show quickly spread. This production also won nine Tony Awards, including a Special Tony Award for becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway in 1984.
The show ran until 1990 and was surpassed by Cats in 1997 as the longest-running in Broadway history.
Hamilton tells a unique story of the Founding Fathers of America, featuring music that is a combination of rap, hip-hop, soul, and show tunes. It’s a revolutionary musical that featured non-white actors as the Founding Fathers and other historical figures.
Released on Broadway in 2015, the show won 11 Tony Awards and eight Drama Desk Awards. The showing of the musical is still ongoing, but production was suspended due to the pandemic.
One of the world’s most popular musicals, Grease, is raw and raunchy. It tackles the issues of the ’70s to ’80s teen generation. It popularized the hit songs “Summer Nights,” “You’re the One That I Want,” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” – which later became popular in the mainstream when the Grease film adaptation was released in 1978.
The Broadway musical opened in 1972 and closed in 1980.
Another award-winning musical, Fiddler on the Roof, is based on the Yiddish story Tevye and His Daughters, which is about the Jewish life in a village in Imperial Russia. The story captured the audiences with its humor, honesty, and warmth.
The show was nominated for ten Tony Awards and won nine, including Best Musical. It ran on Broadway from 1964 to 1972. It’s one of the highest-earning shows on Broadway, making $1,574 for every dollar invested in the production.
42nd Street is a hit jukebox musical based on the 1932 novel about a famed dictatorial Broadway director Julian Marsh who launched a musical extravaganza during the Great Depression. The show offers an all-singing and all-tapping performances of a cast of 60 people.
The musical opened on Broadway in 1980 and closed after nine years in 1989. 42nd Street is one of show business’ most classic stories.
Another Disney hit turned into a stage musical, Aladdin is the 12th highest-grossing show in Broadway’s history. Set on a fictional Arabian city, Aladdin showcases a familiar story of a poor thief who was granted three wishes by a genie and uses it to win the heart of the princess.
Aladdin opened on Broadway in 2014 and is still showing, although the pandemic caused productions to be suspended. The show was nominated five times for a Tony Award.
Oh! Calcutta! is a controversial musical revue that first debuted off-Broadway in 1969. Its 1976 revival became a hit, making it one of the longest-running Broadway shows when it closed in 1989.
This musical has no plot but features a series of short musical sketches that highlight sexual freedom. It was scandalous at the time because it has a fully naked cast on stage.
Mary Poppins is a touching musical based on a similarly titled children’s book. It features a story of a nanny who changes a family. This show received seven Tony nominations and became a popular choice of show for community theatres and schools to produce.
The musical debuted on Broadway in 2006 and closed in 2013 to make way for Aladdin.