New York City's 10 Longest-Running Musicals

Broadway Posters
Broadway Posters | © Broadway Tour/flickr
Diana DiCocco

The Broadway stage is a theatric storytelling machine, producing some of the greatest stories enjoyed by audiences throughout time. The viewing experience of the Broadway theater is an incomparable feeling, witnessing the characters and their journeys come to life in front of your very eyes as you watch from the seats in the same room as the performance unfolding. It’s the excitement of the choreographed numbers, angelic singing voices, and dramatic visuals that keep us coming back for more. Featured are 10 of NYC’s longest-running musicals in Broadway history, validating the acclaimed hype attached to seeing a Broadway show.

The Phantom of the Opera (1988-present)

Before Sia swung from the chandelier, it came crashing down in NYC’s longest-running show in Broadway history. The Phantom of the Opera started entrancing its audience with its theatrics since it opened on Broadway in 1988, earning the 1988 Tony Award for Best Musical. The Phantom of the Opera is (still) ‘there, inside your mind’, lurking in the opera house until this day on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre. The musical was also the first production to surpass 10,000 shows, celebrating its 10,000th Broadway performance on February 11, 2012. The Phantom of the Opera is still performing its magic, so do yourself a favor and witness the musical greatness. ‘That’s all I ask of you’.

Chicago (1975-1977, 1996-present)

‘Start the car, I know a whoopee spot’ where the longest-running musical revival is playing. The Ambassador Theatre is home to the revival production of Chicago, the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. Come join Roxie Hart and the ladies of the Cook County Jail as they razzle dazzle their way through their trials, working their charm to get an acquittal and their fifteen minutes of fame. The musical explores the concept of the ‘celebrity criminal’ and the sensational reporting that turns a murder case into a circus, led by ringmaster, Billy Flynn, and originally choreographed by the distinct styling of Bob Fosse. Overall, the women are fierce, their behavior scandalous, and their lives a spectacle, leaving Roxie as the name on everybody’s lips. You might even jump out of your seat and join in the Cell Block Tango. ‘If you’d have been there. If you’d have seen it. I betcha you would have done the same’.

The Lion King (1997-present)

Disney blessed our childhoods with the creation of the animated film The Lion King during its Renaissance era, making us fall in love with Pride Rock and all its inhabitants. With beautiful music and lyrics by a dynamic duo, Elton John and Tim Rice, there’s no way Broadway could pass up the opportunity to make this Disney classic into a musical phenomenon for the stage. ‘Can you feel the love tonight?’ The musical production of The Lion King sure can, proven by its title of the highest-grossing Broadway production of all time. The show uses elaborate animal costumes and makeup, as well as a fair share of puppets, in order to transport the audience to the animal kingdom residing in the extensive boundaries of the Pride Lands, living each day in the delicate balance of the Circle of Life. Be prepared for a breathtaking production that takes you on the journey of Simba’s life from an immature cub to an adult lion as he fights internally to decide whether he’ll return to his position as king.

Cats (1982-2000)

Broadway is no stranger to revealing the perspectives of characters outside the understanding of humans, and Cats is no exception. The fourth longest-running Broadway show features the Jellicles, a tribe of cats that have to make ‘the Jellicle choice’, a decision involving choosing which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and return to a new life. Cats won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Musical, most likely due to its compelling characters going through a relatable range of human emotion, including the yearning of acceptance provided by the once-glamorous Grizabella trying to find her sparkle again, as well as the intricate dance solo performed by the great Mr. Mistoffelees. The musical, which closed in 2000, is no longer just a ‘memory, all alone in the moonlight’, as it will be returning in the summer.

Les Misérables (1987-2003)

The French poet and novelist Victor Hugo graced the page with an epic and beautifully solemn story of 19th century France, published in 1862. Over a hundred years later, the Broadway stage graced us with the same revolutionary tale. Les Misérablestells the story of French prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, as he breaks his parole to start a new life, all the while participating in a cat-and-mouse chase with police inspector, Javert. On his quest to redemption, he meets an array of characters battling their own demons during this revolutionary period in France. The musical is told all through song, as the characters sing through their dialogue and their struggles. Les Mis is a dream you dreamed ‘in time gone by’. One can only pretend to know cathartic release until they actually experience the sensation that is Les Mis. The music is wonderful and the intertwining stories have a heartbreaking way of taking the audience members to the edge of their seats, or to that ‘castle on a cloud’.

A Chorus Line (1975-1990)

There’s nothing more meta and enjoyable than going to a Broadway show about the makings of a Broadway show. There’s a reason why A Chorus Line is one of the longest-running Broadway musicals; it’s because the entire show takes place on a bare Broadway stage, exposing the vulnerability brewing in these aspiring dancers fighting for a spot in the chorus line of an upcoming Broadway production. The audition process turns out to be a strange ride for the dancers, as the director and his assistant choreographer encourage the Broadway hopefuls to introduce themselves and share the details of their life. We learn the interesting stories of all the characters through their auditions, from what inspired them to enter the art of dancing at a young age, to the current status of their careers, to the relationships with each other and their self-discoveries made along the way. In the end, they come to terms with the ephemerality of their dance careers, but ultimately not regretting what they did for the love of their craft. The show may have closed in 1990, but the love for it is never gone.

Wicked (2003-present)

An unlikely pairing is always a solid foundation for a good story, which is proven by the success of Wicked. The alternate telling of the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz, refers back the film and L. Frank Baum’s novel, but ultimately tells a different story of a world where Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda, the Good Witch, are friends. However, as in most friendships, the two witches clash due to opposing personalities and viewpoints, rival over a common love-interest, and share their reactions to the Wizard’s corruption. The show has definitely earned recognition within the theater community, and it will earn you points amongst your theater friends when you strike up a conversation about the greatness that is the show’s original stars, Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth. ‘It’s time to trust [your] instincts, close [your eyes], and leap’ into the Gershwin Theatre, where Wicked is still playing. Going down the yellow brick road once more from a different perspective on the Broadway stage will make you feel like you’re ‘defying gravity’.

Rent (1996-2008)

The musical that taught us how to ‘measure a year’ is among the top eleven longest-running Broadway shows, winning the Tony for Best Musical in 1996. Rent takes us back to our New York roots, following a group of struggling artists trying to survive in the East Village’s Bohemian Alphabet City, continuously fighting a battle against HIV/AIDS. Mark Cohen, a struggling documentary filmmaker, serves as the narrator, telling his personal story, as well as the stories of his roommate and friends in the same scene. The show, loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera, La Bohème, gained critical acclaim, giving representation to the LGBT community, as well as an understanding of HIV/AIDS with the perfect touch of rock melody. ‘Let’s go out tonight’ and celebrate the accomplishments of this iconic musical.

Jersey Boys (2005-present)

Put on your sharpest suit and bow tie because its time to transport to rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest scene circa 1960s. Jersey Boys is a documentary-style production that educates the audience of the creation, success, and eventual break-up of The Four Seasons in dramatic fashion. The show is cleverly divided into four ‘seasons’, each season narrated by a different member of the band, showing a different perspective of the history and music consumed in the rock ‘n’ roll fellas. The jukebox musical about these New Jersey boys won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical, and it can still be enjoyed at the August Wilson Theatre. Grab your ‘Sherry baby, tell her everything is alright’, and watch the 1960s rock ‘n’ roll era come back to life on the stage.

Miss Saigon (1991-2001)

A tragic, but seemingly beautiful, love story strikes a chord with its audience, making this tearful musical one the longest-running Broadway shows. Miss Saigon follows the story of Kim, a young Vietnamese bargirl, as she waits for the American GI that promised to take her back to America with him. The musical, based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, takes place in 1970s Saigon during the traumatic times of the Vietnam War, where the doomed act of an American soldier falling in love with an Asian native, only to leave her behind, was a common occurrence. These relationships often resulted in the conception of Bui-Doi, the term sublimely explained through the opening song of the second act. The literal translation is ‘the dust of life’, and it is used to describe the children conceived in these relationship, often having very little success reuniting with their American fathers. Miss Saigon is a breathtaking production that leaves the audience invested in the lives of these lovers who have everything in their circles working against them being together.

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