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Broadway Musical Trends By The Decade: Which Is Your Favorite?

With contemporary musicals dominating so many schools and theatres, it seems tempting to overlook some of the older, beloved, traditional musicals. While some of them feel outdated, unrealistic and culturally insensitive, some Golden Age musicals such as “Oklahoma!” and “West Side Story” are timeless classics that are still performed frequently.

Nonetheless, each decade after the Golden Age is distinct in its contributions to the musical theatre art form. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and analyze each of the past six decades on Broadway:

1. The 1960s

While more classical-sounding musicals such as “Camelot” and “110 in the Shade” continued to flourish, budding composers such as Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman and Kander and Ebb were scoring their first hit musicals. Star vehicles such as “Hello, Dolly!,” “Mame” and “Funny Girl” catapulted the careers of then-new stars Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury and Barbara Streisand, respectively.

It was common for musicals such as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Cabaret” to mix elements of light comedic opera with jazz/swing to tell their stories.

Not until the end of the decade did rock musicals such as “Hair” begin to sway the direction of musical theatre toward the dominant styles today.

2. The 1970s

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The success of “Hair” led to more rock musicals coming to Broadway, specifically “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Grease” and “Godspell.”

The ‘70s also saw a surge of African-American-themed musicals such as “The Wiz,” “Purlie,” “Timbuktu!” and the black-cast revival of “Hello, Dolly!”

Two of the longest-running musicals from the ‘70s were “A Chorus Line” and “Chicago.” While composers such as Sondheim continued to thrive with hit shows, other names such as Stephen Schwartz and Andrew Lloyd Webber began to achieve their earliest successes in New York.

3. The 1980s

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The ‘80s were the peak era for the pop-opera genre, which combines elements of opera with traces of mainstream pop music. This genre is best exemplified by musicals such as “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Misérables” and “Chess.” The latter show produced “One Night in Bangkok,” one of the last show tunes to be a pop radio hit in the United States.

These shows were innovative for their groundbreaking sets, such as having a helicopter onstage (“Miss Saigon”), a chandelier falling (“Phantom”) and a light-up chessboard platform (“Chess”).

American musicals such as “Nine,” “Drood” and “Into the Woods” had similarly structured musical scores. Aside from “Phantom,” Lloyd Webber’s era of commercial peak in the United States included Broadway transfers of “Cats,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Starlight Express.”

4. The 1990s

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While the pop opera genre was still popular thanks to musicals by Frank Wildhorn, such as “Jekyll and Hyde” and “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” Jonathan Larson’s rock musical “Rent” was a turning point in making musical theatre appeal to younger audiences. Like “Falsettos,” “Rent” deals with topics such as homosexuality and HIV/AIDS in contemporary New York City, and Larson’s musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1996.

Meanwhile, Disney movies such as “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” turned into long-running Broadway productions.

A new generation of composers introduced Jason Robert Brown and Michael John LaChiusa, whose biggest successes include “Parade” and “The Wild Party,” respectively.

5. The 2000s

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Last decade, there was a plethora of musical adaptations of various films, such as “Hairspray,” “Shrek,” “Legally Blonde,” “The Color Purple” and “Xanadu.”

While “Wicked” became the decade’s longest-running original musical, more vulgar shows such as “Avenue Q” and “Spring Awakening” received wide acclaim, too.

Disney kept producing Broadway adaptations with “The Little Mermaid” and “Mary Poppins.” Furthermore, “In the Heights” brought hip-hop and Latin music to the Great White Way, while more serious musicals such as “Next to Normal” discussed mental illness.

6. The 2010s

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Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sleeper hit musical “Hamilton” took the world by storm in 2015, using hip-hop and color-blind casting to tell the life story of one of America’s founding fathers.

Meanwhile, female composers such as Cyndi Lauper, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori scored success by winning Tony Awards for “Kinky Boots” and “Fun Home,” respectively.

Disney’s Broadway adaptations included “Newsies” and “Aladdin,” while more mature shows such as “The Book of Mormon” sold out performances for months back in 2011.

Musicals of the 2016–2017 season such as “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” showcased scores influenced by singer-songwriter music as well as EDM and indie rock, respectively.

Which is your favorite decade of Broadway music? Let us know in the comments below…

Joseph

Written by Joseph Kisiday

Joseph Kisiday is a 2016 graduate from Christopher Newport University, majoring in Music Composition. Joseph's love for theatre came at a young age through discovering the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, such as "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera." When he is not writing, Joseph can be found watching operas or Miyazaki films.

5 Comments

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  1. I wouldn’t call Spring Awakening vulgar. I understand that it contains mature content, but there’s a difference between that and vulgarity. I don’t find anything in that beautiful and compelling work of art to be vulgar. Just a thought. Carry on!!

  2. this piece of writing really helped me with the paper I was writing for school. This was so helpful and I loved all of the decades you did. All the music, videos, photos, and examples helped me get a fuller understanding of what theater really means. Even though I have been performing since I was at the age of three I loved getting to know the true depth into the beautiful works that composers and writers make. Since I have joined the prop room I have learned so much and some of the song recommendations actually helped me score a part in Shrek the musical. Thank you for all the hard work you have put into this website. You are impacting on the theater community greatly and we all thank you for it! Keep doing the great work you are doing!

  3. I think I have spotted another trend currently going on in Broadway musicals. I recently saw the Tony-winning “The Band’s Visit” in New York and the Tony-nominated “Come From Away” on tour. Aside from the similarity in the subject matter of the two shows, both musicals can be considered “minimalist musicals” as they have the following four attributes:
    1. Small cast
    2. Spare sets
    3. Simple costumes
    4. Short runtime (as both shows run about 90-100 minutes, neither has an intermission).

    I don’t know if there are any other examples of shows of this style playing currently or if this trend will continue, but it’s interesting to see this contrast to the epic, sprawling shows of decades past, especially the pop opera “megamusicals” of the ’80s and the first-generation Disney adaptations of the ’90s.

    • Author here. Great observation! I too love seeing this contrast from the bigger musicals of the 80s. I wonder if we’ll keep seeing this in the next decade.

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