Introduction to the Broadway Musical

My one-hour presentation, featuring plenty of video and sound clips, gives a brief introduction to the “Broadway musical”: What makes it different from other art forms like a play or an opera? Where, when, and how did it originate? What makes it a uniquely American invention? What were some of the milestones in its development?

(If you’d like me to give the talk at your organization, contact me.)

During the talk, I play excerpts from a number of musicals, and I’ve been asked to put together a list of filmed or recorded performances of those for which such recordings are available.

The links to movies are to IMDb, but I recommend using JustWatch to check which streaming service(s) carry each title.

Show Boat (1927), Oklahoma! (1943), South Pacific (1949)

Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein; music by Jerome Kern (Show Boat) and Richard Rodgers (Oklahoma!, South Pacific)

There are movie adaptations of these musicals, but I don’t recommend them. They are nowhere near as compelling as the stage musicals.

There is a 2006 “staged concert” version of South Pacific performed by Reba McEntire, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Alec Baldwin, and others. The singing is great, and the orchestra sounds terrific, but there are no sets or scenery and there is minimal dialogue—it’s really just about the songs.

West Side Story (1957)

Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, choreography by Jerome Robbins.

The original 1961 film starring Natalie Wood and Chita Rivera is still a classic and overall very good, and is closest to the stage musical (though still with a few important differences). (See my 1-page discussion of West Side Story.)

The new 2021 Spielberg-direct remake takes a few liberties with the story and casting, but in my view remains generally true to the material and is a great film to watch.

Audio Recordings: There are many, but the 1957 original Broadway cast album is probably the one to get.

Company (1970)

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth.

In shortened versions of the presentation, I don’t mention this landmark musical, which experimented with nonlinear storytelling. There is a filmed version of the 2001 Broadway production starring Raul Esparza (dir. John Doyle) that is pretty good, although in fairness this musical is so intimate that it’d be hard for any filmed production to be as effective as seeing it live.

There is a 2011 staged concert starring Neil Patrick Harris in the leading role. Like the 2006 South Pacific above, this is not a full production but rather focuses on the songs. That said, the orchestration and song performance are (in my opinion) livelier and truer to the original material than the 2001 John Doyle production.

Audio Recordings: My favorite is actually the 1995 West End revival cast, but the original 1970 recording is excellent too.

Ragtime (1997)

Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally.

Unfortunately there’s no filmed version of this monumental musical. There is a movie based on the same E.L. Doctorow novel, but the movie has very little in common with the musical (despite being more true to the book).

Audio Recordings: The 1997 original Broadway cast album, featuring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, is outstanding.

In the Heights (2008)

Music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quiara Alegria Hudes.

The 2021 movie In the Heights is not a filmed performance of the show, but an outstanding movie that is true to the material and features spectacular choreography—really a modern incarnation of the “classic big-screen musical” from earlier times.

Hamilton (2015)

Book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

A filmed live performance of Hamilton, excellently produced and featuring the original Broadway cast, is available on the Disney Plus channel and other streaming sources.

Other musicals…

These musicals aren’t mentioned in my presentation (except maybe in passing) but are available as either high-qulaity filmed performances or (in my opinion) excellent movie adaptations of their live counterparts.

  • Gypsy (1959), music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents. A filmed performance of the 2015 Savoy Theatre (UK) production is available for streaming on Hoopla Digital.

  • Follies (1970), music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Goldman. There is an excellent production by UK National Theater but it doesn’t yet seem to be available for streaming or on DVD. See my 1-page summary of Follies.

  • Fiddler on the Roof (1965), music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joe Stein. There’s no filmed performance that I know of, but the 1971 movie starring Topol is excellent on its own merits and true to the stage play.

  • My Fair Lady (1959), music by Frederick Loewe, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. The excellent movie adaptation features some of the original cast, including Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway.

  • Sweeney Todd (1979), music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. A filmed performance of the original Broadway cast, starring the inimitable Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. There is also a 2006 movie adaptation starring Johnny Depp which is surprisingly good for what it is, but varies in many ways from the stage musical, which is the definitive versin.

  • Sunday In the Park With George (1984), music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Sondheim’s most personal and perhaps most nuanced work, and one of my all-time favorites, was filmed during its New York run starring Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin. See my 1-page summary of Sunday.

  • Into the Woods (1987), music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Filmed version of the original Broadway cast starring Bernadette Peters. I’m not as much a fan of the 2020 movie adaptation.