The 2010s blessed theatrelovers with Hamilton—the show that made musical theatre cool again. The Lin-Manuel Miranda phenom reverberated with an unprecedented global impact on pop culture, education, philanthropy, and more. This was a zeitgeist-shaping show.
And yet, while a Hamilton comes around once in a generation, there are other shows whose bows on Broadway has deeply affected theatre history—by influencing the business of Broadway, by launching new voices, by changing the sound of musicals, by changing the composition of audiences, by offering alternate forms of storytelling.
As far as the New York theatre scene, Off-Broadway is known for risk-taking, but there have been plenty of daring moves made on the Main Stem, which is where we focus here.
Here are 19 shows that changed the lexicon of musical theatre—present and future—in the past 10 years.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Before there was Hamilton, there was Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. This original rock musical imagined the seventh President of the United States as an emo-punk rocker. The show introduced Broadway to now-prolific director Alex Timbers (who also wrote the book for Bloody Bloody), who had a habit of crafting stories about historical figures in contemporary ways. It also marked the Broadway songwriting debut of composer-lyricist Michael Friedman, who since passed away. The production revived the tradition of examining real-life influential political figures in musicals, as was done in Evita and Fiorello!. Arguably, this set the stage for another show on this list that reaches back into early American history. For its use of contemporary music in depicting American political history, for its introduction to talent who are now Broadway names, and for its revitalization of rock music and its downtown aesthetic in an uptown venue, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson makes the list.
The Scottsboro Boys
The musical was the last collaboration between John Kander and Fred Ebb before Ebb’s death (though The Visit bowed on Broadway in 2015, the duo had written it in 2001). The Scottsboro Boys illuminated the true story of the nine young black men and boys falsely accused of raping two white women in the 1930s South. Director-choreographer Susan Stroman matched content with concept, staging the musical as a minstrel show to highlight the immorality of the Jim Crow-era style alongside the immorality of the case. The cast included 12 black performers of its 13—a rarity to this day. Scottsboro also introduced us to the brilliance that is Joshua Henry, now a three-time Tony nominee. The production also makes the list because it set the record for most Tony Award nominations for a closed production; it earned 12 nods, though it had closed December 12, 2010, after 29 previews and 49 regular performances. For its place in history as Kander and Ebb’s last work, its casting, its bold concept, and its reminder to Tony nominators that closed shows often deserve attention, Scottsboro earns a spot here.
The Book of Mormon
Before you couldn’t get a ticket to Hamilton, it was impossible to snag a seat to The Book of Mormon. Brought to us by the writers of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone (and Tony winner Robert Lopez), the musical ingratiated an entirely new audience to Broadway theatre. The show found huge fans in Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, who helped bring it to the masses. Audiences of all demographics, especially first-time theatregoers, flocked to the production—which opened cold on Broadway. If shows had ratings, it would certainly be “R”, bringing a humor familiar to those of Lopez’s Broadway debut Avenue Q. Over the years, The Book of Mormon has climbed the longest-running Broadway shows list, most recently surpassing the classic 42nd Street to earn the 14th spot. The musical is the third highest-grossing Broadway show of the decade. The musical also marked the first time Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad originated a principal role on Broadway; both actors have skyrocketed to household name status, Rannells with Girls, Black Monday, Hamilton, and his memoir, and Gad with the Frozen franchise. But more than being a tough ticket, or star turns, or setting records, The Book of Mormon reintroduced the style of classic musical satire that had been missing since the days of The Producers, while also propelling musicals back into the mainstream.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
The little musical that could proved you could become a hit (critical, awards, and box office) without a big name and without a known property, if your social media brand is strong. The musical came from first-time Broadway director Darko Tresnjak and first-time Broadway librettist Robert L. Freedman and first-time Broadway composer Steven Lutvak. Starring Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham (in a 12-person cast), the intimate musical with a chamber-like score put its dark humor front and center. Though Avenue Q was really the first little musical of unknowns to cross the Tony Awards finish line, GGLAM was one of the first to successfully leverage its social media accounts to build a fan base, using Jib-Jab style comedy ads, behind-the-scenes videos, and signature opening night “well-wishes” to fellow Broadway shows. In the end, GGLAM earned nine Tony nominations, taking home four (including 2014 Best Musical), ran for 905 performances, and recouped its $7.5 million investment in 17 months. GGLAM earns its spot for the way it changed the marketing of Broadway, as well as proving that a small, unknown show could go the distance to box office and awards success.
Book writer and lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori were the first female writing team to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score for Fun Home. But the musical, directed by Sam Gold, was also a rare lesbian coming-of-age story, based on the life of author and graphic artist Alison Bechdel, called “the most daring, relentless analysis of homosexual identity on the New York stage right now.” A critic’s darling, Kron also won the Tony for Best Book and the musical took home the Best Musical top prize that night. The musical was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014, when it first premiered. For its strides in recognition for women creatives and as a story driven by LGBTQ+ characters, Fun Home makes the list.
The musical with book, lyrics, and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda is a game-changer of the entire musical theatre genre, let alone of the decade. Miranda’s opus, about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, changed the reputation of musicals on a global scale. With its combination of influences from musical theatre and hip hop, Hamilton’s score appealed first to listeners—who have turned into audiences—of all tastes, ages, ethnicities, countries of origin…. Any boundary that can be broken has.
The album has gone 6x Multi-Platinum and ranks as the most streamed album of the decade with over 4 billion streams. It is the fourth highest-grossing Broadway show of the decade (which only includes box offices tallies from the Broadway production—not any of the tours or international productions). In its final week of 2018, the show was the first in history to gross over $4 million in an eight-show week.
Its influence is undeniable. Suddenly, American history is cool again in schools across America (a trend the show has embraced with EduHam). Tours of Hamilton Grange in Harlem—and other New York City landmarks in the show—have become major tourist stops. #Ham4All became a thing on Twitter, Hamilton’s version of the #IceBucketChallenge to raise funds for Immigrants: We Get the Job Done by singing a snippet of the musical, donating money, and challenging others to do the same. Hamilton, the name, shot up 60 percent in popularity on the list of baby names—as did supporting character names like Maria and Jefferson. The show preserved Hamilton’s face on the $10 bill when the Treasury sought to replace it. References to how tough it is to get a ticket infiltrated everything from Grey’s Anatomy to Curb Your Enthusiasm. Everyone who is anyone has seen it, including the gone-viral visit of Vice President Mike Pence.
The cast became global celebrities—most notably Miranda, Daveed Diggs, Leslie Odom, Jr. and Christopher Jackson, though Anthony Ramos, Jasmine Cephas-Jones, Renee Elise Goldberry, Phillipa Soo, Okieriete Onoadowan’s careers have all exploded. The cast has made its mark on the entertainment industry in terms of representation—literally dubbed “The Hamilton Effect”—to cast more diversity in terms of racial and ethnic backgrounds for roles traditionally cast as white.
Hamilton won the Grammy, 11 Tony Awards (second only to The Producers, but also in a year where the sound design category was missing), and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It broke the record for number of Tony nominations: 16. Hamilton is the first Broadway show to be honored at the Kennedy Center Honors, offering medals to Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and orchestrator and music director Alex Lacamoire. Just as President Kennedy’s time in the White House was the Camelot Presidency, President Obama’s became the Hamilton Presidency, with the 44th proud to have been the home of the public debut of any Hamilton song ever.
Of course, Hamilton is also unique in that it made a global superstar out of its creator. Miranda was everywhere, and still is. With professional awards like the McArthur Genius Grant and pop culture appearances on The Tonight Show, Carpool Karaoke, and hosting Saturday Night Live (the first theatre person to do so on their theatrical merit alone), a Moana Oscar nomination, The Magic School Bus theme song, DuckTales voice, Fosse/Verdon EP and guest star, His Dark Materials regular, Mary Poppins Returns Golden Globe nominee, author, Star Wars writer, not to mention his charity work to rebuild Puerto Rico, the man is nonstop.
Deaf West’s Spring Awakening
The 2015 revival of the Duncan Sheik-Steven Sater musical broke the mold with what is possible in musicals. Directed by Michael Arden (his directorial debut) and choreographed by Spencer Liff (who essentially created a new dance language), the musical re-imagined 1890s Germany with a cast of hearing and Deaf actors fully integrating American Sign Language. Though Deaf West had done this once before on Broadway with Big River, this revival kicked off a more sustained conversation about representation in casting when it comes to Deaf actors as well as actors with other disabilities. This Spring Awakening rendered the stories of these characters completely anew, with Moritz still a teen struggling to pass his exams but also a Deaf adolescent forced to vocalize and forbidden to sign in his matriculated classroom in a world that scorns his Deafness. Not to mention, the production made history with now-Tony winner Ali Stroker (Oklahoma!), the first Broadway performer in a wheelchair. It made creatives reconsider how other known stories might read differently with new casting—such as the most recent revival of The Glass Menageriea. We’ve also seen more Deaf actors cast in shows like King Lear and To Kill a Mockingbird. And, of course, Stroker returned to the stage in Oklahoma! to Tony-winning effect. The production was also a daringly technical feat, using offstage lighting cues, sound vibrations, and more for the onstage performers. Though the show closed in January 2016, the company successfully campaigned via Kickstarter to raise the $200,000 necessary to perform on that season’s Tony Awards broadcast—a first in Tony history. A visionary production, Spring Awakening showed the world what theatre could be and started an entire new branch in the conversation about representation.
Written by Danai Gurira, Eclipsed made Broadway history as the first play to feature an all-black and female cast (Saycon Sengbloh, Zainab Jah, Pascale Armand, Lupita Nyong’o, Akosua Busia) and creative team (Gurira and director Liesl Tommy). The production marked Tommy’s Broadway directorial debut and Gurira’s Broadway playwriting debut. Set in Liberia, the play shined a light on an oft-ignored part of the world—at least in the American theatre. Nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Play, Eclipsed continued to drive home the message that great things happen when women, particularly women of color, are given the opportunity to raise their voices.
That same year, Broadway’s Waitress made history as the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team. (Yes, Elizabeth Swados directed and choreographed Runaways, for which she wrote the book, music, and lyrics, but when it comes to a producer putting together a team of multiple people, Waitress earns the distinction as the first.) Director Diane Paulus led composer-lyricist-orchestrator Sara Bareilles, book writer Jessie Nelson, choreographer Lorin Latarro, and music arranger Nadia DiGiallonardo to a nearly four-year run at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Based on the movie by female screenwriter Adrienne Shelly, the story also puts women front and center with Jenna, Becky, and Dawn. The production earned four Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical. Another case to be made for more female leaders and female-driven stories.
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Rachel Chavkin and Dave Malloy’s musical adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace makes the list for numerous reasons—not least of which is that it marked both of their Broadway debuts and introduced a new directorial style and an entirely new musical sound to Broadway. The production had been daring since its Ars Nova start, and a move to Broadway didn’t change that. Chavkin and now Tony-winning scenic designer Mimi Lien bulldozed walls, built hallways, and more in a massive renovation of the Imperial Theatre to create the 360-degree vodka den space first envisioned Off-Broadway and in the tent at Kazino. Great Comet also made technological history. Sound designer Nicholas Pope created app software to balance mic levels based on coordinates akin to GPS because performers moved around the entire house, including the mezzanine. The sound at each individual seat was its own custom listening experience. Unlike most productions, which have a single sound board operator, Great Comet employed one sound mixer and one sound localizer. Scott Sanders was the first “localization mixer” on Broadway. Aside from its technical prowess, Great Comet was another musical carrying the torch for diversity in casting, winning Equity’s honor for Extraordinary Excellence in Diversity on Broadway.
Dear Evan Hansen
With musical theatre cool again thanks to Hamilton, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul burst onto the scene with their original musical and its contemporary pop score. The music sparked a new wave of fandom—the album won a Grammy, went Gold, and is No. 19 on the list of best-selling cast albums in history, as well as No. 2 on the list of most-streamed albums of the decade. Covers of “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found”—amateur and professional—popped up everywhere. The arm cast and the blue collared polo became emblematic of a universal teen struggle. A large part of the musical’s success is its sophisticated and emotionally layered book by Steven Levenson. Dear Evan Hansen marked Levenson’s Broadway debut and was his first musical ever, introducing him to Broadway audiences while grooming him for future projects like executive-producing and writing Fosse/Verdon and writing the tick…tick…BOOM! film. Levenson also collaborated with Pasek, Paul, and author Val Emmich to turn Dear Evan Hansen into a young adult novel. Evan Hansen also introduced the world to another talent: Ben Platt. As the titular character, Platt inhabited the role and won every award he could (the youngest to win the Drama League Distinguished Performance Award, the Tony Awards, listed as one of People’s Sexiest Men Alive). But aside from making household names of Platt and Pasek and Paul, Dear Evan Hansen sparked a conversation about mental health. Through covers of the songs and its partnership with organizations like the Child Mind Institute, Dear Evan Hansen opened (and continued) a dialogue about anxiety, depression, and suicide—and the projection design from Peter Nigrini integrated social media and conveyed its societal impact seamlessly. From branding to technological prowess, talent to originality to international conversation-starter, Dear Evan Hansen changed the game.
The Manhattan Theatre Club production marked the Broadway debut of this August Wilson play, and with it the completion of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle on the Main Stem. Wilson wrote a cycle of 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century. Jitney, set in the 1970s, was the only one missing. Wilson was a six-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, and a two-time winner. Significantly, Wilson was the first black man to win twice. The production was nominated for six Tony Awards and won Best Revival of a Play—only the second of the cycle, after Fences, to win the Tony. With an all-black cast, the production was another feather in the cap for diversity on Broadway—and in a subscription house—as audiences flocked to see Wilson's work come alive on Broadway.
Springsteen on Broadway
Though limited concert engagements had played Broadway in the past, something changed when Bruce Springsteen did it. His show was the intersection of concert and narrative theatre. And what was intended to be a limited engagement extended to play for 229 performances over 14 months. The stage show spurned a Netflix special, which won an Emmy for Best Directing of a Variety Special. Springsteen also earned a Special Tony Honor, but that’s not why his show is on the list. Springsteen on Broadway called upon theatre owners to look at their houses in a different way. Since then, artists like Kristin Chenoweth and Harry Connick Jr. have returned to Broadway with concert acts, and the new series “In Residence On Broadway” has attracted music stars like Regina Spektor and Criss Angel to bring their live music to Broadway theatres. It’s also no coincidence that Davidy Byrne’s American Utopia hit Broadway this year, combining storytelling and music from the Talking Heads frontman. For its influence on what belongs in a Broadway theatre, for bringing new audiences to the Main Stem in person and streaming, Springsteen makes the list.
Head Over Heels
You might not think another jukebox musical, this time with the catalog of the Go-Gos, would mark a Broadway milestone. You would be wrong. The production boasted the first out trans actor in a leading role in a musical on Broadway when it cast Peppermint, of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame, as Pythio the Oracle. While theatre has always been a haven for the LGBTQ+ community, Head Over Heels was a next level embrace of queerness in its story (Pythio as a trans character and a lesbian love story at the center), its style (Spencer Liff’s to-die-for choreography), and aesthetic (neon and spandex galore from costumer Arianne Phillips).
The Lifespan of a Fact
Director Leigh Silverman accidentally made Broadway history when she hired Broadway’s first all-female design team for this brand new play: scenic designer Mimi Lien, costume designer Linda Cho, lighting designer Jen Schriever, sound designer Palmer Heffernan, and projection designer Lucy Mackinnon. And all of the associate designers are female-identifying. Silverman and company proved that with a little flexibility, working mothers ( even pregnant working mothers) can and should be employed at the highest level of their craft.
Be More Chill
The Joe Iconis musical made it to Broadway based on the philosophy “give the people what they want.” After its run at Two River Theater in New Jersey, Iconis felt hopeful a producer would want to move his show to a bigger venue across the river. But when years passed and it didn’t happen, he gave up the pipedream. Until the album from the Two River production blew up online. With millions of views on YouTube, producers mounted the show Off-Broadway with hopes for a Broadway run. After multiple sold-out extensions, Iconis got his wish. Propelled by a Tumblr fandom and digital cast recording success, Be More Chill became the first musical on Broadway to get there because of the popularity of its album and the demand of the people. (Note: [title of show] set the precedent for a fan-demand path to Broadway, with their web series the [title of show] show, but Be More Chill was the first to leverage the streams of a full cast recording and social media as evidence of said fandom.) While Be More Chill did not end up a Main Stem commercial success, it did get theatre owners and producers to pay attention to a new demographic of theatregoers—those under the age of 18—and to seriously consider digital platforms as worthy metrics of audience desire.
Daniel Fish’s revival of the 1943 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical, the fifth Broadway revival of the material, illustrated that revivals neeed not the equivalent of re-mountings. Without changing a single word of text, this Oklahoma! exposed xenophobia, toxic masculinity, slut-shaming, tribalism, and government corruption. Oklahoma! was also the first gun neutral production on Broadway; for every gun that appears in the production, a donation has been made to Gun Neutral, which distributes funds to organizations working to destroy firearms that should be out of circulation. Most importantly, Fish’s Oklahoma! makes the case for revivals that stay true to the original text while re-interpreting the material in light of the events since that text was written—with the permission of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Estate. It set the stage for the 2020 revival of West Side Story, which deviates from the original. The production reflects the success and beauty when directors and producers take risks and collaborate with estate executors and rights owners who offer open minds.
What the Constitution Means to Me
For putting Clubbed Thumb (its origin) on the map. For rendering Heidi Schreck one of the most important voices in the theatre. For proving that theatre can take many forms—including a memoir slash American Legion Oratorical Contest slash live debate. For making theatre a political act. For additional evidence that plays can recuperate their Broadway investments. For all of these tangible reasons—and a few more intangible—What the Constitution Means to Me lands on the list. With her play, Schreck confronted the angst, pain, and tension of our current America. As Hannah Gadsby did with Nanette, Schreck married pain and humor in Constitution for a cathartic display with the intention to spark hope. She prioritized representation, finding two black high school students and debate champions to join her onstage in the show’s final scene: a debate to keep or abolish the Constitution. The play recouped its Broadway investment, also proving that plays (even those without wizardry) can be lucrative. Schreck gave every audience member a copy of the Constitution with their ticket, demonstrating that her type of theatre is not passive. We all have to act.
The controversial drama marks the Broadway debut of Jeremy O. Harris and the entré of a bold, big, important voice in the theatre. The play, which premiered Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop, smacks audiences in the face with its graphic social-sexual experiment. But it’s that audacity that has Broadway buzzing. Harris has become a personality in his own right, driven by an individuality of fashion and controversial text exchanges with superstars like Rihanna. Harris feeds off of high stakes—in his play, on his Twitter, in his talkbacks—and it’s garnered a level of attention rare for debut playwrights. The artist is vocal about accessibility to theatre and diversifying not just the people who make theatre, but the people who see it. This past fall, Slave Play hosted a “Black Out” performance for an entirely black audience. Now, the production launched a ticket gifting initiative in which patrons add $25 to their purchase with the code PLUSONE and that ticket gets distributed to a non-profit, like Broadway For All, that bridges the socio-economic gap and age gap amongst theatregoers. Harris even got late night host Seth Meyers to pledge to buy tickets to Slave Play and give them away. From what’s happening on the stage and in the seats, Harris has shifted the conversation about what theatre says and who gets to hear it.