Shows open and close all the time in New York, the live-theater capital of the world. But “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Chicago,” “The Lion King” and “Avenue Q” have been running for 29, 21, 20 and 14 years, respectively. Why? The answer is simple: They’re good. Each won the Tony Award for best of its season; each is as pristine in performance now as it was on opening night; and each has become an irreplaceable NYC icon, like the Empire State Building or Brooklyn Bridge. If you’ve never seen a Broadway or off-Broadway show, start with these musicals. They’re unforgettable.
The Phantom of the Opera
Expectations were high when “The Phantom of the Opera” opened in 1988 at the Majestic Theatre.
Here was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lushest, most melodic score and a spectacle new to a New York stage: a crashing crystal chandelier, and a boat ride across the labyrinthine lake beneath the Paris Opera House. Here, too, was an irresistibly romantic and complex beauty-and-the-beast love story about a disfigured, reclusive and vengeful composer—The Phantom—and his muse, a young, beautiful and talented soprano—Christine Daaé—who, though strangely attracted to The Phantom, loves another.
Musically, visually and dramatically, “Phantom” delivered, and continues to do so. A goose-bumps-inducing scene like the final confrontation between The Phantom and Christine underscores why Broadway’s longest-running show may very well play for at least another 29 years, if not more.
If ever there was a show in tune with the zeitgeist, it is “Chicago,” now Broadway’s longest-running American musical as “Phantom” originated in London.
Two sexy, murderous broads are out to take the Windy City by storm in the 1920s and get their faces in the tabloids, preferably on the front page. The jazzy music and lyrics cut with a razor; the choreography snaps, crackles and pops; the book sardonically sends up celebrity culture, political corruption and the pursuit of fame. As long as reality show “celebs” and their ilk dominate the media, social and otherwise, this hit’s razzle-dazzle proves its relevancy year after year at the Ambassador Theatre.
The Lion King
No show on Broadway begins as majestically or as memorably as Disney’s “The Lion King” at the Minskoff Theatre. The opening number, “Circle of Life,” takes the breath away. Thanks to director/designer Julie Taymor’s ingenious masks, costumes and puppets—worn and manipulated by the 51-member cast—wildebeests, gazelles, zebras, antelopes, giraffes, a rhinoceros and a cheetah glide, stomp, spring, run and steal across the sun-kissed stage, paying homage to King Mufasa and his newborn heir, Simba.
Taymor’s coup de théâtre is a 13-foot-long, 9-foot-wide elephant who solemnly galumphs, accompanied by her calf, down the orchestra aisle within touching distance of eager youngsters and their equally awestruck parents. “The Lion King,” which marks its 20th birthday on Broadway in November 2017, is the ultimate theatergoing experience for the family.
An out-of-the-blue success when it opened off-Broadway in 2003, “Avenue Q” quickly transferred to the Great White Way; won three 2004 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Book and Score; played for 2,500 performances and then did the unthinkable: It returned to its off-Broadway roots, where it’s been at New World Stages since 2009.
In spite of its cuddly Muppets-like hand-puppet characters and intentional similarities to “Sesame Street,” “Avenue Q” is not for kids. Its humor is adult: subversive and politically incorrect—deliciously so in songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet Is for Porn.” That said, the serious issues that “Avenue Q” dealt with head-on when it opened all those years ago—race, religion, sexual orientation, higher education, unemployment and underemployment—are still with us, if not more so.
And that’s what “Avenue Q” has in common with its musical mates. Great theater entertains, but it also reflects life’s tragedies, triumphs and, yes, absurdities.