The Golden Age of Broadway and the Broadway Musical is said to have run from approximately the 1920s through to the 1960s. There were book musicals of a sort written after the 1960s, but overall the traditional book musical was transformed into something quite different with such shows as Hair, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Tommy, and others. Book musicals, such as Fiddler on the Roof are quite different than those shows.
The Book Musical
The book musical has some specific elements that include:
- A story that has a beginning, middle, and end
- Three-dimensional characters whose actions are motivated
- Song and dance numbers that find their motivation in situation and character
- A book/libretto that is dramaturgically sound
Often book musicals were based on a play, novel, or short story. They have a literary quality to them, as well as being soundly fashioned for the stage. The focus of this type of musical is on character and music, lyrics, dance, and dialogue are blended seamlessly.
Top 10 Book Musicals
This list of the 10 Best Book Musicals is, like any other list, debatable. But here’s a shot at naming the very best.
- Show Boat (Music: Jerome Kern/Lyrics and Book: Oscar Hammerstein II)- Not just groundbreaking but firmly grounded in time period, character, and situation.
- Guys and Dolls (Music and Lyrics: Frank Loesser/Book: Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows.) – A musical with complex plotting, great musical numbers, and characters who are not as simple as they might first seem.
- Oklahoma! (Music: Richard Rodgers/Lyrics and Book: Oscar Hammerstein II)– Dramaturgically, one of the soundest shows written with a genuine focus on character
- My Fair Lady (Music: Frederick Loewe/Lyrics and Book: Alan Jay Lerner)- Many consider this to be the best of the best with a truly magnificent book and throughline
- Fiddler on the Roof (Music: Jerry Bock/Lyrics: Sheldon Harnick/Book: Joseph Stein)- It is now 50 years old and about to have another revival
- West Side Story (Book: Arthur Laurents/Music: Leonard Bernstein/Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)- Noted for its dance, music, and lyrics, the book, which is based on Romeo and Juliet, is also exceptional
- Pal Joey (Book: John O’Hara/Music and Lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart)- Not a hit show, but quiet a musical with its lead character being an undesirable user.
- Sunday in the Park with George (Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim/Book: James Lapine)- This post-book musical about art and artists offers us two separate stories in two different eras that are intertwined.
- Damn Yankees (Book: George Abbott and Douglass Wallop/Music and Lyrics: Richard Adler and Jerry Ross)- This Faustian takeoff finds its focus in baseball, making it a real American musical.
- Hello, Dolly! (Music & Lyrics: Jerry Herman/Book: Michael Stewart)- The magical musical about the inimitable Dolly Levi.
Great Musicals Not Listed
Again, in this article, we’re considering fairly traditional book musicals, which leaves out many fine shows, including A Chorus Line, Hair, and others. Although elements of the traditional book musical still exist today, stories tend to be told in a more fragmented manner, or they may not include a traditional book with dialogue, as they are all sung. Plus, the big effect musical, generally speaking, usually does not utilize a traditional book. Finally, so many musicals are based on films, which are constructed differently than traditional book musicals, that they rarely translate into that particular form. What’s your top ten book musicals?