Ever since Broadway’s first playhouses opened their doors in the early 18th Century, thousands of shows – from plays and follies to operas and revues to highly produced blockbuster musicals – have appeared on the Great White Way.
With the high concentration of productions premiering every season, many shows, even successful ones, fizzle out after running for a season or two. Despite rave reviews, great openings, Tony Awards and celebrity stunt casting, only a transcendent few become true classics, occupying the same theaters for years and staging thousands of performances – and in the case of The Phantom of the Opera, setting records for endurance. Such brand-name shows are the cornerstones of New York theater, perpetual tourist magnets that also appeal to new generations of local Broadway fans.
All-time rank: 1
Year opened: 1988
Number of performances: 10,000-plus
With more than 10,000 performances and counting, Phantom is officially the longest-running show in Broadway history. It’s also arguably the most dramatic, with its beautiful period costuming and a grand set anchored by that imposing chandelier. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s timeless music sets the stage for the classic tragic-romance/horror story (adapted from the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux), which has won seven Tony awards, including Best Musical.
All-time rank: 4
Year opened: 1996
Number of performances: 6,500-plus
For 16 years, theater fans have been drawn to this nihilistic yet darkly comic tale of love and betrayal in Prohibition-era Chicago, which features the sly, sexy Bob Fosse–influenced choreography by Ann Reinking (who played Roxie Hart in the original revival) and the satirical songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb. (The original production opened in 1975, and ran for 936 performances.) And with a roster of sassy Roxie Harts (Brooke Shields, Destiny Child’s Michelle Williams, Ashlee Simpson) and star-powered Billy Flynns (Usher, Michael C. Hall, Billy Ray Cyrus) pulled from the worlds of Hollywood and music, the rotating cast won’t disappoint, either.
All-time rank: 5
Year opened: 1997
Number of performances: 6,100-plus
The highest-grossing musical in history, Julie Taymor’s stage adaptation of the beloved Disney classic has been seen by more than 65 million people in 15 different countries on five continents. Featuring a moving score by Elton John and Taymor’s groundbreaking, anthropomorphic costumes, the most successful musical of all time is also one of the most acclaimed, winning six Tony Awards and proving that a universally popular, family-friendly show can also be an artistic triumph.
4. Mamma Mia!
All-time rank: 10
Year opened: 2001
Number of performances: 4,500-plus
ABBA’s greatest hits set the stage for a rollicking story of family reunions on a sunny Greek Isle. Mamma Mia! is perhaps the most fun show on Broadway – singing in your seat and dancing in the aisles is heartily encouraged. And the jukebox musical’s appeal is no fluke: The 2008 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep is one of the highest-grossing movie musicals of all time, earning more than $144 million at the box office.
All-time rank: 12
Year opened: 2003
Number of performances: 3,600-plus
A fan favorite since its debut in 2003, this alternate take on the classic Wizard of Oz details the lives of Elphaba, the Witch of the West, and her unlikely friend Glinda, the Good Witch. With its visually breathtaking sets, high-flying acts and infectious score by Stephen Schwartz (composer of Godspell and Pippin, as well as Disney movies like Pocahontas and Enchanted), including the songs “Popular” and “Defying Gravity,” Wicked has become a modern classic for the Glee generation.