The American Film Institute recently published a list of the 100 greatest American films "of all time," though the film industry is scarcely more than a century old.
Playbill On-Line offered readers a chance to pick what they believe to be the greatest stage plays of the 20th century (musicals included). Submissions can be from any country, in any language. The original production must have occured during the 20th century. For ease of processing, readers were asked to pick what you believe to be the FIVE best plays of the 20th century, with a brief description why. Simple lists of titles were not posted. The poll is now closed.
Owing the great number of responses, we created this tenth file of replies. Playbill On-Line thanks all who took the time to write.
From David Adjimi:
Too many to list, but here goes:
Six Degrees of Separation: I haven't seen this one anywhere, but I adore it. Guare is not a Beckett or a Pinter but he certainly has his moments, as this play proves. "Six Degrees..." crystallizes a moment in the Eighties perfectly and deals articulately and deftly with issues of race and class. This play was a turning point in my life so I have a sentimental fondness for it, but I don't think that diminishes its importance.
The Homecoming: It doesn't get any better or more real than Pinter, and this play is the pinnacle of his many and vast achievements. He is the REAL thing and has influenced more playwrights -- from Richard Foreman to Mamet -- than any other playwright of his generation. The most important living playwright. This is what theatre is all about.
What the Butler Saw: A perfect farce. Orton is another writer whose penetrating significance is only beginning to be felt.
Cloud Nine: Another perfect play.
The Cryptogram: When the tallies come in a century from now this play will be recognized as Mamet's crowning achievement. Haunting, mesmerizing, a transcendent piece of theatre.
Waiting for Godot: Endgame and Happy Days are both terrific and possibly masterpieces, but this is Beckett's best, funniest, and most elegiac play.
In my opinion the most underrated playwright of the century is Eugene Ionesco. The Chairs, which is my least favorite of his plays, recently received a very successful production, which is great. But several other plays -- the Killer, Exit the King, and Victims of Duty, are clearly more important and engaging -- not to mention his late Journey Among the Dead and Man Without Bags. When will this man get his due?
And what about Richard Foreman?
What makes a play ³great²? In making my selection I chose plays that 1) are dramatically well-structured, 2) reflect the spirit of their time and have influenced other writers, 3) provide much to think about after the performance is over, 4) provide great opportunities for actors, directors and designers, and 5) that I believe will still have something to say to audiences a century henceforward. My choices in chronological order:
The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov¹s beautiful play sounded one of the major themes of the 20th Century: The loss of a more pleasant past. We smugly observe Mme. Ranevskaya¹s horror at the destruction of her beloved cherry orchard only to realize that at this very moment the ax of ³progress² is chopping away at all we ourselves hold dear. Proust tried to recapture lost time. Thornton Wilder wanted to put Grover¹s Corners into a time capsule. Blanche Dubois mourned forever the loss of Belle Reve.
Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. The story of Professor Higgins¹ transformation of Liza Doolittle from guttersnipe to grand lady is Shaw at his most accessible. Both Shaw¹s delightful play and the Lerner and Loewe musical adaptation have been translated into umpteen languages and have been embraced by audiences all over the world. Shaw¹s hypothesis that one¹s destiny is determined in large part by one¹s speech seems to be a universal truth.
Six Characters in Search of an Author. Pirandello¹s examination of illusion versus reality is probably THE most influential play of the 20th Century. This revolutionary play was to the stage what ³Nude Descending a Staircase was to painting and what Le Sacre du Printemps was to dance. Without Six Characters there could have been no Beckett, Ionesco, Arrabal, Pinter or Albee.
The Glass Menagerie. This is the only completely American play on my list and it is there because of its vast influence on American literature. Some examples that immediately come to mind are work by Woody Allen (The Floating Lightbulb), David Leavitt (The Lost Language of Cranes) and Paul Zindel (The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in the-Moon Marigolds). (I have a theory as well that O¹Neill would not have written Long Day¹s Journey into Night. had not Williams written The Glass Menagerie first.) It also provides 4 actors with fabulous roles. Williams¹ reputation continues to grow with the passage of time and I believe a handful of his plays qualify as great, but perhaps The Glass Menagerie is his greatest of all.
The Visit. This is the only play on my list from the 2nd half of the century. The Swiss dramatist Dürrenmatt¹s horrifying black comedy of guilt, revenge and complicity is probably the most intensely disturbing play of the century. There is nothing else like it. Dürrenmatt¹s dark vision comes through even stronger in light of recent revelations of the Swiss handling of Nazi plunder in World War II.
I can¹t believe I¹ve left off Brecht, Garcia-Lorca, the entire French-speaking theatre and all of the great dramatists Ireland has produced, but being limited to only 5 plays, this is what I have come up with.
From Steven Bloom:
1. Equus- This play is the best play I have seen in my lifetime. It changed the way I understood theatre.
2. A Streetcar Named Desire- A true genius at work! This play is an amazing accomplishment of language, character and plot.
3. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf- Packs a wallop from the opening scene and never lets up. The climax delivers the goods. For me, the play removed the boundaries of what defined theatrical relationships.
4. Pygmalion- This story never gets old, and it has been copied, probably more than any other.
5. Loot- Joe Orton proved that Oscar Wilde could be reincarnated. Each of his plays is very funny. His comedies will hold up through the years.
CHICAGO -- possibly the best musical of the century with some of the most clever,witty,and hilarious music ever made for broadway.The book is so hilarious filled with lots of memorable lines,and characters.and the dancing in this show is absolutely superb.some of the best broadway has ever seen,by some of Broadway's best dancers.this is the most enchanting,greatly put together show i have ever seen, and I've seen many.
42ND STREET -- another great jazzy musical with great lyrics and a great book.it is an enchanting evening of beautiful dance and singing.i cant wait for the revival.
SWEET CHARITY -- I love this peppy,sort of jazzy,60's musical about a dance hall hostess looking for something better and finds it in Oscar,but he then runs away from marriage.this musical has a great book,and an absolutely fabulous score.
DANCIN' -- a very original piece of work again by bob fosse.what can i say,it is the best dancing i have ever seen on the broadway stage,with delightful costumes and extraordinary lighting. A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM -- one of the most hilarious books ever brilliantly written by larry gelbart and burt shevelove.the score is mediocre(?) but everything else makes up for it.
I could have mentioned others;such as PIPPIN,REDHEAD,HOW TO SUCCEED,JEROME ROBBINS' BROADWAY,GUYS AND DOLLS,and lets not forget CITY OF ANGELS,but you only said 5.so here ya go.
From Beatty, Jen:
1. A Chorus Line - the long-running musical touched and inspired so many. One of the only shows to win the Tony and a Pulitzer, it is fun and sad at the same time. You leave believing in and caring for the people who share their stories.
2. Love! Valour! Compassion! - This Tony award winning play brought a realistic picture of gay lives and friendships to the stage. Brilliant writing, especially of the Jekyll twins.
3. The Diary of Anne Frank - Stirring and factual, who can dispute that this is one of the best pieces of theatre ever written?
4. Miss Saigon - Destined to be one of the longest running shows on Broadway. It moves everyone who sees it to tears, even before the disturbing finale.
5. Jesus Christ Superstar - Andrew Lloyd Webber's crowning glory! Redefined the musical and brought the rock opera to mainstream broadway! Touching and haunting.
From Ellen Jacobs:
My choice for leading musicals would include:
THREEPENNY OPERA or else Brecht/Weill's RISE AND FALL OF THE CITY OF MAHAGONNY. Both of these speak for the climate of Weimar and Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s -- powerful stories , particularly Mahoganny where the only man w conscience is accused of being outside the norm...Biting criticism of moral decline w brilliant music and opportunity for lead actresses, "Pirate Jenny", etc.
SUNSET BOULEVARD-- the narrative of faded glory and descent into madness a great opportunity to showcases musical Divas; representative of Lloyd Webber's mastery of musical stage in later 20th century, with powerful sets, visual display as well as songs which linger, a great opportunity for interpretative powers of Buckley, Paige, Lupone and Close and many others ..
WEST SIDE STORY- combination of Bernstein, Sondheim, Jerome Robbins choreography and a Romeo and Juliet narrative set in 1950s NY is just too fab to explain further.
FIDDLER ON THE ROOF- the story moves the musical ; the songs live on and again, a great vehicle for leading male actor/singers, the unforgettable Zero Mostel as Tevye and the various casts of daughters, and tailors.
MAN OF LA MANCHA-- a classic turned into a moving and powerful stage production; I can still remember seeing Joan Diener and Richard Kiley perform in what i believe was the original.
1. Waiting for Godot- Beckett's comment on modern times and modernity.
2. A Streetcar named Desire--William's drama--and the emotive power of someone 'depending upon the kindness of strangers' is evocative of a fading system of values, much as the streetcar fades ...and Blanche is left w the Stanley's of the world.
3. All MY Sons by Arthur Miller-- for a portrayal not only of the relations between fathers and sons [in postwar U.S.] but the accountability of father's to the younger generation for deeds and ends, described as means , which are morally bereft.
4. The Glass Menagerie-- a portrayal of women and the delicate cages which stifle entire families.
5. Murder in the Cathedral _ Eliot's historical re working of Becket and Henry II's struggle ; somehow very memorable as a portrait of personal betrayals, moral blindnesses as well as murderous assassins.
From Robin Kyin:
1) Showboat: what can I say? absolutely monumental in a historical sense. I'm sure I don't need to mention it's place as one of the first true "musical plays" to integrate song and dance with story and dialogue. Besides this, it is just simply an emotional, fun, beautiful show.
2) Chicago: a perfect textbook example of modern American storytelling. The story and book itself is a devilishly clever satire and shockingly accurate mockery of the American judicial system. It's catchy songs only help to make the show more swallowable. But the Fosse dancing -- like the icing on top. It is almost like a ballet, you hardly need any sets, you can tell the entire story through dance.
3) Gypsy: for all the great ladies who have performed this. What a showcase of talent! The heartstopping songs are enough to grant this a top five spot but what masterpiece of a character that Mama Rose is! So many layers of psychology and drama to be uncovered with her!!
4) King and I: most and any of Rodgers and Hammerstein's works deserve to be at the top of the list so it really doesn't matter which. This one is my favorite though because it has one the most interesting combination of conflicts -- cultural, racial and gender.
5) Guys and Dolls: just plain beautiful music -- so much fun and innocent. It makes you really believe that times were better back then. The jokes always hit on target, the music always stirs some foot tapping or uncontrollable smiling, that it's hard to realize this is done only by expert writing.
From Ray Richter:
In pondering my choices for the GREATEST plays of the Twentieth Century, I had to distinguish between personal favorites, fads of the moment (however long the fad or commercially successful the run), and plays that make the leap to GREAT.
First on my list would be FOLLIES. If you ask to ask why, you shouldn't be nominating plays or judging the responses.
Next I would choose The Fantasticks. In direct contrast to the size and scope of FOLLIES, The Fantasticks shows us that simplicity can be greatly satisfying. Just a simple love story with some pretty ballads? Hardly. As is the case with any GREAT work, there is plenty beneath the surface if you ponder it a while. It is young love, family love, sentimental love, wisdom, philosophy, growing old and growing young all rolled into a delightful little play. (As an aside, this show has probably been running longer than most visitors to this website.)
The Boys In The Band is another must for a list of GREAT shows of the twentieth century. This show forces us to examine and appreciate people as people regardless of who they are and in the process it shows us how we all have problems and joys with relationships, parents, friends, enemies, secrets, aging and whatever else is part of our lives.
The Fifth of July is one more GREAT play for my list. It examines people coping with their assorted lives and problems the day after the fireworks. By the end of the play, the characters show how we must come to terms with our pasts if we are to go on with our futures. These people must deal with voluntary choices and situations beyond their control. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow does creep along (but that's another century's play).
Mornings at Seven and Ah Wilderness tie for my final GREAT play listing. These shows demonstrate how family life and values span generations and centuries. They also prove the more things change, the more we all stay the same. Regardless of the plot contrivance or the immediate crisis of the moment, parents care about their children, children yearn for independence, in-laws are in-laws and just what do we do with the still single sibling? In recent revivals, the material remains fresh and the situations are still recognizable.
I've already used up my nominations and WOW - if I start thinking of those plays not on my list I could easily go on and provide a detailed list of 100 GREAT plays of this century. How about asking for an honorable mention list?
From Daniel Will-Harris:
While there have been countless fine plays, I'm going to list only musicals, since they are America's true theatrical invention, and require a difficult and often seamless combination of drama, comedy, music and dance into a single theatrical experience.
1. GYPSY: The best musical ever written. Brilliant backstage drama with comedy and burlesque. Perfect "book" musical. Styne and Sondheim's score is a textbook for what scores should be.
2. RAGTIME: The best musical of the last 30 years, a modern day "showboat" that's timely even as it's timeless. The book, lyrics and music translate the book perfectly, and the current production is as fine as any musical Broadway has ever seen. Emotional and thought-provoking. It's new, but it's already a true classic that will be performed and revived for years to come.
3. FOLLIES: Another amazing backstage musical which manages to combine inner monologue with outer extravaganza. The book is surprising, the score is astounding. Sondheim shows his range here. I don't mean just to lump all the Sondheim together, but I only have five spaces and there are other great composers, too! If I could, I'd include SWEENY TODD / A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / PACIFIC OVERTURES / COMPANY: Each is so unique that it's not fair to compare them to each other, or even other musicals. Yet all have advanced the musical theater in different ways. Sondheim's scores are so strong they can stand on their own, but combined with the fine books that all three of these shows have, the combination is dazzling. These shows aren't always the warmest or most emotionally compelling, but they're always intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking.
4. HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING: Loesser's score is great, the book is funny, and the whole thing really works. I didn't see the recent Broadway production, so this is based on previous productions I've seen. Highly entertaining.
5. MUSIC MAN: A very clever, very entertaining, very sweet, very American show that doesn't get nearly the credit it deserves. Slyly cynical and sentimental at the same time, the patter songs are classic, and every song (with the exception, perhaps, of "Shipoopi" is fine).
Runners up: BYE BYE BIRDIE: (hilarious, wonderfully period and silly), MAME (highly entertaining with extremely clever lyrics), HELLO DOLLY (Simple, yet effective, with another fine Jerry Herman score), WEST SIDE STORY (clearly a classic), CHORUS LINE (a unique, moving view of the theater with highly original score and staging), SHOW BOAT (the first "real" American musical), CABARET/CHICAGO (two Kander & Ebb classics), CITY OF ANGELS (a funny, fast-paced, well-written show that for some unknown reason, other than that it might have been too sophisticated, couldn't compete with the awful, humorless, Le Miz--I know I'm in the minority here, but I sincerely feel Le Miz is one of the most overrated musicals of all time. I almost stood up and screamed "stop the damned turntable!" in the middle of one of the quieter songs where the singer was forced to march as the turntable endless whirled... I shudder just to think about it), SHE LOVES ME (charming, sweet, funny--too often overlooked). And I'd be remiss not to mention the classics of OKLAHOMA (really very entertaining), and SOUTH PACIFIC (romantic and risky at the same time, including "You've got to be taught). And why has no one mentioned MOST HAPPY FELLA?
Hi! I wanted to vote for my top 5 fav plays/musicals:
(1) Phantom of the Opera, the sad, tragic love plot
(2) Les Mis, it's just a GRReat musical overall
(3) Camelot, the music I d is very well composed!
(4) Phantom (Yeston/Kopit) I like the music to this one ALMOST as much as ALW's
(5) RENT, it just really funny (parts of it) and very good! Thanks
From Amy Taylor:
Well at the top of my list are 1776, The Phantom of the Opera, Into the Woods, Inherit the Wind, and Amadeus.
The Phantom of the Opera combines great music with a great book. It is a beautiful and tragic story for all us romantics. Into the Woods take some of the fairy tales we all remember from childhood and puts them all together with very interesting twists and turns and comical results in the first act. The second act shows you that you can not live life like a fairy tale because after the story ends life does go on for those characters and it isn't perfect.
Inherit the Wind is a very real interpretation of the Scopes monkey trial. Although the original names have been altered in the play, it still makes clear how ridiculous this trial was. Amadeus is just such a well written piece. As you learn about the life of the ridiculous but brilliant Mozart and the torment of Salieri you sometimes forget what is right and wrong, but in the end you feel sorry for the snotty and drunken Mozart. 1776 brings history to life, its the best history lesson a person can ever get. All those historic figures that you read about in your history books are made to be real people not starchy figures on a page. They were humorous and emotional people,"not demigods". These are my favorite shows.