Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 7 | Playbill

News Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 7
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.

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.

Here is your chance to pick what you 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, please pick what you believe to be the FIVE best plays of the 20th century, with a brief description why. We'll be unable to post more than five choices per person, so make them good. Simple lists of titles won't be posted. You must briefly explain your choices. These will become a permanent part of the Playbill On-Line archive.

Please post responses to Managing Editor Robert Viagas.

Playbill On-Line thanks all who took the time to write. Owing the number of responses, we have created this seventh file of results:

From Matthew X. Kiernan:
20th century drama: Who are we? Where are we going? And why?
THE CHERRY ORCHARD (1904), Chekhov. The passing of the old order. What more poignant way to introduce the century?
MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN (1939), Brecht. An unforgettable character who, despite being a reprehensible, self-centered survivalist, maddeningly wins the audience's sympathy. Is Brecht trying to tell us something?
LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1941), O'Neill. The American family from hell: James couldn't remember what he wanted to achieve, yet his family was ruined in the process.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1948), Williams. Delicate beauty destroyed in an atmosphere of oppressive heat.
WAITING FOR GODOT (1954), Beckett. A absurdist vaudeville act: Why do we do the things we do? And to what end?

From JRom6:
Chicago. It gave us great music, and a wonderful evening. Every performance was electric. This is a show that belongs on this list more than any because it struggled in 1975, due to "A Chorus Line's" success,and lost all of its 11 nominations. Now, this wonderful revival is the best show on Broadway, and will run for a long time.
Dancin'. It revolutionized Broadway because it was the first to take away score and book for the whole evening to be centered around beautiful dance.
A Chorus Line. This isn't your regular fantasy musical, this is about something real.and it ran on for 15 years, which should tell you that people like it enough for it to be on the list.
City of Angels. A detective story vintage musical,finally. It combines a beautiful score and a clever book for one extraordinary night of theatre.
Pippin. A different show. It combined great dance, a funny book, and a great score. It is unique in its own right.

From DJCEvans:
1. Into the Woods beyond just a simple fairy tale it spoke to us through both Stephen Sondheim's perfect score and through james lapine's brilliant book
2. Rent-it defines the 90s. it's everything a musical can be: fun sad happy funny and wrenching.
3. Show Boat-it made musicals what they are today. it had courage to face issues that were perhaps early for its time
4. Evita-the best work andrew lloyd webber has ever done. it was inspiring and sad.
5. A Chorus Line-this musical is so strong how could I leave it off the list. it not only entertained us but it inspired so many people to become performers

From David Franklin Young Harris, Georgia:
Best Plays--NOT Best Musicals
1. Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?--as timeless and as universal a masterpiece as found in the American theatre
2.tie Tennessee Williams' THE GLASS MENAGERIE, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF--wasn't it Elizabeth Ashley that recently said apocalypse and salvation depicted at its theatrical best
3. Eugene O'Neill's A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO THE NIGHT--the best from the dean of American playwrights
4. Arthur Miller's ALL MY SONS--much better than the usual citation--"Death of....."
5. William Inge's masterpiece THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS -- the often most overlooked of the American Big Five -- sorry Lillian but close
Best Musicals NOT Best Plays:
1. THE LIFE -- the best score and book of the late century -- a masterpiece certain to be revived and revived -- "long live THE LIFE" -- believe me it will.
2. TOMMY -- as experimental theatre as it is rock at its best.
3. CABARET -- the current revival -- Alan Cumming brings a performance not to be forgotten
4. EVITA -- the masterpiece of the master
5. JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR -- as spiritually uplifting as theatre gets

From Kate:
- CHICAGO -- Bebe Neuwirth is amazing and Ann Reinking is nothing short of a genius by bring back Fosse's choreography. The show is upbeat and full of humor.
- 42nd STREET -- Not only is this one of the top ten long running shows but it is a wonderful story of every broadway fan's dream. Who wouldn't want to go from chorus girl to star to overnight fame?? The tap dancing is fantastic and keeps the audience in awe.
- A CHORUS LINE -- Although I wasn't around to see the original broadway production, I've seen several excellent performances. You fall in love with each character as they tell their own stories. Not to mention that it held the longest running show title for quite some time.
- RAGTIME -- This story about our country's history is filled with showstoppers. The opening number is the most powerful. I'm also happy to see it's bringing theatre life back to 42nd Street.
- INTO THE WOODS -- What fan wasn't excited to see Bernadette Peters in that amazing role. Sondheim's music did wonders with mixing our favorite children's stories together.

From Jason Witte:
Such a challenging task, to be limited to only five selections for greatest plays of the 20th century. My list includes both plays and musicals, but I certainly wish there were two categories, for plays and musicals. Anyway, here's what I think, in no particular order:
1) "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (Stephen Sondheim) -- A devastating piece of musical theater. The score and lyrics attain operatic heights, while always remaining grounded in straight-forward storytelling. One of the most unique subjects to be tackled in the musical theater (of course, this is Sondheim!), "Sweeney" walks an extremely thin line between silliness and suspensefullness, and pulls it off. The inclusion of intentionally humorous songs, such as the brilliant "A Little Priest", break the tension at key moments, and thus keeps the dramatic moments from descending into silly hysterics. The ending is so exquisitely brilliant, Shakespeare himself would be impressed with the tightly structured tragic finale. None of the numbers can truly be appreciated unless understood in their full context, displaying Sondheim's brilliant ability to tell a story musically. Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett was one of the greatest musical performances to ever hit the stage; George Hearn's Sweeney Todd, while not the original, surpasses Len Cariou's performance, both vocally and dramatically: Hearn can both act brilliantly and sing brilliantly, a rare combination in the musical theater.
2) "Show Boat" (Oscar Hammerstein II & Jerome Kern) -- Truly the greatest American musical ever written, by which I mean American-themed musical. Kern's music is sweepingly operatic, and Hammerstein's lyrics brilliantly poetic. One of the few musicals to offer meaty roles to African-American actors, characters which are fully realized, and are not one-dimensional caricatures. Dealing with the one theme of America which is constantly revisited -- racism -- "Show Boat" handles the issue with frankness and honesty. The entire show still holds up on stage, as evinced by Hal Prince's scorching revival, and surpasses its source material in timelessness: whereas the novel appears antiquated and quaint, the musical appears as though it could have just been written. "Show Boat" also contains some of the most memorable, hummable songs the theater world has ever produced: "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", "Life Upon the Wicked Stage", "Old Man River", and "Bill" are melodies that, heard just once, remain a part of one's musical memory for many years.
3) "Ragtime" (Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens) -- Yes, this is a fresh show, which has yet to stand the test of time, but I have no doubt that it will remain fresh and new every time it is staged, much like "Showboat", of which it is the rightful successor as the greatest American-themed musical. "Ragtime" shows that, although we have come a long way on many fronts as a nation, in many respects we are still no more mature about some issues than we were in the era of Ragtime music. We still deal with racism (just look at the recent chaining and dragging murder), women and their role in society, justice ... we are still fascinated with so-called 'Crimes of the Century', as evinced in the OJ Simpson trial. What is impressive about "Ragtime" is that these issues are addressed subtly; we are not beaten over the head with them, they are not shoved down our throats. The score is one of the most emotionally intense composed, and the lyrics are poetic without being trite. As far as the plot is concerned, it is more complex than any designed for the stage, and credit should go to E.L. Doctorow, for his novel is the resource for the complexity, and none of it is trimmed. The weaving together of so many storylines without confusion is a marvelous triumph.
4) "Glengarry Glen Ross" (David Mamet) -- What was American business like in the 80's? Just read or watch "Glengarry Glen Ross" for the answer to that. Greed, ambition, cut-throat competition -- they are all there, and Mamet refuses to treat them with kid gloves, exposing the decade for what it was. Although there are some characters more pitiable than others, there really are no good guys and no bad guys here: they are, all of them, a sad, pathetic bunch. Even Ricky Roma, the cocky one of the group, is as desperate as the others. The dialogue is the most authentic ever written, with every last 'um' and 'ah' scripted. In the hands of capable actors, the commonplace, ordinary words become almost musical, taking on their own rhythm and pitch. The plot becomes secondary to the characters, who are some of the most realistic ever created.
5) "Moon Over Buffalo" (Ken Ludwig) -- After the first four, my fifth choice may come as a shock to many. Back-stage comedies are a favorite standby, but none are as brilliantly conceived as "Moon". Containing classic comedic elements -- mother-in-law/son-in-law animosity, mistaken identity, hearing problems, tangled relationships, door-slamming chases -- Ludwig throws them all in, making them familiar yet fresh, there is rarely a moment when you aren't laughing. The dialogue is a masterpiece of stinging barbs (eg: "My God, I've seen more talent at a dog show") and casual one-liners (eg: "It's like being in an insane asylum when the guards have the day off"), all contained in a labyrinth of plot-lines, all of which interweave with hysterical consequences.
Well, I'm going to climb off my soapbox now. Perhaps another fun survey would be great playwrights/composers/lyricists.

From Jim Menke (
To pick a best play or musical, I think you have to look at the work itself and not at any staging of it. Take away any million dollar staging and see if the work will hold up on it's own. Using that gage, here are my choices: EQUUS: a beautifully written script on a very difficult subject that can grab and hold an audience no matter what the production. Beautiful language, disturbing images.
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: This is a wonderfully exciting musical that could grab an audience and leave them with tears in their eyes even if it was performed in black drapes with no falling chandelier. The music and lyrics and the emotions they bring out can not be beaten. Just listening to the CD evokes the feelings more than any other score.
WEST SIDE STORY: another show that could be done without scenery, just using the brick back wall of a theater with a couple ladders for the fire escapes. Fantastic book and score.
OUR TOWN: a show that was designed to be done without scenery and always grabs hold of you emotions and does not let go.These are my choices for the best plays and musicals - all shows that can excite you with just their CD's or reading them without an actual production, but how wonderful when seen on a stage.

From Danny R., New York, NY:
This is a very difficult list to make, especially since I'm only considering the few plays I know, and my five selections are unjustly limited just to works written in English (and mostly American ones, at that). But here they are anyway, just for the sake of fun and argument:
1.THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Tennessee Williams. Of all the great American plays of the '30s, '40s and '50s by playwrights like Williams, O'Neill and Miller, none that I know of is as deeply moving as this masterwork, that is all at once gripping and delicate, devastating and sweet. The characters and their basic yearnings are unforgettable.
2. THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, Thornton Wilder. Hopefully, the revival currently at the Delacorte will bring attention to this amazing, vastly underrated play. That it can confirm the resilience of the human spirit, explore the bond of the family and test the boundaries of theatre all at the same time, and with such humor and entertainment, is a testament to Wilder's remarkable talents as a playwright.
3. MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM, August Wilson. Wilson's entire cycle of the Black experience in the Twentieth Century is very extraordinary and important, but this play is perhaps the most poignant and spirited of them all. Its combination of music and poetry, of fiction and history, make for stunning theatre.
4. A CHORUS LINE, Michael Bennett, Marvin Hamlisch, et al. "Oklahoma!" may have the best music, "Company" the best lyrics, and "Gypsy" the best book, but this one has them all working in perfect synergy. The musical at the top of its form.
5. CLOUD 9, Caryl Churchill. A very odd choice, I know, (especially when I could have chosen another wonderful, significant living British playwright like Pinter or Stoppard instead) but of all the many, many plays of the last three decades to address issues of gender, sexuality and identity, none that I know of is as hilariously original or moving as "Cloud 9." Churchill has such an infectious love for the theatre as an art form, for its power and flexibility and illusions, and this play, with its turning classic theatrical devices suddenly self-conscious and absurd, is quintessentially 20th Century as a result.
VERY HONORABLE MENTION: "Long Day's Journey....","Rhinoceros," "West Side Story," "The Homecoming," "Oleanna," "Angels in America," "Arcadia."
Thanks! This was very fun.

From Jared Fine:
1. Sunday in the park with George: One of Sondheim's best! it is as great of a masterpiece as the actual work that George Seurat did on canvas. this incredible show sported flawless performances from Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, and many more. anyone who sees this show can not doubt that it is more then a work of art. and as this show teaches us "art isn't easy".
2: The Lion King: Now I have read on this board so many people winning about how The Lion King should not of won the Tony for best musical. heres my point, first off, if you feel that way you have not seen the show. I saw every nomination twice this year and I have never seen a show that moved adults and children to tears in the first 5 minutes. what this show does is unlike anything that you could possibly imagine, grabs your sole and fills you with a new born spirit. Many people have said how can a show that didn't win best book and score be the best musical. well ill put it to you plain and simple: have you ever seen a production of a show that you love but doesn't have the best direction, lighting, set, costumes, and choreography? I have to rightfully assume that this would not be the best musical you have ever seen, am I right?
3: Passion: this powerful score and intense story, with complex and intriguing charters is a great achievement. Sondheim, again, has given us incredible, intense, characters. Georgio, who's pity leads him to madness. Fosca, who's madness and passion is suffocating. a combination of a beautiful score and genius lyrics, with eerie staging on a perfect set. this is definitely one of the greatest musicals of the century.
4: Hello Again: this is not your average musical. the issues that it deals with of love, sex, and commitment are interestingly woven through the ages. the songs are true and extremely introspective with a redeeming quality that shines a light on the lives that the story shows us, by the end when the show has come full circle.
5: The Mystery of Edwin Drood: now this fun show is just to wonderful not to be mentioned. the audience participation and eccentric characters provides for a very enjoyable evening for any theatergoer. it has also given us some of the most haunting and beautiful songs such as "Moonfall", "The Name of Love" "No Good Can Come From Bad" and the finale "The Writing on the Wall" I love this show to much not to have it mentioned.
P.S. it can not disputed that all of Sondheim's works should be included in the top 100, there is no composer/lyricist that is better.

From Matt:
5. Glass Menagerie..... For its GREAT depiction of the hardest of a family and great character development.
4. Pygmalion............. George Bernard Shaw show the fascination of different types of society in London and shows a great character transition in Eliza.
3. Moon Over Buffalo... A hysterical comedy with a great cast. One of the most enjoyable times at the theater. Everyone cast member has equal time to get a laugh. EVERYONE SHINES.
2. Barrymore............. Written beautifully by William Luce to show the true and great John Barrymore. Brilliantly played by Christopher Plummer , this play is truly "THE GREAT PROFILE".
1. Master Class......... Probably Terrence McNally's greatest play to show the hardship of Maria Callas mixed in with her greatness while he throws in some pieces of laughter. There is a good balance of heavy drama and laughter.
5. Follies................. A great score and story makes this a wonderful show. Great show stopping numbers that make you sit in your chair cheering for every song. This is a good show for some of your favorite old actresses to be apart of.
4. The Phantom of The Opera. Wonderful music written by ALW and such a touching story. The music takes you on such a ride, makes your "soul start to soar".
3. Ragtime.............. From the opening number this show grabs you with POWER. Such an emotional story that is never dull. The Range of music from very powerful to soft and light is something you don't see very often. This is the true American Story.
2. Titanic................ This is a show, just like the ship, it takes you on a voyage. This one, however is an emotional voyage. Shows people having the time of there lives and then a tragedy and the end. With a great beginning and very emotional ending you see all the emotional sides of these great characters. You feel there pain and happiness.
1. Sunset Blvd............. CAN BE DESCRIBE IN A COUPLE WORDS: Great Story, Great Characters, Wonderful Music and Orchestrations, Great costumes, Great Cast Members and FANTASTIC SET

From FirstName LastName:
1. Once in a Lifetime by George Kaufman and Moss Hart. As relevant today as it was when first written, this send-up of Hollywood features a tightly written script, unforgettable characters and an all around poke in the eye with a sharp stick to everyone in the movie business. The hilarious plot literally leaves me in tears.
2. Gypsy by Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne and Arthur Laurents. The ultimate Broadway musical, Gypsy is a seamless integration of story, song and dance. The overture gives me goosebumps and as for "Rose's turn", I don't think I've ever seen a more gut wrenching number on stage.
3. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. The portrayal of one person's despair and its effect on a family is unequalled. I am totally drained emotionally whether I read the play or see it performed on stage.
4. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Stoppard takes a classic, turns it on its head and gives it some of the most brilliant word play ever to hit the stage.
5. Oklahoma! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. A breakthrough in American theater; a musical about "real folks" with lyrics and music that reflect the attitudes of those folks. The first musical to integrate dancing into the plot, via the brilliant work of Agnes DeMille. A delight from "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" through the exit music.

From Freddie:
1. A Streetcar Named Desire -- The most brutal and affecting play of the century with the greatest dramatic character of the century -- Blanche DuBois.
2. Agnes of God -- Maybe it's a bit overdone, but it is simply the most beautiful testament to the possibility of miracles in today's jaded world.
3. Kiss of the Spider Woman -- Kander and Ebb's best. This show has it all...glitz, glamour, dancing, and something you don't see enough in musicals: a deeply human story.
4. Angels in America (I & II) -- So much daring and scope! And such a piercing story of the human experience in the recent world. Also, it's a lot funnier than most people realize without losing an ounce of its searing honesty.

Click Here to Shop for Theatre
Merchandise in the Playbill Store
Today’s Most Popular News:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting with your ad blocker.
Thank you!