Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 3

News   Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 3
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 third file of results:

From Tom Mull (Ann Arbor, MI):
What a brilliant idea--if people thought the AFI list led to long arguments, this list oughta take us into the new millennium disagreeing with each other!
My picks are:
1. ALL MY SONS: I know, everybody thinks DEATH OF A SALESMAN is Miller's great masterpiece, but I've always felt that show was about a loser and his two loser sons. I've never seen it as the great human tragedy others do. On the other hand, ALL MY SONS deals with our responsibilities as human beings to each other. The scene where Kate says to Chris "then let your father go" and Chris is forced to face the truth about his father is one of the most powerful scenes ever written. A truly great play about an American family and there place in the world. By a truly great playwright before he realized his "greatness".
2. GLASS MENAGERIE: Williams poetry--what more can be said.
3. WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF: reach into your guts and yank on 'em theatre.
4. ANGELS IN AMERICA: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES: the poetry of the end of the century.
5. A CHORUS LINE: the musical grows up. Barely any plot, not much dialogue, hardly any set, two costumes each, one white line, 18 performers and a truly amazing experience (please note that I avoided saying "one, singular sensation")
HONORABLE MENTION: RAGTIME: just re-read the novel, and have even more respect for this truly wonderful show than before. It's all there and it all works. And it just about covers every issue we're facing today by telling the story of the beginning of the century. A brilliantly crafted work.

From Connelly, Chris:
The biggest problem with compiling a list like this is that theatre is a largely intangible art form - the power of a piece can increase or diminish from production to production, cast to cast, even night to night. Film is what it is. It's the performance that was given when the film was released. The only real variables are the condition of the print and cuts that may have taken place over time. One could, I suppose vote on simply the printed text and the work's potential on stage, but even there one runs into questions of cuts, translations and, in the realm of musicals, multiple orchestrations, dance arrangements and the like which color or even morph a piece from production to production. With all that in mind, I am choosing 5 shows (mostly) on their overall effect on the state of the art:
SHOW BOAT - the first musical to truly attempt to have music assist in telling the story. Sociologically so powerful and disturbing that it has not (Hal Prince and all) been revived in all its original gritty power since 1933! As time goes on its score becomes more firmly entrenched as the single greatest of all time. No book musical of the past 70 years has come along that has not benefitted from the ground that was broken by this classic.
DIE DREIGROSHENOPER - The Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht play with music is, second only to Show Boat as the most influential musical of the 20th century. Beautifully using song to comment on the action, the show not only emerges as the shining example of Brecht's epic style of theatre, it also paved the way for such works as Will's LOVE LIFE, CABARET (naturally) and the slew of "concept" musicals of the Prince/Sondheim school of the 60s, 70s and beyond.
ANGELS IN AMERICA (Parts 1 and 2) - Political theatre dates quickly and Kushner's "gay fantasia" will (hopefully) prove to be unproduceable ten years or so from now, but its importance as the greatest American play since at least "Virginia Woolf" will remain untested for some time to come. Kushner has managed to combine comedy, tragedy, soap opera, political diatribes and exposes together with fantasy and Spielberg/Cameron Mackintosh - styled special effects into a seamless, enormously entertaining, and completely theatrical whole. Not only does do the evenings fly by in a theatre, it is also the rarest of the rare - a printed script that also acts as a page turner. Anyone interested in playwriting MUST study this script. This is how it's done.
STRANGE INTERLUDE - there are arguably better constructed and better executed plays, even by O'Neill, but this was the first real attempt of MATURE theatre - theatre for grown-ups. Without it, there would be no LONG DAY'S JOURNEY ..., no DEATH OF A SALESMAN, no ...VIRGINIA WOOLF.
THE MUSIC MAN - sorry, Michael Shannon Burke (Clifton Park, NY) but I want my JILLION dollars. I just watched the movie again over the 4th of July and was amazed once again how beautifully crafted the whole piece is - it is, for my money the PERFECT feel-good, toe-tapping, turn-off-your-mind musical comedy. It's funny, tuneful and beautifully uses the whole - sing-and-dance-at-the-drop-of-a-hat musical-comedy milieu to its own twisted advantage. Not only does Howard Hill inadvertently form a real-live boys' band, he transforms an entire town into a living, breathing musical comedy existence. Here, the fantasy truly becomes the reality. Perfection.

From Hamletdogg:
In alphabetical order:
ANGELS IN AMERICA: a challenging, entertaining, ultimately life affirming work that makes the audience take a serious look at time in America of collapse, calamity and moral evil. A thrilling and wondrous journey.
CAROUSEL: underneath the gorgeous music, a tale of sex, violence, betrayal and redemption. If I Loved You has to be one of the great moments in the theatre, where book, music and lyric come together in perfect harmony.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN: still timely after all these years. A great American tragedy.
LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT: if melancholy is beautiful, this is it. A shattering look into the heart and soul of one family, where accusation, denial, disappointment and love mingle as one. A profoundly moving piece
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE: a poetic masterpiece. T.W. greatest play, filled with characters that stay with you long after it's over. You never tire of it.

From Martin Platt:
1. Long Days Journey into Night, Eugene O'Neill. The greatest American play, it tells not the truth about O'Neill's life, but what he believed when young. A remarkable and towering achievement.
2. Rhinoceros, Eugene Ionesco. A seminal work, dealing with the horrors of conformity. A writer who changed the face of theatre and is coming back into his own.

From Public:
The first play on my list would have to be Show Boat. This musical took on some extremely controversial subject matter for its time. In a sense, Showboat changed the format of musical theatre to what we know today.
The next show on my list is The Elephant Man. There was such a depth and to this show. Even seeing it performed by a community theatre group, the heart and soul of this show came through.
The third show on my list is Hair. As with Showboat, Hair took on the controversies of the society in which it existed. It wonderfully told the story of a misunderstood generation.
West Side Story is the fourth show on my list. During its original run, it gave people a glimpse into a side of a life they would probably never experience. I also consider it to be Leonard Bernstein's masterpiece. The final show on my list is Side Show. It may seem an odd choice, but I feel it was greatly under appreciated by the public. It was a beautiful love story that, like The Elephant Man, showed us that the deformed and physically different are like us. They have normal emotions and desires, but they are not always able to express them. Side Show allowed the "freaks" to show just how normal they are.

From Chris Green:
Here are my choices for the five greatest plays of the 20th Century, which are, admittedly, based entirely on the Western literary heritage from which I have been educated. That weakness having been readily confessed, here goes my list, in no particular order:
1. "A Streetcar Named Desire," by Tennessee Williams. Not since Shakespeare's "Macbeth" have two such powerful characters graced the stage in an epic battle of fury and sexuality. Blanche and Stanley rank among the greatest figures ever written in the English language, and the pure desperation of lines like "I don't want realism. I want magic!" remind us of just what a genius Williams really was.
2. "Waiting for Godot," by Samuel Beckett. The haunting absurdity of human existence has never been presented as hilariously, nor as terrifyingly, as it is in this dark tragicomedy of existentialist slapstick. Beckett takes us from side-splitting humor to heart-wrenching horror with the effortless grace of a true artist, and few among us cam ever forget our first encounter with this hauntingly funny play.
3. "Long Day's Journey Into Night," by Eugene O'Neill. America's greatest playwright achieved his greatest triumph in this haunting examination of his own family. Carefully etched characterizations, beautiful dialogue, and the horrifically inevitable ambiance of a Greek tragedy all contribute to making this one of the finest literary works ever created by an American author.
4. "Pygmalion," by George Bernard Shaw. No one mixes philosophy with great theatre quite like Shaw, and nowhere else does he combine his gift for theatrical elegance with his undeniable flair for didactic grand-standing as superbly as he does in this tale of class distinctions run amok. Adapting this hilariously opinionated play to musical form in "My Fair Lady" missed its point entirely; the genius of "Pygmalion" lies in its verbal brilliance, and in its stern unwillingness to cheapen itself to the emotionally hackneyed conventions of musical theatre.
5. "Arcadia," by Tom Stoppard. This beautifully elegiac swan song to the twentieth century (and to all centuries, for that matter) is easily the greatest play of the 90's, and perhaps the greatest play of the entire century. Never before have romance and intellect, and such varied subjects as chaos theory, landscape architecture, Romantic poetry, the debate between art and science, the second law of thermodynamics, and mankind's quest for truth been presented with such wit, humanity and grace. "Arcadia" is most remarkable, however, for the fact that it can be viewed alternately as a confirmation of all that we see as cynically hopeless and decadent in our world, or as an affirmation of all that is beautiful and hopeful in life. Stoppard has been quoted as calling playwriting "the only respectable way of contradicting oneself," and never before has he proven that edict quite so triumphantly as in this masterwork of the human spirit.

From Sharon (
1. The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (adapted by David Edgar). Edgar retained several complete passages from the novel, keeping Dickens' social commentary alive, while at the same time infusing the characters with more life and spirit than the author originally gave them. The play made me laugh and cry--sometimes with the same line ("Who calls so loud?") and is surely everything a theatrical experience ought to be.
2. Arcadia (Tom Stoppard). I lack the superlatives to describe this play. I can say only that its final waltz, as the culmination of all that had come before and the precursor to all that would come after, was a more perfect illustration of "equilibrium" than I have ever seen in a science classroom, and made me feel part of one single moment suspended in time. I held my breath and wished it would never end, knowing that time inexorably would shatter the delicate balance.
3. The Crucible (Arthur Miller). I expect this is not the Miller play most will chose, but I think it is his best. It serves as a reminder of the evil of legislating morality, the danger of mob mentality, the power of the individual, and the strength in refusing to yield. The play is powerfully written, and therefore almost always effectively performed.
4. Les Miserables. I have only two slots left for musicals and I choose this one without even thinking. Hugo's novel takes eleven pages for Javert to re- evaluate his world view and kill himself. The musical accomplishes this in a three-and-a-half minute song and *nothing* is lost. The (very effective) lyrics are coupled with a sometimes stirring, sometimes poignant, sometimes downright beautiful score.
5. West Side Story. I am always struck by how *timely* West Side Story seems. The clothes, the weapons and the street slang may have changed, but the underlying ideas and emotions are just as real today as they've always been. The music itself is also timeless, and seamlessly carries Shakespeare's plot into the 20th century, and hopefully beyond.

From SunsetJoey:
Sunset Blvd. - a moving story about the tragic relationship between two people who cared about each other, but brought out the worse in each other. The music was some of ALW's finest work. The costumes and lighting were great. And the sets were breathtaking.
The Phantom of the Opera - a beautiful love story that portrays something we all want -- to be loved by someone, if only for a moment and to have that person look beyond the physical. The music was wonderfully haunting. The special effects were wonderful.
Les Miserables - a wonderful epic story of good overcoming evil. A wonderful set and music.
Titanic - a wonderful look at this tragic event in history. It portrayed the excitement of immigrants coming to America to start a new life. The music was powerful. The ensemble voices blended beautifully. The portrayal of the three classes was handled very interestingly.
Jekyll & Hyde - a great portrayal of the good verses evil struggle that is all of us. Great music and costumes. Robert Cucciolli did a wonderful job acting the dual role.

From Jumpy4you:
1. )CHICAGO the broadway musical - Nowhere Else will you find a better musical that combines such a clever score and book. Seldom is there a show where every number is a showstopper,and of the few, CHICAGO is at the top. It has a great book that has given us two of the best female characters in musical theatre; Roxie Hart, and Velma Kelly. They are Tony caliber roles and it doesn't matter who is in them. This show has great dance too. The score is no doubt one of the best broadway has ever heard,with songs like "All THat Jazz","Cell Block Tango","Razzle Dazzle","We Both reached for the gun",I could go on and on to name the rest of the score. In "we both reached for the gun in which it is done as a ventriloquist act is outstandingly clever,"I Cant Do It Alone",in which Velma Kelly performs her sister act by herself to get Roxie to join her is divine. "Cell Block Tango" in which 6 merry murderesses tell how and why they did/didn't kill their spouses with lines like "He had it comin'","It was a murder but not a crime", "How could you tell me that i was wrong," are very clever, not to mention the women's alibis themselves. In "Mr. Cellophane" Roxies husband sings about how he is never noticed how people "Look right through me/walk right by me/and never know I'm there" is excellent. This score is purely electric. And "Nowadays", in which Roxie and Velma finally are in that sister act,is sung so beautifully. I could go on about every song. These songs are different from the original broadway stuff,these songs are sung TO the audience,not to a character in the story (most of the time),in these songs,they are telling you,the audience,what's going on or how they feel. And most of all,this musical is DIFFERENT in its own way. It has its own jazzy vaudeville style no other show has. This show is purely electric and deserves to be,at least,in the top ten greatest musicals/plays of all time.
2. ) Dancin' - A beautiful musical that is also different in its own way because it was the first musical to eliminated the book,and original score,in order the the whole thing to be centered around an evening of beautiful dance. It does have a score,but they are songs heard before. there is hardly a spoken word,and hardly any singing but dance makes up for it.
3. ) Pippin; - a great score and book,not to mention the characters.
4. ) Sweet Charity; - a great score which includes "big Spender","If my friends could see me now",and "Something better". It also has a great hilarious book with also one of the best female characters,Charity Hope Valentine. A great musical with great dance,score and book.
5. ) A Chorus Line - a beautiful score, beautiful dance,beautiful singing,and a good book. This show is beautiful and deserves to be in the list.

From Chad_Klopfenstein:
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF: I am so glad to see that this play has made so many readers lists. Albee combines the darkness and pain of living life in self-delusion with the wicked comedy so often seen in those determined to survive.
SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE: More than just clever or funny or intelligent (which it is), SITPWG dares to share the artist's secret with the rest of world. "Art Isn't Easy" pretty much says it all.
EQUUS: I cannot watch or read this play without feeling like I'm discovering something new. We live in a world where worship and belief are seen as a thing of the past. Shaffer's assertion is that we're paying for it. I agree.
AMADEUS: I know, yet another Shaffer... I saw the production at the Stratford Festival a few years back and it has been seared into my memory. I cannot help but feel like there's a frightening amount of Salieri in me.
LOST IN YONKERS: Sort of a wild card choice, I guess. But who could forget the image of Bella telling Mama that "it's called music"? It's probably not a perfect play, but the last half of the last act make up for any imperfections.

From Ellen:
I am most familiar with Musicals, so most of my top ten would include musicals.
1. LES MISERABLES: By far Number 1 on every front. It is moving both story and score. A Musical for all-time. May it run forever!
2. After Les Mis. It is very hard to rank but I will do my best. I will make # 2 ( And this would probably change should I do this tomorrow) SHOW BOAT. I think this is one of the greatest all time scores and a riveting story of the way things were. I never grow tired of it.
3. Now its getting real hard. I will put number three as WEST SIDE STORY. Strong Plot, Wonderful Music and great dancing when you get to see it. Again Its a story that will never grow old whether on the Streets of NY or Verona!
4. Meredith Willson's THE MUSIC MAN. I don't have a why for this one except its on my top five list because I just adore everything about it!
5. I could put about 5 musicals tied for this spot, But I am going to put Irving Berlin's ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. Besides the fun of the book, I think its probably the only score that 9 out of 10 people will know at least 50% of the score, although they may not know where the songs came from. For example: Anything You Can Do, Its Wonderful, Can't Get A Man With A Gun, Doin' What Comes Naturally, The Girl that I Marry.

From toms:
1) Our Town - the quintessential American play.
2) A Streetcar Named Desire - combined lyricism of language and tragedy: unmatched since Shakespeare.
3) Waiting for Lefty - broke down the fourth wall and showed the world what theatre has the power to do.
4) Oklahoma - invented the form of modern musical theatre.
5) The Glass Menagerie - a universal classic which speaks to every culture, every age.

From Jim Mills:
5) "Falsettos" by Bill Finn -- Brought the Broadway musical into the 1990's! Such joy and life on stage!
4) "Angels In America" (both parts) by Tony Kushner -- Sums up theatre art at the end of the century and the NY staging was brilliant.
3) "Passion" by James Lapine & Stephen Sondheim -- So many Sondheims to choose from, but this is his crown jewel. Difficult and a lot of people hated it, but I've never seen love (with all it's madness) defined so clearly on stage.
2) "Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard -- "We're all doomed, so let's dance!". Funny, smart, and ultimately the most moving and tragic love story I've ever seen.
1) "Long Day's Journey Into Night" by Eugene O'Neill -- The textbook dysfunctional family so full of love and pain it tears you apart.

From Phant0m3:
I must say that most of the greatest plays of the 20th century are musicals. Even though I enjoy plays, musicals has always been and always will be my first choice:
1. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Probably the greatest thing ever to hit the theatre! A great score, the BEST setting, a heartbreaking and haunting tale, just makes you want to jump out of your seat, what more would you want. It's truly a Theatrical Masterpiece!
2. LES MISERABLES: What can I say? It IS the world's most popular musical! This is my idea of turning a masterpiece into a GREATER masterpiece. The legendary score, and storyline will always stay true to our hearts.
3. MISS SAIGON: Another idea of turning a legend into a greater legend. I think the creators of this musical and LES MISERABLES are total geniuses!! A memorable phenomenon (especially in the helicopter scene).
4. THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK: This legendary play will always be memorable.
5. JEKYLL & HYDE: This musical, although not a show popular as the ones above, really should be appreciated more. This musical brought the theatre to a new level of musical score, a more modern yet still powerful score.

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