Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 5

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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 fifth file of results:

From Ken Wright:
1) THE SHADOW BOX by Michael Cristofer. Often misproduced in the last ten years or so (it was often used as an "AIDS play" before good plays on that topic had been penned), it may take a while before folks remember how good this show is. Universal themes of mortality and hope.
2) THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller. Not everyone's pick for best or favorite Miller play, but the mob mentality captured in the play is an example of human nature that affected events in this century (i.e. Nazi Germany and the Fascist states, McCarthyism, etc.), and therefore I think this play will stand the test of time better than his other works.
3) EQUUS by Peter Schaffer. He keeps writing the same play over and over, but I think he told it best with horses.
4) THE WOOLGATHERER by William Mastrosimone. A truly underrated playwright, he often explores human nature and universal themes while seemingly looking at a niche of mankind. This play is a great love story of our time, and has much to say about the alienation created by our society for those people who don't have white picket fences around the front yard. Sheer poetry.
5) 2 by Romulus Linney. Another often-ignored playwright. 2 takes a grim look at the darker side of human nature, and we are forced to recognize two things: a) For every evil, maniacal leader, there is a follower, and b) the face of evil can be very warm and charming, even friendly.
I have stayed away from Williams and O'Neill because they are obviously going to get many votes (and deservedly so), and I feel they will be remembered for their respective bodies of work rather than one or two plays. The same could be said of Miller, but why should I be consistent?

From Jake Witlen (
I believe that the question at hand is a very difficult one to answer as there have been so many influential plays on not only the American society and theatre scene, but also on a world level. Here are my choices for the best of the 20th! 1. WAITING FOR GODOT-Samuel Beckett. The happenings of Vladmir, Estragon, Lucky, and Pozzo prove to be universal in their quest for the existentialist view on life. Their antics of what life and death truly amount to seem to be a quintessential part of society today!
2. ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD- Tom Stoppard. I believe that under "Godot" this play ranks right up their in absurdist and existentialist theatre. The story is that of the Shakespearean characters from Hamlet after they have been executed by their own fault. It touches on all aspects of existentialism--what is life, who are we, why are we here, and most importantly of all, is there really a "here!" The bickering of the two characters combined with some of the original Shakespearean text is truly magnificent!
3. WEST SIDE STORY-Once again, we seem to have to resort back to a Shakespearean theme of love and loss. Although the music doesn't seem to be the best out of every musical in the 20th century, I do believe that the story line is one which can never be taken away from. Every time I see it performed I am reminded that love is the strongest force in this world, and nothing can ever take that away! It is a true marvel of the theatrical world!
4. NO EXIT- Jean Paul Sartre. This classic tale of hell is portrayed through a mere three characters who are doomed to live together in misery forever. It deems one of the best of this century.
5. RENT- Jon Larson. Although I would rarely put a musical that is so new, I believe that RENT is going to become one of the most influential musicals/plays of this century, much like A Chorus Line. The tale as taken from Giacomo Puccini's "La Boheme" seems to be another universal love story that no matter what age or setting it is put into, will touch the lives of children and adults. Larson gave a huge credit to the theatrical world by choosing to write his play about love, life, and death. It should be remembered for all time!
I hope that these five choices serve this poll well! I'm excited to see what other people have to say! Thank you Playbill for documenting the people's view for history!

From J H:
I would rather do a list of one hundred, but here goes.....
1.Death of a Salesman: For all the reasons previously listed.
2.Cabaret: Perfect blend of story, music, and execution, it is as relevant today as it was over 30 years ago. A musical for even those that claim not to like musicals.
3. Angels in America part 1: Millennium Approaches: Riveting work that captures an era and asks timeless, relevant questions. Earthshattering emotionally with an ending that leaves me breathless.
4. Our Town: Broke down the walls and expanded theatrical storytelling while telling a seemingly simple story/message that still carries weight today.
5. You Can't Take it With You: The best stage comedy ever written. It makes 'em laugh every time...even in a bad production.

From Steve Butterfield:
1. Phantom of the Opera: It's simply a great show. I mean, let's face it: who else can successfully pull off a play about a play and still have the intrigue and mystery that POTO has? Kudos to Webber!
2. Rent: This graces the top of my list of favorite things: ever! Rent is simply one of the most powerful shows to ever grip Broadway. Larson pulled off such a raw, potent act amidst tons of controversy: exactly what it should have caused. This is a controversial show. I don't think anything has ever shaken Broadway and slapped it in the face like Rent did. Three cheers for this show of shows!!
3. Miss Saigon: Yes, it's based on Madame Butterfly. It's not an original idea. But the music is great, and I think that it managed to portray at least a little bit of the horror of the Vietnam war. It's not hard to imagine the atrocity of it during "Bui Doy". A good variation on an old theme.
4. Amadeus: I'm just a huge Mozart fan, how could I help loving this one?!?!
5. Lion King: I know that a lot of the "traditional" Broadway fans don't particularly care for this one, but lets face it. Broadway has been slowly fading for a while now. Fewer and fewer youngsters are being attracted to it. It was becoming a shadow of a greatness, a thing of the past. Hold on! Lion King has, with a single stroke, managed to revive Broadway, I think. With this single show, they have enough to please just about everyone. Once they start going to see things like the Lion King, they can turn to greater, better plays and musicals. I'm not that fond of the show myself, either: but let's face it, it may just be the lifeblood that Broadway needs.

From Skyblue22:
Number 1 DANCIN' I totally agree with what others have said about it.This new musical was totally original.It was the first to eliminate the book and score for the whole thing,to be centered around a beautiful evening of dance with the very best dancers broadway has ever had.It ran for 4 years but deserved to run 50.It is,in my mind,the best broadway musical in which broadway has ever had.
Number 2 GUYS AND DOLLS Truly an original musical.This musical has a greatly written book and score.The cast of characters are smartly made up.This is another musical that will be revived again and again and will never grow old!
Number 3 CHICAGO An amazing piece of work in which you leave the theatre wanting to see this musical again and again. A smart,clever,hilarious book and score.The score is,I will have to say, THE best I have ever the only show,where I have liked every song.The characters are the best anyone has ever thought up.This musical was the best thing to ever happen to me.It is truly one of broadway's greatest.
Number 4 PIPPIN A wonderful score,a hilarious book,wonderful characters,what more can I say? Pippin combined great dance,music and book,and has one of the best songs broadway has ever had,"No Time at All".
Number 5 A CHORUS LINE One of the most original musicals of our time.It also combines beautiful dance, music and an undescribably original book.
All of these shows have 3 things in common; Great musical, Great Dance,and Great books. These shows are what broadway is about, great theatre. At each and every one of these shows, I guarantee that you would have left the theatre riveted wanting to see the show more and more and wanting to show it to everyone in the world, and wanting it to stay open for your children, or grandchildren to see, because theatre can make a great impact on a child's life,and all 5 of these shows have made a great impact on me.

From Wade:
1) My all-time favorite play is, and always will be RENT. From what I've read so far, there hasn't been one person who listed RENT as their #1 production. No other production has ever touched me more than RENT has. No other production has ever gone where RENT has, no other production is as bold or beautiful as this one. NO DAY BUT TODAY.
2) Number two has to be RAGTIME. This is a most beautiful story. Three diverse families, joined together by love and hatred. It's brilliant, as is the score and stage production.
3) Moving on, Number three is LES MISERABLES. This is a brilliant story of War and love. I am no history freak, but this show always keeps me interested. The music is wonderful. It's absolutely brilliant.
4) John Kander and Fred Ebb are great together! CHICAGO is my fourth selection. We definitely can not leave out Ann Reinking. She contributed to this show almost more than Kander and Ebb did. This production is an all-round show-stopper.
5) Number 5 you ask??? I'm going to have to go with Andrew Lloyd Webber's WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND. I haven't seen the production. In fact, I haven't even heard the full score, but what I have heard, I absolutely love. I hope this show does good in London and I hope it gets a fair chance here in the states.

From David9111:
Juno - Such an unforgettable and marvelous score is reason enough. But this is a very good adaptation of hard material. And a feel an texture like no other show. Blitzstein creates a wonderfully lively score.
Lolita, My Love - An incredibly adventurous adaptation that worked really well for it's unusual property. Everyone thinks, "What?" But, Alan Jay Lerner, and John Barry make it work with an unconventional flair. It also has in it's possession one of the best scores of the '70s. It deserves a second chance. The Human Comedy - THE best score of the '80s. And perfectly adapted from the Saroyan novel. It's better than it's source! In the theater the score glides over you with such warmth and love. When staged simply it is fantastic. THe score stands alone.
Carrie - Although it was a complete disaster, as a theatrical work it was not boring. The music always wonderful, or fascinating. The staging and performances bizarrely exciting. No musical theater experience could ever replace it.
The Marvin Songs - In Trousers, March of the Falsettos, and Falsettoland are absolutely brilliant pieces of absurdist musical theater. The music is all great. This is not an everyday occurrence. It is both touching and funny. THe lyrics are also very witty and bizarre, but work EXTREMELY well for the show.
I must add one more:
Gypsy - i believe this one needs no explanation,as I hope everyone has voted for it's rich tale of being born too soon and starting to late. I mean look at "Rose's Turn." Absolutely brilliant.

From bbjp:
1. "Death of a Salesman"- how can this show be overlooked, between it's incredibly storyline nd one of the greatest casts of all time
2. "Ragtime"- this show is the last 100 years- it is the epic tale of OUR nations history and tells the story of the turn of the century.
3. "The King and I" - great music, great score

From Austen77:
In no particular order, here are my top 5
1. ARSENIC AND OLD LACE This has to be one of the most hilarious things ever written. And it was originally meant to be a serious drama!!! I could just imagine the crowd on Broadway back in the 40's when Boris Karloff came onstage as Jonathan and says "But she said I look like Boris Karloff" Great!!!!!!!!!!!!
2. THE GLASS MENAGERIE I would love to see this show, even though I have read it about 10 times. It is probably the best "straight" play ever!!!!!!!! Flawless character development and plot, keeps you intrigued throughout this moving story of a girl, her mother and their demons!!!
3. JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR Come on!! The music is AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!! And the message, what if Jesus were alive today, he would most definitely be seen as a lunatic and be put away, or worst killed for no reason
4. SUNSET BLVD Again, the music is AMAZING!!!!! ALW has a winner here!!!, this and JCS are his best works
5. BRIGADOON Lerner and Loewe are GODS that is all I have to say!!!
this list was extremely hard to compile, there are just too many great shows!!

From Rob Jubenville:
1. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA - a wonderful score with a good story.
2. JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT - great contrast in the styles of music backed with a wonderful biblical story.
3. THE KING AND I - great music with interesting plots
4. MISS SAIGON - great score and touching story
5. TIE. For music, this would go to LES MISERABLES even though it is the most boring show I have ever sat through. For the story and music, it goes to MY FAIR LADY

From NooMusik12:
1. Ragtime-A beautiful, flawless telling of the book by E.L. Doctorow. It couldn't possibly be better. The staging, the acting, everything about it is simply a masterpiece. I have never experienced a better night at the theatre. It has just the right amount of laughter and drama, and everything about it is the best. A truly great accomplishment of the theatre that should be cherished for generations and generations. Coalhouse and Sarah's chemistry and relationship is enchanting.
2. Miss Saigon-A wonderful retelling of Puccini's Madame Butterfly. A musical of epic proportions. It's not the helicopter, or the giant Ho Chi Minh City statue, or the car that comes out on stage that is great, but it's the story. Chris and Kim give this musical great drama, but the engineer gives it that laughter when you most need it. Chris and Kim's relationship is gripping. Wonderful.
3. Les Miserables-Great music, great acting, great everything. The score is wonderful, the story is wonderful. Victor Hugo's novel could not have been adapted more better. Cosette and Marius' story is simply wonderful. This is truly theater at it's best.
4. Rent-Most musicals now tend to sound the same as they did in the 50's. Rent is probably the most modern musical on broadway. It took the risk of being different and won. It was upbeat, it was uplifting, it was 90's. The story is inventive and simply great. Without using a huge budget and a million props, Rent is still a musical that should be considered as an epic. Great.
5. Well, I love a lot of shows, and there are a lot of shows i could consider for being in the top 5, but i would have to pick for #5, West Side Story. It got into a world that most people just saw on the news, but most didn't ever see. It used the clever use of dancing when the gangs fought, and the story between Tony and Maria was great. A wonderful musical, and one, i think, should be revived in the near future.

From SCFinley:
1. Endgame--such a wonderfully crafted story. reading it is like having a nightmare. what is going on? is there nothing left? is anything truly finished? will it ever be? does death exists anymore? will we ever escape from the hell of our lives?
2. 'night Mother--sure, this ain't shakespeare, but i love how norman explores in detail and in real time the life of a woman about to commit suicide. i feel it is a great achievement in single themed, small scale drama.

From Wayne Spellman, Sacramento, CA:
When I was in graduate school many years ago, one of my required courses was Theory of Dramatic Production. We were asked this very question. I will not humiliate myself by disclosing my inane choice. Here is my second chance.
1. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT The greatest play by America's greatest playwright.
2. NO EXIT This play by existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre has been done in every setting, in most countries and translated into every language. A modern portrayal of Hell for three people, it was written to express Sartre's philosophical views. He crafted a play and characters so dramatic that it rises above a mere teaching tool and takes it's place as a masterpiece of modern drama.
3. MY FAIR LADY Based on PYGMALION BY George Bernard Shaw. This was a perfect play that made an even better musical. There is not one song or one piece of dialogue that does not further a plot that is as timeless as the Greek statue it was named after.
4. WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF Edward Albee's masterpiece was the synthesis of his European predecessors like Ionesco, Genet, Beckett as well as his American contemporaries, most notably Williams. Putting the horrors of our world in the middle of the American dream juxtaposed over a night of revelation, forced us as an audience to either take part - as horrible as it can be - or like one of its characters, choose to ignore it. To sit through this show today, one still feels sore (it runs almost four hours) and purged.
5. LES MISERABLES It is a show about God and Faith. Can you deal with better themes than that? No other show has its greatness as an overall piece of work.

From Mike:
I am one of several people who believe that musicals are a greater theatrical experience than plays. Music just adds that extra emotion to the performance of a show as it helps connect the story together. If life only had background music!!!!
Here are my choices:
1) PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: surely the greatest show to ever grace the stage. So full of mystery, suspense, and romance, the story alone will leave the audience with a touched heart. The setting and special effects are of course also some of the best ever on any stage. The music is so moving, containing some of the most popular and memorable show tunes. It is also very impressive that Andrew Lloyd Weber was still able to tell the story perfectly even though the show is done in opera form. Weber's greatest masterpiece.
2) RAGTIME: the most inspirational show I have ever seen. Seeing it was probably my favorite broadway experience, even though it is a politically based musical. The show is so thought provoking and the book is tremendous, being able to connect the three main stories perfectly together. Also, a sensational score.
3) OUR TOWN: I agree with those who say that this is the greatest American play ever written. Wilder gives the audience the perfect lesson in life with this eerie yet moving play about a basic American town where things are just so and no one lives for the moment.
4) LES MISERABLES: "the world's most popular musical." Beautiful music. Compelling and moving story. What more can I say? Why would you try and read the novel when this is more enjoyable and over in around 3 hours?
5) A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE: creating two of the greatest characters in all of theatrical history and one of the most well known stories, how could it not make the top 5?

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