Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 6

News   Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 6
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 sixth file of results:

From CMVS:
What makes a play great? Is it social popularity? Hardly. Is it mastery of form? Perhaps. But it's got to be something more, too.
Here are my personal picks, in no particular order:
1. ENDGAME, by Samuel Beckett. Beckett stands as one of the top two or maybe three dramatists of the century, and one of the top ten literary figures of the twentieth century. Moreso than GODOT, he considered this his quintessential and favorite work.
2. MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN. (A REAL musical!) A bit of a toss-up but I think a solid choice. I saw ONE mention of Brecht in the entire survey. Easily the biggest influence in theatre as we view it today. Pathetic he was not mentioned more.
3. 6 CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR. Ditto with Pirandello. One of the great modernists.
4. THE SCREENS. Jean Genet, one of the most fascinating and truly theatrical voices of our century, writing at his best. Sex, death, transformation, oppression, identity-- he deals with the deepest and most sweeping issues we can address. Hardly "Pippin."
5. MARAT/SADE. I guess it's not fair to rank this play up there with the titans, but it's a lot less lame a choice than the other postings. I put Weiss' play up here as another true landmark play-with music, a crafty debate that spoke volumes to the Vietnam Era.

From Mary V. :
I have attended and enjoyed theater for many years. These are my top five choices.
1. LES MISERABLES This is unquestionably the best theatrical presentation I have ever seen. The marvelous blend of music and story rival none. I am a firm believer that theater music should help tell the story, and not be thrown in because its a musical and needs a song. This show exemplifies a true partnership. Although I cried at the end every time I saw it, I always felt joy and hope.
2. The PHANTOM OF THE OPERA This is a magnificently staged production with some of A L Webber,s most beautiful music. I was privileged to see the original cast bring these wonderful characters to life, but many talented actors have and will continue to perform these colorful roles.
3.SUNSET BOULEVARD Though not one ALW's most popular works, I thoroughly enjoyed the tragic story of love,vanity, and delusion. The musical score is one that I play and enjoy often.
4. RAGTIME I did not care for the book but I think this stage adaptation is incredible.. It features some of the finest singing and acting I have seen in the theater. Terrence McNally has written a brilliant book and the composers a beautiful score and lyrics that work with and enhance the story lines.
5.MISS SAIGON I do not care for the story line but the staging, music, and acting made for great theater. I would find it difficult to believe that any audience member was not moved by this poignant show.

From Mary Ellen Kelly:
An almost impossible task, to winnow it down to five! In the end, for me, it came down not just to brilliant writing and stagecraft, but to multileveled emotional and intellectual impact, simultaneous accessibility and depth, and time- and culture-spanning universality. All five of my picks are plays that reveal more of themselves with each new visit; and all five welcome reimaginings of every sort: Like Shakespeare's plays, they thrive and grow greater on whatever each succeeding generation of actors, directors, designers--and audiences!--brings to them.
So here, after several days' consideration, are my five selections, in no particular order:
1. Samuel Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT: at once deeply funny and deeply sad; utterly strange and yet utterly familiar; cruel, kind, reassuring, unsettling, always haunting, endlessly watchable, and deeply human.
2. Tennessee William's A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE: Williams's masterpiece: achingly poetic, frighteningly sensual, horrifyingly brutal, and, again, at all times deeply human.
3. Eugene O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT: Precise autobiographical detail and personal demons distilled into what is probably the most unsettling dissection of an American family (into which now, through O'Neill's cut-to-the-bone artistry, each of us can read our own, or anybody's--or everybody's- family) ever put on the stage.b 4. George Bernard Shaw's PYGMALION: Social commentary and the never-settled struggle of male versus female, all wrapped up in one delicious package. Shaw's most accessible and familiar play, and yet a play that is still wonderfully thought-provoking- even unsettling--after countless revisits, reimaginings, and reinterpretations. (And I hereby extend my nomination to include not only Shaw's original PYGMALION but his own, expanded, screenplay AND the utterly sublime MY FAIR LADY.)
5. Anton Chekhov's THE CHERRY ORCHARD: From the dawn of the century, the sad, funny, universally cautionary story of a doomed and hapless world poised on the brink of oblivion. Chekhov's premonitory offstage axe cuts to the heart of new wood with every new performance.

From Sylvia Stoddard:
1. Gypsy - The perfect musical with a perfect book and perfect score. And, about the stage, too, so all the production numbers feel totally realistic.
2. South Pacific - Ground-breaking at the time, great book, great songs, and a nice dollop of social/racial bigotry commentary which is trenchant and appropriately uncomfortable, yet isn't forced down your throat. Original staging inventive (shower on stage) for its time.
3. Evita - Another ground-breaker and possibly the best directed/stage musical of all time, thanks to Hal Prince's innovative work which was so perfect, few production try different staging.
4. Jelly's Last Jam (at the Mark Taper Forum ONLY) - A stunning piece of theatre (before the tap dancing was added for Gregory Hines) with pathos, tragedy, comedy, exceptionally clever staging and real, deep meaning on many levels.
5. J.B. Original production with Rathbone, Plummer and Daly was incredibly powerful retelling of the story of Job. Wildly avant garde staging and a time frame which was uncertain, even changing throughout the play according to one's perception. Great acting, great book.

From StevieCK1:
To think of the best plays ever, one would have to choose between a mixed bag of surprises. I would have to choose the ones that redefined broadway and west end and all the other big theater locals of the 20th century. So here goes:
OUR TOWN-it redefined the american stage, taught us that small and simple could be better that huge and expensive. Showed us that when nothing else is there you still need love, and to live each day to the fullest.
A Streetcar Named Desire- brought the sex to the stage (just like shakespeare did in his time) like Fatal attraction or basic instinct brought in your face sexual tension to the screen.
WEST SIDE STORY- not for being the best musical, but for being a monumental one. It changed the scope of american theater, introduced us to Sondheim, killer choreography, great score, (revived shakespeare to america)
Into the Woods- just because its the best. don't ask ?'s

From Ghghghghgh:
Above and beyond all other theatrical displays is CABARET (and no, this is not because of its recent acclamation and Tony awards.) This show has lived on for years by relaying a sad yet beautiful story of an aspiring actress that ruins herself through booze and sex while trying to survive in the decadent time of 1930's Germany as Hitler is coming to power. Along with the sad story of a deteriorating club singer it also displays the effects of the Nazis on an older couple (one of them being Jewish) of Germany by showing their love story that is ruined by fears of survival. It is a true to life display of the Weimar Republic that makes us laugh from tension created by our on fears. No other show can evoke such emotions.

From David Podulka:
My vote for the five greatest plays of the 20th century are: 1) LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT - Probably the greatest American play ever written, a complex multi-layered piece that packs a huge emotional punch.
2) WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? - I believe this play changed the way we look at dramatic structure. A great leap forward.
3) A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE - Tennessee Williams wrote the quintessential Southern Gothic play that is almost always satisfying even in its weakest production.
4) ANGELS IN AMERICA, PARTS 1 & 2 - Probably the last great play of the century and certainly the last to so indelibly change the shape of conventional dramatic structure.
5) THE KING & I - Being a musical theater lover, I must include a musical here. While this musical is not my absolute favorite, it ranks right up there. It's a timeless piece that's perfectly crafted, entertaining and engaging.

From Keith Levinsohn, Tenafly, NJ:
It's too bad that the Bard of Avon was not around in the 20th Century, because he could have made it a clean sweep. It would be hard to exclude Tennessee Williams from the top five, so I'll nominate The Glass Menagerie. I know others will put Streetcar ahead of this but Glass Menagerie makes me feel the pain and desperation of loneliness like no other work. Next choice is Equus. The staging and dialogue make this one of my favorites. The frustrations of the psychiatrist and his jealousy for his patient, overshadow the horrid act that the patient has done. My all time favorite musical comes next, even though the play that it was based on was not exceptional. This musical would be My Fair Lady. Some musicals though entertaining and well written do not leave as many songs in your head as this one does. The costumes and settings are always top notch. Next I would put A Man for All Seasons. The dialogue is among the best ever written. Rounding out my top five, I submit Phantom of the Opera, the musical. It's a wonderful love story, with a great score. My apologies to Eugene O'Neill, Neil Simon, and Arthur Miller, but much of their work does not age well.

From Logan, Shawn Tracy:
I am not really a play I'll just give my top musicals of the century. 'The best of the best are:
CAROUSEL: The most solid musical of the R&H canon. While OKlahoma was the foundation of what we know now as the musical, CAROUSEL brought it to new heights. The show deals with real themes and presents one of the most beautiful scores ever, including the top music/book/lyric scene ever, "If I Loved You"
RAGTIME: It says so much about the state of our country today even though it takes place early in the century. THis is a beautifully crafted piece with some of the best "musical scenes" since Carousel-- like "Gliding", "Look What You've Done", and especially the opening sequence--has there ever been a more gorgeous opening? And I think that Ragtime will take musicals into new territory with heavy emphasis on dialogue and score being intermixed.
LES MIZ: It truly invigorated the contemporary through-sung musical and did it well...Hugo's book is captured without losing any of its meaning. Who would have thought that this whole show could be driven through music? This is a genius creation in all respects.
WEST SIDE STORY: Every song in the score is memorable and absolutely breathtaking--though the story is a bit dated today, there still are universal themes addressed which make it very important.
A CHORUS LINE: Some seem to forget dancing is an integral part of a musical; this piece provided a story that allowed for dance to be showcased and it delivered.

From James F. Olander :
This is not an easy task, since everyone does not see the same theatre production and one's impression of a work is mainly based on what we see. And very few people will take the time to read the script. So, Here are my five nominations, in no order of priority.
OKLAHOMA - The production that launched modern musical theatre.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? a wonderfully written, powerful work.
A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE - A powerful flowing play that should last for centuries.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN - A moving and tragic play about an the American dream.
A LADY IN THE DARK - A watershed musical, with good songs and story. I wish I could name another 5 Thanks

From Ed Price:
1) Les Miserables - To even consider turning Victor Hugo's masterpiece into a musical would seem an impossible task. Not only was it done successfully it was done so well that the three main parts of a musical could stand alone by themselves. If you look at the musical Les Miserables as only a play, without the music and lyrics, it would still be great. Hugo's characters have made the transition to the stage very well. The music is as powerful as I have ever heard, you do not need lyrics to enjoy what must be considered some of the most beautiful music ever written or performed. I have a copy of the lyrics and from time to time I just sit and read them. They are beautiful poetry that tell the emotions very well. In conclusion, when you combine these three elements you have most certainly the greatest musical ever written, performed and seen.
2) My Fair Lady - The title says it all, this is a fair lady of a musical. The grace and beauty that is this musical will last as long as there are musicals. Grace, beauty, charm there are not enough ways to describe this musical. The story of being able to find and see beauty where it seems that only thorns exist is overpowering. For most musicals we have two or three at the most songs that we would call favorites and could sing them out at any time. But, if you were to take another poll I believe that you would find that most people who are familiar with musicals could sing most of the songs in My Fair Lady.
3) Our Town - The American play, simple and yet very poetic towards its very true to life depiction of small town America in another time. A very good display of life and its corresponding situations and emotions.
4) Death of A Salesman - Again very true too life, but also depressing. Shows human nature and the struggles that we all face. A great character study, both from the negative as well as the positive side.
5) Cats - For its unique innovation of characters. At some time in the future it may be considered as ground breaking as was Disney's Fantasia.

From KSholes:
I'll stick to musicals as I enjoy them more and have studied them more.
1.) Show Boat - The first serious musical with one of the greatest scores of all time. One wonders how this show would have differed if Oscar Hammerstein II had Cap'n Andy die in the second act (he considered it) as Cap'n Andy dies in the book. The flawed book (which Hammerstein tried to correct in revivals) that allows revivals in which this musical can be done differently every 15 to 20 years. I have seen a tacky touring company (years ago), a MN Opera revival (with the Houston's Opera's incorporation of cut songs), and the Hal Prince Livent version. I enjoyed the Hal Prince version which, I believe, is closest in spirit to the original novel (which is an excellent book) by Edna Ferber.
2.) Oklahoma! - in which Oscar Hammerstein II finally broke with tradition by having one of the leading characters die in a musical theater piece. (Poor Jud) This isn't just a love story about Laurey having to choose between a cowboy and a hired hand; it is about man defining himself in relationship to the land. (As the lyric states "I know we belong to the land and the land we belong to is grand.") No wonder this show is the most done show in the R&H canon. If the musical theater still had creative producers like the Theater Guild around, we might have some better shows.
3.) A Chorus Line - Pure theatricality with another great universal theme. I know the show was dedicated to anyone who had marched or danced, but it should have been dedicated to anyone who has ever applied for a job. "Who am I anyway, am I my resume." This is a great theme in a country where commercial enterprise is treated as a paramount virtue. (Like Berlin said, "There's No Business Like Show Business")
4.) Sweeney Todd - Follies may be a better show, but I have never seen it. I found Company too cold and remote. This, in my opinion, is the best of Stephen Sondheim's scores.
5.) Okay, one play, Williams "A Streetcar Named Desire". The sheer poetry of his work is astonishing.

From Matt Beckoff,:
1.CABARET- It is the best show in the world,the music,the plot,the scenery. Everything about this musical is spectacular Kander & Ebb are definitely the best musicians i have very heard. I have all recordings of it.
2. CHICAGO- My other favorite Kander&Ebb musical it is one of the best shows in the world. It has a great cast and music. I loved it.
3. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA- The best Andrew Lloyd Webber musical ever. It is sad, and I don't know what else to say it's the best.

From Shane Valenzi:
I am only 11 years old but I've seen more musicals than any sane person would ever want to see. After careful consideration I have chosen my greatest favorites. I looked at everything from many angles, but I still ended up with my all time favorite. Should it be everyone's favorite? No. But it's mine, and I really don't care what anyone else thinks.
5.) Phantom of the Opera: The musical is wonderful, the sets are amazing. The acting is the best. The only flaw in my opinion is there is no comedy!
4.) Guys & Dolls: This was my favorite for many years. There is nothing about it I don't like. The only reason it's four is because the others are just that much more creative.
3.) Joseph and the amazing...well, you know:I just love Joseph! Everything about it, especially the different styles of music. One More Angel in Heaven with it's country-western style, Benjamin Calypso, kinda self-explanatory, Those Canaan Days, with Simeon's freugh in every other word, and then, there's Song of the King. Whoever dreamt that up I have to give an A+. Elvis and Pharaoh are perfect matches. Pharaoh is the king of Egypt, Elvis, you know. Not to mention, I was playing computer jeopardy and discovered there was a Memphis, Egypt! Can you believe it?
2.) Crazy for You: Gosh I just adore this musical! Gershwin is my all time favorite composer, I even did a biography on him! Crazy for you is really just pretty much his best songs that don't fit into Porgy and Bess! I mean, the singing cowboy trio, the dancing banker Bobby Child, the genuine cowgirl, Polly Baker, the agonizing, yet sexy Irene, um...What is her last name!? I thought I would die during the drunk scene with Bobby and Bela Zangler, a big time producer dressed exactly alike! Bobby impersonated Bela to save the Baker's theater which he was supposed to disclaim to the bank. Bela wandered into town looking for Tess, the lead dancer(the dancers are all bobby's friends helping him save the theatre) whom he fell in love with. After Tess and Polly turn them both down, they are found drunk in a bar, thinking they are looking in a mirror! Then there's Lank Hawkins, who owns the saloon next to the theater who wants to expand in the direction of the theater. Here is a script segment that sent the audience into thunderous applause while cracking up!
Lank:I don't like you hanging around my woman all day!
Bobby:You would prefer all night?
Lank: That isn't funny! Look at this! (hands Bobby paper)
Bobby: It is a marriage license.
Lank: Have I made my intentions clear?
Bobby:I guess so...I just don't want to marry you!
Lank: You are close to an idiot! (Bobby looks at him, nods, and takes a large step away from Lank)
Like it? Do you even get it? Gershwin was born sept. 24, 1898. So I guess all I can say to my 1st place composer in my 2nd place musical is... HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY GEORGE GERSHWIN!
And finally, the one the only:
#1 GREASE! Let me guess, you're looking at me funny, right? Too bad! Grease is absolutely great! I have 6 versions of the CD, a leather jacket, not to mention my hair spray and comb in my jacket. from the ducktail to the black buckle boots, I am Zuko. My friends and I are doing it this summer, with me directing, producing, musically directing, and starring in it. I could say more but you should probably see it for yourself.

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