Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 8

News   Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 8
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 overwhelming response, we have created this eighth file of replies.

From Martinique_Duchene:
Fences: Some of the best writing you will find anywhere. Beautifully put together. Wonderfully interesting characters, engaging storyline. It speaks from the heart. This play has not lost its impact or appeal since it was first produced. This one will definitely withstand the test of time. The language and the characters do more than tell a story they give us a glimpse into the African American existence, with it's unique language patterns and engaging storytelling style. A must read for anyone who wants to get a glimpse at what good writing is all about.
Saint Joan: One of my all-time favorites. This is one of Shaw's best works. It does homage to a true heroine. He does this by making her human. She is just a poor peasant village girl called by God to restore the crown to the true king of France. Shaw doesn't give us a perfect messenger and he doesn't attempt to make Joan out to be manly or more than she is. He tells her story with beautifully written prose and characters we can believe. The dramatic elements are handled with such a delicate balance that you can't help but be pulled into the story. The words and actions of the characters pull you along deeper and deeper and then finally to the climactic end. The burning of Joan for doing what God commanded. This is one of the few plays out there that presents women with a character as challenging and enticing as Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Brighton Beach Memoirs: One of Neil Simon's earlier works and his first BIG success. This play marks the beginning of one of our greatest playwrights and comedic writers. All of Simon's plays entertain and educate us. Brighton Beach takes us back to a time when life was simpler according to us, not so for the characters in the play. His characters are complete and not a single word is wasted or extraneous. By the time you leave the theater you feel as if you know just a little bit about the life that these characters inhabit. His comedic timing is impeccable and the writing tight An evening with a Neil Simon play is an evening when we remember to laugh at ourselves and the world around us. Life is full of funny moments if we only stop to savor them.
A Chorus Line: Not one for the musicals myself, I feel that this should be on the list. It is a fine musical and I recognize it's impact on Broadway. With the opening and subsequent success of Chorus Line Broadway begin it's turn from more traditional straight plays to a venue dominated by musicals. Without the success of musicals like Chorus Line and Cats Broadway wouldn't be what it is today. A venue dominated by grand spectacle and a return to when going to the theater was more about the visual and aural feast you would partake and less about the play or earthshattering social insight you would come away with. This was definitely a turning point in American Theatre.
Fefu and Her Friends: This another one of those milestone plays. It is well written and brings to the forefront and to the mainstream artists one of the Hispanic cultures treasured playwrights. Maria Irene Fornes writes her plays in English and deals with issues and conventions that are second nature to Hispanics but are also relevant to everyone else out there. She has some better written plays but this is the one that really put her on the map. Fornes success has helped open the door for other hispanic playwrights. So for it's impact on the American theater in letting in new writers and talking about issues that relate to a growing population in America this play does it's job and does it while entertaining you with intriguing characters and engaging writing.

From Kevin Barry:
As the AFI list sadly proved, a best list is only as good as the scholarship (and memory) of its contributors and so far it appears that most of the responses to your list have been from people who have only seen about five plays. Your list encompasses the last 100 years and titles like Jekyll and Hyde and Phantom of the Opera wouldn't qualify if the time frame were the last five minutes! Musicals should be a separate list anyway. There are too many great plays that can't be ignored. Oh well, here goes:
THE CHERRY ORCHARD (1904) - Probably Chekhov's most accessible play. Heartbreaking in its depiction of passed time and lost opportunities.
SAINT JOAN (1923) - This is to Shaw what Antony and Cleopatra is to Shakespeare - a witty, romantic and opulent portrait of a great woman and her place in history.
PRIVATE LIVES (1930) - Certainly the most perfect comedy ever written in three days. The first act alone can be read and re-read without diminishing returns. Coward inherited the mantle of Oscar Wilde with this play.
LOOK BACK IN ANGER (1956) - John Osborne's dramatic diatribe opened a new window and let sunshine and fresh air into the British theatre. This play still packs a punch and seems almost as fresh and pertinent as it did then.
HAPPY DAYS (1961) - I prefer this Beckett work to Godot, but it really depends on which of his plays I've read or seen most recently. Funny, touching, innovative and economically simple and theatrical.
That Albee, Williams, Miller and O'Neill will dominate among the educated is predictable, but let's hope your other readers don't forget about Beckett, Brecht, Odets, Synge, Mamet, O'Casey, Rattigan, Shepard, Rice, Durrenmatt, Genet, Ionesco, Giraudoux, Pinter, Molnar, Lorca, Wilder, Behan, and on and on. If they are alert and informed they will see there is hardly any room for Les Miz.

From DIVA171300:
1). Amadeus: Its truly brilliant! There has never been a more haunting and perfectly dramatic play in history, including Shakespeare. It contains all the elements of what made me want to be an actor.
2). Love! Valour! Compassion!: Is also brilliant. It was one of the first plays that showed gay men alone together and a true representation of the diversity of that "group."
3). Angels in America: Parts I and II: Most people feel that part one is the truly brilliant one, however I also think part II is. there was no other way to end the whole thing, and it was perfect. The plays were shocking and wonderfully written and are one of the best.
4). Cabaret: The musical (Most notably the revival.) Its is chilling and haunting and (the revival is) set in such a way that you realize there's not other way for this play to be done. It current cast blows all other productions out of the water.
5). The Dresser: A play I don't usually hear much about, but is one of my favorites. It is one of the truly great plays (so great roles for men were written during the eighties. Salieri and Norman... for example.) This play is a perfect representation of the madness of actors.

From JLockhorn:
I think that the best play of the 20th century was undeniably RAGTIME. it covers a period of the nation's past that no other play has tried successfully to cover. It's music is rich and beautiful and it's lyrics heartbreaking.
Miss Saigon also, shedding new light on the thoughts of the vietnam war.
Rent is a great show, capturing the lives of those in Greenwich village.
Les Miserables is a deserving addition. Stunning staging and beautiful material make for a wonderful show.
Show Boat is possibly the best of the "old" musicals. It's emotions are wonderful. The only problem is the end of Julie. You never really know what happens to her.

From Baby5555:
1) ANGELS IN AMERICA- A powerful look at society today and an interesting look at what could lie beyond the reaches of the living.
2) INTO THE WOODS- Sondheim's look at a fairy tale world and the difference between the two acts makes you question decisions you make.
3)PIPPIN- the score speaks for itself and the storyline isn't too bad either. Plus Fosse.
4)SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE- Amazing cast!!! The story makes you think, who else but Sondheim can make a musical that makes an artist speak for the composer himself.
5)RENT- A musical that has touched millions of lives and is packing my generation back into the world of musical theatre.

From angela_tucker_at_lct:
I'm Angela and I want to add a bit of diversity to the list. Because I am not a big fan of musicals, I am going to focus on plays. My selections are as follows:
1. THE PIANO LESSON and JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE, August Wilson - Single handedly one of the best playwrights of our generation and one of the few playwrights attempting to chronicle African-American history.
2. FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE, WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF, Ntozake Shange - A play that spoke to ALL women about what being a woman in today's society is really like.
3. ANGELS IN AMERICA (Both parts), Tony Kushner - What can I say that hasn't already been said. It's amazing!
4. DEATH OF A SALESMAN, Arthur Miller
5. OUR TOWN, Thornton Wilder - A classic and for a great reason. Classic Americana!

From Benjamin Siegel (
Here are my top 5 choices. I strongly believe that these shows have either influenced me in my life somehow, or has just been an extremely rewarding thing to see. They are what I believe in, and what I credit for many positive things in my life.
3.A Midsummer Night's Dream
4.Wait Until Dark
5.All In The Timing
Thank you very much for the opportunity to express my choices for the five best written plays and musicals of the 20th century. Theater is what shapes me, and these five fine shows are the clay.

Hmm...there are so many great plays! I guess I will end with a climax and start with number five:
5. Les Miserables is the most heart warming musical to hit broadway. With dynamic divas strung throughout it and wonderful sets this show is one to go down in history I promise you!!!! The part of Jean Valjean will motivate us to become better people.
4. Titanic-The special effects once again are some of the best I have seen! It makes me cry to watch it and it sure better than the movie! The music makes me want to sing along and the way you see the story through the points of all classes on the boat really fascinates me. The three Kates make us want to achieve for all we can be!
3. Sound of Music- Both the play and movie are awesome! Why else has it been remastered and a revival made!It has been toured so much because it is a family show everyone can enjoy and will enjoy with such memorable songs like "do re mi" "climb every mountain" and "Sound of music" Rogers and Hammerstein did NOT make a mistake when they made this!
2. Rent- A modern La Vie Boheme is the perfect way to get across the point that AIDS kills every day. In addition to catchy music and loveable characters this show has humor which is something we need as a change from some darker musicals. Not only will it make you laugh it will touch your heart.
1. A Chorus Line cannot be beat! The characters are very unique and different in their own way! everyone can relate to at least one of the characters. The characters themselves add humor to the show to keep us smiling! THe music makes you want to get up and start a kickline or sing about your problems! It isn't a politically incorrect show which is an upper. And the final number sends a surge through that you have to yell and cheer at the end. Even though stupid old CATS outran it. A Chorus Line will always be hailed as one of the best musicals ever. My opinion is that the only reason CATS outran it is because of songs. A CHorus Line TRULY is one singular sensation!

From Jim in Dayton (
"The Glass Menagerie" by Tennessee Williams. Not only the light is refracted by the title objects, but the dark as well...and the future of any caller (lady or gentleman) on this loving memory. The sweetest, warmest tragedy ever written.
"A Man for All Seasons" by Robert Bolt. The wit and wisdom to cast Henry VIII as a minor character in this retelling of the greatest struggle of his life only begins to define Bolt's epic and intimate tale. The Common Man is uncommonly well rounded and reported. In Thomas More we have a hero defined by his modesty, whose tragedy is triumph., whose right is might.
"Only Kidding" by Jim Geoghan. This "A Chorus Line" of stand-up has five late-night wannabees all but screaming, "I really need this laugh". This "Schlep of Dreams" is a moving drama about comedy - and it isn't pretty!
"Man of La Mancha" by Dale Wasserman and Mitch Leigh. A most possible dream - it presents almost every player in a triple role as a prisoner of the Inquisition and as a character in Cervantes' tale and in Quixote's madness. This play successfully tells the story of one of the world's great novels (and the world's first sequel), and of the novelist , as well.
"Assassins" by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. This most "American" of Sondheim's musicals in theme and sound shows its successful and would-be title characters to be uncomfortably like its audience, molded and driven by many of the same forces, but to an unspeakable end. In the Texas Book Depository scene, "Assassins" empowers its audience to conspire against America's conspirators, past and present, and to hope in vain that this time it'll end better. With few ruffles, but abundant flourishes, with a "hail" of bullets "to the Chief" it shows why "Everybody's Got the Right" to sing "Another National Anthem".

From Adam Weiner::
I believe that it is impossible to rank plays alongside musicals due to the heavy differences in style and substance. Therefore, I have two sets of rankings, one for musical, and one for plays:
5. LEND ME A TENOR - By Ken Ludwig... , I know it's a farce, but I could not resist...this hilarious mixed identity show combines murder, suicide, sex, and opera under two hours, with every character no matter how minimal being able to steal the show...with one of the most innovative curtain calls of all time (running through the entire show in a minute and a half), this farce rivals all that have come before (Moliere and Simon included) and all that will come after...
4. OUR TOWN - By Thornton Wilder...How can I not make a list of Best American Plays without the quintessential one. A simple story of love and death in a small town makes one weep every time no matter how often one sees it. Its simple staging yet stunning realism makes Our Town as universal and American as apple pie. This play has stood the test of time and should be regarded as a piece of American history...
3. BROADWAY BOUND - By Neil Simon...The final segment of the Brighton Beach Trilogy is Simon's finest. A well crafted tale that weaves humor and pathos has you laughing one minute and weeping the next...the scene between Eugene and his mother Kate as she tells him about the night she danced with George Raft is one of the finest in all american theater...Stanley and Eugene, brothers as struggling comic writers, give the viewer a taste of their own childhood, both in comedy and American classic...
2. ALL MY SONS - By Arthur Miller...Not taking anything away from "Salesman", but Miller's first major work is his most innocent and moving. A story of deceit among family wraps the audience with awe for over two hours...and has one of the most gut-wrenching climaxes of all and honor through drama are presented here at its peak, a must see for every human....
1. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE - By Tennessee Williams...Although this choice may be redundant, I do believe that the Kowalski's and Blanche DuBois are the most fascinating characters ever created...Williams has achieved a monumental and extraordinary story without a protagonist, or any character to "root" for; the intensity and pathos flies out from the page, and viewing this show just adds to the bone-chilling layers and themes....
5. RAGTIME - Ok, It may sound uneducated to name a baby as one of the best, but I truly believe this show is headed for legendary status. The memorable music just flows into the dialogue...and each number seems to have showstopper status...Although I cannot imagine anyone except Brian Stokes, Marin Mazzie, and Peter Friedman playing their respective roles, this show has broken ground for a new era of epic musicals, right up there with Les Mis and Miss Saigon; Ragtime is a show that gives all it can to entertain and move the audience to its fullest potential...
4. A CHORUS LINE - It's an absolute shame that an incomprehensible show about felines surpassed this classic musical as Broadway's longest running show....a musical that seems like a play, Chorus Line is an ensemble piece that breaks your heart with every number; no stars, no fancy sets, just pure talent and emotion make this a tireless musical that should be required viewing for any drama enthusiast, or anyone for that matter...
3. RENT - Another baby in some cases, yet like Pal Joey, Oklahoma, West Side Story, and Chorus Line, Rent is a groundbreaking show that has and will change how musicals are made; a loud, boisterous cast on an unassuming set, Larson's one and only masterpiece will be remembered for achieving success in something that many never thought could be done; although it is possible that this show may soon become dated, I doubt that there will be another musical that is as daring, provocative, and wonderfully entertaining as Rent is for a long time to come....
2. ANYTHING GOES - Cole Porter is the lyricist for all time, his music is as amusing as it is beautiful, a song and dance show that will have you leaping to your feet before the last note of "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" has been hit...hilarious as well...the triptych of Reno Sweeney, Billy Crocker, and Moonface Martin have become the basis for almost every other musical character created...a rousing production that has gone through many versions, Anything Goes remains as popular if not moreso than when it was first released...
1. WEST SIDE STORY - Finally, a musical that dared to have a sad ending...I mean, the hero dies! You got to be kidding! Although audiences today may be used to death and destruction in musical finales, before West Side Story, there were none...a brilliant premise that combines the greatest love story with the genius of Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, this musical has it all...comedy, tragedy, long ballads, dance breaks, and yet leaves room for just a little violence...although the movie version is better than the stage, this is the exception to the is a show that will always be revered and loved by American audiences...I know I do....

From H Strom:
1. Ragtime ~ This piece is nothing short of beautiful. With brilliant music and engaging lyrics by Steven Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, this show will hopefully be remembered forever. The talent involved here is a force like none other, with Audra, Stokes, Marin, Frank Galati, Graciela Daniele, Terrence McNally, the composers, and E L Doctorow (author) weaving a near perfect tapestry of Americana.
2. Cabaret ~ One of the most eye opening and disturbing looks at pre Nazi Germany, this piece shows us, through the eyes of the patrons and employees of the Kit Kat Klub, how people deal with such a looming tragedy. Whether you refer to the groundbreaking original version, the brilliant Bob Fosse film,  or the current re-imagined revival, which is a masterpiece in itself, they all echo the same message. With its timeless and masterful score by Kander & Ebb, and talent like Liza Minnelli, Jill Haworth, Joel Grey, Natasha Richardson, and last but definitely not least, Alan Cumming, this piece should be thought of when ever the word 'theatre' is mentioned
The Life ~ Although not a hit like the others, this little piece with  a rousing score by Cy Coleman, deserves some recognition. With a stellar and Tony winning cast, including Lillias White, Sam Harris, Pamela Isaacs, and Chuck Cooper, this show had the makings of a Bway smash, but, like many times, the closed minded people ("Singing hookers? Not for me...") have squelched a beautiful piece of work. Maybe sometime in the near future, a successful revival will rekindle this timeless love story, set against the sleaze of pre-Disney Times Square.
Chicago ~  Once again, the team of Kander & Ebb triumph. With a sleek, sexy, and very stylish look, the current revival is theatre personified. The songs and jazzy score are priceless, and lets not forget the dancing. Oh, lord, the dancing! Never having seen any of Bob Fosse's original work (Cabaret movie excluded), I was speechless when I first saw this show. The sexy way that Ann Reinking recreates Fosse's brilliant style is a b s o l u t e l y fabulous. And its star of stars, Bebe Neuwirth, gained a new fan with me. She is great! That's the only way to describe it.
Show Boat ~ Once again, Livent triumphs. Being a rather old and musty piece, I was very reluctant to see this show. But boy was I wrong. The score  is absolutely brilliant, as are the performances and sets, etc. I know for a fact that this classic will remain just that, because how could one not walk out of the theatre humming "Can't Help Lovin dat Man of Mine" ?      


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