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Everything You Need to Know About the Seven Longest-Running Broadway Shows

Published on: May 24, 2023
By: Mary Mount
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The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theatre

Everything You Need to Know About the Seven Longest-Running Broadway Shows

The cast takes their bows arm-in-arm, the curtain closes, and the audience buzzes excitedly or dries their tears while filing out of the theater. Whether the show made us laugh, cry, or think, we always exit a little different from who we were when we took our seats.

But some musicals stand apart, outshining the rest in their large-scale success and impact. Today, let’s unpack the most historic superstar shows of the Broadway world. 

We’ll talk about the shows, the stars, the creators, and some knockout numbers. We’ll also deconstruct the legacies of the seven longest-running Broadway shows and what made them special enough to draw crowds in the millions for decades on end.

The Seven Longest-Running Broadway Shows

The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theatre

1. The Phantom of the Opera

This show has everything: Romance, tragedy, fog machines, an ominous music box, a haunted opera house, an organ, a prima donna, a masquerade, an evil genius, a murder mystery, a gondola ride through a dungeon, and a chandelier that literally falls from the ceiling over the audience’s heads.

It doesn’t get more theatrical than that.

This might be why The Phantom of the Opera remains the longest-running Broadway musical ever. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic adaptation of the French novel by Gaston Leroux with lyrics by Charles Hart first opened in London’s West End in 1986 before coming to Broadway in ‘88. The original cast included Sarah Brightman as Christine and Michael Crawford as The Phantom.

Christine is a chorus girl at the Paris Opéra House who has recently lost her father, a renowned violinist. With help from the ballet mistress, Christine replaces the prima donna to sing for the sold-out opera house. 

During her triumphant performance, Christine catches the eye of the Opera’s patron, Raoul, who was once her childhood friend. But we find out that Christine has been trained to sing by the elusive “Angel of Music,” who then lures her to his lair and confesses his love to her.

The Phantom’s musical genius has a hypnotic effect on Christine, and she removes his mask, wanting to see his face. His disfigurement is revealed, and the Phantom lashes out and then laments his loneliness. The interaction triggers the Phantom to begin wreaking havoc on the Opera House.

Over its 35-year history, this classic musical has been performed in 166 cities and seen by over 140 million people worldwide while its home base remained at the Majestic Theatre. The Phantom of the Opera has won dozens of major theater awards, including Best Musical and six other Tony Awards, as well as the 1986 Olivier Award for Best Musical.

Sadly, the number one longest-running Broadway show just closed earlier this year, but it’s still playing in the UK for a little while longer and the legendary favorite is likely to come back someday.


2. Chicago (1996 Revival)

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to see a story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery, and treachery, all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts."

The endlessly entertaining 1996 revival of Chicago is satirical and cynical with a sharp wit. Showcasing electrifying lyrics (Fred Ebb), score (John Kander), and choreography (Bob Fosse), this show is big on razzle-dazzle with no time to waste on ballads or other forays into sentimentality. 

Even the set design is stripped down (though still visually striking), keeping the spotlight on the dance performances. The minimal set also functions to enhance the sense of connection between the cast and the audience.

Set in the Roaring Twenties, Chicago follows two murderesses, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart. The rival performers compete for the attention of the media and their shifty lawyer Billy Flynn while scheming to win back their freedom.

Back in 2006, at a 10th-anniversary Theater Talk interview with Walter Bobbie (director), James Naughton (Billy Flynn), and Bebe Neuwirth (Velma/Roxie), host Michael Riedel remarked, “[Chicago] might never end!” 

He might’ve been right. With six Tony Awards under its belt, Chicago still plays at the Ambassador Theatre. The show is in its 26th year, taking its place as the longest-running American musical currently running on Broadway. 

The Lion King at the Minskoff Theatre

3. The Lion King

Based on the beloved 1994 animated Disney film, The Lion King musical premiered at the New Amsterdam Theatre in 1997, and is now at home at the Minskoff Theatre.

The Lion King famously features magnetic music by Elton John and Hans Zimmer, among others. Aside from hits like “Circle of Life” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” part of what makes The Lion King so memorable is its award-winning puppet design by Michael Curry and Julie Taymor. Thanks to ingenious mechanisms, cast members breathe life into the characters by merging with imaginative puppet animals, as if by magic. 

The colorful, life-size puppets and costumes incorporate hand-carved pieces with real animal hairs and feathers, elevating the show to a spectacle full of texture and life. Each hand-made costume takes six to eight weeks to individually craft for the actor.

The Lion King has been hailed “a landmark event in entertainment” by Newsweek. In its run of over 25 years so far, it has also made Broadway history by becoming one of the highest-grossing entertainment properties of all time.

4. Wicked

More than 50 years after The Wizard of Oz (1939), one of the most beloved films ever made, author Gregory Maguire imagined that ‘so much happened in Oz before Dorothy dropped in.’ Growing up watching the movie, he’d found a fascination with the Wicked Witch of the West and wondered what her origin story might be. 

In 1995, he published the novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West to tell her story. Wicked was eventually adapted into a musical, with book by Winnie Holzman and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, (Godspell, Pippin, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Prince of Egypt) culminating in a Grammy Award-winning soundtrack.

Beholding the daring stage action and listening to cherished numbers like “Defying Gravity” and “For Good,” it’s easy to understand why Wicked has won over so many hearts around the world, ascending to the level of “cultural phenomenon.” 

Broadway’s biggest blockbuster” especially resonated with young girls, who find themselves identifying with Elphaba (originally played by Idina Menzel), Glinda (originally played by Kristin Chenoweth), and the chemistry of their friendship. Now that Wicked has played on a Broadway stage at the Gershwin Theatre for about 20 years, it’s known for captivating young people everywhere like no musical has managed to do since Rent.

5. Cats

Before getting upstaged by Phantom, another Andrew Lloyd Webber phenomenon held the title of longest-running Broadway show for years. It all started because Webber just really liked cats and T.S. Eliot’s 1939 book of children’s poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which makes up the show’s whimsical premise and lyrical content.

After premiering in the West End in 1981, Cats hit the Broadway stage at the Winter Garden Theatre in ‘82, before winning Best Musical at the Tony and Laurence Olivier Awards. The show ascended to a groundbreaking achievement, making Broadway history as the first megamusical, and paving the way for many popular Broadway blockbusters that have followed.

Cats ran on Broadway for 18 years, playing in London for 21 years and almost 9,000 performances. Nancy Coyne, Cats’ head of advertising for the original Broadway production (1982), coined the prophetic catchphrase, ‘Cats- Now and Forever.’ She later stated, “It was clear to me, when I saw it, that it would have an unusually long run. I think the music is the reason.”

Most fans would surely agree, citing favorite tunes like “Memory.” Plus, inventive costumes and makeup add to the immersion of the dream-like concept. Cats is no longer running, but now that over 80 million people have enjoyed it, the show lives on in musical lovers’ collective memory.


6. Les Misérables

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name, Les Misérables is set in early 19th-century France. The upheaval of revolution intertwines a host of characters in love, loss, heartbreak, sacrifice, desperation, hope, rivalry, and redemption. 

The main protagonist is Jean Valjean, who breaks parole after his release from prison after serving almost two decades for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child. Police inspector Javert tries to hunt Valjean down. Meanwhile, Jean Valjean touches the lives of the other main characters as their heart-wrenching stories unfold.

A masterful score by Claude-Michel Schönberg gives Les Mis much of its moving and timeless power. Expressive melodies echo the words and drama, with repurposed tunes reappearing throughout the story to create a feeling of authenticity as emotion builds. 

The original musical in French premiered in Paris in 1980 and the English version has played in London since 1985, making it the longest-running West End show and the second longest-running musical in the world. 

Les Mis’s run in New York lasted from 1987 to 2003, closing as the second longest-running Broadway musical at the time. Les Mis has eight 1987 Tony Awards, including the Tony Award for Best Musical and Best Original Score.

7. A Chorus Line

Original cast member Baayork Lee has described A Chorus Line as “the first-ever reality show to make it to the stage. A Chorus Line was a compilation of stories about dancers in a company, our struggles to make it to the stage, why we love dance, everything we gave up to work in this industry.”

When the idea for A Chorus Line arose in the early ‘70s, times were tough for the creators and Broadway as a whole. Director Michael Bennett had a conversation with colleagues about pulling the curtain back to reveal the realities of the industry, reminiscing, “I realized that what those kids had been doing was auditioning their lives for me.”

In 1974, taped workshop sessions began, wherein the show’s creators interviewed real Broadway dancers, who opened up about their life stories, struggles, and passions for dance. Eight of the original dancers stayed on through production to appear in the original cast, in many cases playing themselves.

When it made its Broadway debut in 1975, A Chorus Line was an unprecedented success. The show won nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. There have since been revivals in New York and the West End.

A Chorus Line was the longest-running Broadway production until Cats overshadowed it in 1997. It remained the longest-running American-produced musical until 2011 when the revival of Chicago took the lead. A Chorus Line is remembered for its iconic choreography and music, as “I Hope I Get It” and “What I Did for Love” are some of the most recognizable show tunes of all time. 

Which of the longest-running Broadway shows has the biggest impact?

Undoubtedly, each of the longest-running Broadway shows has played a role in shaping musical theater as we know it today. Some of these musicals are still running today with tickets on sale now. So browse our list of the Best Broadway Shows of All Time Currently Running in 2023.

Mary Mount

Contributing Writer

Mary Mount is a freelance writer with a classical music background. She is a pianist and vocalist with a bachelor's in music education from West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Mary first gained an appreciation for musical theater while attending shows at the middle school where her mom teaches music, and she soon developed a deep interest Broadway. Nowadays, she also loves travel, art, and writing about anything she can- science, history, lifestyle and wellness, and everything in between.

Education: Bachelor's in Music Education, West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Knowledge: Classical Music, Musical Theater


May 24, 2023

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