The 10 Most Popular Musicals of All Time

How you define the “best” or even the “most popular” musical of all time? Is it box office numbers? Total performances on Broadway? The number of revivals or touring productions? For Rolling Stone magazine, it’s even simpler: poll the readers. From the magazine’s June 2016 poll, here are the 10 iconic musicals that made the cut.  Apparently the Forestburgh Playhouse patrons agree with Rolling Stone since, over the years, the Playhouse has produced 9 out of the top 10!

Want to read about the most popular musicals of all time? Get this and other expert information about theatre from the Forestburgh Playhouse.

West Side Story

West Side Story debuted on Broadway in 1957, but the gritty retelling of Romeo and Juliet still resonates today. Seen through the eyes of battling street gangs, the show is filled with passion, drama, and more than a little teenage rebellion. West Side Story broke the rules in every way, ushering in a new era of possibilities in staging and storytelling. The show also gave legendary lyricist Stephen Sondheim his big break.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's highly controversial rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, is an impossibly brazen, larger than life, boldly colorful retelling of Jesus’ last week of life. It debuted in 1970, showing the world that youth culture and rock musicals were here to stay. Despite its definite hippie aesthetic, the show remains tremendously popular and relevant in modern revivals.

Les Misérables

Based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel, “Les Miz” debuted in Paris in 1980 and is the longest-running musical in London’s West End, having played continuously since October 1985. It tells the story of the French revolution through the eyes of several characters who are connected to each other. The epic soundtrack is familiar even to many who have never seen the show.


In 1969, The Who released a revolutionary new concept album about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a pinball wizard. In 1992, The Who’s Tommy, a musical based on the album, premiered in San Diego, California. It opened on Broadway less than a year later. Though the original Broadway run lasted just over two years, Tommy was a smash hit, neatly tying together ambiguous plot points from the album and updating the experience for a new generation. Pete Townshend won a Tony for Best Original Score, and the show has enjoyed numerous revivals.


Cabaret tells the story of an English performer and an American writer who meet at the seedy Kit Kat Klub in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. Based on an earlier play (I Am a Camera) that was itself based on the 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin, Cabaret debuted on Broadway in 1966. Various revivals have made creative changes to reflect the similarities between the issues of the time the show was set and the issues of the time of the revival. Arguably the most familiar version today is the 1998 Broadway revival, which became the third-longest running Broadway revival of all time.


Based on the 1986 opera La Bohème, Rent moves the setting from the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1830s to the East Village of New York City in the 1980s. Rather than tuberculosis, or “consumption,” the disease is now HIV/AIDS. And rather than an opera, the show is now a groundbreaking rock musical.

Rent captured a generation of artists, poets, and performers, reflecting their own experiences with poverty, creative inspiration, and the AIDS crisis. Legions of fans known as Rent-heads have seen the show over and over again. This was made possible, in part, by creator Jonathan Larson’s insistence that $20 rush tickets be set aside for those who could not otherwise afford to see the show. Sadly, Larson succumbed to an aortic dissection at the age of 35, the night before Rent’s Off-Broadway premiere. But the show lives on, with numerous revivals and tours.

The Rocky Horror Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show film is a true cult classic, still running at midnight on weekends at theaters around the globe as it has since 1975. But before the film, there was The Rocky Horror Show, an extravagantly glam musical that debuted in London in 1973. Like the movie, which flopped on its initially release, the stage version of the show about the “Sweet Transvestite” Dr. Frank N. Furter and the innocent young couple who happen into his castle took some time to find its audience. Today, of course, it is beloved by audiences and enjoys frequent revivals.


Most musicals take a bit of time to gain their footing, but Hamilton was a smash right out of the gate in 2015. This dramatic look at the Founding Fathers through the lens of an immigrant, with a cast comprised mostly of non-white performers, captured lightning in a bottle. Fresh off his success with Into the Heights, creator Lin-Manuel Miranda won a slew of awards for Hamilton, including Tonys, Grammys, and even a Pulitzer. Hamilton is showing no signs of slowing down, with tickets to performances across the globe nearly impossible to score.

Guys and Dolls

Guys and Dolls brings the world of underground gambling to life with a rare blend of charm and comedy. It was a hit when it debuted on Broadway in 1950, and it feels just as fresh today. With a peppy soundtrack and a relatable cast of oddball characters, Guys and Dolls is fun for all ages.

A Chorus Line

One of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time, A Chorus Line took the world of musicals by storm upon its 1975 debut, nearly sweeping the Tonys and taking the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its timeless story follows a group of hopefuls auditioning for their big break on Broadway, giving each character the opportunity to share a bit about his or her own personal journey. The original Broadway production closed in 1990, but it was followed by a revival in 2006. A Chorus Line has been produced professionally and in community theaters around the globe.

Ready to Have Some Fun?

Experience the next top 10 musicals at the Forestburgh Playhouse! Our 2019 Season is filled with winning productions--some you may have never seen before!  If you and your family are ready to enjoy the oldest continuously operating professional summer theatre in New York State, contact the Forestburgh Playhouse today at 845-794-1194 for more information or to buy tickets.