The 25 Best Musicals of the 1990's

Recently, we published what we felt have been the best musicals of the 21st Century so far. Needless to say that got plenty of attention and spurred a lot of debate. Due to the interest and requests from you, we felt it was time to dive a bit further back into musical theatre's rich history. 

So let's go back and take a look at the 1990's. 

The 90's were a revolutionary time for musical theatre. We saw corporations like Disney literally change the face of Broadway and its surrounding neighborhoods. We saw new types of musicals that would never have been produced decades before. We saw acclaimed composers and artists finally get their shot at the Great White Way. While we started to see less and less from names like Herman, Sondheim and even Lloyd Webber, names like Flaherty & Ahrens, Tesori and Larson would become emerging icons.

So here, with words from those who reviewed their productions, is our list of the 25 Best Musicals of the 1990's.

25. The Life

"I'm somewhat amazed to report that this show about the low life vibrates with more energy and foot-tapping, hummable music than some of its more high profile predecessors on the Broadway scene. It may not be up to Cy Coleman's best shows though it's miles above The Will Rogers Follies and the book, (a collaboration with David Newman and Ira Gasman), is hardly a study of originality, but it's got pizazz and a definite point of view." - Elyse Sommer, Curtain Up

24. Ruthless!

"Ruthless! is, uh, ruthlessly stuffed with references to its over-the-top spiritual predecessors. There's a domineering stage mother who doesn't mince words at all, and quotes Gypsy's Madame Rose verbatim. (The other domineering stage mother on hand, it should be mentioned, doesn't quote Rose.) One act looks as though it was carpet-bombed by The Bad Seed, the other by All About Eve. The likes of Shirley Temple, Astrid Lindgren, and heaven knows how many other Golden-Age names are paid homage, making it clear that librettist-lyricist-director Paley and composer Laird have been paying close attention the past 70 years." - Matthew Murrary, Talkin' Broadway

23. Steel Pier

"“Life’s a party,” the ensemble sings. “Why don’t you come to the Steel Pier?” Audiences are almost dared not to add a silent “ol’ chum” to the tail of that lyric, since the song, like so much else in “Steel Pier,” unabashedly recalls an earlier moment in musical-theater history. The new tuner, with its score by John Kander and Fred Ebb — who three decades ago entreated audiences to “come to the cabaret” — may be a pastiche, but it’s a skillful one that need offer no apologies for cribbing from the best." - Greg Evans, Variety

22. The Will Rogers Follies

"The Will Rogers Follies" takes audiences back to a time when a solid hit musical didn't lean on falling chandeliers and gigantic flying tires. The show makes its mark with triple-threat performers, engaging subject matter and a 24 -carat performance by Keith Carradine." - Michael Frym, Variety

21. Side Show

"The original production, which starred Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, is not easily erased from memory, given the depths of emotional resilience and despair its stars achieved as they sang from the depths of their boots." - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

20. Beauty & the Beast

"The movie's strength -- at least from Broadway's perspective -- is the Academy Award-winning score by Alan Menken and his partner, Howard Ashman, who died early in 1991, before work began on the stage version. Such songs as "Belle," "Be Our Guest" and "Gaston" are happily reminiscent of Lerner and Loewe, and the title number speaks stirringly of love, as few Broadway ballads do these days. To them, Mr. Menken, working with the lyricist Tim Rice, has added seven new numbers, partly to bring out the sensitive side of the Beast, partly to underscore Belle's fortitude. However, the production, directed by Robert Jess Roth, is reluctant to let a song be a song in its own way and time. Two kinds of delivery are recognized: the hard sell and the harder sell." - David Richards, New York Times

19. Chronicle of a Death Foretold

"Graciela Daniele, who conceived, directed and choreographed "Chronicle of a Death Foretold," has created a frequently stunning show that is less a conventional musical adaptation than a performance piece inspired by Mr. Garcia Marquez. The Lincoln Center Theater production, which opened last night at the Plymouth on Broadway, communicates more through dance than music or song." - Vincent Canby, New York Times

18. Once on This Island


"A 90-minute Caribbean fairy tale told in rousing song and dance, this show is a joyous marriage of the slick and the folkloric, of the hard-nosed sophistication of Broadway musical theater and the indigenous culture of a tropical isle. No doubt the evening will nettle purists who insist that all American musicals be urbane or that all foreign entertainments exhibited in New York be homegrown. Most everyone else is likely to emerge from Playwrights Horizons ready to dance down 42d Street." - Frank Rich, New York Times

17. The Fix

"As long as you're listening to John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe's score, you just might get a fix from "The Fix." On the evidence of one musical, this little-known American team (their off-Broadway credits seem to begin and end with ''Zombie Prom'') are capable of evoking Frank Loesser one minute, Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend the next, while freshly minting a hybrid musical form that embraces rock and rhythm and blues, hot gospel and Kander and Ebb." - Matt Wolf, Variety

16. Sunset Boulevard


"When it is good, it is outlandishly good. When it isn't, it is big. Both observations may be of secondary importance, however, since the musical allows Glenn Close to give one of those legendary performances people will be talking about years from now. As the film star Norma Desmond, a turbaned relic who considers herself the idol of millions, the actress takes breathtaking risks, venturing so far out on a limb at times that you fear it will snap. It doesn't." - David Richards, New York Times

15. Violet


"A musical as spirited as its spunky heroine, "Violet" is one of the most impressive small-scale tuners in recent memory, an intelligent work that, though not without flaws, marks a big step forward for composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist-librettist Brian Crawley. Impeccably staged by Susan H. Schulman and performed by a talented, enthusiastic ensemble, this tale of tolerance and acceptance overcomes its weaknesses with the same brio of its scarred title character, who triumphs over conventional standards of beauty." - Greg Evans, Variety

14. A New Brain

"A New Brain resonates for anyone who feels inadequate or unfulfilled (isn’t that all of us?) and those who have faced life-threatening illness. His protagonist, like us, wonders what part of him — or what creation of his — might live on after death. To me, the show is about creative frustration and all the songs we never get to write, whether it be because of illness or emotional blocks or procrastination." - Steve Cohen

13. Titanic

"A strong story deserves a great score and Maury Yeston’s music and lyrics are, in my opinion, among the best of the 1990s. Gentle pastiche of ragtime and hymn tunes, Mozart-like ensembles that sparkle and shine, ballads and (dare I say?) arias which rise from the hearts of the characters, Yeston’s score captures both the grandeur of the subject matter and the heartbreaking pathos the passengers endure that changes their lives forever." - Jeffrey Walker

12. Parade

"In the end, this is a bittersweet story of two people who were caught up in a tidal wave beyond their making. It is a story that emerges amid a mass of images and voices that deserve our attention. It's not light musical entertainment and the only humming it entails -- is the hum of history brought to heart stirring life." - Elyse Sommer, Curtain Up

11. The Secret Garden

"At its core, "The Secret Garden" is about renewal and rebirth, and perhaps the truest test of the success of this production is the way in which that theme reaches out into the audience. Just as the garden is supposed to be charmed, so is this entire production. In the final scene, when the garden is in full bloom, it's difficult to leave the theater; you want to linger and smell the flowers." -  J. Wynn Rousuck, Baltimore Sun

10. The Lion King


"Simply said, Julie Taymor's staging of Disney's "The Lion King" is a marvel, a theatrical achievement unrivaled in its beauty, brains and ingenuity. Leaping far beyond its celluloid inspiration, the stage version improves upon nearly every aspect of the hit 1994 animated film, from visual artistry and storytelling to Lebo M's score and the newly African-ized pop songs of Elton John and Tim Rice. With this production, the Walt Disney Co. stages itself as a serious and ambitious contender on the legit scene, all but demanding that its first theatrical foray, 1994's too-literally adapted "Beauty and the Beast," was little more than a warm-up." - Greg Evans, Variety

9. Miss Saigon

"The world's first Vietnam mega-musical--loosely combining the love story of "Madama Butterfly" with the postwar diaspora to Bangkok--dances on a sliver of a line between exploitation and the show-biz equivalent of passionate commentary about exploitation. It steps over that line, in one direction or the other, about as often as it stays on balance. It is engaging. It is insulting. It is never boring." - Laurie Winer, LA Times

8. Crazy for You

"When future historians try to find the exact moment at which Broadway finally rose up to grab the musical back from the British, they just may conclude that the revolution began last night. The shot was fired at the Shubert Theater, where a riotously entertaining show called "Crazy for You" uncorked the American musical's classic blend of music, laughter, dancing, sentiment and showmanship with a freshness and confidence rarely seen during the "Cats" decade." - Frank Rich, New York Times

7. Assassins

"As the show as a whole attempts to rewrite American history, so the composer audaciously attempts to rewrite the history of American music. This is an anti-musical about anti-heroes. Every song upends a traditional native form: folk music, spirituals and John Philip Sousa are all rethought along with Broadway idioms and the official national musical oratory of Irving Berlin and Francis Scott Key." - Frank Rich, New York Times

6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch

"The backbone of Hedwig is Mitchell's endearing narrative and the stunning collection of ten songs Stephen Trask has written. Spanning an impressive range of moods and styles, they accomplish a feat that evades the writers of many new musicals: they relate the feelings they are intended to express. From the hard-edged opening number, "Tear Me Down," Hedwig shifts into the lullaby, "The Origin of Love". By the time it ends, the philosophical premise of Hedwig has been established. To tell the story of Luther, Trask turns to country (the bouncy "Sugar Daddy"), then shifts into nail-spitting intensity to describe the botched operation ("Angry Inch"). Grim optimism takes hold in the surprisingly poignant sing-a-long, "Wig in a Box". A plaintive lounge song, "Wicked Little Town," morphs later into a concert mode. " - Les Gutman, Curtain Up

5. Kiss of the Spider Woman

"As far back as 'Cabaret,' the Kander-Ebb-Prince trio has appreciated the vitality and raw nerve to be found in the sleazier forms of show business. The appreciation continues, but with a change. The raucous cabaret songs that Joel Grey and the girls in garters and fish-net hose
barked out to the customers of the Kit Kat Klub had a bitterly ironic purpose -- marking the progressive moral decline of Germany before World War II. Here, Aurora's gaudy, strutting numbers are a way out of hell, not into it; a tinseled lifeline to sanity, salvation for the damned." - David Richards, New York Times


"Rent," the thing that most of its characters don't have the money to pay, is a blissfully overloaded hodgepodge of emotion and life and talent. "How do you figure a last year on Earth?," asks a plaintive chorus in the show's most beautiful number. "Figure in love. Measure in love."

"Rent" is a memorial service as a work of art, clearly and authentically created in love." - Laurie Winer, LA Times

3. Ragtime


"In the first few minutes of this mesmerizing musical, three different worlds occupy the stage. One is a rich, white society. The second is a vibrant, secretive black culture. And the third is a desperate, yearning immigrant throng, full of wild hope and quiet fear." - Fintan O'Toole, New York Daily News

2. Passion

"Passion” is a great, great show. Not just because Stephen Sondheim has finally approved the notion of love as more than a conjugating verb, though that is certainly the show’s chief revelation. It’s great because, with 15 musicals behind him, our theater’s most provocative composer and lyricist is still reinventing the form while honoring it, still writing shows that tell haunting tales while delighting the ear and the eye, still prodding us to think about love even as his protagonist concludes that beauty is skin deep but love, as one character sings, “is as permanent as death.” - Jeremy Gerard, Variety

1. Falsettos

"In a theater year marked by signs of an American musical renaissance on Broadway and an explosion of American play writing off Broadway, "Falsettos" is a show in which the boundary separating Off Broadway and Broadway is obliterated, a show in which the most stylish avatars of the new American musical embrace the same thorny urban landscape of embattled men and women to be found in so many new American plays.

"Falsettos" may now be a Broadway musical, but it cannot and does not pretend for a second that the lovers have stopped dying. It is the heaven-sent gift of Mr. Finn and company that they make you believe that the love, no less fortissimo, somehow lingers on." - Frank Rich, New York Times