What is the Definitive Musical of the 21st Century So Far?

Chris Peterson

Interesting question right? This was asked of me the other day by a reader of this blog. It's one of the few times I actually replied with, I Don't Know. 

We're only a decade an a half into the new century, yes we've already seen some of the best pieces of work of all time come out since 2000. 

So if you had to pick one, what would it be? Here are some candidates and the cases for and against them being the definitive musical of the 21st Century so far. 


Case For It:  Wicked has been a titan on Broadway since it opened 12 years ago. Financially, it's become one of the most successful musicals in history. The success of the Broadway production has spawned several other productions worldwide, including various North American productions, a long-running Laurence Olivier Award–nominated West End production and a series of international productions. Since its 2003 debut, Wicked has broken box office records around the world, currently holding weekly-gross-takings records in Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, and London. In the week ending January 2, 2011, the London, Broadway, and both North American touring productions simultaneously broke their respective records for the highest weekly gross.  In the final week of 2013, the Broadway production broke this record again, earning $3.2 million. The West End production and the North American tour have each been seen by over two million patrons.

Beyond the financials, you could argue that no musical since 2000 has had a larger impact on pop culture. Songs like "Defying Gravity" and "For Good" have become anthems and no musical has appealed more young women more than this one.  

Case Against It: The truth is, Wicked isn't a great musical. The score is poppy, inconsistent, hardly compelling and generic. The choreography is borderline non-existent and the book is ironically colorless. Wicked also failed to win many of the big Tony Awards that year, getting dominated by the smaller Avenue Q. here is an argument also that Wicked represents everything wrong with 21st Century musical theatre where shows rely on big budgets and special effects, rather than the content of the material. 

Spring Awakening

ase For It: The original Broadway production won 8 Tony Awards, including Tonys for Best Musical, Direction, Book, Score and Featured Actor. The production also garnered 4 Drama Desk Awards while its original cast album received a Grammy Award. The success of the Broadway production has spawned several other productions worldwide, including various US productions, a short West End production that won 4 Laurence Olivier Awards including Best Musical, and a series of international productions.

Its original cast is now a who's who in the entertainment industry with Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, Skylar Astin, John Gallagher, Jr., Jennifer Damiano  and Krysta Rodriguez. 

Since its closing, it has become a staple among colleges, high schools and community groups. A much heralded production from Deaf West Theatre is making the move to Broadway in the fall and talks of a movie adaptation are moving closer to confirmation as well. It's also one of the few pieces ever to tackle the subject of teenage sexuality. 

Case Against It: While the score is overall excellent, you could argue that there isn't a single iconic song in the entire show. It ran on Broadway for less than three years and most importantly, there have been better dramatic musicals than this in the same decade. 

The Producers

Case For It: The first big hit of the 21st Century. After the opening, The Producers broke the record for the largest single day box-office ticket sales in theatre history, taking in more than $3 million. At the 2001 Tony Awards, it won 12 out of its 15 nominations, becoming one of the few musicals to win in every category for which it was nominated. It was also the first comedy to win Best Musical in nearly a decade. 

Case Against It: The Producers' success largely rested on Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick's shoulders. The loss of the original stars had a detrimental effect on the success of the production, prompting the return of Lane and Broderick for a limited run from December 2003 to April 2004. You could also say that its impact has been largely forgotten, especially after a more and lackluster film adaptation. And while its humor certainly opened the door for many more outrageous comedies to come after, its music was more of an homage to golden age of musical theatre rather than showing us anything new. 

In The Heights

ase for It: What musical has done a more effective job of reaching new audiences and introducing hip hop to Broadway? In addition to its popularity among the younger generation, it proved to be a financial hit as well. The producers announced on January 8, 2009 that the show had recouped its $10 million investment after 10 months. 

It would go onto win 4 Tonys including Best Score and Best Musical thus launching composer Lin-Manual Miranda's rise to become a Broadway icon. Will we be talking about Hamilton in the same regard? We shall see. 

Regardless, In The Heights has become one of the most produced shows by colleges, high schools and community theaters. Especially in more urban areas where musical theatre is not often successfully produced.

Cast Against It: If we're being honest, the book of the show is downright terrible. It's a shame Miranda didn't take more a control with that. And while there is certainly a mix of musical styles, the piece relies on its hip hop infused roots, does that make it the defining musical of the past 15 years? 

Next to Normal

Case for It: The most iconic piece of musical theatre to properly address the effects of Bipolar Disorder, Next to Normal has been a culture smash. Reviews for the original Broadway production were more and favorable.  Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote that the Broadway production is "A brave, breathtaking musical. It is something much more than a feel-good musical: it is a feel-everything musical." Rolling Stone Magazine called it "The best new musical of the season – by a mile." Next to Normal was on the Ten Best of the Year list for 2009 of "Curtain Up". 

Next to Normal was also one of the first shows to utilize Twitter to boost its popularity. n May 2009, about six weeks into the Broadway run, Next to Normal began publishing an adapted version of the script over Twitter, the social media network. Over 35 days, the serialized version of the show was published, a single line from a character at a time. The Twitter promotion ended the morning of June 7, 2009, the morning of the 2009 Tony Awards. The initiative earned the musical the 2009 OMMA Award for Best in Show Situation Interactive.

Since then its become a community theatre staple as well as colleges. 

Case Against It: It didn't run on Broadway that long, clocking in just over 733 performances. It's also one of the only musicals on this list that didn't win Best Musical(inexplicably losing to Billy Elliot). It also won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama even though it had not been on the list of three candidates submitted to the twenty-member Pulitzer Prize board by the five-member Drama jury which caused a lot of controversy at the time. 

So which do you think is the defining musical of the past 15 years? Is it one not even on this list? What about Hairspray? Thoroughly Modern Millie? Spamalot? American Idiot? 

As you can see, it's a very hard, but fun, question to answer.