These Shows Are Broadway's Blockbusters — and Fantastic Flops
When it debuted in 2015, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash-hit Hamilton made waves outside of the typical Broadway community. The musical about the "ten-dollar Founding Father" became not just a blockbuster but also a pop culture phenomenon.
While few shows have that kind of revolutionary power — pun fully intended — quite a few of The Great White Way’s shows have raked in top-of-the-box-office-level dough. Take a look at Broadway’s bonafide blockbusters — along with some of showbiz’s most notorious musical mistakes.
15. Mary Poppins (2006-2013) | $295 million
More than a decade before Emily Blunt donned the magical nanny’s costume, Broadway’s best brought the story of Mary Poppins to life for audiences. Although the character originates from a series of books by P.L. Travers, this rendition follows the 1964 Disney classic quite closely, with performances to match the original stars, Academy Award-winner Julie Andrews and dancer Dick Van Dyke.
Full of charm, humor and old-school dance numbers, the show appealed to the whole family — and has the sales to prove it. After a seven-year run in New York City that spanned 2,619 performances, Mary Poppins pulled in a whopping $295 million. Nominated for seven Tonys, including Best Musical, the show managed to nab one for Best Scenic Design.
14. Kinky Boots (2013-2019) | $319 million
Making its Broadway debut at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in 2013, Kinky Boots, which is based on a 2005 film of the same name, ran until 2019. The original production starred Stark Sands as Charlie, a struggling shoe factory owner, and Billy Porter as Lola, a drag queen and cabaret performer who tells Charlie to produce a line of high-heeled boots to save the shoe business.
For his performance, Porter nabbed the Best Actor Tony, while first-time Broadway songwriter Cyndi Lauper became the first solo woman to win a Best Score Tony. All in all, Kinky Boots earned a season-high 13 nominations and six wins, including Best Musical, at the Tonys. The critical darling also became a commercial success, garnering $319 million over 2,505 performances.
13. Miss Saigon (1991-2001) | $322 million
Although Miss Saigon debuted on London’s West End in 1989, it took the show a few years to make it to New York. Once it arrived, it was on Broadway to stay. The show claimed a spot on The Great White Way for a decade, making it the 13th-longest-running Broadway musical of all time. Miss Saigon was nominated for 10 Tonys and won three, all in acting categories.
Well-known for providing the singing voices of two Disney princesses, Jasmine and Mulan, the show originally starred Filipina singer and actress Lea Salonga, who won a Tony for her performance. Over 4,092 performances — and a short-lived 2017 revival — the musical earned $322 million on Broadway. Despite this financial success, the production received warranted criticism for its racist, orientalist and sexist overtones.
12. Aladdin (2011-Present) | $409 million
Based on the 1992 Disney animated film, the Broadway version of Aladdin still features music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (and Chad Beguelin, who also wrote the musical’s book). The show was nominated for five Tony Awards, with James Monroe Iglehart, who played the Genie, winning Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical.
Disney’s "colorblind" casting call sparked controversy ahead of the show’s Broadway debut: The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee received complaints from actors who felt this was a "missed opportunity" to showcase Arab-American actors, who are vastly underrepresented. As Aladdin approaches a decade on Broadway, it has grossed a whopping $409 million as of January 2020.
11. Beauty and the Beast (1994-2007) | $429 million
The 1991 Disney movie became the first animated film to receive a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. Although it didn’t win the big one, the film did take home some Oscars for its music, so Beauty and the Beast’s transition to Broadway, which happened a few years later, seemed like an obvious move.
Nominated for nine Tony Awards, Disney’s first venture into Broadway musicals proved to be both a critical and commercial success. Original songwriter Alan Menken composed six new songs for the show with lyricist Tim Rice, who replaced the late Howard Ashman. After 13 years and 5,461 performances, Beauty and the Beast nabbed the title of 10th-longest-running production in history, grossing $429 million on Broadway and over $1.4 billion worldwide.
10. Cats (1982-2000) | $454 million
Although the recent Hollywood version of Cats doesn’t quite showcase the transportative fantasy elements of the T.S. Eliot-inspired musical, there’s no denying that the original Broadway production was a bonafide phenomenon. Nominated for a whopping 11 Tonys, Cats won seven, including Best Musical and Best Original Score, thanks to Broadway legend Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The Grammy- and Tony-winning show tells the story of a group of cats — known as the Jellicles — who gather to determine which cat will be the year’s "Jellicle choice." (What’s that? That’s the cat that will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn to a new life. Seriously.) Cats still holds the title of fourth-longest-running Broadway musical after playing for 18 years at the Winter Garden Theatre and grossing $454 million.
9. Les Misérables (1987-2003) | $515 million
From the producer behind Cats comes a musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s beloved novel Les Misérables. The show tells the story of Jean Valjean, a peasant living in 19th-century France, and his search for redemption after a stint in jail. (He stole a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving kid.) As time passes, Valjean is pursued by an angry cop, adopts a daughter and gets swept up into the drama of young idealists attempting to overthrow the government.
Les Mis has quite the cast of characters, and that allows this musical to have it all — revenge, love, jealousy, death, redemption — all set against an epic revolutionary-era backdrop. Nominated for a staggering 12 Tonys, Les Mis nabbed eight, holds the title of longest-running production on London’s West End and grossed $515 million on Broadway alone. Not to mention, it’s grossed over $2.7 billion worldwide.
8. Jersey Boys (2005-2017) | $558 million
Oh, what a night! Or, to be precise, 4,642 nights (and some matinees). Created by The Four Seasons member Bob Gaudio, Jersey Boys is a documentary-style jukebox musical that tells the story of — you guessed it — rock ‘n’ roll group The Four Seasons, from their rise to their downfall and everything in between.
When the show debuted in 2005, Ben Brantley of The New York Times raved "THE CROWD GOES WILD. … [the] mostly middle-aged crowd… [has] forgotten what year it is or how old they are or, most important, that John Lloyd Young is not Frankie Valli." Jersey Boys entertained audiences on The Great White Way for over a decade, raked in an impressive $558 million and won four of its eight Tony nominations.
7. Hamilton (2015-Present) | $613 million
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius adaptation of historian Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton won 11 of its record-breaking 16 Tony nominations. Drawing heavily from hip hop, R&B, pop, soul and show tunes, the musical showcases non-white actors as important historical figures, allowing the show to be about "America then, as told by America now." With a gross of $613 million already, the show is on its way to an even higher position on the list.
Ahead of its Broadway opening, Hamilton had a multimillion-dollar advance in ticket sales (roughly $30 million!), and a month after it debuted on Broadway, the show was sold out for most of its initial run. In November 2016, it broke the record for most money grossed in a single week, making a staggering $3.3 million for an eight-performance week. According to Variety, a premium-price ticket for Hamilton during the holiday season can run as high as $1,150 a seat.
6. Mamma Mia! (2001-2015) | $624 million
Here we go again! Another feel-good jukebox musical. This time, however, it’s Mamma Mia!, the musical that’s curated around the songs of Swedish pop supergroup ABBA and tells the story of a young girl searching for her biological father. Ahead of her wedding, our protagonist invites three possible dads to the Greek villa she and her single mom run, thinking she’ll be able to suss out her father after some quality time.
Of course, she doesn’t tell her mom. Hijinks occur. Hilarity ensues. Although it didn’t win any of its five Tony nominations, Mamma Mia! quickly became an audience-favorite show. After a 14-year run, it claimed the title of ninth-longest-running show in Broadway history and raked in a cool $624 million. It’s estimated that over 65 million people have seen Mamma Mia!, which has grossed upwards of $4 billion worldwide since its debut.
5. The Book of Mormon (2011-Present) | $645 million
As you’ll see in our biggest Broadway flops ranking later on, sometimes musicals centered around religion don’t quite work. The Book of Mormon, a musical comedy from the minds behind South Park and the Tony-winning Avenue Q, proves to be the exception. After nearly a decade of performances, the Broadway hit has grossed over $645 million.
Broadway’s 14th-longest-running show is about Latter-day Saints missionaries who attempt to preach their faith to folks in a remote Ugandan village. However, with pressing issues like the HIV/AIDS epidemic, famine, female genital mutilation and oppression to focus on, the locals aren’t very interested in what these missionaries have to say. The original production went on to win a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album along with an impressive nine Tonys, including Best Musical.
4. Chicago (1975-1977; Revival: 1996-2014) | $657 million
Set in Jazz Age Chicago, this beloved musical is based on a 1926 play of the same name and aims to satirize the corrupt criminal justice system — all while having fun with the notion of "celebrity criminal." You know, all that jazz. Surprisingly, Chicago won none of the 11 Tony Awards it was nominated for when it debuted in 1975.
However, its 1996 revival changed Chicago from a well-received musical to a history-making success story. This version of the show holds the record for longest-running musical revival and longest-running American musical in Broadway history — and it’s the second-longest-running Broadway show, just behind The Phantom of the Opera. Across over 7,000 performances, Chicago has grossed upwards of $657 million.
3. The Phantom of the Opera (1988-Present) | $1.24 billion
Based on Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera might just be Broadway darling Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most beloved musical. Young singer Christine Daaé is called upon to sing the Paris Opera House’s lead soprano role. The only problem? Christine is being stalked by the Phantom, an enigmatic "music tutor" who doesn’t get that "no means no." There’s also a love triangle, kind of.
Christine shows compassion for the masked Phantom while contending with her childhood crush, Raoul. (Kudos to her for doing all that emotional labor.) Despite some unfortunate plot conventions, Phantom is beloved for its music. And this Best Musical Tony winner became Broadway’s longest-running show in history, with its 10,000th performance occurring on February 11, 2012. With a $1.24 billion gross on Broadway — not to mention a $5.6 billion gross worldwide — Phantom is clearly here to stay.
2. Wicked (2003-Present) | $1.35 billion
Based on the Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, this blockbuster is a retelling (and prequel of sorts) to The Wizard of Oz (1939). In its original run, Broadway legends Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth played Elphaba, the alleged "Wicked Witch," and her once-pal Glinda the Good Witch. Wicked won three of its 10 Tony nominations, losing the title of Best Musical to Avenue Q.
Nonetheless, Wicked proves that accolades don’t mean everything. Since it opened in 2003, the show has broken the Gershwin Theatre’s house record 20 times and regularly grosses around $1.6 million every week. In the final weekend of 2013, it became the first Broadway musical to gross over $3 million in a single week. Currently, Broadway’s fifth-longest-running show has grossed $1.35 billion — and nothing’s gonna bring it down.
1. The Lion King (1997-Present) | $1.66 billion
Thanks to its acquisition of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, The Walt Disney Company laid claim to roughly 80% of Hollywood’s top earners at 2019’s box office. And, when it comes to Broadway, Disney is also king (of Pride Rock). Based on the 1994 animated Disney classic of the same name, The Lion King features the music of Elton John and Hans Zimmer (and lyrics by Tim Rice) as well as some truly incredible costumes and puppetry, all under the direction of Julie Taymor.
The Lion King won six of its 11 Tony nominations, including Best Musical. As of September 2014, it became the top-earning title in box office history for both stage productions and films, surpassing Phantom’s record. Going strong at the Minskoff Theatre for over 20 years, the show has nabbed a cool $1.66 billion on Broadway alone. Meanwhile, The Lion King has grossed a truly staggering $8.2 billion worldwide.
And Now for the Flops…
While there are some truly impeccable shows on The Great White Way, theater wouldn’t be theater without a few risks. After all, the very idea of something like Cats — a death cult of musical felines — or Hamilton — hip-hop-meets-American-history — is risky. Luckily, these shows won over audiences, but there are some productions that don’t quite make the cut.
Although it’s hard to measure Broadway’s biggest flops with tangible evidence, like ticket sales or runtime, we’ve ranked 15 of the most absurd and truly terrible shows that shuttered quite quickly. While some, like a musical based on a Stephen King novel, have become cult classics, others have become synonymous with failure in the eyes of Broadway’s audiences.
15. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (2011)
No Broadway flop in recent memory has gained more press than Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Helmed by Lion King director Julie Taymor and set to rock tunes composed by U2’s Bono and The Edge, all the starpower in the world couldn’t save Spidey from being squashed. In some cases, literally. Every night there seemed to be a new onstage — or above-stage — accident, with various Spider-Men falling from the rafters.
The convoluted plot featured a strange chorus of kids who were either reading about, or creating, Spider-Man; the typical Spidey origin story complete with Mary Jane Watson and the Green Goblin; and a healthy dose of Arachne, the woman weaver-turned-spider of Greek mythology. In the second act, Arachne sings a whole song about shoes, but, hey, at least the acrobatics were cool. Needless to say, this expensive — and dangerous — endeavor closed after a surprising 1,066 performances. It also, somehow, made an impressive $2 million in that time.
14. Amazing Grace (2015)
Opening July 16, 2015, Amazing Grace closed a few months later on October 25, 2015. The show tells the story of John Newton, the white Englishman who starts out as a slave trader and later becomes an Anglican priest and abolitionist. Or, as the musical’s over-the-top and absurdly forgiving synopsis puts it "ignite[s] a historic wave of change that gave birth to the abolitionist movement." Newton also wrote quite a few hymns, one of which was "Amazing Grace."
When the show debuted, Variety noted that "there’s an audience out there for Amazing Grace, flawed as it is," which makes it sound like a Broadway Green Book to us. That is, "Amazing Grace" — a song linked to the Civil Rights Movement and Black culture in 1960s America — becomes about a white man’s struggle to realize slavery is wrong. In centering Newton’s story, the show does a massive injustice to its Black characters and their voices, to say the least.
13. Into the Light (1986)
Into the Light tells the story of James Prescott, a physicist attempting to verify (or disprove) the Shroud of Turin’s authenticity. (Allegedly, this real-life, highly contested burial shroud contains the imprint of Jesus Christ’s face.) Things take a real turn when James neglects his family in favor of the research, leaving James’ son Matthew to hang out with a "friend" only he can see.
According to The New York Times, this "special friend" was a "prancing, eye-rolling mime," which just sounds…ludicrous. The same NYT review added that "no star can carry a show that asks whether God is dead in a manner that’s likely to bore Him to death if He’s not." Yikes. This is probably why Into the Light only ran from October 22 to October 26 in 1986.
12. Baby, It’s You (2011)
Running from just April to September of 2011, this jukebox musical tells the story of Florence Greenberg, a New Jersey housewife who attends her daughter’s high school talent show, "discovers" the 1960s pop group the Shirelles and quickly signs them to her new label, Scepter Records. Unfortunately, Baby, It’s You doesn’t do for the Shirelles what Jersey Boys did for The Four Seasons. Why?
For starters, the musical should’ve been about the Shirelles — not Greenberg. Chris Jones of The Chicago Tribune wrote, "The Shirelles, one of the greatest girl groups of all time, get a show of such total ineptitude and cynical profiteering that your mouth pretty much dangles open in disbelief for the duration of the entire tawdry proceedings." Moreover, the audience was supposedly encouraged to sing along, which only works if you’re Mamma Mia!’s encore.
11. King Kong (2018)
There’s no denying that this Broadway musical, based upon the 1933 film of the same name, was all about the gorilla puppet. Weighing in at 2,000 pounds, the 20-foot-tall puppet, shipped from Australia, certainly brought some good ol’ fashioned stage magic to audiences. On the other hand, that’s kind of all this $35 million musical did.
While the musical tries to give the lead, Ann Darrow, more agency, she’s still, you know, in love with a giant gorilla. Rolling Stone noted that with a classic Universal Pictures property joining Harry Potter and the myriad Disney musicals, "Times Square feels more like Orlando every day." Which begs the question: Why turn King Kong into a musical at all? The bland music plus the costs saw the production shuttering after just 322 performances.
10. Escape to Margaritaville (2017)
The lyric "wasting away again in Margaritaville" has never been more apt. The Washington Post called the Jimmy Buffett jukebox musical about a "part-time bartender, part-time singer and full-time charmer" who falls in love with a tourist "insufferably dumb." Some people claim that cardboard characters and a watered-down plot are to blame — and they’re right.
Escape to Margaritaville writers did everything in their power to shoehorn in as many Buffett lyrics as possible; at one point, a character makes a big deal about eating a cheeseburger (in paradise). Jesse Green, a critic for The New York Times, noted, "If ever there were a time to be drunk in the theater, this is it." Needless to say, this kitschy disaster didn’t last long, running from March to July of 2018. Clearly, it’s best to escape from Margaritaville and its nonsense.
9. Wonderland (2011)
Unlike the beautifully imagined Wicked, Wonderland: A New Alice, which opts for the Lewis Carroll route over the L. Frank Baum one, fails to capture any onstage magic. The story is a contemporary version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Wonderland reimagines Alice as a New York-based writer and mother and someone in need of reuniting (literally) with her inner child.
Although some critics applauded the show’s imaginative design and costumes, most felt that the music was stuffed with lyrical cliches and that the plot was not only slow to form, but needlessly convoluted. Mark Kennedy, writing for the Associated Press, noted that Wonderland "doesn't know whether it wants to be a fairy tale or a rock opera or a trippy joke or a cartoon." As illustrated by Wonderland’s mere 39 performances, sometimes it’s best not to go further down the rabbit hole.
8. Flahooley (1951)
Where to begin? Flahooley is an allegorical (and convoluted) tale about B.G. Bigelow, a fictional American toy corporation, that designs a laughing doll named Flahooley (played by a terrifying puppet, above) for the Christmas season. Meanwhile, folks from a foreign delegation meet with Bigelow’s board of directors, asking them to help repair their nation’s magic lamp. (Yikes.)
In the end, Flahooley’s hand rubs the lamp, summoning a genie who isn’t too familiar with capitalism’s supply-and-demand backbone, so said genie floods the market with the highly sought-after dolls. In turn, the dolls become worthless. The New York Times called the material "scattershot" and the music "pedestrian." During this era of rabid anti-Communist sentiment, the show ran for just 40 performances.
7. Lestat (2006)
Inspired by Anne Rice’s acclaimed The Vampire Chronicles, Lestat tells the story of a reluctant vampire who is turned after a run-in with some wolves. As the titular character travels from France to Orleans during the 18th and 19th centuries, he searches for the "godfather of the vampires" because of…closure? The need to be redeemed? Something big.
With a story by Rice and a score by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, what could possibly go wrong? A lot. Lestat only survived 39 Broadway performances before shuttering. The New York Post called the show "bloody awful." Ben Brantley of The New York Times also had his fangs out, writing, "Joining the ranks of Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata and other prescription lullaby drugs is Lestat, the musical sleeping pill."
6. Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson (2012)
As its full title suggests, Scandalous tells the story of religious superstar Aimee Semple McPherson, a 20th-century evangelist and pop culture figure. McPherson blazed trails: She was the first woman in the U.S. to obtain a radio broadcast license, she drove across the country alone and she started a multimedia empire that saw her interacting with Charles Chaplin and William Randolph Hearst.
There’s also drama: McPherson was kidnapped rather mysteriously, a trial ensued and then she died tragically at just 53 years old. Nonetheless, Kathie Lee Gifford’s musical pet project closed after just three weeks. (That’s a mere 29 performances.) New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood wrote that the show "isn’t so much scandalously bad as it is generic and dull." Gifford took the news hard and blamed the closure on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
5. Dr. Zhivago (2015)
Dr. Zhivago is an epic romance set just before World War I and the ensuing calamity of the Russian Revolution. The titular character is a privileged aristocrat, raised as a sort of Renaissance Man who favors political idealism and poetry. Soon enough, Lara, a woman who is not his wife, catches Zhivago’s eye, and he finds himself competing with a young revolutionary and a fellow aristocrat for Lara’s affections.
Although it has all the trappings — romance, tragedy, war-torn countries and the promise of revolution — to make it stand toe-to-toe with epics like Les Mis, Dr. Zhivago just didn’t pull it off. After just 23 performances and dismal ticket sales, the production shuttered. Of this musical adaptation of the novel-turned-movie, one New York Times critic wrote, "The verdict: Um, is it over yet?"
4. Carrie (1988)
Master horror writer Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was a runaway success. A few years later, the 1976 Brian De Palma film adaptation cemented its place as one of the most beloved horror movies of all time. The next logical step? Translate the story of a small-town, oft-bullied high schooler with telekinetic powers to The Great (Carrie) White Way.
Sadly, the musical adaptation was notoriously bad. Like Broadway’s version of The Room or something. And, like The Room, it has become something of a cult classic. Despite some modern-day attempts to revive Carrie, the original lasted on Broadway for just five performances. In 2012, a writer at The New Yorker asked, "Is Carrie the Worst Musical of All Time?", perhaps proving the long-lasting failure of the adaptation.
3. Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (2003)
This one-woman play is based upon a 1989 novel of the same name. And that award-winning novel stayed on the New York Times Best Seller list for an impressive eight months, selling over four million copies. In 1994, CBS made a miniseries based on the material — it starred Cicely Tyson and won one of its four Emmy nominations.
The work tells the story of Lucy Marsden, who married a 50-year-old veteran of the American Civil War when she was just 15 years old. Marsden, played by the incomparable Ellen Burstyn in the stage version, narrates all 99 years of her life to the audience. The New York Times reported that the show played to "just 33 percent at the Longacre Theater." Low attendance plus a slew of negative reviews caused the play to shutter after one performance.
2. Kelly (1965)
Set in 1880s New York, Kelly tells the story of a busboy with a penchant for trying — and failing — to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Eventually, some gamblers get involved, bet against the busboy surviving the jump and want to send a dummy in his place, but our protagonist is determined. Lyricist Eddie Lawrence claimed some producers told him "they’d been waiting for this show all their lives and wanted to present it on Broadway."
Eventually, the costs for this less-than-captivating tale ballooned to a then-astronomical $650,000. Industry insiders interviewed in 1965 by The New York Times about the show Kelly said they "could not recall any other Broadway musical representing such a comparable expenditure that became a casualty so quickly." Kelly closed right after its opening night, making it one of the biggest financial flops in Broadway history.
1. Moose Murders (1983)
Moose Murders by Arthur Bicknell touted itself as a "mystery farce" play. According to a New York Times article about the production, it is such a notorious example of a flop that folks in the business often use it as a way to gauge absolute failure. Brendan Gill, writing for The New Yorker in 1983, stated that the play "would insult the intelligence of an audience consisting entirely of amoebas."
The premise? Owners of a hunting lodge and their guests discover that a murderer is among them after several deaths occur. There’s also an incestuous plotline and a man who dresses in a moose costume to assault someone else. Stranger still, acclaimed actress Holland Taylor starred in the production. "There were things that I put my foot down about and changed," Taylor said. "But there were things I couldn’t change. Like the play." Moose Murders was axed after a single performance.