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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."