Every decade has something about it that sets it apart from the others. The 1920’s are synonymous with prohibition, the 1930’s with The Great Depression and the 1940’s were the decade that led the world into its second World War.
Let’s fast forward even further and take a look at the 1980’s. This was a time of hair bands, excess with money and drugs and the end of the Cold War with the demolition of the Berlin Wall.
Art is known to reflect the goings on in contemporary society so we would like to take a look at the musicals that were produced during this second to last decade of the twentieth century.
PS: this month of March is Women’s History Month! Join us as we honor women’s accomplishments in the performing arts with 3 select shows to stream – and for only $1 each! Learn more here.
1. Les Misérables
Based on the Hugo novel by the same name, this musical was a huge hit during the 1980’s and has endured the test of time by remaining one of the most well-loved tales of all time. With music written by Claude-Michel Schönberg, French lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel and English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer Les Misérables is has been running non-stop in London’s West End since 1985.
Still, the first production of this musical was originally released in 1980 at the Palais des Sports in Paris and completed an astounding one-hundred performances. Today, this story has made its way to Broadway, Japan, Tel Aviv, Poland, Madrid, Melbourne, Argentina, Mexico, Quebec, Poland, South Korea and the Netherlands.
The original West End production, which opened in 1985, was nominated for three Laurence Olivier Awards including Best New Musical. Patti LuPone took home the award for Best Actress in a Musical. Two years later Les Misérables opened on Broadway and was nominated for ten Tony Awards and seven Drama Desk Awards. It won Best Musical, Best book and Best Original Score for the Tonys and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical.
For more information on the current Les Mis productions around the world, check out their website here.
This musical follows the careers of an all-female singing act that resembles The Supremes and other groups that came out of Motown in the 1960’s. The first production of this story premiered at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway on December 20, 1981.
Even though many know Jennifer Hudson in the role of Effie due to the movie version released in 2006, Nell Carter was the inspiration for the character and was the hopeful o play Effie. Yet, when the writing was done Carter had begun her deal to star in Gimme a Break, which shot her to television stardom.
Still the role of Effie needed to be filled and the producers found the quality they were looking for in a young singer of Gospel, Jennifer Holliday. Of course, there were still bugs to work out and Holliday quit the production twice due to the lack of attention given to her character.
The changes she requested were made an Dreamgirls went on to be nominated for nine Tony Awards winning five including an Outstanding Actress in a Musical for Jennifer Holliday.
3. Little Shop of Horrors
Our next 1980’s musical was written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman based on a b-movie from the sixties by the same name. Although the premiere of this doo-wop, rock and roll musical was in the decadent decade of the eighties, the Broadway showing would not come about until 2003.
In fact, the very first showing was at the Workshop of the Players’ Art Theatre on May 6, 1982, which is technically on Off-Off-Broadway production. Two months later it would move to the Orpheum Theatre and be considered Off-Broadway. That year it won for Best Musical in the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding musical.
Just like the first two musicals on this list Little Shop of Horrors was also made into a featured film. Still, the first staging performed more than twenty-two hundred shows. This musical was optioned to move to Broadway much earlier but Howard Ashman was happy with the location they had even though this decision made them unable to be nominated for any Tony Awards that year.
4. Sunday in the Park with George
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim our next musical is the first on our list to not be made into a movie – yet. The plot revolves around the famous painter Georges Seurat who created “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, the lovely image of pointillism that has gained pop culture fame from its scene in the 1986 box office hit Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
It seems that this painting inspired more than director John Hughes that decade, although this story doesn’t get the same acclaim as the silver screen tale. This one follows the painter as he prepares to create his most famous work. The characters are the personas in the painting and Seurat is able to stop any animation from the other characters with a signal.
The Broadway premiere, after being transferred from its Off-Broadway location, was held at the Booth Theatre on May 2, 1984 and it subsequently went on to win the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Book, and Outstanding Lyrics.
5. Carrie: The Musical
The next musical on our list is the first to be inspired by a movie opposed to the other way around. Actually, this musical was inadvertently inspired by a musical because it was actually inspired by the Stephen King novel, which was the basis of the movie.
Another fact about this 1980’s musical is that it is the first on our list considered to be a failure. In fact, it is considered, by some, to be a flop of legendary status. The writer of the movie version, Lawrence D. Cohen got together with Michael Gore, of Fame fame, to create a musical based on the story of the girl who kills her classmates and destroys her school with her supernatural powers.
Everybody loves a flop though and the opening nights of each production, the original and the one after they were moved to Broadway, were met with applause and jeers. People booed or clapped and this 1980’s musical closed its doors after a short run.
6. Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story
Our next musical is what is called a jukebox musical because all the songs were already composed and made popular by the lead character himself, Buddy Holly. The story surrounds his life, career and tragic death of the pop star. With the acts and book written by Alan Janes,
The premiere of Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story was at the Victoria Palace Theatre on October 12, 1989. It would remain there for more than five thousand performances lasting the duration of six years. From there it moved to Toronto and ultimately landed on Broadway.
It was awarded a Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical and Outstanding Performance of the Year by an Actor in a musical. The Broadway production won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical as well as the Outstanding Actor in a Musical Drama Desk Award.
7. City of Angels
Also opening in 1989 was this musical written by Cy Coleman, David Zippel, and Larry Gelbart. It follows two separate story lines and was meant to pay tribute the mystery and crime dramas known as “film noir” that were popular in the 40s and 50s.
This musical premiered on December 11, 1989, just making it on our list by less than a month. Staged at the Virginia Theatre on Broadway City of Angels ran nearly nine hundred performances over more than two years before closing. From there it went on to be produced on London’s West End in March of 1993 at the Prince of Wales Theatre.
Although the West End production received rave reviews it ended up closing after only four months even though it received rave reviews and was nominated for five Laurence Olivier Awards. Eventually there was a West End revival in 2014 and this production was also nominated for five Laurence Olivier Awards.
9. Nightingale: A New Musical
Charles Strouse, the composer of this one act musical based the story on the fairy tale Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen. It is said that this work could also be called a children’s opera. It is the story of the Chinese emperor and moral lessons he discovers.
The first showing of this musical was at the Buxton Festival, which is an annual festival in England showcasing opera, literary readings and music. After that showing Nightingale: A New Musical opened on December 18, 1982 at the Lyric Hammersmith.
From there the show was staged in the United States at the First All Children’s Theatre in New York City. This production was performed in May of 1982. It has appeared in Wolf Trap, Virginia and has gone on to be reproduced in countless communities around the globe.
10. Leader of the Pack
The second jukebox musical on our list this production ran for a very short time in 1984 at The Bottom Line, a music venue in Greenwich Village. It was instantly moved to the Ambassador Theatre and opened on Broadway in 1985. This is also the second musical on our list to be a flop.
It only ran for one hundred twenty performances and was performed in two acts over the course of ninety minutes without and intermission. Even though it was a bust at the box office Leader of the Pack was nominated for a Tony in the category of Best Musical and a more current production toured the United States in the year 2000.
Writer Anne Beats composed the liner notes and it features songs with Ellie Greenwich music and lyrics written by a group including Greenwich and Phil Spector. Even though this show is considered a jukebox musical, it was crafted before the genre was invented.