It seems like every generation has its smash musical – Gen X had Rent, and today’s Broadway babies adore Hamilton. But Broadway has been generating great shows for decades. Some of the musicals from the 1970s, on Broadway and in the movies, have emerged as timeless classics of the genre. Here are the best ‘70s musicals.
Musical Movies of the 1970s
Some movie musicals get adapted from Broadway shows, and some spring to life without having ever been put on a stage. Either way, there were some great ones in the 1970s.
As one of the highest-grossing movie musicals of all time, Grease is a nearly universally beloved film that arguably surpassed the stage version. That was in no small part due to the chemistry between young newcomers John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
The film garnered an Oscar nomination for “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” and several of the film’s other songs have worked their way into western consciousness, like “Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightning,” and “You’re the One That I Want.” The film propelled its budding stars into A-listers.
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
An admittedly weird movie made from a kids' book by Roald Dahl, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is these days, a cult classic. It might not even need “cult” in front of “classic.” Gene Wilder’s delightfully unhinged performance anchors the film, which grossed $4 million in 1971 dollars.
So that’s not a lot of money, and it wasn’t the most successful film of its day by any stretch. But people can’t seem to get enough of it. There was even a 90s alternative rock band named for one of the characters.
Featuring Oompa Loompas, a chocolate river, and naughty kids possibly getting killed, it’s weird but fun.
If the Disney company was known for anything before it took over Star Wars and the Marvel universe, it was animated musical films. Robin Hood wasn’t Fantasia or Snow White, but it was a highly successful film that grossed more than $30 million in the US and Canada during its original run.
Critics weren’t crazy about it, but casting the folk heroes in the tail as animals (Robin Hood is a red fox) made it family-friendly. Music by the likes of Roger Miller and Johnny Mercer meant that the film had solid, well-written songs (“Oo-De-Lally” and “Whistle Stop,” to name two of them), and how could anything go wrong with Peter Ustinov as the villainous Prince John?
Now we’re getting into some serious Broadway fare. Cabaret starred The film starred Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles and was directed by theatrical mainstay Bob Fosse. The film won eight Oscars, including Best Actress for Minnelli and Best Director for Fosse. It also garnered a handful of Golden Globes.
Despite its dark themes of creeping fascism in mid-20th-century Europe, its songs were powerful, Minnelli’s performance was the stuff of legend, and it became a piece of movie musical history. This is the film (and Broadway show) that gave us Maybe This Time, a classic of the genre.
Fiddler on the Roof
A show about the changing world and its effects on traditions and family, Fiddler on the Roof followed Tevye, a Russian milkman trying to scratch out a living for himself, his wife, and their daughters in the face of Russian Tsarist forces engaging in pogroms to rid the land of Jews.
Starring Topol in the defining role of his career, Fiddler on the Roof pulled in about $50 million at the box office and won three Oscars. “Tradition” and “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” have taken on lives of their own, and “Sunrise, Sunset” gets sung at weddings all over the world.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
We said Willy Wonka was weird. Maybe we should reconsider that because The Rocky Horror Picture Show is orders of magnitude more bizarre.
Here’s the elevator pitch: two young kids in rural Texas, upon discovering a flat tire, wander to a mansion for help, where they discover a mad scientist and his henchmen. All seem to be pansexual, there’s some murder, and the cross-dressing mad scientist makes a person a la Dr. Frankenstein. Oh, and there’s singing. And it turns out everyone in the house is an alien.
Tim Curry plays Dr. Frank N. Furter, belting out “Sweet Transvestite” soon after the film’s signature song, “Time Warp.” Young Barry Bostwick and young Susan Sarandon play the hopelessly outmatched Brad and Janet.
The Muppet Movie
Even if “The Rainbow Connection” were the only song in the film about puppet frogs, pigs, and bears, The Muppet Movie would probably still be considered a classic movie musical. What a delightfully lovely song that is.
Jim Henson and Frank Oz handle the puppeteering duties for the stars as they travel to Hollywood to make it in the movies. Though it may sound odd, those Muppets are true movie stars. Moreover, the film received Oscar nods, and the soundtrack won a Grammy. Cameos from the likes of Steve Martin and Orson Welles are just icing on the cake.
The 60s were over when the film version of Hair came out, and we were, in fact, on the cusp of entering the Me Decade. But Hair still resonated. Directed by Miloš Forman, the film starred Treat Williams and Beverly D’Angelo and retained all the controversial elements from the Broadway show, though today, drug use and nudity in film are almost quaint.
“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” was an instant hit that still plays on radio stations today, and the film’s themes of race, sexuality, and freedom of expression are still valid today.
When you think “Rock opera,” you probably think of The Who, the band that gave us Tommy and Quadrophenia, both albums, and both eventually becoming films. Quadrophenia wasn’t a box office smash in the States, pulling in just over a million dollars, but it made huge impacts on fashion— specifically in England— and the film is now considered a classic.
It’s set in the 60s and depicts Jimmy’s struggles with youth rebellion, social class, and identity— issues that every teenager understands. “Love, Reign O’er Me” became a staple of The Who’s repertoire.
All That Jazz
Loosely based on the life of Bob Fosse, All That Jazz starred Roy Scheider, a casting move that made the entirety of Generation X go, “The guy from Jaws?!?”
Fosse directed the film about a choreographer and director trying to balance his personal and professional life. It won four Oscars, though admittedly none of the marquis awards, and it snagged the Palme d'Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.
The flick showed the dark side of show business and helped redefine how movie musicals were filmed and produced.
Musicals in Theater During the 1970s
Purists might say, “Movies? No, I was asking about real Broadway shows.” And there were plenty of those in the 70s.
A Chorus Line
With music and lyrics by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, A Chorus Line was the undisputed king of Broadway, running for more than 6,000 performances. It was the longest-running musical in Broadway history until Cats dethroned it in 1997.
In the show, 17 dancers auditioning for a spot in the chorus line of a Broadway show share their histories and struggles. A Chorus Line won nine Tonys, among them Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book.
Pippin didn’t crack the 2,000-performance mark, closing after 1,944 shows, but the Fosse-directed musical won five Tony Awards, so it’s not like it was a flop. It told the story of a young prince named Pippin looking for his purpose in his life.
“No Time at All,” “Magic to Do,” and “Corner of the Sky” are just three of the fine songs from this show that help it work its way back to the stage via revivals again and again.
These days, the phrase “urban retelling” might be a little problematic, but that’s what The Wiz was— an update of The Wizard of Oz. The gimmick? It’s an entirely African-American cast. Making Dorothy anything but a little midwestern white girl was a stretch for some, but it worked.
Ted Ross, as The Lion, won one of the show’s seven Tonys, and the show featured innovative theater tech, including a moving bridge. It also had the murderously catchy song “Ease on Down the Road.”
Another Bob Fosse show, Chicago, tells of Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, who are awaiting trial for murder in a Chicago jail. It’s a satire of the criminal justice system that starred Chita Rivera and the one and only Jerry Orbach.
It ran for 936 performances and has since been adapted into a film and enjoyed several revivals. The 1997 revival won the show its only Tony Award, but with songs like “Cell Block Tango,” “Razzle Dazzle, and “All That Jazz,” Chicago stands as an important piece of theatre that has demonstrated real staying power.
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was directed by Peter Masterson and Tommy Tune, with music and lyrics by Carol Hall. The show is based on a real-life brothel in Texas called The Chicken Ranch and tells the story of the relationship between the local sheriff and the establishment’s madam.
It ran for 1,584 performances and scored a choreography Tony for Tommy Tune.
Jesus Christ Superstar
This Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera focuses on the interactions and relationships between Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene in the last days of Jesus’ life. At the time, many critics loved the music but were blasé about the show itself. Add to that the fact that many Christians took issue with a few things:
- Judas was too sympathetic a character.
- Jesus does not come back to life in the show.
- Some people perceived a real bias against Jews in the show, depicting them as the ones who murdered Jesus.
But it’s stood the test of time through revivals, national tours, and a live production on network television starring John Legend a few years ago.
Set in Virginia during the American Civil War, Shenandoah follows a farmer who is determined to keep his family out of the conflict. John Cullum and Debbie Reynolds headed a stellar cast, and while the show did not win any Tonys, it was well-received. It ran for 1,050 performances and is known for its powerful message about the cost of war.
James Lee Barrett wrote the show, basing it on his 1965 film of the same name. It ran at the Alvin Theatre for 19 months.
Stephen Sondheim gave us the demon barber of Fleet Street, and though this show is darker than deep space, it’s got iconic songs and an enduringly memorable plot. Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou starred in a musical telling of a 19th-century urban legend. In that tale, Sweeney Todd was a barber who murdered his customers and turned them into meat pies.
Notably, Sweeney Todd won eight Tony Awards. Furthermore, it has solidified itself as a beloved musical theater classic, with numerous revivals and adaptations, including a film with Johnny Depp as the titular hairstylist.
Follies is set in a crumbling Broadway theater about to be demolished, the scene of a reunion of former showgirls who performed there in the 20s and 30s. “Broadway Baby” and “Losing My Mind” come from this show, which brought home seven Tonys, but still somehow closed after only 522 shows.
It was a show about nostalgia and regret, so like some of Sondheim’s other shows, it wasn’t exactly a laugh-a-minute night at the theater. But it’s widely thought of as one of his top-tier works.
Best Musicals From The 1970s, Final Thoughts
Musicals— live or as films— remain an integral part of western culture, and while they date back to far before the 1970s, that decade gave us some shows with real staying power. The fact that you know the words to at least one of the songs listed above, even if you’ve never seen the show, is a testament to the power of musicals in general and these ones in particular.