Lest you think me an opportunist, I would like to declare that I had this blog on my mind since I first wrote the paired blogs “37 Flicks Theatre Lovers Should Know” and “13 Docs That Theatre Lovers Should Know” in late November. However, the overwhelming response to that effort did inform how I’ve gone about this new one.
From the title, the focus of this list is presumably quite obvious: it’s a catalogue of plays that focus on the act of theatre and the people who make it. It is, like its predecessors, in no way meant to be definitive, but rather to prompt reveries of plays once seen or dreams of plays yet to be seen; it will hopefully also flush out many more ideas of plays on this theme and indeed suggestions are welcomed in the comments section at the end of the list. That said, it is more comprehensive, lest I face more aggrieved fans of omitted shows.
As I suspected, I heard from many people with very strong opinions on the earlier blog, some of whom either missed or ignored the caveats I had set down. But ever one to beat a dead horse, let me say that even with contributions from the Twitterverse, who are individually thanked at the end of this piece, there are bound to be glaring omissions once again. So go ahead: be the first to point them out, and tell us about them; I am vastly more interested in conversation than declaration.
While I will at times arbitrarily choose to include plays that go beyond the legit theatre, that remains my main focus. So if you miss seeing a show about vaudeville, opera, burlesque, dance, choral singing or other forms of performance, feel free to add them as well. I’ve had my work cut out for me as it is. Also, unlike films which are fixed versions of a script, and complete in and of themselves, a list of plays focuses only on the text, not any particular production or interpretation; because many of these plays became movies, there’s some crossover with my earlier lists.
I found it interesting that even as I collated this assemblage of truncated synopses, a number of similar plot turns and character types revealed themselves, which means either that plays about theatre are based upon prior plays about theatre – or that there are common experiences in the theatre no matter where or how you came into the field. You’ll also note certain authors who have chronicled the stage more than once (I’m looking at you George S. Kaufman, Stephen Sondheim, Terrence McNally, Ira Levin, Comden & Green, Ken Ludwig, Noel Coward, Moss Hart, Kander & Ebb and Neil Simon) as well as some true-life theatre folk (Hello, Shakespeare! Hi, Chekhov! Welcome, all you Barrymores! Right this way, Mr. Ziegfeld!) who are the subjects of repeat scrutiny. Prison, for some reason, as well as Nazis, community theatre, Richard III and tha Mafia are also recurring motifs. Discuss, if you wish.
On a thematic note, I should say that the dictum of “write what you know” is not unique to literature, and we see countless self-portraits by artists, musical compositions reflecting the composer’s mood or experience, and so on. And so it is no surprise that playwrights, book writers, composers and lyricists would be drawn to the world they inhabit, both in loathing and in love. Some playwrights have to distance themselves, it seems, and consequently write about those in other creative endeavors (note Donald Margulies’ plays about artists, photojournalists and prose writers) and consequently aren’t enumerated here, but many more want to have at (in the many ways implied by that phrase) their muse and their burden, life in the theatre.
1. ACCENT ON YOUTH by Samson Raphelson A successful author of light comedies, Stephen Gaye, pushes his much-younger secretary, whom he loves, to take a leading role in his newest work, Old Love, only to find that he has also pushed her into the arms of an actor closer to her age, mirroring the plot of the new play itself – which is, uncharacteristically, a tragedy. Perhaps he should have known.
2. THE ACT by George Furth, John Kander and Fred Ebb Only the second entry and our premise is already stretched, by this musical/concert in which a film star who’s losing her luster seeks to regain it with an autobiographical Vegas act.
3. THE ACTOR by Horton Foote Much like the young Foote himself, the actor of the play’s title is 15-year-old Horace, who wants to attend acting school but runs up against his Texan parents’ more pragmatic expectations.
4. THE ACTOR’S NIGHTMARE by Christopher Durang An accountant named for the theatre’s favorite anonymous pseudonym, George Spelvin, is suddenly thrust upon the wicked stage with zero preparation in this curtain-raiser most often paired with Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius.
5. AMY’S VIEW by David Hare A debate about the power of theatre and the influence of newer media is threaded throughout this story of a great actress and her daughter spanning their lives over 16 years. As with most of Hare’s plays, the personal and artistic themes are interwoven with, and at times parallel, political issues in England.
6. ANTON IN SHOW BUSINESS by Jane Martin Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “A stage veteran, a neophyte and a TV star walk into a production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters at a regional theatre in Texas….” Hilarity ensues.
7. APPLAUSE by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Charles Strouse, and Lee Adams The classic film about a scheming understudy and the leading lady whose life she covets, remade as a musical, perhaps the only one to ever feature the annual Tony Awards presentation as its opening scene (replacing the film’s fictional Sarah Siddons Award).
8. AUDITION by Jane Martin One of the many monologues that make up the pseudonymous author’s breakthrough work Talking With, it’s a great example of how not to get a part.
9. BABES IN ARMS by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart “Hey kids, my vaudevillian parents are out of town, so let’s stay out of the work farm here on Long Island and put on a show!”
10. A BACKER’S AUDITION by Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell The sometimes humiliating ritual of presenting a show for wealthy individuals who just might choose to invest in its future life is the target for this gentle musical satire focused on Raggedy Romeo, a project that the widowed Esther Kanner has inherited from her late husband.
11. BARRYMORE by William Luce Weeks Before his death in 1942, a failing John Barrymore struggles to mount a revival of his 1920 success in Richard III, in what is essentially a one-man show save for the offstage voice of a prompter.
12. BELLS ARE RINGING by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne An answering service operator (anyone remember those?) becomes the muse of one of her company’s clients, Jeff Moss, a playwright with writer’s block in this musical comedy.
13. THE BIG BANG by Boyd Graham and Jed Feuer Another musical about a backer’s audition for a musical, in this case one about the history of the world from the very beginning, expected to be the most expensive in history ($83 million) and longer than Nicholas Nickleby, but presented for investors solely by the show’s two authors. Feuer is the son of Cy Feuer, noted producer and director.
14. BIRDS OF PARADISE by Winnie Holzman and David Evans A musical in which an amateur troupe stages The Seagull, having lured a Broadway has-been to direct and star based largely on his attraction to the group’s ingénue.
15. BOOTH by Austin Pendleton (aka Booth is Back aka Booth is Back in Town) A portrait of Junius Brutus Booth, who acted with Kean but emigrated to the U.S. to ply his trade grandly in the new nation, it evolves into an Oepidal struggle when his son Edwin, pursuing a simpler performing style, seeks to enter the family business.
16. BOX OFFICE OF THE DAMNED by Michael Ogborn This musical about a day in the life of a box office staff is included for two key reasons: a) because I’m unaware of any other musicals (or plays, for that matter) set in a theatre box office, and b) because the author was inspired by his tenure in the box office of the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia, where your humble blogger had his first paid job in the theatre a few years earlier.
17. BREAK A LEG by Ira Levin A beleaguered producer conspires against a particularly nasty critic in an effort to drive the pen-wielding viper mad. Oh, yes: it’s a comedy.
18. BREAKING LEGS by Tom Dulack A New England academic is so desperate to see his new play produced that he’s willing to seek financing from those most reliable of producers: the mob.
19. BROADWAY by George Abbott and Philip Dunning A Broadway hoofer and a hard-boiled mobster fight it out over a dame, an aspiring dancer, in this amalgam of gangland drama and backstage intrigue. Not a musical, it may well be the only show in history to have been directed twice on Broadway by its author (Abbott) with 61 years between the productions.
20. A BROADWAY MUSICAL by William F. Brown, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams Strouse and Adams’ own experiences on the 1964 musical Golden Boy with Sammy Davis Jr. were the impetus for this one-night-wonder of a show about the co-opting of a black author’s play as the source for a main-stem tuner about a basketball star.
21. BUFFALO GAL by A.R. Gurney A television actress returns to her hometown of Buffalo, NY to star help save the local regional theatre by starring in a production ofThe Seagull. The sad irony of the play is that it was the last new Gurney produced by Studio Arena Theatre, the main resident theatre in Buffalo, Gurney’s hometown.
22. THE BUTTER AND EGG MAN by George S. Kaufman A hotel clerk from Chillicothe comes to New York to bankroll a Broadway play in order to finance his own hotel back home, but the show bombs in its out-of-town tryout, prompting its producers to drop it like a hot potato – and leading the clerk to whip it into shape himself.
23. BY JEEVES by Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber This Wodehouse-suggested musical uses a story crafted entirely by Sir A, which blurs the line between play and play-within-a-play, as the denizens of a local church hall act out a misadventure of Bertie Wooster’s in order to prevent him from giving his intended banjo recital. Not to be confused with the earlier Jeeves, by the same authors, a notorious West End flop.
24. CABARET by Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb Although the title of the show makes clear that this is not set in the world of legit theatre, aficionados will pillory me for not including it. The habitués of a Berlin nightclub and their intertwined lives show the progression of Germany from the louche era of kabarett to the rise of Nazism, which would end that era of low-life creativity and self-expression.
25. CHEKHOV IN YALTA by John Driver and Jeffrey Haddow Set during the final years of the author’s life, it is a romantic roundelay of love and desire set amidst the Moscow Art Theatre set, with appearances by the producer Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, actress Olga Knipper and director Konstantin Stanislavsky.
26. CHILDREN OF PARADISE: SHOOTING AN DREAM by Steven Epp, Felicity Jones, Dominique Serrand and Paul Walsh The making of Marcel Carne’s acclaimed backstage film is the subject of this collaboratively created drama by Minneapolis’ sadly defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune. An epic work, a signature piece for the company and perhaps one that may never be staged again, it is included here as penance for leaving the movie Les Enfants du Paradis off of my film list last month.
27. A CHORUS LINE by James Kirkwood, Nicholas Dante, Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban Now and forever, the ultimate musical about auditions and the many reasons that performers make their lives in the theatre, famously drawn from interviews with the original cast.
28. A CHORUS OF DISAPPROVAL by Alan Ayckbourn A mild milquetoast joins an amateur theatrical group that’s preparing a production of The Beggar’s Opera and proceeds to unwittingly upset the intricate power structure and romantic entanglements of the incestuous troupe.
29. CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION by Annie Baker Less about the theatre than about the self-revelation that acting requires, this comedy set in a fictional Vermont town offers instant recognition for anyone who has ever studied acting, first out of the gentle satire, and later the genuine truths that the process must unearth.
30. A CLASS ACT by Linda Kline and Lonny Price with music and lyrics by Edward Kleban The lyricist for A Chorus Line, Kleban, is the subject of this posthumous tribute musical, emphasizing (and ultimately realizing) his desire to see a musical produced which employed not only his words, but his music as well.
31. THE COCKTAIL HOUR by A.R. Gurney Perhaps a glimpse into scenes from the author’s own life, as a playwright informs his very WASP-y parents that his newest play is based upon their family, meeting with the expected resistance.
32. COMPLEAT FEMALE STAGE BEAUTY by Jeffrey Hatcher The story of Ned Kynaston, an actor famed for playing female roles in the English era when women couldn’t appear on stage, and the effect on his career of the end of that prohibition. Adapted by Hatcher for film as Stage Beauty.
33. CRAZY FOR YOU by Ken Ludwig with songs by George and Ira GershwinTaking off from the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, but interpolating songs from elsewhere in their catalogue, Ludwig indulges his love of backstage stories by contriving the new story of a “Zangler (read Ziegfeld) Follies” wanna-be, Bobby Child, who heads out west where he contrives to put on a show in the town of Deadrock, Nevada in order to save the local theatre and win the heart of local gal Polly – much to the consternation of his fiancée.
34. CRESSIDA by Nicholas Wright Set just a bit earlier than play #32, this tale of a young actor joining an English acting troupe in the days when only men could appear on the stage offers a plum role in the character of John Shank, actor, scout and mentor of a troupe that must thrive upon youth even as he grows older.
35. A CRITIC AND HIS WIFE by John Ford Noonan After “losing” the George Jean Nathan Award for Criticism, critic Len Oppenheim takes a leave of absence from his job in order to work on his first novel – only to place himself into direct competition with his wife, also an author.
36. CRITIC’S CHOICE by Ira Levin New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Kerr and his wife, the playwright Jean Kerr (Mary, Mary), were the inspiration for and target of Levin’s comedy, wherein a critic must decide whether or not to review his wife’s dreadful play in its Broadway premiere. Believe it or not, there’s a happy ending – with the critic’s integrity intact.
37. A CRY OF PLAYERS by William Gibson The author of The Miracle Worker mused on the life of one young Will, living in outside London, who, though married, is a bit of a layabout and ne’er-do-well, despite his tendency to high-flown language. Though we never hear the name of his hometown, or even his surname, it’s quite clear that we’re watching the formative years of Shakespeare at Stratford.
38. CRYSTAL & FOX by Brian Friel A traveling troupe may see its final days as one of the partners decides it’s time to get off the road.
39. CURTAINS Rupert Holmes, John Kander and Fred Ebb Originally titled Who Killed David Merrick?, this musical centers on backstage murders as a production tries out in Boston, and the local detective who is on the case but always dreamed of being on the stage.
40. THE COUNTRY GIRL by Clifford Odets An alcoholic, forgotten stage actor is given one last chance at glory by a young director who once worshipped the man, and the effect of this possible resurrection on the faded star’s wife, who has stood by his side throughout the decline.
41. DEDICATION by Terrence McNally A married couple dream of opening a children’s theatre company, but to find the funding they so desperately need, they must turn to a wealthy but malevolent woman with her own agenda.
42. DEATHTRAP by Ira Levin “Meta” before we knew what that even was (we thought Levin’s play was simply self-referential), this thriller is about a writer of stage thrillers who encounters the script of a stage thriller, entitled Deathtrap, written by a novice playwright who the more senior author then deigns to collaborate with…or is he planning to steal the young man’s play and do away with the script’s true provenance?
43. THE DRESSER by Ronald Harwood The playwright was once a dresser himself for the English actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit and he transforms their true life relationship into the tale of a dedicated dresser who selflessly, yet frustratingly, dedicates himself to propping up a figure much like Wolfit in his twilight years.
44. THE DROWSY CHAPERONE by Bob Martin, Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert and Greg MorrisonAlthough the bulk of this musical is the recreation of scenes from the fictional 20′s entertainment that is a show within the show, the framing device of narration by one “Man in Chair” makes this a valentine to theatre and the people who love it, maybe a bit too much and too cattily.
45. THE EASIEST WAY: A STORY OF METROPOLITAN LIFE by Eugene Walter From 1909, a scandalous early tale of a woman who uses the casting couch to her own advantage, among her many “depradations.”
46. ELIZABETH REX by Timothy Findlay A comedy with sober moments depicting the famed Queen distracting herself with William Shakespeare and his company following a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, as she awaits the beading of the Earl of Essex after his failed overthrow attempt.
47. THE ENGLISH CHANNEL by Robert Brustein Set in the plague year of 1593, another look at Shakespeare’s life, as he first encounters his patron the Earl of Southampton, takes a new mistress, “borrows” from the work of other writers, and shifts from poet to playwright. Part of Brustein’s intended Shakespeare trilogy, which also includes Enter William Shakespeare.
48. ENTER LAUGHING by Joseph Stein Drawn from Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel, about a young Jewish machinist’s helper who struggles to break into show business, it was an endless literary source, adapted by Reiner and Stein as a film, and by Stein (with Stan Daniels) as the musical So Long 174th Street, which is now known once again by the original title.
49. THE ENTERTAINER by John Osborne Springing from the English Music Hall tradition, rather than the legitimate theatre, this scathing play from the author of Look Back in Anger plumbs the dark well of a performer’s soul as retired headliner Billy Rice’s dismal home life is interspersed with “numbers” from his career which only serve to highlight his anger and despair.
50. EQUIVOCATION by Bill Cain Will Shag (read Shakespeare) is ordered to create a play about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 at the behest of King James I but ends up creating Macbeth instead. Jam-packed with questions about art, politics and the Jesuitical concept of equivocation vs. truth, including some parallels to the George W. Bush administration as well.
51. FAM AND YAM by Edward Albee A brief one-act in which a Young American Playwright confronts a Famous American Playwright about the commercialization of the theatre.
52. FOLLIES by James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim Former showgirls from “Weisman’s (read Ziegfeld’s) Follies” gather for a reunion before their former theatrical home is torn down, recalling the romance and the romances of their performing days and the sadder realities of their present day lives.
53. 45 SECONDS FROM BROADWAY by Neil Simon Just as in real life, the Edison Café (aka the Polish Tea Room) is the hangout for aspiring and has-been actors, directors, writers as well as the sometime unknowing tourist, lovingly commemorated herein.
54. 42ND STREET by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble, with songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin The flip, sunny side of All About Eve/Applause, this stage adaptation of the darker 1933 film features an understudy who gets her big break when a big musical’s leading lady can’t do the show on opening night.
55. THE FROGS by Burt Shevelove, Stephen Sondheim and (later on) Nathan Lane First a play with music mounted in a Yale University swimming pool in 1974 under the guidance of Shevelove, this free adaptation of Aristophanes play was yet again adapted by Lane 30 years later as a full-fledged musical with new contributions from the composer. Dionysus, god of wine and drama, travels to Hades in order to bring back a writer to soothe troubled times. Topical, on many topics, the show reaches its climax with a debate on art between Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw, replacing Aeschulyus and Euripides from the original Greek.
56. FUNNY GIRL by Jule Styne, Bob Merrill and Isobel LennartA musical recounting of Ziegfeld Follies star comedienne Fanny Brice’s early years as she builds her career and then risks it all for the love of gambler Nick Arnstein.
57. GATES OF GOLD by Frank McGuinness The founders of the Gate Theatre in Ireland, Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir, are the models for the main characters of Conrad and Gabriel in this story of the latter’s final days, as they come to terms with their professional and personal lives together.
58. GHETTO by Joshua Sobol Set in the Vilna ghetto during World War II, the play portrays the efforts of the head of the Jewish police to ostensibly save the lives of many artists by encouraging the prisoner to create a work of theatre and the resistance to and subverting of this idea by the incarcerated company.
59. THE GLORIOUS ONES by Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty The creative and personal trials and tribulations of a commedia dell’arte troupe as that form, and the characters, evolve.
60. THE GOODBYE GIRL by Neil Simon, Marvin Hamlisch and David Zippel From the popular movie of the same name, a romantic comedy in which another of Simon’s odd couples – Paula, a former dancer with a young daughter, and Elliot, an actor – become apartment-mates and eventually a couple. Prized for its satirical version of an experimental take on Richard III in which Elliot appears.
61. THE GRAND MANNER by A.R. Gurney Based upon his brief boyhood encounter with the celebrated actress Katharine Cornell, Gurney invents what he wished that visit had been, portraying the backstage triangle between Cornell, her lover and general manager Gertrude Macy, and her husband and director Guthrie McClintic.
62. GYPSY by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents Once again, really about vaudeville and burlesque, but you’ll stone me to death if I pass it by. Considered by many to be one of the most psychologically astute of all musicals, it lays out the archetypal stage mother, living off of and vicariously through her performing children, getting her triumph and comeuppance all at once as her less favored child becomes a genuine star.
63. THE HABIT OF ART by Alan Bennett A meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten is subject of Caliban’s Day, the play-within-a-play that is about to be rehearsed at the National Theatre (where Habit premiered). The framing device adds an additional layer of contemplation about the nature of artistic pursuits which is already the subject of Caliban.
64. HAY FEVER by Noël Coward Reportedly inspired by a weekend sojourn of Coward’s at the home of actress Laurette Taylor and with the leading role of a recently retired actress, Hay Fever is decidedly theatrical, but not wholly devoted to the stage, save for the question of whether the aforementioned retirement is really just a respite.
65. I HATE HAMLET by Paul Rudnick Written while Rudnick was living in one of John Barrymore’s former apartments, this comedy conjures Barrymore back to that locale in order to cajole its fictional resident, a young actor tempted by TV stardom, into instead appearing on stage as Hamlet. A tabloid cause célèbre in its Broadway debut, when star Nicol Williamson strayed from the fight choreography and wounded his younger costar.
66. THE ILLUSION by Pierre Corneille Familiar to most via its adaptation by Tony Kushner, this story of a father who seeks his son by calling on the powers of a great magician is germane to our topic, but to say more would prove a spoiler to those who don’t know it.
67. INSPECTING CAROL by Daniel Sullivan and the Seattle Rep Company This inventive blending of the classic The Inspector General by Nikolai Gogol and every stage adaptation of A Christmas Carol ever produced turns on a regional theatre’s mistaking a data processor (and aspiring actor) for a National Endowment for the Arts onsite evaluator, who is consequently enthusiastically drawn into the theatre company desperate for “his” approval in order to secure a grant.
68. IT’S ONLY A PLAY by Terrence McNallyFirst seen in engagements out of town (where it closed) as Broadway, Broadway, this reworked comedy is set at a restaurant in the now bygone days when the creative team, cast and assorted revelers alike awaited the first appearance of a show’s reviews, in this case something optimistically named The Golden Egg. Knowledge of the Broadway scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s may be a prerequisite for full enjoyment.
69. JACK: A NIGHT ON THE TOWN WITH JOHN BARRYMORE by Nicol WilliamsonPerhaps having felt constrained by playing Rudnick’s fictional version, Williamson fashioned his own one-man show based on the life of the famed actor, which, perhaps intentionally, focuses on the often erratic behavior its subject, mirroring that of its star/author.
70. JENNIE by Howard Dietz, Arthur Schwartz and Arnold Schulman The early life of the famed actress Laurette Taylor (from a biography by her daughter) was the jumping off point for this musical, a vehicle for leading lady Mary Martin, about a married couple touring the country in popular melodramas. It ran a little over two months on Broadway, a particular flop given the presence of its star.
71. JITTERS by David French This 1979 Canadian comedy traffics in the now-politically incorrect premise that real theatre only happens in New York, as it chronicles the backstage calamities of a small theatre company that dreams of sending its newest work, The Care and Treatment of Roses, to the Big Apple.
72. KISS ME, KATE by Cole Porter, Sam Spewack and Bella Spewack The backstage squabbles mirror the onstage plot as a musical of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is performed by warring ex-lovers for whom the flame may not have truly flickered out.
73. LA BÊTE by David Hirson The eternal struggle between pleasing the populace and creating art on stage is the subject of this rhymed challenge of a play, which carries a strong whiff of Molière in its coupleted debate.
74. LEND ME A TENOR by Ken Ludwig This door slamming, dual identity farce owes as much to the Marx Brothers as it does to the opera world in which it’s set. Not about theatre, but it does remind us that self-absorbed performers, aspiring talents, good girls, femmes fatale and apoplectic managers exist in every performing field. We are not alone.
75. A LIFE IN THE THEATRE by David Mamet Two working actors, one young, one veteran, employed at a theatre company of seemingly constantly rotating rep, meet up backstage and on stage in this affectionate tribute those who make, well, their living on stage.
76. LIGHT UP THE SKY by Moss Hart A backstage satire of theatre in which the author of an allegorical epic finds himself undone by all of his collaborators during a show’s Boston tryout, before they get their comeuppance in the final act.
77. THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED by Douglas Carter Beane Managing to satirize theatre and the movies at the same time, this comedy concerns itself with the challenges of an actor whose gay relationship runs up against his agent’s unequivocal belief that coming out will ruin his career by losing him the starring role in a film based upon a hit play…about a gay relationship.
78. A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler From Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, a multifaceted portrait of mismatched lovers that features Desirée, a leading lady fearing her looming days as a grand dame, and looking to leave a life on the road for something more settled.
79. LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O’Neill Not a play about the theatre, per se, but two of the four characters are actors and the lives of the other two are unquestionably impacted by the itinerant lives that dominate their own. Based on the playwright’s own family, it has indelibly delineated James Tyrone, a tight-fisted, frightened man trapped forever as a stage hero in material he considers beneath him, and his namesake, James, Jr. (also seen in A Moon for the Misbegotten), forced onto the stage with neither the love nor ambition that has kept his father going for decades.
80. MAGIC TIME by James Sherman A summer theatre dressing room is the setting for an acting company that has begun to assimilate their onstage roles, on the verge of their final performance of Hamlet. The author says he was inspired by the early days of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
81. MAN OF LA MANCHA by Mitch Leigh, Dale Wasserman and Joe Darion Another show that we tend to forget is a play within a play, the musical opens with author Miguel Cervantes thrown into prison, where he proceeds to weave the tale of Don Quixote de la Mancha, co-opting the convicts into the telling and ultimately gaining their trust.
82. A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE by Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen FlahertyAdapted from the film, the musical tells of a Dublin bus driver determined to mount an amateur production of Wilde’s Salome, who is undone when the star of the local theatre troupe, cast in a supporting role, declares the play indecent, causing the company to lose their church hall venue, and when his dawning realization of his own homosexuality is revealed to his narrow-minded community.
83. THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart An imperious and impervious critic takes over a household while laid up with an injury, with doppelgangers of Harpo Marx and Noël Coward thrown in for good measure. Created as a vehicle for, and based upon, the critic Alexander Woollcott, who relinquished the Broadway role to Monty Woolley, although he later appeared in the show’s West Coast debut.
84. ME AND JULIET by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II The backstage romance between a chorus girl and an assistant stage manager is threatened by a jealous stagehand during the run of an experimental musical-dance theatre piece. Set, uniquely for its time, six months into the run of a show, rather than during its creation or opening struggles.
85. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart This experimental play was a tale told in reverse, beginning in 1934 with the opening night party for playwright Richard Niles newest show, then working backwards as we see his career build, his closest friends driven away and his integrity disintegrating until we reach 1916 as Niles delivers an optimistic college graduation speech.
86. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth A musical reworking of the Kaufman and Hart play, updated to travel backwards from 1976 to 1957, as we see successful filmmaker Franklin Shepard abandon his career as a musical theatre songwriter and betray the ideals he youthfully celebrated in his college anthem, “The Hills of Tomorrow.”
87. MISTAKES WERE MADE by Craig Wright A low-rent producer desperately works the phones to convince a major movie star to take a role in a new play about the French Revolution, willing to rewrite the play and history itself if only he can succeed in securing this piece of sure-fire star casting.
88. MOON OVER BUFFALO by Ken Ludwig Married, fading stage stars are on the verge of calling it quits professionally and personally when they’re forced to hold it together in the hope of one last nig break: as they’re touring in rep withPrivate Lives and Cyrano de Bergerac, famed film Frank Capra is reportedly coming to see them as he seeks a cast for his remake of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
89. THE MOONY SHAPIRO SONGBOOK by Monty Norman and Julian Moore Revues like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Side by Side by Sondheim get a gently satirical skewering in this fictional meander through some three dozen songs by the imaginary author of the title.
90. MORNING GLORY by Zoe Akins Here’s irony for you: this unproduced play yielded not one but two film versions of the story (the other known as Stage Struck) of a New England girl who heads to the bright light of New York, yes, to make it big on Broadway and manages to do so with some older mentors and a romance with a young playwright.
91. NO CHILD by Nilaja Sun A one-woman show, first performed by its author, based on her own experiences teaching in New York City, a fictionalized version of attempting to lead her students through a production of Our Country’s Good (see #95), paralleling the lives of the convicts in the play with those of the students themselves, in the high security, restrictive world of an inner-city public school.
92. NOISES OFF by Michael Frayn Perhaps the most ingenious backstage play ever invented, this remarkable farce and slapstick tour de force shows us the production of a lame sex comedy from three vantage points: on stage at a late rehearsal, backstage when everything that can go wrong is just about to do so, and back on stage as the production limps along late in its provincial tour.
93. ON THE 20TH CENTURY by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Cy ColemanThe musical version of #127 (damn you, alphabetical order), this train-bound farce has a down-at-his-heels producer desperate to convince his former protégé and lover, now a big star, to return to his troupe and, wouldn’t you know it, his embrace.
94. ORSON’S SHADOW by Austin Pendleton A fictionalized imagining of the circumstances surrounding Welles’ production of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros for the National Theatre in 1960, as well as his distillation of Shakespeare’s Falstaff plays into Chimes at Midnight, requiring actors who could convincingly play Welles, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Olivier’s third-wife-to-be Joan Plowright.
95. OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD by Timberlake Wertenbaker Based upon both historical accounts (some which have proven to be fictional) as well as a novel by Thomas Kenneally (author of Schindler’s List), OCG chronicles the first theatrical production, Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, on the continent of Australia, when it was still a British penal colony.
96. OUT OF THE FRYING PAN by Francis Swann Six young actors live together in an apartment strategically located just above that of a Broadway producer in this 1941 comedy, and they get their chance to showcase their talents when the unsuspecting producer stops upstairs to borrow a cooking ingredient needed for his vaunted gumbo recipe.
97. OUT-CRY by Tennessee Williams (aka The Two-Character Play) A brother and sister, he a playwright and she an actress, both struggling with their demons and faded dreams, attempt to make a comeback in a regional theatre production only to find that the rest of the company and the audience has fled in anticipation of their arrival.
98. PASSION PLAY by Sarah Ruhl This wildly ambitious triptych portrays three different towns – one in the middle ages, one in WWII Europe and one in the present day U.S. – as they mount productions of the biblical passion play of Jesus, showing how in each case, the story they enact bleeds into the everyday lives of those who perform it.
99. THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM OF CHARENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE by Peter Weiss. I think that pretty well sums it up, don’t you?
100. THE PLAY AT THE CASTLE by Ferenc Molnar/THE PLAY’S THE THING by P.G. Wodehouse/ROUGH CROSSING by Tom Stoppard We aren’t used to remakes in the theatre, but Molnar’s Hungarian original has begotten at least two remakes by celebrated writers, both drawn to the story of producers who must insure that their playwright isn’t distracted by the apparent dalliances of his paramour with another man. While the first two versions are set in a Mediterranean manse, Stoppard took it onto the high seas.
101. PRESENT LAUGHTER by Noël Coward Matinee idol Garry Essendine is beset on all sides by the people in his orbit, among them an obsessed fan, romantic entanglements, a pleading producer and the loyal secretary who tries to keep everyone – including her employer – on track.
102. THE PRODUCERS by Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan The realization that a corrupt producer could make more money with a flop than with a hit is the engine that drives this now widely well known musical tale, drawn from a film that had long been a cult favorite of those in the theatre biz. The stage musical softens some of the spikier edges of the film as it fashions three love stories, one between a man and the not-so-dumb blonde of his dreams, another between two men who complete each other, and between just about everyone in the story and the stage.
103. THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND by Tom Stoppard Prefiguring The Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf, two critics, Moon and Birdboot, voice their thoughts and opinions throughout the performance of a substandard country house mystery, often going off on tangents, until they’re drawn into the action of the play itself, blurring the line between stage life and real death.
104. THE REAL THING by Tom Stoppard Smart, witty and successful, Henry is a playwright with the perfect words for any moment and any script – but does he actually know what it means to be in love, and what price must he pay to learn it?
105. RED NOSES by Peter Barnes A medieval monk named Flote seeks to combat a corrupt church and the Black Death by establishing a rag-tag comic troupe of clowns and leading them on a sacred crusade against the inevitable.
106. RED PEPPERS by Noël Coward In the words of its author, who wrote it as a vehicle for himself and Gertrude Lawrence as one of the one-acts that make upTonight at 8:30, “a vaudeville sketch sandwiched between two musical hall songs.”
107. THE REHEARSAL by Jean Anouilh The jaded gamesmanship of the aristocratic set is contrasted with the eager innocence of a young ingénue when a count and his wife set out to mount their own production of Marivaux’s The Double Inconstancy.
108. ROOM SERVICE by Allen Boretz and John Murray An underfunded producer is holed up in his brother-in-law’s hotel with the cast of his newest show, Godspeed, but he has to come up with the money for the hotel bill and the show or risk losing everything to a rival producer.
109. ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD by Tom Stoppard An existential comedy that owes as much to Beckett as it does to Shakespeare, R&G makes this list because as these minor characters from Hamlet observe the real action of Shakespeare’s story, they spend a good bit of time with the troupe that are asked by the melancholy Dane to perform The Murder of Gonzago, or The Mousetrap.
110. THE ROYAL FAMILY by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber This once contemporaneous satire of the Barrymore clan transforms them into the Cavendishes, a theatrical dynasty of self-dramatizing performers, but the satire also allows for moments in which the love and power of theatre is not only acknowledged, but extolled, securing its enduring place in the canon.
111. SAY, DARLING by Abe Burrows, Marian Bissell & Richard Bissell, Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green Drawn from Bissell’s novel about his experiences when his earlier novel 7 1/2 Cents was adapted for Broadway as The Pajama Game, this is usually considered a play with lots of music because all of the songs are from the show within the show, rather than pieces that advance the story. All of the hallmarks of a show in production are here, with scenes of auditions, rehearsals and the fabled out-of-town tryout.
112. THE SCENE by Theresa Rebeck A dedicated Off-Broadway actor whose career never fully blossomed experiences a mid-life crisis as he sees more successful, but less talented and intelligent, individuals lighting up stages and screens, leading him to both question and risk his personal and artistic values.
113. THE SEAGULL by Anton Chekhov While it’s absolutely about more than just theatre, this classic work set at a Russian summer estate explores the timeless struggle between old art and new, both literary and human, with the great actress Arkadina clinging to her youth while confronted with the free spirit of a young aspirant, Nina and the experimental efforts of her playwright son Konstantin.
114. SIDES: THE FEAR IS REAL by the members of Mr. Miyagi’s Theatre Company Endorsed by no less than Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout as one of the funniest shows he’s ever seen, Sides is a collection of comic sketches portraying every possible iteration of what can go wrong at an audition.
115. SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR by Luigi Pirandello Another play in which the title serves as a fair synopsis, in this case the aforementioned sextet interrupt the rehearsal of a Pirandello play in order to ask that show’s director to complete their narrative by staging their story, thereby completing it. Be it satire, aburdist or surrealism, it’s unmistakably a seminal work that delves into the act of theatremaking, and the oft-discussed question of whether characters have lives beyond what appears on the page.
116. SMALL TRAGEDY by Craig Lucas Though rooted in the details of a minor production of Oedipus by a small theatre company in Cambridge and the interplay between its incongruous participants, ranging from an on-the-skids Hollywood director to a young mother returning to the stage after a failed marriage, the play expands beyond its theatrical beginning to contrast the production of a tragedy with how we confront one when it comes too close to our own lives.
117. SMITH by Dean Fuller, Tony Hendra and Matt Dubey A dull botanist is suddenly thrust into a musical comedy version of his life in this satire of theatrical conventions that eked out a few short weeks on Broadway in 1973.
118. STAGE DOOR by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber Living at the Footlights Club during the Depression, aspiring stage actress Terry Randall, newly arrived from her Midwestern home, juggles two beaus – playwright Keith and producer David – while living among the soap opera lives of her fellow boarders.
119. STAGE BLOOD by Charles LudlamThe founder and guiding light of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company took on Shakespeare and acting in general, andHamlet in particular, as a bedraggled troupe attempts their umpteenth performance of Hamlet even though their leading man is drunk to start and dead midway through the performance, at which point a mystery plot kicks in.
120. STAGE FRIGHT by Charles Marowitz Two actors kidnap a critic and threaten to kill him for his past writing, surely the fantasy of many a playwright made (fictional) flesh – although Marowitz has careers as both author and critic. Critic Michael Phillips has suggested that the play’s captured critic, F.F. Charnick, might be named as an almost-anagram of former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich.
121. THEATRE by Guy Bolton and Somerset Maugham Adapted from Maugham’s novel and (much) later adapted twice for the screen as Adorable Julia and Being Julia, this is the now-familiar tale of a married stage couple who are all smiles when the stage lights are on, but harpies (and unfaithful ones at that) in the light of day – until they realize the error of their ways. In its day, Time called it “not very pleasant fun.”
122. THIS IS A PLAY by Daniel McIvor A one-act comedy in which we see actors playing out a bad melodrama but also, more meaningfully, revealing to the audience what’s going through their heads as they act.
123. TICK, TICK…BOOM! by Jonathan Larson Originally performed by the composer himself, this musical quasi-autobiography of Larson questioning both his personal and professional life as he approaches as 30 was reworked by playwright David Auburn after Larson’s death into a three actor piece made all the more poignant because the success so desired by Jon in the show was only achieved posthumously with Rent.
124. [title of show] by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell The ultimate meta-musical is about two guys writing a musical. It began life (and plot) as the authors contemplated a submission to a New York musical festival and managed over the course of several productions to find its way to Broadway (as we see in the show, which kept morphing to match its own fortunes). No word on whether the authors have been adding new material for the countless amateur and college productions.
125. THE TORCHBEARERS by George Kelly A small-town amateur theatre group which cannot even decide if the play they’re staging is a comedy or tragedy is tracked through rehearsal, performance and post-show let-down in Kelly’s first play, a stinging satire of artistic poseurs.
126. TRELAWNY OF THE “WELLS” by Arthur Wing Pinero A young actress learns she can only achieve real success once she comes to truly love the craft of acting. After touring with a second rate company and falling for a young man whose parents disapprove of her profession, she captivates the young man’s grandfather, who funds the production that will make her a star.
127. 20TH CENTURY by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and Bruce MilhollandSource of the aforementioned musical (see #93)
128. TWO SHAKESPEAREAN ACTORS by Richard Nelson I suppose the notorious rap wars of the 1990s might be the closest modern parallel, but it’s still difficult to imagine the populace getting incensed enough over dual and dueling productions of Shakespeare plays. But that’s exactly what gave rise to the Astor Place Riots of 1849 and the foundation for this historical play depicting the actions surrounding what may well be the most physical expression of critical opinion.
129. THE UNDERSTUDY by Theresa Rebeck A frazzled stage manager must conduct an understudy rehearsal for a new actor, who turns out to be an old beau who abandoned her, while he’s resentful of covering the part of a comparatively talent-free Hollywood star, who is in turn understudying the play’s actual star. Worth noting: the play in question is by Kafka.
130. WAITING IN THE WINGS by Noël Coward A retirement home for aged actresses is the setting for competition and revelations among great (and not so great) ladies of the stage even after their careers have faded in the twilight, with particular focus on May and Lotta, who haven’t spoken for 30 years.
131. WELL by Lisa Kron Using the construct of a performance piece about Kron’s youth and, in particular, her perpetually afflicted mother, Well slips back and forth across the line between being her story played out and a commentary on the story and its telling. Originally produced with Kron as herself, to heighten the effect.
132. WHAT’S THAT SMELL: THE SONGS OF JACOB STERLING by David Pittu and Randy Redd At a meeting of the fictional “Composers and Lyricists of Tomorrow” (CLOT), our host Leonard Swagg moderates a presentation by the eponymous composer, a ramble through an undistinguished and hilarious oeuvre of mangled musical comedy.
For their suggestions and background insight, my thanks to
and special thanks to the invaluable Bill Rosenfield.
This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.