The 100 Most Important People in Modern Musical Theatre History

By Chris Peterson & Steve Gifford
June 27, 2016

I was recently having a conversation with a friend of mine about the greatest lyricists in musical theatre history, yes this is what we theatre geeks talk about over coffee. While we were constructing our list, the thought started to occur to me, who have been the biggest contributors to the evolution and success of modern musical theatre? Who have been the greatest to grace the Broadway stage? Who’s influence is still felt today?

Since it’s been just over 100 years since the “Tin Pan Alley” artists started constructing what we know today as modern musical theatre, what better time to sit down and list the most important artists in modern musical theatre history, which we consider the 1920’s and up. This list will be comprised of composers, lyricists, book writers, performers, choreographers, directors and even a couple of producers. Keep in mind, the key word here is “important”.

Let’s celebrate the incredible history of musical theatre by highlighting it’s brightest.

100. Maury Yeston
He is known for writing the music and lyrics to Nine in 1982, and Titanic in 1997, both of which won Tony Awards for best musical and best score. He also won a Drama Desk Award for Nine. Yeston also wrote a significant amount of the music and most of the lyrics to the Tony-nominated musical Grand Hotel in 1989, which was nominated for best score. His musical version of the The Phantom of the Opera entitled Phantom (far superior to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s) has enjoyed numerous productions around the world. According to Show Music magazine, Yeston “has written some of the most formally structured music in recent musical theatre. But he also has the gift for creating ravishing melody – once you’ve heard ‘Love Can’t Happen’ from Grand Hotel, or ‘An Unusual Way’ from Nine, or ‘Home’ from Phantom, or any number of other Yeston songs, you’ll be hooked.”
99. Diahann Carroll
Patina Miller, LaChanze, Audra McDonald have each had incredible careers and numerous accolades. But I’m sure if you asked each one of them, they would give a nod of respect to Dihann Carroll. She was the first black woman to win the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for No Strings. Her Tony win would be one of multiple doors she would break down in her career. She made her Broadway debut in House of Flowers in 1959 and in the film versions of Carmen Jones and Porgy & Bess. In 1995, she returned to musicals by starring the original Canadian cast of Sunset Boulevard.
98. Trevor Nunn
Next to Harold Prince, was there a bigger Broadway musical director than Trevor Nunn? He directed Cats, formerly the longest running musical in Broadway’s history, and the first English production of Les Misérables in 1985. Nunn also directed the little-known 1986 Webber–Rice musical Cricket, at Windsor Castle. Other musical credits includeStarlight Express and Sunset Boulevard. Later London credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The Woman in White. Nunn has won three Tonys, three Olivier Awards and three Drama Desk Awards. In 2012, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
 97. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey
In 2008, Kitt and Yorkey gave the world a musical that explored the crippling mental illness, bipolar disorder, like no musical had before. Not only that, Next to Normal addressed issues as grieving a loss, suicide, drug abuse, ethics in modern psychiatry, and the underbelly of suburban life. It is a bold and brilliant piece of work. The pair went on to win the Tony for Best Score with Kitt also winning for Best Orchestrations. Next to Normal would lose the Best Musical award to Billy Elliot, one of the biggest snubs in Tony history, but they would win the Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer Board called it “a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals.” And with their continued success with If/Then (vastly underrated), I have a feeling their ranking will be much much higher the next time we do a list like this.
96. Brian Stokes Mitchell
When I think of the great male voices of my lifetime, Brian Stokes Mitchell ranks very high on that list. If you don’t believe me, just listen to the cast recording of Ragtime. Known as being on the great baritones to grace the Broadway stage, Mitchell has appeared in productions of Mail (1988), an all-black revival of George and Ira Gershwin’s Oh, Kay! (1990), Jelly’s Last Jam (1992) based on the works of jazz artist Jelly Roll Morton, Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), Ragtime (1998) (Tony nomination), the 1999 revival of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (Tony award) and Man of La Mancha (2002)(Tony nomination) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2012).
95. Jerry Mitchell
If the 60’s had Gower Champion and the 80’s had Tommy Tune, this generation has Jerry Mitchell. No other choreographer on Broadway is better tapped into what the future of dance in musicals holds than Mitchell. Since 2001, he’s had eight Tony nominations with two wins for the revival of La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots. Beyond these two, he’s choreographed some of the best known dance musicals over the past 20 years such as The Fully Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Gypsy, Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can and Legally Blonde. His next project is Gotta Dance! which is based on the documentary film with the same name. It will feature the last music composed by Marvin Hamlisch.
94. Lea Salonga
For Asians like myself, our list of musical theatre icons begins and ends with Lea Salonga. She burst onto the scene as Kim in Miss Saigon for which accomplished the rare feat of winning the Olivier, Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics and Theatre World awards. After Miss Saigon she would go onto become arguably the greatest to play the role of Eponine in Les Miserables on Broadway. As the singing voice of Jasminein Disney’s Aladdin, to say that her recording of “A Whole New World” had an impact on many a future performers might be an understatement. Between that and her return to Broadway in Flower Drum Song , Salonga has spent most of her time developing musical talent in the Philippines.

When it comes to looking at her Broadway career, there is a big “what if?” attached to her. Not because of anything relating to her talent, but because of the racial attitudes and casting trends of Broadway. The history of Asians starring on Broadway is a travesty, but that WILL BE a different column for a different time. Nevertheless, Salonga is an icon and deserves a spot on this list.
93. Julie Taymor
There is an intense argument that I see happen every so often at various theatre parties, “Julie Taymor: Brilliant or Overrated?” Needless to say it leads to some passionate debates For me though, while I’ll always respect her design work over her actual directing, I can’t deny her contributions to musical theatre by creating one of the highest grossing musicals of all time, “The Lion King.” Taymor has the distinction of being the first woman to receive the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical. Let’s be honest, there wasn’t anything like The Lion King on Broadway before Taymor got her hands on it. With this one show, Taymor became a visonary when it came to artistic concept for musical theatre.

And then she did Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark……
92. Len Cariou
With all due respect to everyone who has played the role, Len Cariou is the definitive Sweeney Todd. While George Hearn might have had the fortune of having his performance taped for all to see, if you listen to Cariou on the original recording, it’s not even close. It is terrifying and breathtaking to listen to. Also appearing the original productions of Applause and A Little Night Music, Cariou was one of the biggest leading men in musical theatre in the 1970’s. In 2004, Cariou was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.
91. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
I could simply just say Fiddler on the Roof and move on. But these two gave musical theatre some fantastic works during their careers. Some of their other incredible creations were Fiorello!, She Loves Me, The Apple Treeand The Rothschilds. If you doubt the impact of Fiddler on the Roof, please find me a more well known musical that celebrates Jewish families. I’ll wait.
90. William Shakespeare
Okay, I know this may look silly but hear me out. Had it not been for the writing of William Shakespeare, we wouldn’t have Kiss Me Kate, The Boys from Syracuse, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Lion King, Oh Brother!, All Shook Up, Play On! and only the greatest musical of all time, West Side Story. So I have to give props to the Bard for his indirect contributions to musical theatre’s history.

89. Rosie O’Donnell
Regardless of your opinion of her, you cannot deny that Broadway owes a huge thanks to Rosie O’Donnell. Not only did she feature a slew of Broadway musicals on her show but after the September 11th attacks, she was one of the leading voices in encouraging people to come back to New York City. Perhaps her biggest contribution though, was basically saving the Tony Awards telecast. With her involvement, the Tonys were moved to Radio City Music Hall and became a television event. The first year she hosted, over 11 million tuned in.
88. Richard Kiley
During the 1960’s there might not have been a bigger leading man on Broadway than Richard Kiley. During the decade he would win two Tony Awards and be nominated for a third. His first came for Redhead but he will best be remembered for originating the role of Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha. He also starred in original productions of Kismet and No Strings(Tony nod). At his death, Kiley was described as “one of theater’s most distinguished and versatile actors” and as “an indispensable actor, the kind of performer who could be called on to play kings and commoners and a diversity of characters in between.”
87. Oliver Smith
If you’re wondering why a scenic designer would be ranked on this list, first of all he was nominated for 25 Tony Awards, winning 10 of them. In 1958 he was nominated for six different productions. But if you’re still doubting why the man is the only scenic designer on this list, I’m just going to list some of the original productions this man designed: On the Town, Hello, Dolly!, My Fair Lady, Camelot, The Sound of Music, West Side Story,  I Do! I Do!,  Candide and Auntie Mame.
86. Rob Marshall
Rob Marshall’s legacy is a tough one to peg. On one hand, he’s choreographed some of the best revival productions over the past 20 some odd years(Cabaret, Damn Yankees, She Loves Me) and is also responsible for one the best musical movie adaptations of all time(Chicago). But he’s also responsible for one of the worst(Nine) and delivered a visually stunning but empty Into the Woods. And with the news of his interest in bringing Follies to the screen, I can’t decide if I should be full of excitement or dread. However I cannot deny this man’s contributions to modern musical theatre and the legions of people who have been inspired by his work.
85. Betty Buckley
Betty Buckley might have had only one significant contribution to modern musical theatre history, but what a contribution it was. Her recording of “Memory”, one of the most recognizable show tunes of all time, still gives me goosebumps. No one has come close to matching it(sit down Elaine Page fans). In addition to her iconic Grizabella, she also appeared in original productions of 1776, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Triumph of Love (Tony nod) and the infamous Carrie. In 2012 she became American Theater Hall of Fame inductee.
84. Robert Lopez
I have a feeling that years from now, we might see Lopez somewhere in the top twenty on this list. One of the rare EGOT (Emmy,Grammy,Oscar,Tony) winners in history, Lopez has not only pushed the boundary of comedy on Broadway but also kick started the new Disney Renaissance of Animated Musicals. Avenue Q was brilliant, Book of Mormon(along with Trey Parker & Matt Stone), was proof Lopez wasn’t a fluke and Frozen will be the root of countless future musical performers just as Alan Menken did with children of the 90’s.
83. Joel Grey
Joel Grey created one of the most iconic characters in musical history with his performance as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, a role he won both the Tony and Oscar for. An unconventional leading man, he was also nominated for Tonys for his performances in George M!, Goodtime Charley and The Grand Tour. He was the original Wizard in Wicked and starred in the revival productions of Chicago and Anything Goes.
82. Harvey Fierstein
Harvey Fierstein might have made this list based on his performances or writing credits alone, but the fact that he’s done both, he definitely deserves to be on here. In 1982, his play Torch Song Trilogy won him Tonys for not only Best Play but also Best Actor in a Play. Fierstein also wrote the book for La Cage aux Folles, winning another Tony Award, this time for Best Book of a Musical. He has also written books recently for Kinky Boots and Newsies. His Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, won him a Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical. A leading figure on Broadway today, he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2007.
81. Robert Wise
If this list were strictly regarding the theatre itself, Wise wouldn’t be on here. But when you direct arguably the two greatest movie musicals of all time(Sound of Music, West Side Story), you’re going to be on this list. Both films have created millions of musical theatre fans since their releases and both won the Oscars for Best Picture.
80. Sutton Foster
The best “triple threat” on Broadway since Chita Rivera, Foster has had an incredible start to what will be a prolific career. She has received two Tony Awards for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical in 2002 for the role of Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie and in 2011 for her performance as Reno Sweeney(might have been the best ever to play the role) in Anything Goes. Her other Broadway credits include Little Women (Tony nod), The Drowsy Chaperone(Tony Nod), Young Frankenstein, Shrek the Musical (Tony nod), and Violet. With her new TV show Younger coming out soon, it’s unknown when we will see her on 42nd St but I hope its sooner than later because Broadway is better when she is on it.
79. Jerry Herman
The opinion about Jerry Herman’s place in musical theatre history is always an interesting topic of discussion. For some, his work represented an homage to the golden age of musicals of the 1930’s-40’s, to others, like myself, he’s overrated. His compositions were elementary, his lyrics were average, he couldn’t write for the male voice (even in La Cage aux Folles), and his work really didn’t have much substance. In an era where some wanted more out of musical theatre, Herman was trying to set the clock back. However I cannot deny that he did have a string of memorable hits not only on stage but on-screen as well, hence his spot on this list.
78. Matthew Broderick
Matthew Broderick is somewhat of a wild card when it comes to his place on this list. On one hand he has had some wonderfully charismatic performances that put him in the tier of the strongest leading men in musical theatre history. On the other hand he can also be one of the most wooden actors on stage today. When I recently saw him in It’s Only a Play, I couldn’t believe that this man once had enough charisma that he mastered J. Pierrepont Finch or Leo Bloom. We saw a sliver of that in Nice Work If You Can Get It but it wasn’t even close to what he once was. If Broderick can find that personality again, look out.
77. Gwen Verdon
One of the great triple threats of her day, Gwen Verdon was a rare breed. An incredible dancer, she was Bob Fosse’s muse, and wife, for a number of years, perfecting his style of choreography. While you have to give her credit for making the Tony winning role of Lola in Damn Yankees as iconic as it is, some forget that she also won three others for Can-Can, New Girl in Town and Redhead. She also originated the roles of Roxie Hart and Charity. Gwen Verdon was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981.
76. Claude-Michel Schönberg & Alain Boublil
When you write (along with some others), two of the most iconic musicals of all time, it’s not a hard decision to put you on this list. Les Miserables and Miss Saigon were two of the blockbuster musicals that we saw dominate Broadway in the 80’s-90’s. While their work since then hasn’t been nearly as good, the number of people inspired to get involved in musical theatre because they heard “On My Own” or “The Last Night of the World” is countless.
75. Idina Menzel
One of the leading and most listened to voices of musical theatre in the new century, Menzel’s place on this list is poised to rise dramatically. Her work in RENT inspired people of my age to get into musical theatre. With Wicked, there are women about to start playing the role of Elphaba who first heard it with Menzel. But Frozen is where Menzel will have the most impact. “Let It Go” is the 21st Century’s “Over the Rainbow”, and we all know how many that inspired to start singing. There is no ceiling on the impact of Menzel’s performances.
74. Jason Robert Brown
I recently wrote that no one working today does a better job of setting the human soul to music than Jason Robert Brown. I also questioned whether or not he was a worthy investment.But there is no doubt that Brown is one of the best composers Broadway has to offer. A two-time Tony Winner for Parade and The Bridges of Madison County, he also is behind the awe-inspiring Songs for a New World and The Last Five Years, which recently became of the best movie musicals of all time. He’s one of the busiest composers on Broadway and is now working on an adaptation of A League of Their Own.
73. Ben Vereen
In the late 60”s to early 70’s, it was rare to see an African-American leading man on Broadway. But Ben Vereen’s talent prevented him from being anything else. As the original Leading Player, his is still one of the most charismatic and all around versatile performances documented. In 2011, he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.
72. Busby Berkeley
It is strange but true that Busby Berkeley never had a dancing lesson and, in his early days, he was very afraid of people finding out. He often drove his colleagues to distraction by his habit of sitting in front of a new set for days at a time thinking up ways of using it to best advantage.
71. Michael Kidd
Kidd’s influence on choreography is iconic. Not only on Broadway, where he won five Tonys, but also film. Perhaps his best-known film work was in 1954 in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” a musical of the American frontier whose dances were created by Mr. Kidd for ballet dancers who were not supposed to appear balletic. Instead, he had them perform what he called “work movements,” like wielding axes. Kidd defined his choreography as ”human behavior and people’s manners, stylized into musical rhythmic forms.”

He added, ”I always use real-life gestures, and most of my dancing is based on real life.”

Anna Kisselgoff, the former chief dance critic of The New York Times, wrote that Kidd’s signature was ”characterization through energy, epitomized by a lovesick male clan going courting with an acrobatic challenge dance” in “Seven Brides.”100. Maury Yeston

He is known for writing the music and lyrics to Nine in 1982, and Titanic in 1997, both of which won Tony Awards for best musical and best score. He also won a Drama Desk Award for Nine. Yeston also wrote a significant amount of the music and most of the lyrics to the Tony-nominated musical Grand Hotel in 1989, which was nominated for best score. His musical version of the The Phantom of the Opera entitled Phantom (far superior to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s) has enjoyed numerous productions around the world. According to Show Music magazine, Yeston “has written some of the most formally structured music in recent musical theatre. But he also has the gift for creating ravishing melody – once you’ve heard ‘Love Can’t Happen’ from Grand Hotel, or ‘An Unusual Way’ from Nine, or ‘Home’ from Phantom, or any number of other Yeston songs, you’ll be hooked.”

Click here to see the entire Top 100 list.