As was true in many areas of arts and entertainment, not a whole lot (relatively speaking) was happening on Broadway during the Great Depression years and in the early ’40s, when all eyes were fixated on the second World War. But as the war came to a close and the soldiers came home, the theater scene took off in the middle of the decade as a welcome way of returning to a calmer, more normal way of life.
A number of popular, iconic musicals graced the Broadway stage in the forties, and the trend only picked up with even more major Broadway musical hits in the 1950s. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; here’s a look at some of the most classic Broadway musicals of the 1940s.
Great Broadway Musicals of the ’40s
- Oklahoma! – This was the first musical written by the renowned duo made up of composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. It opened on March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theatre and ran for more than 2,100 performances—a record-breaking stretch at the time. It is the most popular and one of the most classic Broadway musicals of the 1940s.
- Follow the Girls – This wartime hit about a burlesque striptease dancer features a book by Guy Bolton, Eddie Davis and Fred Thompson, and music and lyrics by Dan Shapiro, Milton Pascal, and Phil Charig. It premiered on Broadway at the now-gone New Century Theatre in April 1944, and it transferred to the 44th Street Theatre and then the Broadhurst Theatre during its run of more than 880 performances.
- Song of Norway – After initial success in California, this operetta debuted at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on August 21, 1944, where it ran for 860 shows. It was written by Robert Wright and George Forrest, adapted from music by Edvard Grieg and the book by Milton Lazarus and Homer Curran. It was the first Broadway show to venture across the Atlantic post-WWII, and it was also popular in London, where it ran for 526 shows at the Palace Theatre.
- Carousel – The second collaboration between Rogers and Hammerstein, this is one of the all-time most famous musicals. This story about a carousel barker opened at the Majestic Theatre in April 1945, where the original production ran for 890 performances through May 1947. It won numerous awards, including seven Donaldson awards, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical, and others.
- Annie Get Your Gun – With music and lyrics by the famed Irving Berlin and a book by siblings Dorothy and Herbert Fields, this musical about Annie Oakley was the third-longest-running Broadway musical of the decade. It ran for 1,147 performances at the Imperial Theatre, beginning in May of 1946 and starring the amazing Ethel Merman.
- Call Me Mister – This revue about soldiers returning home and eager to no longer be addressed by their military rank features sketches by Arnold Auerbach and words and music by Harold Rome. It opened at the National Theatre on April 18, 1946, and in the course of its 734-show run, it transferred to the Majestic Theatre and then the Plymouth Theatre (today known as the Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre).
- Kiss Me, Kate – With an original run of 1,077 performances, the fourth-longest-running musical on Broadway in the ’40s has music and lyrics by the beloved Cole Porter and was written by Bella and Samuel Spewack. After a few weeks in Philadelphia, it premiered in NYC on December 30, 1948 at the New Century Theatre and transferred to the Shubert Theatre after a little more than a year and a half. In 1949, it won five Tony Awards (including Best Musical), which had been founded in 1947 but were formalized and included the famous Tony medallions for the first time at this ceremony.
- Where’s Charley? – Based on the Brandon Thomas play Charley’s Aunt, the Broadway adaptation has music and lyrics by George Abbott and a book by Frank Loesser. It ran for 792 shows at the St. James Theatre, where it opened in October 1948. Shortly after closing, it had a shorter second run at The Broadway Theatre in 1951.
- South Pacific – The second-longest-running Broadway musical to open in the ’40s, it debuted on February 2, 1949 at the Belasco Theatre and enjoyed a run of 1,925 performances. It’s another of the classic Broadway musicals of the 1940s created by Rogers and Hammerstein (with Joshua Logan pitching in on the book with Hammerstein), and is widely considered one of the best musicals of all time. It won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, Best Director, Best Producer, Best Libretto, Best Original Score, and Best Scenic Design. It’s the only musical to win Tonies in all four acting categories, and it won a Pulitzer Prize, too.
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Though much more famous as the 1953 musical film starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, and as a best-selling novel, the Broadway musical version was fairly popular in the ’40s. It has a book by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos (who also wrote the novel), lyrics by Leo Robin, and music by Jule Styne. It also introduced the world to Carol Channing. It opened at the long-gone Ziegfeld Theatre in early December 1949, where it ran for 740 shows.