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Broadway Musicals from the Public Domain

July 2, 2024

by Ben Togut

This theatrical season, theatre lovers are experiencing a rarity: two musicals adapted from the same novel premiering within months of each other. The first, The Great Gatsby: A New Musical, is currently running at the Broadway Theatre, while another adaptation, Gatsby, is having its world premiere run at the ART in Cambridge, MA and aiming for a Broadway run. It makes sense that theater makers are seizing the opportunity to create Broadway magic from The Great Gatsby, as the novel only recently entered the public domain. In light of the dueling Gatsby adaptations, let’s take a look at some noteworthy musicals that were based on works in the public domain.

West Side Story

Based on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story brings Shakespeare’s tragic romance to life in 1950s New York. Premiering on Broadway in 1957, this beloved musical portrays the animosity between two rival gangs and the love story that blossoms between Tony and Maria, young people with ties to the opposing gangs. With a score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story features several Broadway classics, including “Maria” and “I Feel Pretty.” Following a 1961 film adaptation and a series of Broadway revivals (most recently running in early 2020), West Side Story was adapted into a 2021Steven Spielberg film starring Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort.

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Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1964. Based on Sholem Alecheim’s play Tevye and His Daughters, the musical tells the story of Tevye, a milkman who tries to maintain Jewish traditions against outside influences. The musical, which includes favorites such as “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Tradition,” has been revived on Broadway five times, mostly recently starring Danny Burstein as Tevye and Jessica Hecht as Golde. 

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A splashy musical featuring the choreography of Bob Fosse, Chicago premiered on Broadway in 1975. Based on the play of the same name by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Chicago explores the relationship between criminal behavior and celebrity through Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, two murderers vying for the spotlight. The 1975 Broadway cast featured theater legends such as Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, who originated the roles of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, respectively. Revived in 1996, Chicago holds the record for longest-running musical revival in Broadway history as its historic run continues at the Ambassador Theatre.

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Big River

Big River opened on Broadway in 1985. Based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the musical features country and bluegrass to recreate the environment of Mark Twain’s classic. The original Broadway cast featured Daniel Jenkins and Ron Richardson, who won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance as Jim. The 2003 revival, co-produced by Deaf West and Roundabout Theatre Company, is notable for including both deaf and hearing actors.

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Les Misérables

Based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, Les Misérables opened on Broadway in 1987. Set in 19th-century France, this epic musical focuses on a group of characters as they struggle with personal hardships amid the mounting tide of the French Revolution. The original Broadway production starred Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean and Terrence Mann as Javert. Les Misérables has since been revived twice, mostly recently in 2014 starring Ramin Karimloo and Will Swenson.

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The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera opened on Broadway in 1988. Adapted from Gaston Leroux’s novel, this dark musical explores the relationship between soprano Christine Daaé and The Phantom, a masked figure who lives below the Paris Opéra House. The original Broadway production starred Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, who won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of The Phantom. The musical holds the record for longest-running Broadway musical, having closed in 2023 after a more than 35-year-long run. 

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Rent, which is based on Puccini’s La bohème by Giacomo Puccini, opened on Broadway in 1996. Bringing Puccini’s opera from 1830s Paris to New York City during the AIDS crisis, the musical focuses on a group of young artists trying to get by and make lives for themselves in the East Village. The original Broadway production featured Daphne Rubin Vega, Adam Pascal, Idina Menzel, and Anthony Rapp, many of whom also starred in the 2005 film adaptation.