The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time

By Ken Bloom

Black Dog & Leventhal. 2004. $34.95.

Musical theater fans love to compile lists: their own favorite works, the Sondheim canon in order of merit, the most influential shows. It's also great fun to parse other people's lists, attacking all the odd choices and inexcusable omissions. "Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time" (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2004, $34.95), by Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik, is probably the ultimate list of its kind -- wonderful and fascinating and ridiculous, sometimes all at once -- and the photographs are treasures.

Tastes change, and many of the selected shows -- they date from "Babes in Toyland" in 1903 -- are seldom if ever performed anymore. But dozens of songs from these long-dead productions linger in the memory. And a century's worth of classic performances are commemorated: Fred and Adele Astaire in "Funny Face," Ethel Merman in "Girl Crazy," Gertrude Lawrence in "Lady in the Dark," Alexis Smith and Dorothy Collins in "Follies," and many, many more. In their introduction, the authors state that "the vast majority of photos in this book are being seen here for the first time anywhere," and indeed there are arresting surprises on almost every page, many of them enhanced by droll captions.

The entries are alphabetical, and a cast list, plot synopsis, backstage chatter and details of the creative process accompany each. Interspersed amid the show-by-show cavalcade, the authors also offer entertaining segments on star turns, revues, notable flops and guilty pleasures, plus numerous short biographies of the great and the should-have-been-great.

The greatest shows, by Bloom and Vlastnik's reckoning, were all "extremely popular and/or groundbreaking," as well as influential. All of the acknowledged landmarks, from "Show Boat" to "Carousel" to "Gypsy" to "Sweeney Todd," are of course included, but with so many slots to fill, the authors have also made room for such deliciously goofy entries as "George White's Scandals of 1931," "Li'l Abner" and "DuBarry Was a Lady." Big hits such as "Grease" and "Miss Saigon" are missing, as they should be, but there are jarring absences: Where's "Sunday in the Park With George"? Where's "The Producers"?

These aren't serious complaints -- the book is far too enjoyable for that. And besides, complaining is part of the fun here. "Broadway Musicals" is a pure celebration of an American art form, and the authors clearly relished their work. Any theater lover should find the party irresistible.

-- Chip Crews, theater editor

Celebrating an American art form: Angela Lansbury in "Mame," from "Broadway Musicals."