Top 10 Most Controversial Broadway Shows

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The Broadway stage has always been a place where the freedom of expression runs wild. Some Broadway shows push the limits of what is acceptable in the theater and in society in general. This is a list of shows that went for it with complete disregard of the boundaries they were breaking. Some clips are from the movie version of the Broadway show because quality clips couldn’t be found from the actual Broadway show.

10. The Full Monty

Adapted from the 1997 film of the same name, The Full Monty tells the tale of six unemployed steel workers from Buffalo who desperately decide to present a strip act at a local club for cash. With a let it go attitude the show deals with desperation, suicide, homosexuality and  obvious nudity but it is also an uplifting story whose characters will stick with you forever. Each of the men deals with different problems, besides debt and their insecurities over their bodies. The Full Monty debuted on Broadway on October 26, 2000 and has since been revived across the globe, from North America to Asia and everywhere in between. The original production was nominated for nine Tony awards, however it didn’t win any.

9. Avenue Q

Best described as a fusion between Sesame Street and Rent, Avenue Q covers racism, sex, drugs, gay relationships and an addiction to internet pornography. Moving to New York, Princeton finds an apartment on the fictional Avenue Q where he meets neighbors, Kate Monster (a single kindergarten teacher), Nicky and Rod (two roommates), Brian (an unemployed comedian), Christmas Eve (Brian’s Japanese American fiancee) Trekkie Monster (an internet porn addict) and apartment superintendent Gary Coleman (yes child star Gary Coleman). Avenue Q opened off-Broadway in March 2003 and moved to Broadway four months later in July. The show went on to win four of its six Tony nominations (Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for Stephanie D’Abruzzo).

8. Victor/Victoria

Based on the 1982 film of the same name, Victor/Victoria tells the story of female singer Victoria who disguises herself as a man named Victor whose cabaret show is as a female impersonator, Victoria (that’s right a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman). Her scheme is working too until the title character (played by Julie Andrews) becomes the object of gangster King Marchan’s affection. Victor/Victoria unapologetically deals with the concept of sexual identity but more importantly its about being able to accept people for who they are. Victor/Victoria opened on Broadway on October 25, 1995 at the Marquis Theater. When Andrews was given the show’s only Tony nomination, she turned the honor down by saying that she would “stand instead with the egregiously overlooked” and refused to perform at the awards.

7. The Rocky Horror Show

Starting in London’s West End in 1973, The Rocky Horror Show has gone on to have a cult following everywhere. The show is about a conservative couple, Brad and Janet, who after a little car trouble find themselves in the castle of mad scientist, sweet transvestite Frank N Furter, surrounded by bikers who are actually space aliens. It is a show of strange characters and overt sexuality where the audience is encouraged to participate (with call backs and by throwing certain things onto the stage although this has recently been discouraged by some theaters)and some even come dressed up (usually in fishnets and leather). The Rocky Horror Show made its Broadway debut on March 10, 1975, the same year that The Rocky Horror Picture Show (the film version) was released. The Rocky Horror Show has since taken to the stage throughout North America, Australia and Europe, including revivals in both Broadway and West End theaters.

6. Cabaret

Set in 1930s Germany (when the Nazis were just coming into power) Cabaret shines a spotlight on the goings on at the seedy Kit Kat Klub. Of particular interest to the plot is English cabaret performer Sally Bowles who finds herself in love with American writer Cliff Bradshaw. Another integral relationship is that of German landlady Fraulein Schneider and Jewish fruit vendor Herr Shultz.The show is masterfully presided over by the Master of Ceremonies who acts as an unending metaphor for the societal values of Weimar Germany. The escapism and hedonism of the time is dotted with social and political commentary. Cabaret made its Broadway debut on November 20, 1966 and has since been revived both in Broadway and West End theaters. The original production went on to win eight out of eleven Tony nominations.

5. West Side Story

At a time when street gangs were just newly making headlines, West Side Story retold Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet substituting rival gangs for the noble families of the original. The show revolves around two gangs The Jets (American) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican) who are fighting turf wars in New York City’s West Side. At the center of these two groups of rivals is Maria (the sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks) and Tony (one of the founding members of the Jets) who meet at a dance and fall in love(interracial relationships were not common when the show debuted thus breaking boundaries). There was also some controversy over whether the score was too operatic and the dance sequences too long for Broadway and some early critics even called the staging impossible. But Bernstein, Sondheim, Robbins and Laurents persisted and West Side Story opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957 to great critical and commercial success. The original production won two out of five Tony nominations (Best Choreographer for Jerome Robbins and Best Scenic Designer for Oliver Smith). It has since been made into a film in 1961 (which won ten Oscars) and countless international revivals including four on Broadway.

4. Rent

Based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Boheme, Rent chronicles a year in the lives of a group of bohemians in New York’s East Village. At a time when there were all kinds of preconceptions about AIDS, Rent broke them with the characters’ hope and zest for life. Also central to the plot is drug addiction, homosexuality, poverty and the usual relationship struggles that glue the piece together. Created by Jonathan Larson in the 90s, (started as a workshop in 1993 and was shown off-Broadway in 1994 before making its Broadway debut in 1996 at the Nederland Theater) Rent gained a cult following of super fans called Rent-heads. Larson died of an aortic aneurysm on January 25, 1996 the day of the final dress rehearsal, and never got to see Rent become an overwhelming success. Rent went on to garner an astonishing ten Tony nominations, four of which it won (Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score and Best Performance by a Feature Actor in a Musical for Wilson Jermaine Heredia’s portrayal of drag queen Angel Dumott Schunaud). Rent was later made into a film in 2005 for those who were unable to come see it in New York.

3. Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening is centered around the sexual and life discovery of a group of teenagers in 1890’s Germany whose parents oppress any communication about sex. Spring Awakening is ripe with vivid portrayals of sex, masturbation, rape, abortion, suicide and child abuse. With a strong alternative rock and folk fusion the score achieves greatness in songs wrought with sexuality and life lessons such as The Bitch of Living, Mama Who Bore Me, I Believe and Totally F**ked. Spring Awakening began off-Broadway in May 2006 and opened on Broadway in December of the same year. Since then it has staged all across the world, and Warner Brothers has shown an interest in making it into a feature film.

2. Equus

Inspired by a news story he heard about a boy who blinded six horses, Peter Schaffer set out to examine what might have caused it without digging into the actual crime. The result is a play that touches on religious sacrifice and the conflict between personal beliefs and societal norms. Equus mostly takes place in the office of Dr. Martin Dysart as he tries to hunt down the causes of Alan Strang’s repressed memories and perversion for horses. Alan in his childhood skewed the societal views of sex and worship into his own religion where he finds God through naked midnight rides with his horse. Frustration over his growing arousal for ranch hand Jill Mason (which he believes is infidelity) leads to the violent act that fuels the story. The original production earned the Tony for Best Play and a Drama Desk award for Outstanding Foreign Play. Equus was originally staged in London in 1973 and made its Broadway debut in 1974. It was made into a film in 1977 and was revived in 2007 in London and 2009 on Broadway starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliff and Richard Griffiths.

1. Hair

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In the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement, hippie counter culture and a sexual revolution, Hair broke down the boundaries of racial integration, sexuality and political rebellion in the late 1960s. Hair is about a tribe of long-haired hippies fighting conscription to the Vietnam War and navigating through a world of racial inequality, drugs, homosexuality and poverty. At the heart of the group is Claude a somewhat bewildered hippie who struggles with the decision to either burn his draft card like his friends or to give into his responsibility as an American and go off to fight. He chooses the latter, is killed and mourned by his friends. Hair debuted off-Broadway in October 1967 and six months later moved to Broadway. It was made into a movie in 1979 and has been staged a myriad of times across the globe, including two Broadway revivals (1977 and 2009). The original production was nominated for two Tony awards (Best Musical and Best Director), but lost both to 1776.


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16 Comments

  1. Fun list – thanks for the clips! what about Oh, Calcutta! Seems, to me, to be more controversial than West Side Story or Rent, even given the time periods of release.

  2. all of those shows are so amazing, but you forgot assassins! The Broadway musical about killing american presidents. spring awakening is the best show i have ever seen.

  3. Rocky Horror is one I have yet to see live and want to. Broadway musicals have never been something I am interested in. Doing something racy is all that they seem to want to do. Rocky Horror is great and I love the movie.

  4. Keith Watabayashi on

    Oh Calcutta, Assassins, Sweeny Todd, and The Beard should be on this list, imo. How bout Kiss of the Spider-Woman? Or maybe the most influential/controversial broadway show of the 20th century, A Streetcar Named Desire? Hard to imagine any of the "sex musicals" listed here existing without Marlon Brando's bare chest leading the way.

    • Did you read the heading/title? It’s controversial musicals.
      To the best of my knowledge Streetcar named Desire was never a musical.
      And I think they meant controversial within the context of the storyline, not just because an actor took his shirt off.

  5. the whos tommy?

    come on the kid waches his dad be murdered, molested by his uncle, shot up with acid, plays pinball, and becomes a god.

  6. Some good shows, but there's a serious bias towards recent shows and nudity as controversy here. What about Show Boat? The first racially integrated musical — examining racism, segregation, and depicting an interracial marriage in the 1920s?

  7. Avenue Q. When I saw that there was a list, I was hoping that this musical would be on it. Not because it shocks me or anything of the sort, but because it's one of those musicals that goes there and gets away with it. It's such a great musical and I'm glad it was mentioned. Sometimes the music really describes my day. Like "It Sucks to be Me."

    • Unless I missed something when I saw Oh Calcutta many years ago, I never considered it a musical. It was more sketch comedy with some songs.
      Marx Brothers movies were considered comedies, not musicals even though there were usually songs and music in it

  8. Where’s the mention of all the Tony nominations and awards for Spring Awakening? It won 8, including Best Musical, Book, Score, Direction, Choreography, Orchestration, and Featured Actor (John Gallagher Jr.) and was nominated for 4 others, including Best Leading Actor (Jonathan Groff)!!

    • Um, don’t get your comment?. Why should they mention the Tony awards for Spring Awakening???
      The topic was merely controversial musicals. So they gave brief summaries on each one.
      If they were to do what you requested, they should do it with all of them, as most of the ones they mentioned were nominated and won Tony awards.
      Makes no sense what you’re saying

  9. Am I missing something, or didn’t the heading say controversial ‘musicals’.
    When was Equus a musical? It might’ve been, but I have no idea that it iwas.
    Did the author just run out of musicals/
    It also seems like the author doesn’t like to do much research beyond the 60’s, as al of them were musicals from the 60’s on.
    Also reading some comments, some people mentioned that it missed Oh Calcutta. I I saw Oh Calcutta years ago. Loved the show. But I never considered it a musical. I considered it more risque sketch comedy with some songs.

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