Although music has been a part of the theatrical world since ancient times, there’s a defining moment, when music leapt out of the supporting role and became the star. And the general consensus is that day was when the Fathers of the modern-day musical— British writers Gilbert & Sullivan— became a team. Notably, the most famous of their works, The Pirates of Penzance, which premiered in 1879, has been adapted and reproduced countless times, even as recently as 2012.
Another Father of the modern-day musical was George Edwards, the managing director of London’s Savoy Theatre in 1881, who brought modern dress, original songs, family-friendly themes, & romantic banter to the genre, and replaced the bawdy burlesque atmosphere with one of respectability.
While all this was taking place in Europe, the Americas gave rise to several famed musical writers and writing teams, including Harrigan & Hart, Rogers & Hart, Rogers & Hammerstein, George Bernard Shaw, & George M. Cohan.
But the age of musicals began in earnest at the onset of WWI, when the world’s need for escapism gave rise to a never-ending flood of musicals by such as “Shuffle Along”, a Broadway hit with an All-Black cast in 1921 (You didn’t think “Hamilton” was the first now, did you?), “Porgy & Bess”, another all-Black show in 1935, “Oklahoma!”(1943), “Carousel”(1945), “South Pacific” (1949), “The King & I” (1951), and one that I’m sure we’re all familiar with, “The Sound of Music” (1959).
And although musicals never really died out, each decade having its own string of hits, by the 1990s their popularity was waning. That is until Disney became their new purveyor.
With hits like The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, The Lion King, and Aladdin, Disney recaptured the hearts of the older generation, while enchanting those of the younger. So it’s no wonder that most of the highest-grossing musicals were produced by none other than Disney Animation & Disney Studios. But raw numbers don’t tell the whole story.
So I present you with two lists: A straight-forward, highest-grossing top ten list, according to Wikipedia, and a second (and I believe more accurate) one adjusted for inflation:
Highest-Grossing Musicals (Not Adjusted for Inflation)
As you can see, most of the films on this list were released pretty recently, between 2013-2019, with the original animated Lion King being the only exception. If we were to go by this list— full of Disney sequels and Live-Action remakes, we’d miss out on the depth, breadth, and rich cultural history of the musical as a whole.
Collectively, Disney has produced an endless amount of profit that stems from their musicals… too much to even calculate. Suffice it to say, with toys, merch, costumes, etc., it’s in the BILLIONS. Hundreds of billions. It’s dizzying. But does that mean they have mastered quality as well? That’s… debatable. With many of the high-grossing remakes falling astonishingly short of the magic of their originals, many of the films on the list above feel more like nostalgic vanity projects than works of art. As I said, raw numbers can be misleading.
Highest-Grossing Musicals (Adjusted for Inflation)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, is a beautifully varied inside look into the constantly changing cultural priorities of the consistently mercurial human race.
At the top of this list, with no surprise, is:
1. The Sound of Music (1965)
$1,362,273,686 (adjusted from $163,214,286)
2. My Fair Lady (1964)
$652,645,154 (adjusted from $72,000,000)
3. Grease (1978)
$602.892.685 (adjusted from $181,813,770)
4. West Side Story (1961)
$533,899,997 (adjusted from $43,700,000)
5. South Pacific (1958)
$456,211,764 (adjusted from $36,800,000)
6. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
$408,170,029 (adjusted from $80,500,000)
7. Funny Girl (1968)
$376,454,194 (adjusted from $58,500,000)
8. The King and I (1956)
$359,118,000 (adjusted from $21,300,000)
9. Oliver! (1968)
$240,691,792 (adjusted from $37,402,877)
10. Chicago (2002)
$239,112,061 (adjusted from $170,687,518)
Also Read: What’s Next For Disney?