20 Broadway Musicals You Really Should Have Heard By Now
Yes, Broadway shows are expensive. Luckily, you can hear all of your favorite—and soon-to-be-favorite—musicals on their cast albums. Even if you’re not a musical buff, these iconic tunes are worth a listen.
As surely as the sun will come out tomorrow, Annie will always remain a prominent—and ever optimistic—part of pop culture. Based on the “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip, the show has gone through almost 30 tours and revivals, including a recent film adaptation in 2014 starring Jamie Foxx. Among its most popular tunes are “It’s the Hard Knock Life” and, of course, “Tomorrow.”
Annie Get Your Gun
Don’t worry, this isn’t a sequel to Annie that took a dark turn. It’s the 1946 Irving Berlin musical about Annie Oakley, who was in fact a real person though this plotline is fictional. At first a tomboyish sharpshooter, Annie eventually transforms into a refined show woman on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, where she learns that there really is no business like show business. You probably know most of the songs without realizing it. Ever heard the phrase “Anything you can do, I can do better?” Or “They say that falling in love is wonderful?” Both originated from this show.
From the trumpets to the tap dancing, it’s physically impossible to resist toe-tapping and/or head-bobbing when you hear this show’s title song—or any other number. Cole Porter’s production is essentially the cruise of a lifetime, complete with famous guests, messy love triangles, and the booming voice of nightclub singer Reno Sweeney, most recently portrayed by Sutton Foster in the 2011 Tony Award-winning revival.
Ever wonder what your cat is thinking? If all cats are secretly like the characters in Cats, then we’ve been seriously underestimating what goes on in their heads. Based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber takes us into the lives of the Jellicle cat tribe. Some sit and do nothing all day, others are mischievous and magical, and a couple are just downright evil. But all of them love singing about their nonsensical names that you should totally steal for your own pet: Munkustrap, Rum Tum Tugger, Mr. Mistoffelees. Then there’s Grizabella, the old shabby cat who sings the heart-wrenching ballad, “Memory.” While you listen, figure out which one best resembles your cat’s personality.
Murder, corruption, scandal—sounds more like an addicting TV drama than a Broadway musical, but maybe those shows got their inspiration from Chicago. Roxie Hart is jailed for murdering her lover, but when her lawyer spins the story in her favor, Roxie quickly gains public sympathy. Soon, she’s competing with fellow inmate Velma, doing anything necessary for the title of “most famous celebrity criminal.” But both murderesses—and the jazzy, vaudeville-style score—won over audiences in real life. Chicago is the second longest-running on Broadway (after The Phantom of the Opera) and the 2002 film adaptation won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Fiddler on the Roof
Without tradition, life would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof, and without Fiddler on the Roof, we wouldn’t have such songs as “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sunrise, Sunset” (which will inevitably be sung at the next wedding you attend). The story of Tevye and his five daughters with very different ambitions strikes a relatable chord for all families, one of love, acceptance, and the importance of tradition.
Guys and Dolls
Gamblers Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson may make unconventional bets—namely that Sky can’t get the religious Sister Sarah Brown to go on a date with him—but your odds of enjoying this delightfully funny comedy are definitely in your favor. The original production won the 1951 Tony for Best Musical, and Frank Sinatra later re-recorded the show tunes with Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis, Jr., and other vocal greats.
Hairspray has a lot of unbelievable uses besides keeping your ‘do in place: killing houseflies, shining shoes, taking down racism through song and dance. Okay, only Hairspray the musical does that last one—with a rocking mix of rhythm & blues and 1960s-era dance grooves. The production has gone through many adaptations, the most recent being an NBC live musical in December 2016, so you better start memorizing these tunes before the next revival comes out.
Odds are you’re heard rumblings about a little musical about Alexander Hamilton, the ten-dollar founding father (though some important historical facts about Hamilton weren’t mentioned.) Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony award-winning show is quickly becoming a modern classic for proving rap belongs on the Broadway stage and making us all wish we paid more attention in history class. You should listen to the soundtrack in its entirety (preferably more than once) if only to keep up with the pop culture references.
If you want a matchmaker for your happily ever after, find one as determined and witty as Dolly Gallagher Levi. As she proves as the titular character in this musical, she’s capable of setting up multiple couples on one shenanigan-filled trip to New York City and still finds time to snag herself the man of her dreams. The songs are as bubbly and uplifting as the lovable characters, which is probably why the show has seen several revivals since it opened in 1964. You can even see a current production on Broadway starring Bette Midler (or listen to the new Broadway cast recording with Midler).
Of the long list of jukebox musicals (musicals that use previously released popular songs as their score), few have made such a cultural impact as Jersey Boys. Since the show is based on the lives of the real boys from New Jersey that made up The Four Seasons, you get the classic hits you love (“December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”) revamped for the big stage. We dare you not to sing along to this toe-tapping album.
Before listening to a recording of Les Miserables, know that you will experience every emotion you can possibly feel (granted, mostly sad ones) but it’s worth it to hear one of the greatest musicals ever written. Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, it takes audiences into the French Revolution through the eyes of Jean Valjean, Fantine, Javert, and others struggling their way through the French Revolution. The powerhouse score features classics, like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Bring Him Home,” that can never be oversung.
The Lion King
Disney is an unstoppable force when it comes to musicals (and their impressive lyrics). So many Disney shows have hit Broadway, but none of them can compare to the visual and musical wonder that is The Lion King. It has the same lovable characters, all your favorite songs from the movie, plus new tunes like the moving “He Lives in You” and energetic African chants from the ensemble.
The Music Man
Few musicals are more authentically American than Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. In this ode to the wholesome rural towns, Harold Hill promises to teach music to the townsfolk of River City, Iowa, with the intention of skipping town after raking in their money. Its popular songs have earned their place into musical theater history (“Seventy-six Trombones,” “Shipoopi,” Goodnight, My Someone”), and oh, there’s a barbershop quartet.
No duo made a bigger impact on musical theater history than Rodgers and Hammerstein, as in composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II who gave us shows like South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music (more on that later). So it’s only proper to pay homage by listening to their very first collaboration. Oklahoma! is considered a revolutionary production not only for producing musical standards (especially “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and the title song) but also for using its songs to advance the plotline and character development.
The Phantom of the Opera
You can’t claim to be a Broadway fan without knowing about its longest running show. Phantom’s haunting score and mysterious male lead have captivated audiences for 29 years and counting, and every aspiring soprano has tried to match Christine’s operatic vocal range. For those unfamiliar with the story and music, start with a recording of the show’s 25th anniversary performance at the Royal Albert Hall, featuring the incredible talents of Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess.
Rent is more than a masterful work of art; it has a timeless message about love and pursuing dreams in the face of adversity. Jonathan Larson’s musical follows seven Bohemian-style artists struggling to make it in New York City despite poverty and HIV/AIDS. (It garnered critical acclaim for its representation of HIV positive individuals.) The show won the Tony Award for Best Musical and the Pulitzer for Drama in 1996. Among the edgy, moving music, its iconic song “Seasons of Love” has found a permanent place in the musical canon.
The Sound of Music
The hills aren’t the only things alive with the sound of music. This musical-turned-movie-adapted-from-real-life has won over the hearts of millions since it opened in 1959. “My Favorite Things” taught us how to conquer our fears. “Do-Re-Mi” taught us how to sing. Literally. There’s something to be learned from each song, if that lesson is nothing more than how to truly appreciate the power of music.
The story of what happened before Dorothy dropped in is arguably now as classic as the film that started it all (that film being The Wizard of Oz.) Wicked’s swift rise in popularity is due largely in part to its music and the memorable performances from original lead actresses Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel. Who hasn’t belted out “Defying Gravity” when they needed an extra boost in self-confidence? I can’t be the only one who does that, right?
West Side Story
Whether or not you think Romeo and Juliet is an overrated classic, its modern musical adaptation is far from it. This story of forbidden love is set in 1950s New York City, and the Capulets and Montagues are replaced by two teenage street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. Yet the rebellious romance remains as passionate as ever. West Side Story was also famous lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway debut, his first of many smash hits.