10 of the best musical theatre composers
There are plenty to choose from, but these are the composers you should know about, with stage shows attracting audiences on Broadway, the West End and the world over
Think of your favourite song. There’s a good chance it’s a showtune and an ever better chance it was written by one of these composers. Who are the very best musical composers?
There are plenty to choose from, but here’s a rundown of ten you really ought to know about. Some stepped onto Broadway after careers in pop and film music, others confidently straddled the worlds of commercial and classical music. And there’s many more we could name… Who have we missed? Who are your faves?
Best Musical Theatre Composers
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
One of the great all-rounders, George Gershwin might be considered the father of the American musical. He composed over a dozen shows from throughout the 1920s and ’30s, while at the same time composing music for films and the concert stage – not to mention opera. He worked regularly with his brother, Ira Gershwin, and gave Broadway the likes of Funny Face (1927) and Girl Crazy (1930). His work inspired new and revised stage musicals decades after his death, with the likes of Crazy for You (1992) and An American in Paris (2015) proving immensely popular.
Frederik Loewe (1901-1988)
German-born, Loewe formed an enduring creative partnership with the lyricist Alan Jay Lerner in the US (where he’d lived since the 1920s). Together they created classics like Brigadoon (1947), My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960), and not-so-popular musicals like Paint Your Wagon (1951). Their 1958 musical film Gigi was revised as a stage musical in 1973.
Richard Rodgers (1902-79)
It’s fair to say Rodgers’s impact on stage musicals was huge. His early career saw him penning some of 20th-century music’s great standards – enough to give the Gershwins a run for their money. He wrote the likes of ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘My Funny Valentine’ with lyricist Lorenz Hart – indeed, ‘Rodgers and Hart’ was as familiar to Americans as ‘Cookies and Cream’. Though their stage hits included classics The Girl Friend (1926) and Pal Joey (1940), it was with his next writing partner that Richard Rodgers’s star truly blazed. With Oscar Hammerstein II Rodgers would give the world hit after hit, including Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959).
Recommended recording: My Favourite Things – A Richard Rodgers Celebration
John Kander (b1927)
Though he has written over 20 musicals it is just two for which John Kander is rightly celebrated: Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975). Those, and the likes of the lesser-known Flora the Red Menace (1965), Zorba (1992) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), were written with lyricist Fred Ebb, with whose name Kander’s will forever be associated. The pair’s most recent musical was 2010’s The Scottsboro Boys, while Kander premiered a new work in 2018: The Beast in the Jungle.
Recommended recording: Chicago – Original London Cast Recording
Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021)
The undoubted master of the modern American musical, Stephen Sondheim’s artistic insight and imagination seemingly knew no bounds. Each of the 18 musicals he created were different, from frothy fantasy to political satire via deeply human drama. He wrote his own lyrics, too, so his shows were 100% Sondheim. His first show, 1954’s Saturday Night, didn’t exactly light up the stage and so he retreated from composing to focus on lyric writing. The two shows he penned made an impact on the world, and his career: West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959). With hits on his CV he gave Broadway A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), followed by – pretty much – hit after hit and dominated Broadway, becoming the creative genius every up composer-lyricist who followed aspired to be.
Recommended recording: The Essential Stephen Sondheim
Jerry Herman (1931-2019)
Through a handful of musicals, composer-lyricist Jerry Herman made his name on The Great White Way. Of course he wrote more than that, but the jewels in his crown are Hello Dolly (1964), Mame (1966), Mack and Mabel (1974) and La Cage Aux Folles (1983). Filled with eminently hummable melodies, you could always rely on Herman to raise a smile. Hello Dolly was the one-time longest-running show on Broadway (now Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, which has played at the Majestic Theatre continuously since 26 January 1988).
Elton John (b1947)
No stranger to writing hit songs, Elton John has very successfully made the transition to musical composer in the last 24 years. Helped perhaps by the collaboration he enjoyed on Disney’s 1994 animated film The Lion King, Elton John reteamed with lyricist Tim Rice for Aida (1998) and went on to compose music and songs for the massively popular stage version of Billy Elliot (2005). His original songs were used in the smash-hit stage adaptation of The Lion King(1997). It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however, as the composer’s 2006 musical Lestat (based on Anne Rice’s vampire novels) sank without a trace after just a few weeks on Broadway. You can’t win them all!
Andrew Lloyd Webber (b1948)
Might he be the undisputed King of musical theatre? From the prog-rock beginnings of Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) through the sweeping romance of Phantom of the Opera (1986) to a modern-day telling of Cinderella (2021), Andrew Lloyd Webber has done it all. Whether it’s Joseph’s coat of many colours or high-kicking felines making their way to a ‘Jellicle Ball’, the composer’s inspiration has seemed fairly limitless through the 50-odd years he has been doing his thing. And he shows no signs of stopping.
Recommended recording: Andrew Lloyd Webber – Unmasked: The Platinum Collection
Stephen Schwartz (b1948)
It was Godspell (1971) which launched Schwartz’s career (and earned him a couple of Grammys), but oddly the works that followed you’d be forgiven for not having heard. In the 1990s, following the death of lyricist Howard Ashman, he provided words for Alan Menken’s Disney film musicals Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1996). His own film music, The Prince of Egypt (1998) followed, and it wasn’t long after that audiences were reminded of the composer’s prowess on the Broadway stage. Wicked (2003) has become one of the genre’s biggest hits, and Schwartz most recently adapted and expanded The Prince of Egypt for the stage.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (b1980)
There isn’t a songwriter more in demand than Lin-Manuel Miranda right now. On screen he has penned songs for Disney hits such as Moana and Encanto, plus Sony Pictures’s Vivo, while on stage he is responsible for one of Broadway and the West End’s biggest hits: Hamilton (2015). A decade before he set the stage on fire with that memorable ‘rap musical’, Miranda gave the world In the Heights (2005), which was adapted for the big screen in 2021. We’re sure there’s plenty more music to come from this 21st-century renaissance man – if he can squeeze it in between writing, acting, singing an directing.
Recommended recording: Hamilton – Original Broadway Cast Recording
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.