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10 of the best stage musicals of all time

What are the cornerstones of musical theatre? Where should you begin? Here's ten of the best musicals to get started... with more to come!

Best stage musicals

You’re sitting in your seat, programme in hand, the lights go down and the throng of the excited audience hushes as the unseen conductor strikes up the equally invisible orchestra for the overture

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I don’t know about you but I have missed the thrill of this moment, as a fabulous, splashy musical begins in the theatre. It got us thinking about the very best of Broadway and the West End; just what are the cornerstones and high points of the musical theatre genre?

Whittling it down to just 10 (for now) was no easy task, and there’s no doubt you’ll delight in telling us what we should have included. But there is more to come, so watch this space.

What are the best stage musicals of all time?

Here’s the list, in order of when the show premiered. Each is filled with memorable scenes, classic tunes and made a massive impact when they premiered. What’s your favourite? Which is Phan-tastic, or leaves you Misérables?

My Fair Lady (1956)

Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe

Based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Lerner and Loewe’s musical was a record breaker on Broadway, the longest running show of its day. A romantic comedy, its story of a working class girl transformed into a lady thanks to elocution lessons won legions of fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Songs like ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?’ and ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’ became oh-so familiar and the role of Eliza Dolittle made a star of Julie Andrews.

West Side Story (1957)

Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim

A modern take on Romeo & Juliet, West Side Story might well be the greatest musical of all time. It’s got it all: thrilling choreography, a scintillating score, memorable songs and a heartbreaking story. It was years in development with composer Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins and writer Arthur Laurent. Stephen Sondheim was yet to make his name as a composer, and was brought in to write the lyrics. It’s full of great songs… ‘Tonight’, ‘Maria’, ‘America’ and ‘Somewhere’, to name but a few. The 1961 film musical won a number of Oscars and a long-awaited new film version of the musical from director Steven Spielberg will be released in December.

The Sound of Music (1959)

Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II

Based on the true story of Austria’s Trapp Family Singers, The Sound of Music might give West Side Story a run for a ‘greatest’ musical top spot. Set as Austria finds itself in the grip of Nazi Germany there’s drama to chew on as well as family-friendly fluff, as a nun called Maria becomes nanny to a wealthy family and teaches them to sing. Heartstrings are tugged with songs like ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ and ‘Eidelweiss’. Though a popular show on Broadway and in the West End, the 1965 film musical starring Julie Andrews is perhaps more familiar. The musical was revived in 2006 in the West End.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)

Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice

Though not the pair’s first musical, this ‘Rock Opera’ was the first Lloyd Webber and Rice work to actually make it onto a Broadway/West End stage. Their take on the familiar ‘passion’ story was a kick in the gut for musical theatre, the likes of which it had never seen before. The production was preceded far in advance by a popular single of the title song, which was then followed by a concept album. Showstoppers include said title song, the brilliant ‘Gethsemane’, ‘King Herod’s Song’ and ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’. A film version swiftly followed in 1973, but is oft-overlooked.

Chicago (1975)

John Kander & Fred Ebb

Like West Side Story, this mid-’70s show is as memorable for its choreography as it is for its music and lyrics. The legendary Bob Fosse was behind the moves, as he was for Cabaret in 1966 – also featuring words and tunes by Kander and Ebb. Much like that show, Chicago is only really semi-staged, with the action taking place in the form of a revue, almost like a show within a show. Murder never sounded so good, with hits like ‘All That Jazz’, ‘Cell Block Tango’ and ‘Razzle Dazzle’. It was turned into a film musical in 2002.

Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979)

Stephen Sondheim

Sondheim moved on from his success as a lyricist and firmly made his mark on Broadway as a composer in his own right. One of his most memorable, lavish and deliciously grizzy productions is Sweeney Todd, about a convict barber returned to London to avenge his false conviction, and the rape and murder of his wife. It’s a grand affair set against the backdrop of the stinking and murky Victorian capital, with big numbers like ‘A Little Priest’ and ‘Not While I’m Around’ just some of the juicy bits. Director Tim Burton re-imagined the musical for the big screen in 2007.

Les Miserables (1985)

Claude-Michel Schoenberg & Alain Boublil

Like Jesus Christ Superstar, Boublil and Schoenberg’s universally adored musical began life as a concept album… albeit in French. The original production, at London’s Barbican, was directed by Trevor Nunn and soon transferred to the West End, where it has had a home ever since. The moving and epic tale is set against a backdrop of the French Revolution, with now-legendary songs such as ‘Bring Him Home’, ‘Master of the House’, ‘On My Own’ and ‘I Dreamed a Dream. The musical has enjoyed concert versions, anniversary galas and a big-screen outing in 2012.

Phantom of the Opera (1986)

Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart & Richard Stilgoe

A year after ‘Les Mis’ came this triumphant and romantic spectacle. Based on Gaston Leroux’s novel, it centres on the Paris Opera where a pretty young ingénue becomes the focus of a disfigured composer’s obsession. Like ‘Les Mis’, Phantom has never left the West End and is in fact one of the most successful entertainment properties in history, so far making over £6bn worldwide. Its most famous songs include the title song, plus ‘All I Ask of You’, ‘Think of Me’, ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ and ‘Past the Point of No Return’. A film version was released in 2004.

Rent (1996)

Jonathan Larson

Rent is one of Broadway’s biggest hits, winning a number of awards and running for 12 years from 1996-2008. Set in Manhattan’s bohemian East Village during the AIDS epidemic, it’s a loose adaptation of La bohème taking in the lives of a group of young artists living with the disease. Standout songs include ‘La Vie Boheme’, ‘Without You’, ‘Light My Candle’ and ‘Seasons of Love’. Composer/lyricist Larson died before it premiered off-Broadway, so never got to see the show’s success. It was made into a film music in 2005.

Hamilton (2015)

Lin-Manuel Miranda

One of the biggest smash hits in recent years, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton turns American history into a hip-hop/rap extravaganza. The show tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. It is notable for its casting of non-white artists in historical roles, and features some great songs, including ‘Alexander Hamilton’, ‘You’ll Be Back’ and ‘Tomorrow There’ll Be More Of Us’. Though it is yet to be made into a film, Disney filmed a stage performance which is available to stream on Disney plus.

And what about recordings?

Pretty much all the great shows have original cast albums, either Broadway or London. There are some great collections, too…

The Very Best of Broadway Musicals

Andrew Lloyd Webber – Unmasked (The Platinum Collection)

A Stephen Sondheim Evening

 

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