First, a disclaimer: this is simply my personal list of musicals that I think everyone should know. Obviously everyone has different tastes and opinions! There are still many musicals that most people would consider essential that I have not yet seen, so I will probably do updated versions of this list in the future!
Let’s start with the basics:
1. Les Miserables
If you don’t know Les Mis… well, I’m sorry. It’s a pretty important cultural gem and you should watch it ASAP! It’s extremely iconic and important to musical theatre. Think French Revolution, poor people, Christian redemption, comedic innkeepers, love triangles, great songs, and death. Also Patti LuPone.
2. West Side Story
West Side Story is an old classic that everyone definitely needs to watch. With stunning and grand music by Bernstein and Sondheim, it paints a really beautiful picture of why love is always, always better than hate. It’s essentially Romeo & Juliet set in NYC with rival finger-snapping gangs (what’s not to love??).
3. Phantom of the Opera
Phantom of the Opera is fiercely beloved by its far-reaching audience as the longest running musical on Broadway. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s orchestrations somehow manage to penetrate even the coldest, blackest hearts and give you ~feels~. The musical is heralded as “the greatest love story of all time” but honestly it has a lot of creepy and problematic parts; I prefer not to think of it as a love story. Regardless, I love how it manages to effortlessly pull the audience into its beautifully told and crafted story; one truly forgets the real world outside of the Opera Populaire after watching.
Next tier: older(ish) musicals that had a significant impact on the musical theatre scene*
*I say significant impact but I don’t really know that, these ones just feel important to understanding musicals (yay scientific proof!)
4. Into the Woods
An iconic Stephen Sondheim musical!! Get ready for your perceptions of Disney fairytales to be turned upside-down. A lot of theatre people really love this musical (and rightly so!). It gives you a lot to think about and a lot of nice music to fill your earholes with.
You may know Evita as the musical with the song “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” and that dramatic balcony scene. I love Evita. It’s by Andrew Lloyd Webber, with super unique orchestrations and chords and weird stuff. It’s also A+ because Patti LuPone. You definitely need at least one album featuring Patti LuPone screaming in your face! Anyway, I love how this musical manages to paint Eva Peron as a very complex and multi-faceted person. I’m sure you’ll find at least one song you love on this recording!
6. A Chorus Line
The musical is the audition for the musical! I love the way A Chorus Line portrays the performing arts scene and that audition anxiety and pressure to perform and please in the dance studio. It’ll give you lots of feels and you’ll love it.
Final tier: new(ish) musicals
Rent is definitely one of the more mainstream musicals on this list. Feelings toward this musical are often very polarized; many love it and many hate it. Regardless, Rent is just one of those shows that everyone knows. It was based on the opera La Boheme so if you’re into opera, you’ll probably enjoy the parallels and references! Also, its original cast is stellar.
When I first saw Cabaret (with Alan Cumming), I was blown away by how powerfully it was able to convey a message (I’m intentionally being vague because I don’t want to spoil anything!). It’s pretty unique and risque, and you might feel uncomfortable watching it, but in my opinion, it’s definitely worth it in the end. Cabaret is able to smoothly intertwine lighthearted nightclub performances with darker and serious topics in a way that will leave you thinking about it for weeks.
Another mainstream musical! Some say Wicked is overrated due to its appeal with teenage girls despite the many flaws with its book. Regardless, it is a very enjoyable musical to watch with many numbers that offer spectacular performances, both vocally and visually. Additionally, it’s such a popular (pun intended) musical that it has been parodied and referenced so many times in the musical theatre community – and you definitely want to be able to laugh along to those “Defying Gravity” riff memes. Furthermore, many members of its original cast are now very important and widely-recognized members of the musical theatre community: Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, Joel Grey, Norbert Leo Butz, and Christopher Fitzgerald. Plus there are flying monkeys!
10. Little Shop of Horrors
To be honest, I put Little Shop of Horrors last on this list because I don’t think it’s very commonly cited as one of the “bucket list” musicals you must see in your life. However, I can’t imagine not having seen Little Shop of Horrors. It was one of the first live musicals I ever saw and I absolutely loved it. The music is catchy and exciting, the characters are dorky yet adorable, and it gives you a lot to think about in the end. I don’t want to spoil anything else for you if you haven’t seen it yet! You’ll definitely have some laughs and some cries, and though the story is ridiculous, I love it so much.
That’s it for my list of the top 10 musicals you should know! Do you agree? Are there any that you would add or take away from the list? Which have you seen and which haven’t you seen?