It takes a special kind of idealistic geek to really love musical theater, which means that we have lots of in-house musical theater fans. When we did The Top 10 Greatest Movie Soundtracks Ever In The Whole Entire World, some of you asked us if we could whip up a similar feature about our favorite musical theater soundtracks. Here’s 17 of our favorites, please feel free to share yours in the comments!
Crystal, Music Editor
I haven’t listened to this soundtrack in nearly 20 years and yet the songs get stuck in my head on a weekly basis, that’s just how damn catchy they are. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph was my first ever musical experience; after seeing it I insisted on spinning the soundtrack daily for a number of years, until one day it not-so-mysteriously disappeared. I downloaded it today to make sure that my 27 year-old self agrees with my 8 year-old self’s previous assessment and I do, songs like “Jacob & Sons” and “Poor, Poor Joseph” are still my jam. I love every track except for “The Joseph Megamix”, I don’t know what’s up with that.
The Phantom of the Opera – London Cast Recording (1988)
For me, the Phantom soundtrack is one of those albums that needs to be blasted real loud. Every time the Overture kicks in, Major Tom, my cockatiel, starts freaking the f*ck out, which is the exact same reaction I had when my father took me to see the musical as a child. Phantom‘s music is so dark and sinister, for a long time it scared the life out of me. Now as an adult I adore it.
American Idiot – The Original Broadway Cast Recording (2010)
Did you know that an album by Green Day was turned into a relatively successful Broadway musical? Weird, right? Last year I dragged some of Team Autostraddle to see the production in New York City and that inspired me to write 1,000+ words about how much I loved the musical and its music. The soundtrack’s since won a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. Fyi.
Spring Awakening (2006)
Despite 90210’s continued attempt to ruin “Mama Who Bore Me,” Spring Awakening remains my favorite cast album of all time. A lot of times I find there are a few songs from productions that are seated dance party worthy but the rest of them can be boring or really hold no meaning for me outside of the show itself. Not the case with Spring Awakening. I love every single song. So much that I can’t pick a favorite and if I did, it would change in about five minutes. At this very moment it’s “And then there were None.” How could I stick to just one when I’m suddenly bombarded with “The Dark I Know Well“, which is the saddest shit in the world, BUT gently massages my ear drums until all I can think is “Lilli Cooper let me love you.”
Spring Awakening is the single most important reason I decided to watch Glee…the whole Lea Michele factor and what not. It’s also worth noting that if it were up to me, it would be mandatory to have a Spring Awakening sing-along any and all car rides that last more than an hour. No one would be allowed to exit the car in the middle of a song. No one would be allowed to do anything other than sing along to every single word. If there came a moment when you chose to nail your assigned part in “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” rather than swerve to avoid hitting a piece of debris and we get a flat tire because of it, I wouldn’t even be mad. I might even salute you. I guess I should mention this alternative rock pop folk fusion won 8 Tony Awards but really what’s important is I’m a black person encouraging you to listen to this cast album. As far as I’m concerned that is the most legit vouching there is when it comes to musicals.
In the Heights (2008)
Let’s begin with the fact that Lin Manuel’s rapping voice might be my favorite voice of all time. Then lets follow that with In the Heights taking everything you thought about show tunes and throwing it out the window. And let’s finish with this musical making it possible for me to appear I know way more Spanish than I actually do. The hip hop and salsa-infused score produced such gems as “96,000” which is one of those all consuming songs that you have to drop whatever you’re doing to fully enjoy its dopeness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been loading the dishwasher only to realize I no longer am in possession of a single dish and apparently I really “want the brass ring like Frodo.”
In the Heights shows it’s possible to have a show about minorities or ethnic communities that’s not rife with stereotypes or screaming, “look at me as I make this socially conscious point.” It’s a musical. It’s a story. And often people forget the luxury of being able to tell a story on stage just for the sake of telling it. The characters may feel like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders but listeners doesn’t. You don’t feel weighted or obligated when you finish. You feel happy and free and alive.
The songs are about community and what ifs (“Carnaval del Barrio”, “When You’re Home”). They’re about responsibility and love (“Breathe”, “Sunrise”). But most importantly, they’re about jamming the fuck out. The music of In the Heights is about finding a place to call home when no matter what you do or where you go, there’s an uneasy whispering that you don’t quite belong. All of us have probably felt that at one time or another; I’ve felt it my whole life. This cast album makes me feel a little better about the search. Maybe one day while listening I’ll look around and realize I’ve found it.
Julia, Miss February 2011
This is the happiest music you will ever hear about civil rights. Tracy Turnblad, her friends, and the mean popular kids sing and dance through issues about race, weight, age, love and any other issue one might encounter in a Baltimore high school in the 1960’s. Tracy is a big girl who dreams of dancing on the “Corny Collins Show”. Her optimism and talent take her beyond her dreams and pave the way for social justice and equality for everyone in her community.
Hairspray won 8 Tony Awards in 2002, including best original score. The lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman are clever and humorous. The music by Marc Shaiman utilizes the sounds of the ‘60s and ranges from bouncy to soulful. Really, it is the perfect music for dancing around the house in your underpants and singing at the top of your lungs.
This show is based on the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and focuses primarily on the relationship she had with her mother. The mother is the ultimate stage mother, so this role has provided a nice place for some of Broadway’s biggest divas. Ethel Merman starred in the original production in 1959, Bernadette Peters in the 2003 revival, and Patti Lupone in the 2008 revival. I recommend the 2008 version as I think Ms. Lupone was born to play this role and I’m a little bit in love with Laura Benanti as Louise.
This show is a true work of art, with music by Jule Styne and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It is beautiful classical musical theater, but also has Sondheim’s lyrical genius. After listening to this show, you will start to recognize the music used and the show referenced in T.V. shows, movies, and commercials.
This musical tells the stories of three different groups of people in New York in the early 20th century: wealthy white folks, African-Americans in Harlem and Eastern European immigrants. Every group has its own internal problems, as well as problems with one another. Historical figures like Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman make appearances throughout the musical, so you can learn all about history while listening to music! AREN’T YOU EXCITED!!!!!!!!
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty create beautiful songs that speak of history and humanity. There are various styles of music from the early 20th century that Flaherty invokes in his songs. Ragtime won best original score at the 1998 Tony Awards. Also I recommend the original cast recording because the singers are phenomenal. You will agree after listening to Audra McDonald sing “Your Daddy’s Son”. I swear.
Sweeney Todd (1979)
This festive musical tells the story of Sweeney Todd, a barber, who decides to turn his clients into meat pies! Mr. Todd feels he has been betrayed which develops into his utter lack of faith in humanity and his need for revenge. So he slices up people’s necks and gives them to his neighbor to cook into nice pies. The subject matter is dark and the music follows suit.
Sondheim’s arrangements are eerie, delicate, and savage all at the same time. The lyrics are written as the character speaks and are not overly poetic. The music takes the character’s words and gives them that extra flourish and poetry. Sondheim’s writing makes this already dark show absolutely terrifying and captivating.
Jess, Senior Entertainment Editor
HAIR (1969) is essentially about connection, being part of a society, coming together as a people and standing up for what you believe in. Its relevancy is eerie at times, with themes of war, race, political activism and sexual freedom at the forefront, and could easily debut in 2011 as a new show as opposed to as a revival of the 1967 classic. Comparing HAIR and RENT is inevitable (Jonathan Larson was largely inspired by the original) and the new show will likely usher in the next wave of NYU students camping out for lotto tickets. It is fantastic that a new generation will have something so meaningful to call their own and, like RENT, has the potential to change a life.
The soundtrack is simply timeless, with “Good Morning Starshine” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine” as part of the American lexicon, the latter played regularly on classic rock stations and featured in the final dance montage of “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” The music in HAIR is so fabulous in fact that its songs have been covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Diana Ross to The Lemonheads.
To fully appreciate the music of Evita (originally on Broadway in 1978 with a London stage revival in 2006) you must download the 1996 film soundtrack starring Madonna and Antonio Bandaras. Like RENT, Evita is a rock opera with virtually zero dialogue. The music is hauntingly gorgeous, with melodies that you hear once and fall in love with. This disc is also notable because Madonna actually took voice lessons to stretch and smooth out her vocal tone before recording the music… and this is the version of her voice you hear today on her post-Evita albums: Ray of Light, Music and Hard Candy. Just listen to any of her albums pre-Evita and you will notice the difference immediately.
Heads up: Evita is set for a 2012 Broadway revival starring Ricky Martin!
Intern Grace, Intern
Into the Woods (1988)
In my circle of friends, Into the Woods is like the Mean Girls of musical theater: People quote it liberally, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who absolutely hates it, and Bernadette Peters is just as hot as Lindsay Lohan. It doesn’t hurt that everything about the original Broadway cast album is absolutely brilliant. Stephen Sondheim‘s lyrics are about as spectacular as they come, filled with wordplay and ridiculous rhymes, like the classic “I sort of hate to ask it/ but do you have a basket?” and “we’ve no time to sit and dither while her withers wither with her.” Like, seriously. Who thinks of shit like that? Just you, Stephen. Just you. (See also: A Little Night Music)
There was a revival in 2002, but I don’t think it holds up very well in comparison to the original. I like Molly Ephraim as Red and LAURA EFFING BENANTI as Cinderella, and there are moments that I prefer in the revival cast (“it JUST-ifies the beans,” being a big one), but overall, you can’t beat the original. Listen to them both anyway, though.
What makes Into the Woods really stand out, in addition to the talent behind it, is that the themes of the show ring so genuinely. At its core, the show is a fairy tale for people who have outgrown fairy tales. It discusses the relationship between parents and children, accepting responsibility for your actions and what it means to get what you wanted. It’s just so good, you guys.
Next to Normal (2009)
Do you love Alice Ripley? I do. She’s fierce.
Sometimes in musical theater, it’s difficult to keep your show grounded in reality, mostly because most people don’t pepper their days with original songs and dances. The best writers are those who can make the story feel organic and identifiable while still keeping their show full of engaging music. This is why Next to Normal is so successful: The music and the story unite in such a way that it’s almost impossible not to identify at least a little with the characters. You might not know someone exactly like Diana or Natalie or Henry, but you might recognize their fear or uncertainty or earnestness in yourself, and that’s good writing.
Overall, the show is about a family and their attempt to deal with the mother’s mental illness. There is a great twist partway through Act I, and I don’t want to ruin it for you, but when I got to that part of the recording, I literally gasped. The writing is very tight, and the cast is strong the whole way through. The cast recording is about as flawless as they get, from the orchestrations and mixing to the songs that are perfect for singing as loudly as possible when you’re feeling angst-y (“I Am the One,” “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” and “Wish I Were Here” are all good ones for that).
Also, Aaron Tveit made me confused about my sexuality at a very pivotal time in my life. Although we all know how that ended.
[title of show] (2006)
If you enjoyed this post, you would enjoy this cast recording. It’s almost exclusively musical theater in-jokes.
Self-described as “a musical about writing a musical about writing a musical,” [title of show] is almost certainly the most clever musical to premiere in the last ten years. The four actors play themselves, and a lot of the dialogue is taken directly from their conversations with each other. There isn’t a single song I don’t like, and they’re all so packed with witty lines and smart pop culture references, it’s hard not to laugh the whole way through. They even made a helpful “What is Title of Show?” video, just for you! I want to be their friend so much.
One of the most notable lines from the show sums it up really well (and kind of became my life philosophy): “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing that a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.” The show was never a runaway success, although it played more than 100 performances on Broadway. If you bring up this show in any musical theater circle, you will probably get an audible reaction from people, but if you talk about it to anyone else, you’re a dirty hipster. But I mean, the show includes the line “Wonder Woman for president,” and it’s hard to argue with that.
Riese, Editor-in Chief
I speak at excessive length about my RENT-related feelings in this post right here, so I’ll be brief and completely personal and therefore slightly, perhaps, off-topic here. But this is about the soundtrack, right? And at any given moment of any given car ride I would be happiest singing along to RENT. Take Me Or Leave Me, obviously, although I didn’t really identify with Maureen or Joanne, I just liked the energy of the song. I felt like Mark, the guy who hid from life behind his camera with big lofty dreams.
My Mom gifted me the RENT soundtrack in early high school, maybe sophomore year — two of my best friends had seen it on Broadway in New York and wouldn’t shut up about it, so I tried really hard to hate it in order to not be too jealous but it grew on me and then invaded. At Interlochen Arts Academy, where I started my junior year of high school, RENT was just about everywhere. We all had the soundtrack, we were all singing it, we all wanted to see it live. We all related to “I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine.” We filmed ourselves singing it all the time and when I hear Today For You, it’s my gay best friend I think of, not Angel.
I saw the touring company in Detroit in ’98, it kinda sucked, but I saw it in NYC in ’01 and in ’06 and was blown away. I often wile away the twilight hours watching RENT videos on YouTube. Seriously.
It’ll always be go-to for long road trips — it was so back and forth from Interlochen and it was so last summer driving from LA to Vegas, when me and two other relatively grown-up persons belted the fuck out of that shit. TWICE. I WILL COVER YOUUUUUUUUUUUU.
My favorite songs are Take Me Or Leave Me, I’ll Cover You, One Song Glory and Another Day.
This show is so layered and complicated and dark and heartbreaking and sexy and queer. It’s heavy. It’s not like an ordinary musical. Like there’s this cabaret — The Kit Kat Club. This American Novelist visiting Berlin. Then Nazis. I don’t think they ever say the word “Nazi” though. Nor do they directly address the sexual economy of The Kit Kat Club. The Nazis come in slowly and suddenly your friends are Nazis and the girls in fishnets are being told to wear new clothes and sing differently and it stays really small and local while telling a giant story. Every song they do is on the surface about one thing but it’s really actually about another thing!
I actually only really got introduced to it ’cause it was The Musical my senior year at arts boarding school and I was dating an actor who played a lead and there was a lot of drama around the casting.
But I liked it so much I saw it twice (stoned the second time) (don’t tell mama) and then I saw it on Broadway during a NYC visit in 2002. The guy I was with didn’t like it so I decided that I didn’t like him anymore.
My favorite song is hands down totes Maybe This Time — it’s a ballad, I think Lea Michele sang it on Glee first season, for all ye Megawatt Nerds out there. I love Tomorrow Belongs to Me –how in the reprise, it becomes 3,000 times more ominous. I find Perfectly Marvelous quite fun.
I’m just writing this paragraph because I want someone to comment that they also like Cabaret so we can chit-chat. I don’t even know how to begin to talk about it but I think it’s one of the ones that even if you’re not into musicals, you’d like it.
Laneia, Executive Editor
It’s entirely possible that my love for Annie is only the result of a mind-numbing advertising campaign for the movie in the early 80s. Maybe if I’d been introduced to the story by way of a different medium or at a different age, I would’ve been so uncomfortable with the idea of Daddy Warbucks (so uncomfortable) that I wouldn’t have been able to pull up the 8 year-old part of me who just wasn’t ready to believe that the whole world couldn’t be fixed with a positive attitude and a song about the future sung at the top of my lungs.
I mean, I don’t know if this is actually a well-written musical or if the songs or themes were groundbreaking — they probably weren’t. But damn do I love “Maybe” and “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” and oh! and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” — love that one. One year my tap/jazz class did a really amazing interperative dance, with props, to “Hard Knock Life” for a recital and when I was given the part of Molly — I lived in a town the size of your thumb and we didn’t have theater, so I knew this was as big as it was gonna get, you know? — I was SO AMPED. Proudest moment.
I don’t care how weird the Daddy Warbucks element is, my Annie album never fails to make washing dishes 100% more fun.
Others we thought about writing about but then didn’t:
+ West Side Story (1957)