Choosing popular musicals for your program’s next productions can be tempting. Sure, top-of-the-charts cast recordings draw new people to the art of musical theatre, and it can be exciting to tap into that energy.

But popular shows aren’t always feasible. You want your program to stand out, and maybe even attract a general audience. That’s made harder by choosing a show that several other schools are performing or have recently staged. And that’s on top of licensing issues: Companies may grant rights to a popular show to only a handful of schools or programs in a region.

When planning your next season, consider these six less-performed (but no less substantial) musicals.

Popular Musicals in their Own Ways

1776 instead of Hamilton
A cultural phenomenon that sparked interest in both civics and theatre alike, Hamilton remains on Broadway and not at a community or school theater near you. But the oft-overlooked 1776 also dramatizes the founding of the United States (and, indeed was referenced in Hamilton’s “The Adams Administration”).

Of note: 1776’s characters are overwhelmingly male and white, in stark contrast to Hamilton’s race-blind approach to casting. But a 2022 all-non-male revival of 1776 paved the way for new ways of staging the show.

Honorable mentions: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights or Bring It On. Both incorporate styles of nontraditional music and have several roles explicitly for people of color.

Once Upon a Mattress instead of Shrek
Though decades older than everyone’s favorite ogre, Once Upon a Mattress (a comedic take on The Princess and the Pea) is also a send-up of traditional fairy tales. And, like other suggestions on this list, Mattress offers more prominent roles for actresses than its male dominated counterpart, Shrek.

Mattress is a comedy, albeit with a different sense of humor. Shrek’s bawdy potty humor and pop-culture references are swapped for physical comedy and sexual innuendo. Mattress’ title itself is a double entendre, and there’s a whole song in which a father pantomimes “the birds and the bees” to his son.

Popular Musicals from the Good Old Days

All Shook Up instead of Grease
Both of these musicals are set in the 1950s. And both of these two shows are full of leather jackets and poodle skirts. All Shook Up trades Grease’s iconic doo-wop pastiche for Elvis Presley’s iconic songbook. School boards or principals concerned with Grease’s mature content might be much more supportive of the more wholesome All Shook Up.

Another reason to choose All Shook Up is that it benefits from not having a popular film adaptation that audiences will compare it to.

Popular Musicals You’ll Want to Get to Know

Once on This Island instead of The Little Mermaid
Disney’s The Little Mermaid tied for the ninth most-produced full-length musical in the Educational Theatre Association’s 2022 play survey. And for good reason: The show’s songs and characters are instantly recognizable to generations of theater goers, and its large cast allows many actors to get involved.

But Once on This Island is based on the same Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale—and it offers more roles for women (Ariel and Ursula are the only two female characters with significant lines in Mermaid) and people of color. The music is just as catchy, featuring a score from Broadway legends Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.

Young Frankenstein instead of The Addams Family
The Addams Family, another of EdTA’s top-10 most-produced musicals, is a macabre comedy based on a much-beloved family of characters. Young Frankenstein checks several of the same boxes: a rip-roaring musical based on the popular Mel Brooks film of the same name. Both shows also allow for some audience participation, and don’t require the audience to know the source material to enjoy.

Pippin instead of The Greatest Showman
The Greatest Showman may not be a stage musical (yet), but the 2017 film’s popularity persists. Pippin, the 1972 brainchild of Stephen Schwartz and Bob Fosse, is also set in a kind of circus and features stirring melodies and physical stunts. A 2013 revival starring Patina Miller as the Lead Player (a role historically played by a man) brought new relevance to the show.  ♦

Andrew Koch is a writer and editor from Cincinnati. 1776 is his favorite “unpopular” show.

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