You can improve your craft by studying these musicals you must see. Broadway has a long history that goes much deeper than the popularity of newer shows like Hamilton and Waitress would have you believe. The Broadway canon offers a host of resources for modern theatre buffs: inspiration, instruction, entertainment, and even audition monologues and songs. Here are some of our all-time favorite musicals, and our case for why every theatre lover should see them.

We’ve included notes about where online you can watch filmed adaptations of each show as of January 2022. (Streaming services often change their offerings, so they may be different by the time you’re reading this.) All the shows mentioned below also have cast recordings that you can listen to on streaming services like Spotify.

Musicals You Must See #1: Oklahoma!

Music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Premiered on Broadway in 1943.

Musicals you Must See dancers in country wester garb dancing

A scene from the 2019 revival of “Oklahoma!”

This classic show follows a cast of quirky characters in turn-of-the-20th-century, pre-statehood Oklahoma—where, as the title song says, the “wind comes sweeping down the plain.” Though its plot is somewhat meandering by today’s standards, Oklahoma! (one of the first “book musicals”) is widely credited with pioneering the modern Broadway musical. It combined show-stopping numbers with serious drama, staging songs that were catchy but also tightly woven into the show’s plot and character development. Choreographer Agnes de Mille was lauded for using dance to further the plot of the musical. Famous numbers include “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” and (of course) “Oklahoma.”

Legendary duo Rodgers and Hammerstein followed Oklahoma! with a slew of other shows that became classics and typified the “golden age” of Broadway musicals: Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, a television adaptation of Cinderella, and The Sound of Music.

Where to Watch
Two versions are available: the 1955 film adaptation of (dir. Fred Zinnemann) and the 1999 London production. A 2019 revival is now touring across the United States.

Musicals You Must See #2: West Side Story

Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, based on the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Premiered on Broadway in 1957.

An epic retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story follows two teenagers falling in love amidst a turf war between rival street gangs. Its tragic ending is punctuated by soaring love ballads, exciting ensemble numbers, and vibrant costumes. Dancers will love this choreographic tour de force, in particular—the show revolutionized how emotions and action could be portrayed through movement.

Like Oklahoma!, West Side Story was the brainchild of a Broadway great: Stephen Sondheim, who passed away in November 2021. You’re bound to have heard some of this show’s songs: “Tonight,” “Maria,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere,” and even “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

Where to Watch
Two film versions of the musical are available for viewing: The iconic Academy Award-winning 1961 film adaptation (dir. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins) and the 2021 film adaptation (dir. Steven Spielberg).

Musicals You Must See #3: Gypsy

Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, based on the memoir by Gypsy Rose Lee. Premiered on Broadway in 1959.

This character-driven drama is less showy than the other entries on this list, exploring the darker side of show business and pioneering a different kind of Broadway storytelling. The story follows archetypal “stage mother” Rose as she tries to (vicariously) make her daughters star performers. The show’s mature themes and risqué content make it somewhat less likely to be performed by a high school than the other shows mentioned here, but its themes and gravitas make it worth studying.

Another Sondheim-Laurents partnership, this show’s notable songs include “Let Me Entertain You” and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” The lead of “Mama Rose” has become a sort of right of passage for actresses, with many of Broadway’s most famous leading ladies playing the role: Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Bette Midler, and Patti LuPone, to name a few.

Where to Watch
Two versions are available: The the 1962 film adaptation (dir. Mervyn LeRoy) and the 1993 made-for-television adaptation (dir. Emile Ardolino) starring Bette Midler as Mama Rose.

Musicals You Must See #4: Phantom of the Opera

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Charles Hart, additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, book by Richard Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. Premiered on Broadway in 1988.

You’ve seen it, your drama teacher has seen it, your mom has seen it—it’s hard to escape this blockbuster musical. Phantom has run for a record-shattering 13,500+ shows on Broadway, plus productions that have circled the globe in the 35 years since the show first premiered. The show was a crossover hit that drew new audiences to musical theatre. And, along with Les Misérables (which premiered on Broadway a year earlier), Phantom set the stage for other megahits to follow, including The Lion King, Wicked, The Book of Mormon, and Hamilton.

Phantom lives up to the hype, with an iconic operatic soundtrack (famous songs include “Think of Me,” “Angel of Music,” “The Music of the Night,” and the titular theme “The Phantom of the Opera”), dazzling costumes, and juicy melodrama. The musical is a technical marvel, too, complete with a chandelier that hangs over (and seemingly drops onto) the audience.

Where to Watch
Two versions are available: The the 2004 film adaptation (dir. Joel Schumacher) or the 2011 concert at Royal Albert Hall (dir. Nick Morris and Laurence Connor).

Honorable Mentions

These other popular shows should make your shortlist of to-watch musicals:
A Chorus Line
Fiddler on the Roof
Jesus Christ Superstar
Les Misérables
The Music Man
The Producers
The Sound of Music

For more recommendations, see this roundup of straight plays everyone should know, as well as the Educational Theatre Association’s annual play survey that logs the most popular musicals and plays among high schools. 

Andrew Koch is a writer and editor from Cincinnati. His informal musical theatre history “education” began several years ago when he saw a touring production of The Lion King.

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