Broadway musicals are about more than just singing and dancing. Modern musicals use strong stories and innovative music to shape the way audiences see the world. The best musicals are evocative; they leave you crying in your seat or humming the score weeks later.
There are hundreds of musicals from over a century of Broadway to watch, should you have the time and desire, but the four shows on this list? These are critical and popular hits that have changed the face of commercial theater.
Four Iconic Broadway Shows You Must See
Even if you don’t have the time or money to travel to Broadway or London’s West End, you don’t need to break the bank to take in a show. See a touring company, enjoy a regional or dinner theater production, or watch movie versions through streaming services.
If you’re desperate to catch a bona fide Broadway event, check out BroadwayHD. This site has a comprehensive library of hundreds of musicals and plays, accessible from anywhere in the United States. In some cases, there are restrictions on international rollouts, but you can use USA proxy services to bypass the geo-restrictions.
Hamilton: An American Musical
By now, the story behind Hamilton is as much of a legend as the show itself. Lin-Manuel Miranda read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton on vacation and thought it had the makings of a musical. Six years later, Hamilton was the must-see show for everyone from kids to celebrities to politicians. The show’s lottery for reduced-price tickets became a YouTube sensation in its own right.
What makes Hamilton so compelling is its revolutionary casting and innovative music. All of the principals and most of the ensemble are played by actors of color. The score is mainly sung-through, meaning it has very little spoken dialogue. A fusion of rap, hip-hop, blues, Brit-pop, and more, the score borrows influences from contemporary music as well as the musicals of yesteryear. The rollicking “My Shot,” the driving melody of “Wait For It,” and the bitter beauty of “Burn” are just some of the score’s highlights.
Hamilton: An American Musical is streaming on Disney+.
Les Misérables, or Les Miz, as it is commonly known in theater circles, is adapted from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name. The show is epic; the run time is nearly three hours, there are over 50 musical numbers, and the gigantic set rotates on a turntable and represents, alternately, a prison, a restaurant, a shop, slums, barricades, and sewers.
The score is packed full of soaring melodies and toe-tapping rhythms, using repeating fragments of music to give dimension to beautiful, intricate harmonies. “On My Own” is perhaps the best-known song commercially speaking. It is widely used as an audition piece on reality singing competition shows, was performed on Glee, and has been covered by over 20 artists from Neil Diamond to Petula Clark. Other popular tunes include Fantine’s ballad “I Dreamed a Dream,” the comedic “Master of the House,” and Valjean’s pleading “Who Am I?” In the 1990s AIDS activists seized on “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” as a reflection of the pandemic’s losses.
Les Miz is probably the easiest show to see simply because of the vast number of productions that have been videotaped. In addition to three anniversary concerts, the musical got a dramatic interpretation in 1998 and a stunning movie musical in 2012.
Before Hamilton, there was Rent. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, Broadway musicals were seen as something parents or grandparents enjoyed. Unless you were a real theater geek, musicals were a sketchy proposition at best. They were boring, stodgy, and expensive – until they weren’t.
Rent was, quite literally, an overnight success born in tragedy. The show was the life’s work of Jonathan Larson. He adapted Puccini’s opera La Bohème into a modern rock musical following a group of down-on-their-luck artists in Greenwhich Village. The show is gritty and real, dealing honestly with issues of poverty, class, race, sexuality, gender, addiction, and AIDS. A predominantly sung-through score with limited spoken dialogue and heavy backing music, Rent features gay duets “I’ll Cover You” and “Take Me or Leave Me,” the raucous first act finale “La Vie Boheme,” and the stirring ballad “Seasons of Love.”
Rent was scheduled to begin an off-Broadway run at the New York Theater Workshop in January of 1996. The night of the final dress rehearsal, Jonathan Larson died at age 35 from an aortic dissection. His death coincided with a rave review in the New York Times, which catapulted both the show and the cast into the pop culture zeitgeist.
Rent is also easy to watch. A Hollywood film was released in 2005 with all but two original cast members and is available on all major streaming platforms. “Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway” was recorded at the show’s final Broadway performances in 2008 and released on DVD in 2009. “Rent: Live,” a live television production, aired on FOX in 2019. A documentary about the Cuban production, “Revolution Rent,” came out in 2020.
A Chorus Line
None of these musicals could have become commercial successes without their ultimate predecessor, A Chorus Line. The script was formed from a series of interviews and recordings that director/choreographer Michael Bennett and groups of chorus dancers, or “gypsies,” made during the winter of 1974. Rather than tell the story of a starlet, A Chorus Line focuses on the people who dance “on the line:” the kids just starting out, the former stars, and the triple threats who never get in the spotlight. Throughout an audition, the chorus hopefuls reveal the turning points in their lives that led them to become dancers.
A Chorus Line is celebrated for its brutal honesty; various characters deal with sexual assault, racism, homosexuality, cross-dressing, drug use, divorce, and mental illness. The score by Marvin Hamlisch features the pop ballad “What I Did For Love,” the famous “One (Singular Sensation),” and the stirring trio “At the Ballet.” A Chorus Line ran for over 6,000 performances and reigned as the longest-running show on Broadway until 1997 when it was overtaken by Cats.
A Hollywood film with Michael Douglas was released in 1985, and a documentary about casting the revival, called “Every Little Step,” was made in 2008. You can watch a recording of the 2006 revival on YouTube.
The best, most compelling, and creative Broadway musicals build on the foundation of all the shows that went before them. Check out the ones on this list, and then watch some others using a New York proxy. Your list of bests might turn out different, but that’s okay!