Musicals 101: What to See First

New to musical theater? Here are some essential shows to get you started

Nathan Lane and Peter Gallagher in Guys and Dolls
Nathan Lane and Peter Gallagher in Guys and Dolls. Martha Swope

For many people, their first exposure to musical theater comes from attending one of the big blockbuster shows like The Phantom of The Opera, Les Miserables, or The Lion Kingeither on Broadway or in any number of touring productions. These shows certainly have their charms, and there's simply no denying their mass appeal of their soaring scores and spectacular production values. And we can certainly thank these shows for introducing a whole new generation to the power and magic of musical theater.

But these shows don't really represent a broad foundation in the musical-theater form. There's so much more to musicals than falling chandeliers, rotating barricades, and giant elephant puppets. So, let's assume that you've seen one or all of those monster hits and you're interested in finding out more. What follows in a primer of sorts on the best that musical theater has to offer, as well as how the art form has progressed over time. The shows are organized into clusters that represent important categories of musicals.

The idea here is that, if you were to pick one musical from each cluster, you'd have yourself a reasonably broad sampling of important shows. Then you could return to the clusters that pique your interest and experience the rest of the shows listed. (And, hey, if you then decide to see all of the shows on all of the lists, who's gonna stop you, right?)

Obviously, it's not always possible to see each of the shows listed in a live production, although many of these shows receive regular Broadway revivals and are performed regionally by professional and amateur companies alike.

But they all have original cast recordings, and many are available in film adaptations as well.

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN: The undisputed Old Masters of musical theater are lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Richard Rodgers. No introduction to musical theater would be complete without at least one R&H musical.

 Although there were many people who made contributions to the form prior to their groundbreaking partnership, Rodgers and Hammerstein brought all of the previous innovations together. To some, their shows might seem a bit old-fashioned, but these are the shows that set the standard for all that was to come. (Show Boat isn't technically an R&H show, as it was created by Oscar Hammerstein with composer Jerome Kern. But Show Boat represents the first great show in musical-theater history, the one in which Hammerstein firmly established many of the tenets he would later refine and perfect with Richard Rodgers.)

CLASSICISM: After Rodgers and Hammerstein created the model for the modern musical, it wasn't long before other creators began to catch on. The irony, in fact, of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Revolution was that R&H seemed to abandon the innovations that they themselves had codified, and in the second half of their partnership seemed to forget how to create the modern, integrated musical. Among the first to pick up the R&H baton were Cole Porter and Frank Loesser, represented here by Kiss Me, Kate and Guys and Dolls, respectively. Porter then proceeded to fall back on his habit of creating hit songs versus contextual musical numbers, while Loesser went on to create some of the best shows of the classical age.

There are those who argue that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe did one better than R&H with My Fair Lady, particularly given the fact that Rodgers and Hammerstein had tried for an entire year to turn Pygmalion, the play upon which My Fair Lady is based, into a musical before deciding that it couldn't be done. 

MODERNISM: In every art form, there comes a time when practitioners decide that they want to break with the past and start creating something new. This happened in painting with the Impressionists, Cubists, and Expressionists. It happened in music with Romanticism and the many disparate trends of 20th Century music. In musical theater, this turning point occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, when an influx of new talent decided to take the musical theater form and expand it beyond the confines of the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition.

Many of these shows had considerably darker subject matter than prior shows, and featured more complex characterizations. Others experimented with non-linear storytelling techniques and were centered around a certain "concept" that the show set out to explore, as opposed to using an A-to-Z plot structure. As a group, these modern shows sought to redefine what a piece of musical theater was capable of doing. 

SONDHEIM: If Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers are the Old Masters of musical theater, then Stephen Sondheim is Pablo Picasso, the brilliant and brash upstart determined to take his work into surprising new directions. As singular as Sondheim's work is, it nonetheless owes a great deal to the work that came before it. People are often surprised to discover that Sondheim learned to write musicals from the great Oscar Hammerstein himself. This is quite literally true. Hammerstein sat down with Sondheim, who had become a sort of foster son to the Hammerstein family, and taught the young man the essentials of writing a musical. On the surface, it would seem that there couldn't be two more different genres than R&H and Sondheim. But Sondheim's work nevertheless reveals much of the essential craft of songwriting, character development, and show structure. Sondheim, of course, took what he had learned from his mentor and expanded upon it, becoming in the process the essential modernist of musical theater, the one to whom all modern creators, at least in some respects, emulate.


CONTEMPORARY: Over the years, many people have prematurely pronounced that musical theater was dead. And for a while, it seemed that they were right. The 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s were certainly some fallow times with respect to the quantity and quality of new musicals. But the turn of the century brought with it a musical-theater renaissance, one that brought not only its share of popular hits, but also shows of clear quality. One of the problems with musicals during the recent Dark Ages was that the music and subject matter weren't fully reflective of the popular culture and society around them. This, thankfully, has started to change, with shows that not only are starting to sound more and more like contemporary popular music, but also are beginning to more accurately represent the diversity of modern culture, particularly with respect to race and sexual orientation.