20 Underrated Musicals To Check Out

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Audra McDonald in 110 in the Shade. Google Images

For every blockbuster like Hamilton, there are dozens more musicals that fly under the radar with audiences or with theatre critics (or, sometimes, with both). Some underrated shows are such big blockbusters that the theater insiders dismiss or disdain them, simply because they're popular. There are shows that were commercial and critical successes in their day, but have since disappeared, such as Fiorello! and Fanny. Others simply somehow get lost in the dust of another musical that garners all the attention that season: Ragtime had the misfortune of premiering shortly before the entertainment monolith, The Lion King, and The Full Monty  got lost in the dust of The Producers. And some, like Rags and My Favorite Year, possess moments of genius but don't quite add up to a satisfying whole.

"Attention" or "disappeared" in this context generally refers to regional productions and Broadway revivals. With a few exceptions, few of the musicals listed below make the regular rounds in the community, high school, and summer stock theaters, except for the more adventurous and well-heeled theater companies. Nonetheless, each of the musicals on this list has a tremendous amount going for it.

20 Musicals That Deserve More Acknowledgement

No matter what the reason may be that these shows haven't received the attention they deserve, they nevertheless hold many joys for the uninitiated, and even for the well informed. In no particular order:

  1. She Loves Me: Based on a Hungarian play, Parfumerie, the musical follows Georg and Amalia, two shop clerks who clash constantly in person but, unbeknownst to either, are actually each other's beloved pen pals. If this sounds familiar, it's probably because it is: the classic rom-com You've Got Mail is based on the same original story.
  2. Caroline, or Change: In the season dominated by the blockbuster Wicked and the irreverent Avenue Q, this small-scale story about a black housemaid and the Jewish family she works for in the 1960s just got lost in the shuffle. It's a nuanced look at racial tensions and family dynamics told in a sung-through musical, but the complexity of the subject matter has made it a hard sell for regional theatres or mainstream audiences.
  3. Violet: This show was briefly revived in 2014. It's about the titular women, disfigured in a childhood accident, who travels halfway across the country in search of a miracle cure. Along the way, she joins up with a pair of soldiers who join her adventure and form a complicated trio of relationships and emotions.
  1. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812: An electro-pop-opera retelling of 70 pages of War and Peace, set in an immersive theatre: doesn't sound like your typical Broadway show. The sometimes strange, sometimes ethereal show lasted almost a year on Broadway before closing, but it proved that a more experimental, unusual musical could attract a crowd on the Great White Way.
  2. The Secret Garden: The adaptation of the classic Francis Hodgson Burnett children's novel gives more depth to the backstory of the adult characters while keeping the focus on the young people at the heart of the story.
  3. Nine: Although the 2009 movie version was a bit of a flop, the original stage musical about a legendary director and the women who come in and out of his life remains a classic.
  4. Falsettos: Following its 2016 revival, which was filmed for broadcast in cinemas and on public television, this 1992 musical returned to public notice. It's a small, seven-character dramedy about a divorced couple, their new partners, their son, and their neighbors, set against the rising AIDS crisis.
  1. Ragtime: Writers Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens are some of modern theater's most reliable songwriters. Their masterpiece, Ragtime, is an epic story that covers the intertwined stories of African Americans, upper-class white Americans, and Eastern European immigrants in the early 20th century.
  2. Bandstand: The 2017 season was exceptionally crowded on Broadway, but mostly with film adaptations. This wholly original musical, about a group of World War II veterans who form a swing band along with a war widow, got lost in the shuffle, despite its nuanced treatment of issues about patriotism and veteran care, plus a top-notch jazz/swing score.
  3. Once on This Island: It's almost a fable or a fairytale, this story of a peasant girl falling in love with a rich boy from the lighter-skinned side of their tropical island. The musical was mostly forgotten until it pulled off an upset win for Best Revival at the 2018 Tony Awards.
  4. Anyone Can Whistle: While many of Stephen Sondheim's works are popular and acclaimed, this musical about a mismatched group of anti-heroes trying to save a small town never made as big of an impression.
  1. The Bridges of Madison County: Although it won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Score and Best Orchestrations, this little show only lasted a few months on Broadway. The story of an Iowa housewife's affair with a traveling photographer is emotionally rich and beautifully scored, but the other portions of the show failed to connect.
  2. Groundhog Day: With sharp, witty lyrics and a pop score by Tim Minchin, this movie adaptation never found its audience on Broadway but was critically praised for its well-crafted score and sophisticated humor.
  3. Bring It On: Before Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing about the Founding Fathers, he collaborated on this teen pop musical. The cast recording has slowly gained traction as an underrated gem among theatre kids, but it never made a big splash.
  4. A Gentleman's Guide To Love And Murder: In a rare case of a Tony-winning musical being "underrated," this 2014 Best Musical was never a blockbuster and remains a lesser-known title except among theatre fans. It's a throwback farce about Monty, an impoverished young man who finds out he's related to the richest family in England and sets out to methodically (and hilariously) murder them all.
  1. Grey Gardens: While many entries on this list are fictional stories, Grey Gardens is based on a documentary about a reclusive mother and daughter. The internal nature of the storytelling kept it from being a hit, but the music is still widely praised.
  2. Dogfight: Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul hit it big with the films La La Land and The Greatest Showman and the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen. Before that, though, they were young songwriters with a sparse, emotionally explosive style in this off-Broadway musical about a young soldier headed off to Vietnam and the girl he falls for after tricking her into coming to a party with a cruel twist: whichever man brings the "ugliest" girl "wins" the evening.
  3. A New Brain: Popular among young musical theatre students but unknown outside those circles, this William Finn musical is a quirky, artistic musical about a young songwriter going through brain surgery and the odd people who populate his life and his hallucinations.
  4. tick, tick...BOOM!: Jonathan Larson, composer of the generation-defining musical Rent, is one of the great what-ifs in theatre history: he died suddenly before the show's opening night and before writing any more works. He did, however, leave behind his earlier experimental work, a quasi-autobiographical story about an aspiring composer.
  1. Fiorello!: Anyone who's passed through LaGuardia Airport in New York City knows the subject of this Pulitzer-winning 1959 musical, even if they don't know it. Fiorello LaGuardia, an early-20th-century mayor of New York, made for an intriguing topic for a musical and won a slew of awards, but it's never quite entered the popular imagination enough to make it a household name.