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So You Want to Listen To Musical Theater

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While “show tunes” may call to mind retro kick-lines or sappy love songs, musical theater is not a thing of the past. For decades, audiences have flocked to Broadway theaters, high school auditoriums, black box spaces, and everywhere in between to experience the magic of live theater firsthand. Musical theater is a constantly evolving amalgamation of different genres and trends, and its ever-changing sound makes it one of the most compelling music styles to engage with.

Here is a list of Broadway essentials, divided into Golden Age classics, fan-favorites, and genre-bending tracks from contemporary works — compiled by two self-described “Theater Kids” but intended for the even most inexperienced listener. Whether you’re a show tune skeptic or a loud and proud Theater Kid, these songs will transport you to the theater.

Golden Age:

The Sound of Music” — “The Sound of Music”

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Julie Andrews running through the alps in the 1965 movie adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved musical will forever be ingrained in cultural consciousness. With heartwarming romance, nuns (they’re shockingly common in musical theater), and one of the best voices in the business, “The Sound of Music” is a genre defining classic. Skip to 1:35 to hear the soaring high notes that made Julie Andrews a Dame.

Maria” — “West Side Story”

Leonard Bernstein’s heartbreaking retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” set amidst the rivalry of two teenage street gangs offers some of the most beautiful orchestrations, complex characters, and iconic dance fights in the genre. This song takes place right after Bernstein’s star-crossed lovers meet for the first time, and perfectly captures the exhilarating rush of first love.

“I Could Have Danced All Night” — “My Fair Lady”

Audrey Hepburn’s portrayal of the lovable Eliza Doolittle made “My Fair Lady” a Hollywood classic. Generations of audiences have frolicked, danced, and fallen in love to “I Could Have Danced All Night.” But here’s a Hollywood secret: The lilting soprano voice behind Eliza’s iconic songs actually belongs to Marni Nixon, the same ghost singer who dubbed Natalie Wood’s Maria in “West Side Story.”

Don’t Rain on My Parade” — “Funny Girl”

The 2023 Broadway revival starring “Glee”’s Lea Michele brought “Funny Girl” back into the public consciousness, and we couldn’t be more grateful. The bittersweet musical comedy chronicling the life of Fanny Brice features classic fast-paced numbers and ballads alike. “Don’t Rain on My Parade” will inspire you to adopt Fanny’s optimism and confidence — though maybe not the ability to belt a high D.

Theater Kid Staples:

Defying Gravity” — “Wicked”

Before her “Frozen” fame, Broadway darling Idina Menzel originated the role of Elphaba in Stephen Schwartz’s adaptation of “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West,” and musical theater was never the same. Today, “Defying Gravity” is any Broadway belter’s bread and butter and a staple in high school audition rooms across the country.

One Day More” — “Les Miserables”

The iconic refrain of revolutionaries chanting “Do you hear the people sing?” defines the beloved pop-opera musical “Les Misérables” in contemporary pop culture. A more musically complex number that is just as evocative of the French Revolution, “One Day More” encapsulates the intense melodrama and beautiful haunting refrains that characterize the musical.

The Phantom of the Opera” — “The Phantom of the Opera”

There’s a reason Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” holds the record for Broadway’s longest-running show. Though its curtains recently closed, Phantom’s chill-inducing high notes, opulent costuming and set design, and, of course, iconic title sequence will live on. That organ run alone is (maybe) enough to redeem Webber for “Cats.”

Seasons of Love” — “Rent”

We’ve spent “five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes” listening to Jonathan Larson’s “Rent.” Inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La bohème,” “Rent” follows a group of friends living in downtown New York City during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Though Larson tragically died before “Rent”’s Broadway debut, his legacy lives on through this Broadway juggernaut and his autobiographical musical, “Tick, Tick…Boom!”

Opening: I Hope I Get It” — “A Chorus Line”

It’s meta. What better way to learn about musicals than listening to a musical about aspiring Broadway performers vying for eight coveted chorus line spots? “A Chorus Line” captures Broadway’s cutthroat culture in witty up-tempo ensemble dance numbers and dramatic ballads characteristic of the musical theater canon.

Contemporary:

She Used To Be Mine” — “Waitress”

Sara Bareilles rocked the world with her transition from pop star to musical theater composer, and this touching ode to what could have been showcases Bareilles’s singer-songwriter background. Blending the driving power of musical theater with Bareilles’s characteristic lyrical prowess, “She Used to Be Mine” brings down the house every time. If that wasn’t convincing enough, “Waitress” originated at Cambridge’s very own American Repertory Theater, so it is a particular must-watch for all Harvard students!

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” — “Hamilton”

No musical theater list could be complete without a selection from “Hamilton.” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” is single-handedly responsible for making musical theater — and the founding fathers — cool. The hip-hop rap musical took the world by storm in 2015, breaking ground with its genre-bending sound and racially diverse casting of the founding fathers. The moving finale contains many of the musical’s main refrains, and is the perfect summary for those who somehow still haven’t listened to the full cast recording.

Wait for Me (Reprise)” — “Hadestown”

We’ll be honest — we chose the reprise of this ensemble number simply to include Eva Noblezada’s incredible belt, which cuts through composer Anaïs Mitchell’s mesmerizing harmonics as clear as a bell. This tension-building number will have your heart racing before the inevitable tragic ending of Mitchell’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” adaptation.

Bonus: Jukebox Musicals

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” — “Mamma Mia!”

Though this subgenre of musicals written around popular songs has taken over Broadway in recent years, none of the recent additions has been able to live up to “Mamma Mia!” Combining ABBA, Greece, and disco dance numbers — what could be better?

—Staff writer Evelyn J. Carr can be reached at evelyn.carr@thecrimson.com.

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