5, 6, 7, 8: Eight Musicals from Today and Yesterday That Musicians Should Know

by Stephanie L. Carlin

Since Berklee merged with Boston Conservatory, there has been some tension – to say the least. There are concerns about class size, curriculum, the students in general, and so on. Today, I’d like to celebrate a part of Boston Conservatory that has made them world-renowned: musical theatre. They have cultivated numerous performers and composers that have gone on to Broadway. Needless to say, this is not all that Boston Conservatory does, but they have surely made an impact on the Broadway stage. So, I thought I’d showcase some of the best that musical theatre has to offer and how it can help you become a better musician.

Hamilton

OF COURSE THIS IS FIRST ON THE LIST.

How could any musician or human being on Earth, for that matter, not listen to this ground-breaking show? Hamilton, if you didn’t know, is a musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda about Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of Treasury. The show is all in the style of modern America claiming that it’s “America then, told by America now.” I could gush for hours about the references to old school rap, the posh, yet modern take on the costumes, the insane band that they have, the sheer brilliance of Alex Lacamoire (orchestrator and Berklee alum), and how every song pulls you in so quickly and easily. This show has been sold out week after week after week since it began and its debut and there’s a reason why. While most of the musicals on this list are a little predictable, I’ll admit, this one isn’t. This show came out of the blue with fresh, new ideas. Whether you like hip-hop or not, listen to Hamilton.

You can watch the show clips here.

The Sound of Music

An oldie but a goody. This 1959 classic tells the story of postulant Maria Rainer who goes to work for Captain George von Trapp and his seven children. This musical’s tunes are written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, a.k.a. The Supreme Overlords of Broadway. They are responsible for the popularity of musicals in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s because before them, there were just reviews and plays. Nobody liked musicals before they showed up and they dominated the stage for decades. With their enormous orchestras, and impeccable lyrical wit, these two made what musical theatre is now and forever will be. As to your benefit as a musician, sure – it’s pretty classical – but that big sounds is something every composer, regardless of the genre, yearns to have.

You can check out Julie Andrews’s lovely performance of the titular song here.

A Chorus Line

This is the show most thought of when we think about a typical “musical,” but that doesn’t make it a bad show. In fact, it was revolutionary for its time.

A Chorus Line comes from the minds of Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban and the story is taken from interviews the two had with members of a Broadway chorus. The way the show frames these stories is as an audition for a Broadway production where each person is eliminated one by one until eight remain.

High kicks, high belts, and sheer hilarity and drama, it’s no wonder that this show is the sixth-longest Broadway production with a jazzy 70’s score to boot. If you want to get into listening Broadway musicals, this is a good start.

You can check out the performance at the 2007 Tony Awards here. (Side note: how many cab drivers do you think were angry that a popular intersection was blocked for this?)

Into the Woods

If you haven’t heard of Stephen Sondheim, you should probably stop reading this article and look him up. He’s written several musicals and is regarded as one of the most important Broadway composers of the half-century. There are many I could’ve chosen, but I picked Into the Woods because of the universal message and the impact it’s had on audiences.

Essentially, fairytales are intertwined into a collective story involving a witch, a couple, Little Red Riding Hood, princes, princesses, a giant, and so on. It’s too complicated to get into here, but there’s so much nuance to this show and, in particular, I’d pay attention to the way themes are presented and how they shape the characters. Musically, Sondheim is particularly good at framing the music in a way where a singer doesn’t have to think about how to sing it. They just sing what’s on the page, and lyrically you’ll find a lot of inspiration for storytelling lyrics using clever alliteration and rhythm.

Check out this medley that was done at the 1988 Tonys Awards here.

Rent

Jonathan Larson’s Rent is his only Broadway show but has inspired artists from all over the world, including many of the composers on this list. Based on Giacomo Puccini’s la boheme, the story tells of friends in New York City dealing with drugs, poverty, and AIDS. With one of the most diverse cast of characters ever on a Broadway stage, this rock musical has become a stable in pop culture and wouldn’t be a bad thing to look into if you want to improve your lyric writing.

You can check out the 1996 Tony Award performance here.

The Wiz

He’s the Wiz, he’s the Wizard of Oz. This classic adaption of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz comes to us from William F. Brown and many composers who brought this production to the stage. As you can imagine, the story is the same, but the show was the first shows to feature an all-black cast and is greatly considered a cult-classic. Interestingly enough, the show was actually going to close after opening night but when one of the show’s songs, “Ease On Down the Road,” managed to hit mainstream radio stations, the show started to sell out within a week! This show is a great example of what musicals can do: bring people together with the music of the times. A lot of shows on this list do that, but this show I think really hits the nail on the head. Plus, the movie adaption had Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, so I think it’s worth taking a listen.

You can listen to “Ease On Down the Road” from the film adaption here.

Hedwig and the Angry Itch

Originally, I was going to put down Hair for its psychedelic rock and the fact that it actually caused protests, but when I think about underground shows that are considered daring and controversial to this day, I think of Hedwig. Inspired by the works of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, Hedwig and the Angry Itch is about genderqueer rock musician Hedwig Robinson and her climb to glory after an encounter with a famous rockstar. This show actually didn’t make it to Broadway until just recently, having first premiered in 1998 Off-Broadway and made into a film in 2001.

The sheer impact of this show is amazing. I cannot tell you how many bands and artists have covered these songs. Everyone from Meat Loaf to Ben Folds to Yoko-Ono to Type-O Negative to Cyndi Lauper to even Stephen Colbert of all people. And this was mainly before the Broadway show came out. This show has had more impact on pop music than I think most musicals have so, for the grunge, the hits, and the influence, Hedwig is worth checking out.

You can check out the 2014 Tony awards performance here.

Memphis

This is a pretty cool show, and I don’t just say that because Berklee put it up a few weeks ago.

Memphis is a show set in the 1950’s where Huey Calhoun, a resident nobody, becomes a huge star by playing “the music of [his] soul,” or as everyone else knows it, “colored music.” What’s nice about this show is that it really gets into the roots rock and roll and what made music integrate into a mass market. To a degree, one could argue that radio today is still segregated, but there are certainly people like Huey who are not afraid to stand up for who they believe in and there are still artists that will play, regardless of circumstance.

I got to see Memphis before out production but wow, we knocked it out of the park. Check out the full Broadway production here.

What did you think? Did you happen to catch Memphis? What are some of your favorite musicals? COMMENT BELOW.