I’ve listened to the soundtracks of various musicals for a while, including some older ones that my parents liked as well as more modern ones. I’ve also been lucky enough to be able to go and see quite a few musicals at theatres in London, which I’m very grateful for. In this article I will share five of my favourite musicals (in no particular order because there is no way I could rank them!) that I think you should listen to, and I will also share a few songs that best represent each musical, and that I like best. This is by no means an exhaustive list, or even my top favourites, as there are at least 15 musicals that I listen to regularly! I hope you give a few of them a listen and perhaps discover a new favourite musical.
“Of course they’re starting with Hamilton”, I hear you say, but the brilliance of this musical has repeatedly blown me away. I first heard Hamilton in 2016, a year after its Broadway premiere, after seeing people talk about it online, and to begin with I was just drawn in by the music that was so different to anything else. The more I listened to it, the more interested I became in the story and how Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer, chose to portray this part of American history which I knew almost nothing about (now I can remember dates of important events from the lifetime of Alexander Hamilton!). In case you’ve never heard of Hamilton (where have you been?!), or don’t know what it’s about, essentially it is a musical that is completely sung and rapped through, and it tells the story of the American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired to write it after reading the Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography ‘Alexander Hamilton’. Not only is the music amazing, the show has lots of important messages and a big focus on diversity, with non-white actors being cast as the Founding Fathers and other important historical figures. The choreography of the show is also incredibly good and carefully considered to fit the songs and the storyline. If you can't get to the theatre to see it, on Disney+ there is a film which is a live stage recording of the 2015 Broadway production.
The only true way to listen to Hamilton is from start to finish, as it goes in chronological order and the 46 songs on the soundtrack make up the complete show (apart from a few very small spoken parts). It’s very hard to pick favourites from this show as the songs all work together as a whole, but if you want just a few songs to get a feel for it, I’d recommend the opening number ‘Alexander Hamilton’, ‘Yorktown’, ‘Non-Stop’, and ‘The Room Where It Happens’.
The Hamilton West End cast performing at West End LIVE 2021:
2) Come From Away
I highly recommend this musical, which tells the true story of what happened in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when 38 planes were ordered to land in Gander, a small town in the Canadian province of Newfoundland, with the characters all based on real Gander residents and some of the 7,000 stranded travellers. In this show the people of Gander welcome the “plane people” into their town with temporary accommodation, food, clothing and anything else they might need. In the most unfortunate of circumstances, amazing friendships were built that have lasted to the present day and will continue to last. Several of the real people whose stories the show is based on have formed close connections to the actors, too. Of course the main subject matter is extremely sad and there are some very emotional songs and parts in this show, but overall it has a wonderful message about the importance and power of kindness, especially in times of darkness and crisis. This musical has some amazing songs, with some strong folk music influences in the more upbeat ones, but if you’re able to go and see it I urge you to, as the experience of watching it live is on a completely different level which is almost indescribable - make sure you take tissues.
Each of the songs in this musical tells an important part of the story, but the ones I suggest you listen to are the opening number ‘Welcome To The Rock’, ’28 Hours / Wherever We Are’, ‘Screech In’, and ‘Me And The Sky’ (which is based on the true story of pilot Beverly Bass, the first female captain of an American Airlines commercial plane).
The Come From Away West End cast performing at the 2019 Olivier Awards:
3) The Book of Mormon
This is possibly the best comedy musical out there, and as it was written by the creators of South Park, it comes with quite a big warning of explicit and offensive language! It tells the story of two Latter-day Saints missionaries, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who are sent to Uganda to try and convince people to join their Church. While they are there, they are confronted by the harsh realities of life in Africa and struggle to promote their religion’s teachings, but form new friendships with the people there and realise that although their scriptures are important, what is more important is getting their message across, including through metaphors. Despite the offensiveness of the show, the real Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responded indifferently when it first opened, and later on even purchased advertising space in its playbills and programmes. It’s a bit hard to explain this musical and make it sound interesting, but trust me when I say it’s hilarious and has good music!
My personal favourite songs from this show are ‘All-American Prophet’, ‘Man Up’, and ‘Spooky Mormon Hell Dream’.
The Book of Mormon West End cast performing at West End LIVE 2021:
This musical, also referred to as a folk opera, is an interesting retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice written by Anaïs Mitchell. In this version, which is partly narrated by the Greek god Hermes, Hadestown is an underground factory run by Hades, the god of the Underworld. Hades invites Eurydice to go there and she decides to go, but once she has signed a contract to become a worker there, Eurydice realises it was a mistake and that she cannot leave unless Hades lets her go. Orpheus decides to rescue her, and journeys to Hadestown. Hades decides to let Orpheus and Eurydice go on the condition that Orpheus must lead them out, and if he looks back to check that Eurydice is following him, she will go back to Hadestown and stay there forever. Orpheus almost makes it to the end, but is overcome by doubt and turns around, meaning Eurydice must stay and work in Hadestown. The songs that tell Orpheus’s journey down to Hadestown (‘Wait For Me’), and his attempt to take Eurydice back out (‘Wait For Me (Reprise)’ and ‘Doubt Comes In’) are quite emotional.
I came across this musical in 2019, which is also the year it premiered on Broadway, and was very disappointed to have missed it when it was in London the year before! I was intrigued by it being a modern version of a Greek myth, and the music which is quite different to most musicals and is very enjoyable. My favourite songs that also sum up some of the main parts of the story are the opening number ‘Road to Hell’, ‘Way Down Hadestown’, ‘Chant’, and ‘Wait For Me’.
Hadestown Broadway cast performing at the 2019 Tony Awards:
5) In The Heights
This was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway musical in 2008, but he wrote the first draft of it when he was still a student in 1999, and it was premiered by his university’s student theatre company. It is set in the largely Hispanic and Latino neighbourhood of Washington Heights, and tells a story that takes place over the course of just three days, focusing on various characters and the links between them. Even though the story is only about three days, the plot is very detailed and quite hard to explain! The main part of the story is that the bodega run by one of the main characters, Usnavi, has sold a winning lottery ticket worth $96,000. The entire block gets excited and sings about what they would do if they won that much money. It is revealed that Abuela Claudia, who helped to raise Usnavi and others, is the person who bought the winning lottery ticket. She later decides to give Usnavi and his cousin Sonny each a third of the money, and tells Usnavi he should use it to go home to the Dominican Republic. After a long night with a power outage, Abuela Claudia’s death, and various disagreements, each character who had been having difficulty knowing what to do realises what they want, including Usnavi deciding to stay, as the block is his true home and he wants to make sure that his family's legacy is remembered.
Although this musical hasn’t been in theatres for quite a few years, earlier this year a film version of it was released, and was very well received. A few of my favourite songs are the opening number ‘In The Heights’, ’96,000’, and ‘Hundreds of Stories’.
In The Heights original Broadway cast performing at the 2008 Tony Awards: