The 26 Greatest Musicals of All Time

In continuing with my attempts to make my 26th Birthday a bit more memorable, I've chosen my 26 favorite stage musicals of all time. Like earlier with the film list, the musicals had to overcome two hurdles. Do I really enjoy the show? Is the show actually good? Some great shows were left off because of the enjoyment factor, and some shows I adore got bumped because they're not particularly good. Let's get started. In no particular order:

My Fair Lady: On stage or screen, this tuneful musical about a young woman being picked off the streets and transformed into a social darling is a hit. Best song? "I Could Have Danced All Night."

Sweeney Todd: Stephen Sondheim's mostly sung-through musical about a murderous barber, a conniving pie shop owner, and the judge they're both out to get is the greatest horror musical ever written. The songs are as close to perfection as songs can get and the revelations in the last few scenes are startling. Best song? "Pretty Women."

Gypsy: The tale of the ultimate stage mother is equal parts comedy and tragedy. With the right kind of actress in the leading role, the show is a stunner. Best song? "Together, Wherever We Go."

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: This show is funny, heartfelt, and always a crowd pleaser. You grew up knowing children like this and can't help but invest in their efforts to qualify for the national spelling bee. Best song? "The 'I Love You' Song."

City of Angels: Jazz is hard. So is writing a novel show about Hollywood. So is writing a show with two concurrent plots that reflect on each other without confusing the audience. City of Angels does all of this in the broad strokes of noir. Best song "With Ev'ry Breath I Take (Duet)."

Threepenny Opera: Theater is meant to get a reaction out of an audience. No show is so intentionally off-putting and engaging as this one. It was the authors' intent to push the boundaries and they succeed. Best song? "Pirate Jenny."

The Book of Mormon: I don't fall for chasing the shiny new object on Broadway. The fact is that The Book of Mormon is a beautifully composed and well-scripted traditional musical comedy. The jokes might be cruder, but it beats with the heart of Rodgers & Hammerstein through and through. Best song? "Joseph Smith American Moses."

Jersey Boys: I don't fall for jukebox musicals very often, either. This is the one jukebox musical that gets everything right (except for the darker side of the true story, but that's nit picking just to pick nits). The songs of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons are used to actually tell their story, not just showcase popular songs. It's riveting and scripted to perfection. Best song? "Fallen Angel."

South Pacific: War musicals are hard. South Pacific gets it right. It's light-hearted without being frivolous and tells a great romance. The score is amazing when you hear the full orchestrations. Best song? "Bali Hai."

Chicago: This might be Kander & Ebb's masterpiece. The musical about murderous women in 1920s Chicago is set in a night club and is designed to force the audience into the mindset of criminal as newspaper darling from the period. Best song? "We Both Reached for the Gun."

Gigi: A sweet little fairy tale based off of a sweet and wrongfully vilified film. If you're dumb enough to judge a show based off the title of one song, then you must be dumb enough to believe that at no point in history did girls get married regularly before they were 18. Best song? "Thank Heaven for Little Girls."

Candide: Despite its flaws, ever-changing book, and commercial struggles, Candide's score and concept alone are enough to net a spot on this list. Sometimes, ambition is rewarded. Best song? "Bon Voyage."

Showboat: It's a shame that people are so caught up on that one word that opens the show. The song, in context, immediately establishes the time period and tensions on the ship between the white passengers and black workers. The music is great, the story broad and sweeping, and the impact of a good production undeniable. Best song? "Can't Help Loving that Man of Mine."

Wonderful Town: What can I say? I'm a sucker for a jazzy score. This madcap musical comedy is a showcase for innovative jazz and swing choreography when done right. Best song? "Swing."

On the Twentieth Century: About the only other way to make a showbiz musical work is to make it a farce. This show is funny and beautifully composed. Madcap is an understatement. Best song? "On the Twentieth Century."

West Side Story: It's one thing to do a musical that has a less than happy ending. It's quite another to use that ending as a chance to comment on society and gut the audience. That's not even getting into the magnificent score and the necessary dancing. Best song? "Dance at the Gym."

Oklahoma: Some think the show is impossibly dated. I think that's incredibly short-sighted. A bad production is almost unbearable; a halfway decent production is more enjoyable than most of what passes for musical theater nowadays. Best song? "People Will Say We're In Love."

Caroline, or Change: How do you spell brilliant sung-through show? C-A-R-O-L-I-N-E. Alternate spelling: C-H-A-N-G-E. I have never seen a show that had such emotional resonance when dealing with such a tumultuous period of American history. Best song? "Lot's Wife."

Assassins: Speaking of political musicals, why not spread the love for a show that uses some of the most deplorable characters in American history to comment on the American dream? It's dark, it's funny, and it's one of the smartest shows ever written. Best song? "The Gun Song."

Dreamgirls: Ok, there's one more way to do a showbiz musical. Focus entirely on one act--real or make believe--and watch their rise and fall from fame. This score is one memorable song after another. Best song? "One Night Only."

Bat Boy: I have a soft spot in my heart for strange little musicals that excel in exactly what they set out to do. Bat Boy is a horror/comedy/farce about a town dealing with the social indoctrination of a wild half-bat, half-boy who lived in a cave for most of his life. Best song? "Three Bedroom House."

The Last 5 Years: Speaking of tiny little musicals, how about this two-person show that follows a relationship from beginning to end, backwards and forwards, all at the same time? Told in alternating songs from one person's perspective, The Last 5 Years is one of the more believable musical theater love stories. One person remembers the relationship from beginning to end; the other, end to beginning. Best song? "The Next Ten Minutes."

La Cage Aux Folles: Smart, funny, and featuring more drag performers than you can shake a stick at, this musical comedy about gay parents willing to do anything for the happiness of their son is heartfelt and hilarious. Best song? "I Am What I Am."

Notre-Dame de Paris: Imagine someone made a musical out of Victor Hugo's most famous novel without choosing to sanitize it to the point of being unrecognizable. Notre-Dame de Paris is sweeping, brutal, and astonishing. I'm almost selfish enough to say that they need to translate the show into English, but that's lazy at best, culturally insulting at worse. I'll just live with my bootleg and mediocre French skills to get the gist of it. Best song? "Ave Maria païen (The Pagan Ave Maria)."

Les Miserables: See? If you get a dedicated English translator, you can make any work sing in any language. Les Miserables is musical theater spectacle at its finest. It's earnest without being cloying, tragic without being schmaltzy. Best song? "One Day More."

Side Show: This is included as the example that anything can be turned into a great musical if you find the right approach. Having two actresses sing amazing music while standing hip to hip for 2+ hours was a stroke of genius to bring the story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton to life. It's the kind of show that's crying out for a regional theater life but takes so much rehearsal between the two leads that it's hard to pull off. I love the show, warts and all. Best song? "I Will Never Leave You."

Let it be known that it was harder for me to make the Best Musicals list than the Best Films list. Thoughts?

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