We can’t all travel to New York City and shell out for theater seats (and we certainly can’t travel back in time), so a cast album is often the best way to experience our favorite musicals. Here is a list of the best of the best Broadway cast albums, ranked with their popularity, critical acclaim, influence, and staying power in mind.
50. Pacific Overtures
Rarely performed, Stephen Sondheim’s musical about 19th-century Japan combines traditional Japanese musical forms and theater with his signature complex compositional style. Most importantly, Pacific contains Sondheim’s favorite of all of his own songs, “Someone in a Tree.” The song is also featured, perhaps in its best version, in the live concert album A Stephen Sondheim Evening.
49. Dear World
Angela Lansbury plays a French countess who foils an oil corporation’s plan to drill under a Parisian bistro in this 1968 production that was ultimately a critical failure. In spite of the Times’ review claiming the show “stubbornly refuses to get off the ground,” Jerry Herman’s (Hello, Dolly!, Mame) charming score is perfectly matched to his leading lady, and his songs about alienation in the modern world still resonate.
48. Spring Awakening
Pure teenage angst in a rock musical that takes place in 19th-century Germany. Songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally F#@%ed” express the sexual frustration and “sadness in your soul” when you’re an adolescent ill-prepared for life’s disappointments. Glee’s Lea Michele Sarfati and John Gallagher, Jr. star in the original cast recording.
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It was John F. Kennedy’s favorite musical, and the utopian lore Camelot evoked was a sort of metaphor for the Kennedy administration for many throughout the “Turbulent Sixties.” It was also Richard Burton’s rare musical role and the only time he appeared with Julie Andrews. Their chemistry shines through the show’s endearing songs as they convince listeners “that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot.”
46. The Most Happy Fella
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The stars of Frank Loesser’s epically long musical, Robert Weede and Jo Sullivan Loesser, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on October 28, 1956 to perform a few songs from the show. It just so happened to be the same night Elvis Presley would make his second appearance on the program, so they found themselves with the lion’s share of American television viewers tuned in to their performance. The musical is somewhat of an underrated classic, filled with catchy tunes and operatic voices.
45. The Wiz
A racial barrier-breaker on Broadway, The Wiz told L. Frank Baum’s story with an all-black cast and soul and disco music. Plenty had their doubts about whether the costly venture was worthwhile — and it was even left out of the 1975 Tony Awards — but the show has proven its critics wrong, generating a movie adaptation with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Lena Horne, and gaining entry into the Library of Congress in 2017.
44. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Part horror, part comedy, and part tragedy, there isn’t another musical like Sweeney Todd. Make no mistake: Tim Burton’s film adaptation will never deliver the same vocal excellence as Len Cariou’s and Angela Lansbury’s 1979 performance. As proof, sink your teeth into the original recording, if you can find it, and “have a little priest.”
43. I Love My Wife
An incredible, but mostly forgotten, Cy Coleman musical from 1977, I Love My Wife brought both folk music and wife-swapping to the Broadway stage. The cast recording is a unique time capsule of fun, risque showtunes that could only be the product of ’70s New York.
42. The Lion King
Audiences knew there was something different about this Broadway experience when giant elephant and rhino puppets strolled down the aisles in the opening number. The soundtrack retains the magic of Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s music, along with some new tunes, like “He Lives in You.” Disney’s best Broadway venture remains one of the longest-running shows in history.
41. In the Heights
Before Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical depicted Dominican immigrants in his home neighborhood of Washington Heights. The hip hop score is contagious and moving, and the film adaptation is on its way. The movie was set to hit theaters just last week, but the pandemic pushed it back a year.
40. On the Twentieth Century
A big musical farce featuring Kevin Kline and Madeleine Kahn on a train in the Roaring Twenties. Cy Coleman turned the 1932 play into a driving operetta that entertains and practically begs for a film adaptation.
Uploaded by Cats the Musical
We’re going to have to choose to forget about the bizarre bomb of a movie adaptation released last winter and make a collective decision to remember Cats for the Broadway smash hit it was. The record-breaking Broadway engagement inspired a cult following and introduced scores of audiences to T.S. Eliot’s whimsical poetry through an eclectic mix of genre- and reality-bending songs. Taylor Swift? James Corden? I have no memory of that movie.
38. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
A sharp satire of the Mad Men business world of mid-century America, the joint effort of Frank Loesser, Bob Fosse, and Robert Morse follows a man who rises through the ranks of a business by reading a book and taking its advice.
This electric, edifying musical about the bold, reformist New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was a hit, and its cast album was on the Billboard chart for more than a year. Though it seems to have been largely forgotten, Fiorello! offers a relevant history lesson on grassroots politics along with a dynamic, catchy score.
Long before he composed the Broadway sensation Wicked, Steven Schwartz made this humble rock musical adaptation of the New Testament. A favorite for high schools and community theaters across the country, Godspell also produced a hit album in 1971 (technically an Off-Broadway cast album) and a popular song in “Day by Day.”
35. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
The seeming rise in youth competitiveness is sent up hilariously in this 2005 Broadway musical. Six child spelling bee contestants — played by adults, including Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson — face the sexual tension, familial disappointments, and paralyzing failure that comes with adolescence. The music ranges from sing-songy to full gospel as one by one the spellers are eliminated and their stories are revealed.
34. Man of La Mancha
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“The Impossible Dream” inspired covers by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, The Temptations, Glen Campbell, Aretha Franklin, and so many others. The 1965 musical that popularized the song was a telling of the ridiculously noble knight Don Quixote that ran for 2,300 performances at ANTA Washington Square Theatre in Greenwich Village.
33. Dear Evan Hansen
A unique modern musical in its treatment of youth anxiety, suicide, and social media, Dear Evan Hansen has taken pop-rock music to its most interesting and dynamic edge.
32. The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Uploaded by Original Broadway Cast of ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’
After striking it rich with her oil man husband in Colorado, the famous Margaret Brown traveled Europe and sailed back on the RMS Titanic — until it sank, that is. Meredith Willson, of Music Man notoriety, wrote the songs and lyrics that immortalize the feisty socialite and all-American personality.
31. Avenue Q
The racy puppet musical that upset Wicked to win the Tony for Best Musical in 2004. Its cast album, like albums by 50 Cent and Ludacris that year, had a “Parental Advisory” sticker for its adult themes. Ultimately, the Sesame Street-style treatment of racism, homosexuality, and post-college ennui became a household name and breathed new life into Broadway.
30. Pajama Game
Of all the musicals about labor struggles (and there are a lot), Pajama Game is perhaps the campiest. The show introduced “Steam Heat” — and Bob Fosse’s minimalist choreography style — to American theater. Directors George Abbott and Jerome Robbins butted heads over whether to keep the number in the show after tryouts, but Fosse won the Tony for Best Choreography because of it.
Before performing his most well-known role in Blazing Saddles, Cleavon Little starred as the traveling preacher Purlie Victorious in this Jim Crow-era sendup of racism. The play’s author, Ossie Davis, and his wife and Purlie star Ruby Dee were avid Civil Rights activists and friends of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson.
28. The Book of Mormon
The creators of South Park struck gold with an irreverent musical about Mormon missionaries in Uganda. It’s one of the funniest musicals in history and, perhaps surprisingly, touching for its wide-eyed and well-meaning characters.
27. Into the Woods
The fervent fanbase of this fractured fairy tale amalgamation is made up of “musical-theatre fans who were children in the eighties and thought they were too good for Andrew Lloyd Webber,” if one is to believe Michael Schulman in The New Yorker. But Into the Woods, and Sondheim more broadly, have likely gained wider audiences with the spike in film adaptations and stage revivals of his work. This one is a masterful satire of fairy tales that can work its magic on any willing audience or listener. Even Cats fanatics.
A musical that brings the turn of the century to life, featuring figures from the era like Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, and Booker T. Washington. Ragtime is a sprawling show, using historical music genres to tell dramatic stories of inequality and persistence with heart and humor.
25. Anything Goes
A wild ensemble of characters board a London-bound ship, and, as the title and famous number suggest, anything goes. This legendary collaboration between P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, and Cole Porter starred Ethel Merman and William Gaxton in its original 1934 production, but there are plenty of worthwhile recordings, including the 1987 revival with Patti LuPone.
24. Mr. President
Irving Berlin’s last musical — opening when the composer was 74 years old — received a lukewarm critical response. Mr. President was possibly “behind its time” when it ran in 1962, but it remains a refreshingly perky and underrated score from the man behind Annie Get Your Gun and White Christmas.
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In the long tradition of musicals that distill and celebrate the youth of an era, Rent depicted the artistic scene of New York City in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. But the late Jonathan Larson’s rock opera was also channeling something else: Puccini’s La Bohème, an Italian opera about a strikingly similar bohemian group of friends in Paris in the 1830s.
22. Merrily We Roll Along
The recent documentary The Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened chronicles the epic disappointment the young cast of Sondheim’s 1981 musical faced when they discovered their big break was a flop. Running for only 16 performances, Merrily received poor reviews (mostly due to the backwards, hard-to-follow plot). The show has resurfaced, however, many times over the years, and Richard Linklater is currently filming it in a Boyhood-style 20-year-long production to be released in 2040.
21. The Phantom of the Opera
With more than 13,000 performances, Phantom is the longest-running Broadway show by far. The original cast recording, featuring Michael Crawford’s haunting phantom and Sarah Brightman’s iconic soprano, is a staple of any showtunes collection.
20. Tie: West Side Story and The Sound of Music
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The artists behind West Side Story — Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Carol Lawrence — were a group of Broadway all-stars: diehard perfectionists out to make their modern Romeo and Juliet a theatrical hit. They succeeded, turning the rough gang story into a classic.
The thrilling and heartwarming true story of Maria Von Trapp and her romance, and escape from Germany, with an Austro-Hungarian naval captain. The songs have entered modern cultural parlance, and the musical spawned an adaptation that has become a cult film over the years. Mary Martin’s original Maria set the bar for many others, including Florence Henderson, Petula Clark, and, of course, Julie Andrews.
19. Hello, Dolly!
Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman was the original title of this Jerry Herman classic. Carol Channing originated the role of the Brooklynite matchmaker (and she played it at least three more times). Hello, Dolly! carved out a month and a half on the top of the album charts in the summer of 1964 (first as a cast album, then as a Louis Armstrong’s release) in a sea of top Beatles’ albums.
As the second-longest-running show in Broadway history, the 1996 revival of Chicago, and its cast album, has become the standard for the Prohibition-era musical. The Fosse-inspired dance sequences, captivating story, and never-miss song list have made it a mainstay musical in American theater.
17. Sunday in the Park with George
At the Art Institute of Chicago, you can see A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, the famous pointillist painting that took Georges Seurat two years to complete. In Sondheim’s Pulitzer-winning musical, you can see a — greatly — fictionalized account of the artist’s life during those years and long afterward. Sunday is a brilliant meditation on art and expression, love and resentment. Mandy Patinkin’s vocal control in singing high notes one minute and barking like a dog the next is reason enough to experience the cast album (or the American Playhouse video recording).
16. The Music Man
It’s hard to overstate how popular The Music Man was upon its debut in 1957. The cast album was the most popular album in the country for three months, and it stayed on the Billboard charts for almost five years. After The Beatles covered “Till There Was You,” Meredith Willson’s estate made more money from royalties off their recording than the play.
15. Caroline, or Change
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The immensely innovative musical drama set in Civil Rights-era Louisiana combines soul, jazz, and folk music to tell a powerful, nuanced story about the American dream. Caroline, or Change has flown under the Broadway radar for mass audiences, but its commentary on race and class has never seemed more relevant. The cast album is a transcendent collage of American culture and a testament to African-American excellence in musical theater.
14. South Pacific
Critic John Kenrick wrote of South Pacific’s 1949 cast album, “this classic recording is essential to any civilized home.” From summer through winter that year, Americans snatched up the album, making it the best-selling record of the year, and possibly the decade. South Pacific takes a bold stance against racism that was a major theatrical risk in the 1940s. Its catchy songs and early adoption of antiracism have made it a centerpiece of American musical theater.
13. Funny Girl
In her second and last Broadway role, Barbra Streisand sings her heart out, launching a long recording and acting career. Her voice on this original cast album is indomitable, from “I’m the Greatest Star” to “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” playing the comedic entertainer Fanny Brice.
If you’re only listening to the movie soundtrack, you’re missing a lot of music from the original show, songs like “Don’t Tell Mama” and “So What.” From the musical’s “overture” (a long drum roll and cymbal crash) to the ongoing juxtaposition between Berlin’s raucous cabaret scene and the rise of Nazism, Cabaret zeroes in on a particular intersection of history and entertainment and remains as both an exuberant exultation and a dark warning.
A simultaneously political and touching backstory that will change the way you think about The Wizard of Oz, Wicked shines a spotlight on the Wicked Witch of the West, retelling her redeeming story and creating a fantastical, steampunk Oz in the process. Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel inhabit their roles, giving dynamo vocal performances and complicating the lore of the good witch and the bad witch.
10. Les Miserables
When Les Mis first opened in London, more than a few critics panned the musical, calling it a witless “Victorian melodrama.” Then, it became a record-breaker, drawing audiences adding up to the tens of millions over the years. At its heart, it is a story about injustice and tyranny over oppressed people, and its popular appeal probably owes to those universal themes as well as a killer score. Sometimes, the critics are just wrong.
9. A Little Night Music
Sondheim’s best-reviewed musical, and the one with his most popular song, “Send in the Clowns.” The musical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night is a “heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting … orgy of plaintively memorable waltzes,” according to the Times’s Clive Barnes. The original cast recording also features some of the best cover art to ever grace showtunes: at first glance, a nighttime elm, and with a closer look, nude reposing bodies in its branches.
8. My Fair Lady
George Bernard Shaw, ever the difficult playwright, refused to allow his play Pygmalion to be adapted into a musical. After he died in 1950, however, he could no longer object. Chase Manhattan Bank controlled the rights, and composers Lerner and Loewe preemptively scored the whole thing to have the upper hand over their competitors, MGM. The result was a critical and popular success that continues to delight audiences.
7. A Chorus Line
A disco album that holds up. A Chorus Line is a Broadway record-breaker that tells the stories of New York dancers with all of their ugliness, hilarity, and heartbreaking triumph or failure. The musical swept the Tonys in 1976 and became the longest-running American show for a time.
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Oklahoma! was the first Broadway musical smash hit. During its run, one radio announcer quipped, “Look at that play Oklahoma! A man died last week and left his place in line to his wife. If she dies before she gets her tickets, her place in line goes to an uncle in Baltimore.” Reportedly, the $4.80 tickets were going for as much as $50 on the street.
Ethel Merman plays the role of her life, radiating from the stage (and stereo) as Rose, the ultimate stage mom. Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, this backstage musical expresses the ecstasy and terror of show business ruthlessly.
4. Guys and Dolls
Gamblers, dancers, and good, Christian teetotalers make up this double romantic comedy that launched songs with serious staying power. Just a few weeks ago, Chris Thile was singing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” on NPR. According to some accounts, Guys and Dolls was supposed to win the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but writer Abe Burrows’s ties to the Communist Party turned off the Pulitzer committee and the award was cancelled.
As long as the performers stood stationary, James Rado said, a New York City ordinance allowed nudity in theatrical productions. Rado, along with his collaborator Gerome Ragni, took this opportunity to include a scene in their free-spirited musical in which the cast of over 20 performers shed their beads and jeans to sing a number stark naked. Before Hair, there was The Sound of Music and Camelot; after Hair, anything was possible. The cast recording was an irreverent favorite in Baby Boomer record collections. It was the last musical to hit number one on the Billboard album chart, until …
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Maybe the American history lesson is a tad romanticized and sexed up, but there’s no doubt that Hamilton has changed musical theater forever. In a sea of remakes and jukebox musicals, Lin-Manuel Miranda carved his name on Broadway, making space for hip hop and minority performers in a story about a founding father. If you’ve managed to snatch up tickets in the five years this show has run in New York and toured the country, good for you. If you haven’t, you can finally see the video recording on Disney Plus.
1. Fiddler on the Roof
The political and the personal intertwine and unfold beautifully in this story of fading tradition. Every one of Jerry Bock’s songs manages to entertain, tell a story, and carry its audience to a remote Jewish village in Imperial Russia. Fiddler‘s themes of the pain of progress couldn’t possibly be more relevant. Anatevka might as well be America, and we are all fiddlers on a roof.
Ineligible Honorable Mentions:
Promenade, Off-Broadway Cast Recording
Show Boat Complete Recording
Chess, Original London Cast Recording
Featured image: Scene from Oklahoma, 1943-1944, Theatre Guild production, Library of Congress, U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs
The 1940s were a financial low point for Broadway. The rise of the cinema, and subsequently television, provided a cheaper outlet for people seeking escapist entertainment, and the expensive production costs of Broadway shows paired with dwindling viewership led to closure (and conversion to movie houses) of many theaters. By the late 1940s it was necessary to call a meeting of theater unions and discuss the future of the industry.
Despite financial concerns, the 1940s also provided some iconic Broadway musicals, which could be seen for less than $5. Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town debuted in 1944, and Carousel opened in 1945 to critical and audience acclaim. Cole Porter provided the lyrics for the comedic musical Kiss Me Kate, which opened in 1948. In 1946 Ethel Merman starred as the titular Annie in the hit show Annie Get Your Gun. And of course there was 1944’s Oklahoma!, Rogers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration.
With shrinking profits, sacrifices had to be made in some areas, but costuming wasn’t one of them. The gingham shirts and calico frocks of Oklahoma! may have looked simple, but the musical’s costume budget – in 1944 – was $75,000. Where did the clothes come from, and why did they cost so much?
In 1944, The Saturday Evening Post published “How to Dress a Broadway Musical” in which writer Maurice Zolotow claimed, “lavish costumes pay off at the box office.” Zolotow described the Brooks Costume Rental Company, which at the time was one of the largest manufacturers of Broadway and circus costumes. Brooks offered an extensive collection of ready-made costumes for rent (everything from hula skirts to nun’s habits) to schools, community theaters, and off-Broadway houses. But their real calling was making custom costumes for Broadway productions, employing 250 costume makers who could create 20 new costumes a day.
The stars and designers of Broadway would come in for three fittings of each costume to make sure that the garments not only fit perfectly but also fulfilled the designer’s vision. The creation process was so painstaking because the costumes had to be up to task:
A theatrical costume must be made of the best and strongest material, it must be tailored perfectly, it must fit onto a body like a tight, wet bathing suit. It must be made to stand intense punishment, as the character goes through her performance eight times a week. It must stand an intense dry-cleaning once or twice a month. A society woman who has an evening gown made for her may wear the dress six times a year. But the similarly gorgeous evening gowns worn in, say, One Touch of Venus, are worn—and worn to the hilt— every night and twice on matinee days.
This thorough treatment led to hefty costume bills of around $75,000 for a show like Oklahoma!, or about $1 million in today’s dollars. (Circuses were even more expensive, costing upwards of $300,000.)
In those days, costume production for any given show happened within one building. The designer provided the sketches to the manufacturers, who then not only put the design to fabric but created the necessary accessories and wigs. William Ivey Long, a nine-time Tony award winning costume designer who has outfitted The Producers, Hairspray, Cinderella, and dozens of other shows, claims, “Back then there were several big costume shops that would deliver everything from soup to nuts.” Indeed, Brooks also provided “gloves, hats, shoes, sashes, scarves, petticoats, sweaters, berets, stockings.”
In the 75 years since Zolotow explored the Brooks company, many things have changed. Today, instead of bringing a design to one large costume house, Long shops around. He brings his pieces to different specialists and works hard to get the best work at the best price. Where “one-stop-shops” previously dominated the costume scene, modern manufacturers specialize in one aspect of costume. And budgets for modern productions are smaller. While it can cost around $300,000 to outfit a show, that’s only half of the budget for 1944’s Oklahoma! when adjusted for inflation.
In addition, the technological changes to theater have necessitated a change in costume design. “As we speak lighting is changing,” Long explains. The prevalence of LED lighting in theaters casts a blue tint onto the actors, requiring an alteration in the color of their clothes. Long noticed that costumes taken on tour into theaters that have not made the switch to LED lighting looked different than in their original performances and did not provide the same effect.
Today, the large costume houses no longer exist. Costume companies continue to rent out retired Broadway costumes to smaller-scale productions, yet these rental companies do not have nearly the dominance of years past. The Brooks company itself went through several sales, eventually becoming Dodgers Costumes, which closed its doors for good in 2015.
Broadway itself has experienced a surge of popularity in recent years. Despite rising ticket prices, 2019 marks the sixth record-breaking year for attendance in a row. Elevated tourism, recognizable show titles, longer show-runs and run-away hits like Hamilton keep people coming back for more. After all, despite changes in production or ticket prices, the show must go on.
Featured image: Photograph by Richard Beattie