Top 15 Completely Original Musicals
When we go to New York, we see all these musicals based on films, books, other plays, etc. It’s not very often we see a show that comes solely from the mind of an individual or individuals. Original musicals are what keep true artistry alive in the theatre. Only a select few are brought to the forefront of the theatre world and can make an appearance on Broadway. Today, we’re taking a look at the best of what completely original theatre has to offer.
In celebration of the new musical film La La Land arriving in theatres, Broadway connoisseur Harper Leander and myself have put together a list of the top 15 completely original musicals.
This list is part of a three-list series, counting down the best in musical theatre. You can find our list of the top 15 film-to-musical adaptations here, and our list of the top 15 musical-to-film adaptations here.
We have determined this list based on the following criteria:
The Music Man
When Harold Hill strolls into your town, you know you’ve got trouble. This musical, written in 1957 by Meredith Wilson, tells the story of a con man who sells instruments to schoolchildren in a small Indiana town, promising to start and train a new boys’ band. Obviously, the con man plans to skip town, but ends up falling in love with a local librarian. Hijinks and late 1950s rapping ensue. Originally, the show underwent more than forty draft changes, and 23 song cuts before finally ending up with the product we know today, showing just how long it takes to get a show off the ground. The show ended up captivating the attention of audiences (probably taking away from the grittier and more complex West Side Story, which opened just three months earlier), and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. A revival opened in 2000, and ran for 699 performances.
Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical Follies concerns four former performers (say that three times fast) of a “Ziegfeld-esque follies” musical revue, holding a reunion inside crumbling Broadway theatre. The four are comprised of two couples: Buddy and Sally, and Ben and Phyllis, who are all deeply unhappy with their marriages. The four circle around each other reminiscing about the old days, while performing old numbers, sometimes with the ghosts of their past younger selves. It’s a simple but fascinating premise. Follies has spawned a number of revivals since its 1971 production, including one most recently in 2011, which featured Broadway heavyweights such as Danny Burstein, Bernadette Peters, Ron Raines, Jan Maxwell, Jayne Houdyshell, and Elaine Paige.
Why this show is so loved in England is beyond me. The concept is stupid. The songs are dumb. The premise is as follows: A mother (who happens to be obsessed with Marilyn Monroe for some reason) has two twin boys, but realizes that, due to financial constraints, she cannot keep one of them. She gives one of her children to the rich family for whom she nannies. Then, there’s something about a curse, where we discover that if the two ever discover that they’re brothers, they’ll both die. Obviously, there wouldn’t be drama without the two boys meeting. It’s this whole idea of nature vs. nurture, and this whole thing about class difference. I don’t even want to get into the fact that there’s an omnipresent narrator who INVADES PEOPLE’S HOMES TO SPEAK IN RHYME. This show sucks. Also, it was on Broadway for like two years in the early 1980s. But who cares, really?
The Top 15:
15. Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Hedwig has been flying under the radar as a musical for a long time, developing a cult following when it was first premiered in 1998, until it finally made it to Broadway in 2014. Featuring a David Bowie-esque glam post-punk rock score by Stephen Trask, and a book by the original man in the wig, John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig follows the titular singer, as she follows her former protégé’s tour, reflecting on her botched sex change operation, her love, her past, and her complex gender identity. Hedwig is a fantastic example of how one small idea can blossom into a cultural phenomenon, as Mitchell watched this little seed of a show grows to become the massive, Tony-winning show it is today.
14. Caroline, or Change
Caroline, or Change features one of the best creative teams to ever helm a musical. With music by Jeanine Tesori, and lyrics and a book by famed playwright Tony Kushner, Caroline, or Change opened on Broadway in 2003, after nearly 10 years of workshops. The musical is completely sung-through, and blends elements of spirituals, blues, Motown, folk music, classical, and even Jewish klezmer, as Caroline, an African-American maid to a white Jewish family, debates keeping money found in the clothes of the family’s youngest son to provide for her own family, while some of the most important events of the 1960s are taking place right outside the doors. Caroline, or Change is truly awe-inspiring, and Tonya Pinkins’ turn as Caroline takes your breath away, as she begs God for forgiveness as seen in songs like “Lot’s Wife.” The creative super team really knocks it out of the park with this show.
13. Of Thee I Sing
The oldest entry on this list, Of Thee I Sing holds the honor of being the first musical ever awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. With a score by George and Ira Gershwin, and a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (I mean, you wanna talk about super teams, here’s one right here), Of Thee I Sing is a lampoon of American politics. A presidential candidate runs on a platform of just “love” (wouldn’t politics be much simpler if that’s all politicians were about?). His campaign advisors hold a beauty pageant for him to select the most beautiful girl in the country and marry her. When John P. Wintergreen (the candidate in question) falls for a much more sensible woman instead of one he does not know, he gets into a bit of political hot water. The Gershwin’s score is fairly complex, relating very much to the patter style of Gilbert and Sullivan. The book was one of the first musicals to undertake a completely satirical tone, and doing so against the backdrop of the Great Depression that was really happening at the time (it was 1931 after all), was a very daring move on the part of Kaufman and Ryskind. Of Thee I Sing is truly one of a kind as a musical, and it’s a wonder why it hasn’t been revived recently.
12. The Drowsy Chaperone
A very unique but familiar concept- a theatre junkie (known only as the “Man in Chair”) takes the audience through one of his favorite Broadway showtune records, “The Drowsy Chaperone.” The musical in question turns out to be your typical love story, with a bit of mistaken identity thrown in, along with some vengeful baker-gangsters for good measure. Drowsy is beloved by many theatregoers, and for good reason. Starring big names like Sutton Foster, Danny Burstein, Beth Leavel (who nabbed a Tony Award for her performance as the Chaperone), and Bob Martin (who co-wrote the book with Don McKellar), Drowsy takes the audience on a back-and-forth journey in and out of fantasy and reality, as the Man in Chair inserts his factoids and footnotes into every song and scene in the show. The songs by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison are so catchy, especially tracks like “Show Off,” “As We Stumble Along,” and “Toledo Surprise.” The Drowsy Chaperone won 5 Tony Awards in 2006, including Best Book and Best Original Score.
11. Avenue Q
It’s “Sesame Street” combined with “South Park.” Avenue Q’s unique concept of using puppetry and friendly looking characters to tackle real issues like racism, depression, homelessness, and internet porn addiction is genius. Featuring a witty (honk honk) by book by Jeff Whitty, and a score by Robert Lopez, Avenue Q follows the residents of a block in New York City, as they deal with the adult world, and just how hard it can be to survive in it. It offers crude humor, Gary Coleman from “Diff’rent Strokes,” full-out puppet sex, but Avenue Q also has a big, furry heart way down inside, as characters address things like relationships and commitment, ultimately determining that there’s happiness underneath all that shittiness here on earth, and that everything in life is only “for now.” For all the hype surrounding it when it first came out in 2004, Avenue Q is actually one of the more profound pieces of theatre out there. It took down Wicked to win Best Musical, believe it or not.
10. [title of show]
Try to keep up with me here. This is a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical. Based on the real-life story of Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, [title of show] follows the two aspiring playwrights and their attempt to enter the inaugural New York Musical Festival. Utilizing only an on stage pianist (as if the audience is in a rehearsal studio the entire time), and two other actors (the incomparable Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell), the musical essentially happens in accelerated time, and ends back in the present day, where the show was being performed at the Vineyard Theatre off-Broadway at the time (it did later play at the Lyceum Theatre in 2008). The show deals with issues we all face as artists, including self-doubt, artistic integrity vs. marketability, and artistic direction. Overall, the lasting theme of opting to be “nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing” is touching and extremely hopeful for anyone trying to make it in the world of theatre.
9. Passing Strange
Stew, guitarist and singer of the LA-based group The Negro Problem, had never written a play before Passing Strange, which premiered on Broadway in 2008. But what he did write is an extremely profound and very underrated piece of musical theatre. Passing Strange is a rock musical about a young black man and his journey of self-discovery as he travels from South Central Los Angeles to Amsterdam. The piece offers lots of philosophical existentialism and self-referential humor. Stew, Heidi Rodewald, Daniel Breaker, and De’Andre Aziza were all nominated for Tony Awards for their efforts in book writing, composing, and acting, respectively (although Stew was nominated for all three, winning for best book). Passing Strange’s pulse is so strong, and its rousing anthems of about individuality and selfhood make it a treat for all who witness it.
Urinetown is a bad place. Urinetown the place is bad, of course, not the musical. Urinetown the musical is actually quite delightful. As a satire on big business, corporate greed, the legal system, and capitalism, this 2001 musical tells the story of a near-future city in America where drinking water has become scarce, and public toilets are the only places for people to relieve themselves. In musical styles that mimic all kinds of musical theatre, including The Threepenny Opera and Les Misèrables, Urinetown offers some of the most campy, the most complex, the most touching, and the most confusing songs ever found in a musical. Starring Hunter Foster, Jennifer Laura Thompson, John Cullum, Jeff McCarthy, and Nancy Opel, the show was nominated for 10 Tony Awards in 2002, winning three, including best Book and Original Score for Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis.
7. In the Heights
For those of you who are at least generally aware of Hamilton- this show was the step to the high platform for Lin-Manuel Miranda, as his show about finding home danced and rapped its way to Broadway in early 2008. Miranda began writing the show when he was a sophomore in college at Wesleyan University, and it eventually grew become a massive hit in New York. In the Heights is the story of a tight-knit group of people on a street corner in the largely Dominican-American neighborhood of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, as their lives are changed in different ways by one of them hitting the jackpot on the lottery, and a blackout, over the course of three days in the summertime. It’s safe to say that no one on Broadway had ever seen or heard anything quite like In the Heights before, which may be why it received so much notoriety upon its release. With a powerful score by Miranda and a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, In the Heights will make you want to get up and dance, and then proceed to rip your heart out, tape it up and put it back together again by the end of the night. The show won four Tony Awards in 2008.
This musical, a product of 60s counterculture, as well as American involvement in the Vietnam war, was the first of its kind to appear on Broadway, as it featured a psychedelic rock score by Galt McDermott, with lyrics and a book by James Rado and Gerome Ragni. The musical surrounds a group of individuals known as “the tribe,” and two members, Claude and Berger, as they struggle to balance their young lives as part of the sexual revolution and rebellion against the Vietnam war with their much more conservative parents and the country they live in. While many of the songs in “Hair” leave much to be desired (not all of them- many of them are pretty damn good), the musical was revolutionary in that it broke new ground for establishing what a “rock musical” is, while also featuring a racially integrated cast. Its nude scenes and irreverence for the American flag stirred much controversy as well. It may not be the best or most cohesive musical on this list, but it’s original, and it’s damn revolutionary, and that’s what matters. The original production ran for 1,750 performances in 1968, and the 2009 revival won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. That, friends, is sticking it to the system.
5. The Book of Mormon
The world exploded when it was announced that Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of “South Park” were teaming up with Avenue Q composer Robert Lopez to write a musical about Mormons. In 2011, when the show premiered on Broadway, the theatre world was treated to its first cultural phenomenon in a long, long time. The songs in Book of Mormon aren’t the most well-written (Stone and Parker admitted to needing to use a rhyming dictionary to come up with song lyrics), but they are extremely catchy and well-loved. The musical follows two Mormon missionaries, as they attempt to spread the word of God to natives in Uganda. What’s great about Mormon is the way it spoofs just about every trope in musical theatre; every song in the show is a parody of some great Broadway song, whether they’re parodying Bye Bye Birdie’s “The Telephone Hour,” in “Hello,” or Wicked’s “The Wizard and I,” in “You and Me (But Mostly Me),” and Hairspray’s “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” with their finale, “Tomorrow is a Latter Day.” Being able to root for the Mormon version of The Odd Couple in Elders Price and Cunningham (Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, respectively) is something no audience member will forget doing- or maybe you will, it depends on if your head explodes from laughter. Ultimately, The Book of Mormon, while irreverent and certainly unlike anything Broadway has ever seen before, is a show with a lot of heart and soul- something completely unexpected from the creators of “South Park.”
4. Anything Goes
Nothing like a good case of mistaken identity on a boat, am I right? This 1934 musical about an array of characters chasing love and each other features some of the best standards by one Cole Porter, including “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and “You’re the Top.” What makes this show so fantastic (aside from the its incredible dance sequences and songs) is its longevity. Even 80 years after it was first produced, companies are still mounting revivals of the show left and right. The 2011 revival starring Sutton Foster and Joel Grey won Foster a second Tony and Best Revival of a Musical. Anything Goes is a classic show, and it set the groundwork for many screwball comedies down the road.
3. Next to Normal
Never before has a piece of theatre tackled the subject of mental illness before. This 2008 musical, written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, stars Alice Ripley as Diana, a woman with bipolar depressive disorder, and explores her and her family’s differences in dealing with the illness, as well as her husband and daughter looking to achieve a sense of normalcy in the house despite . The original cast also included J. Robert Spencer, Jennifer Damiano, Aaron Tveit, and Adam Chanler-Berat. It would become the first musical since Rent in 1996 to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. No musical before has ever tackled mental illness with more accuracy and sympathy. Anchored by a powerhouse rock score, the actors are incredibly brave in taking on such characters on the verge of being ripped apart by the mental illness of one and the subsequent actions of a few. Next to Normal is far and away one of the most important musicals of the 21st Century.
A series of vignettes in New York revolving around one Bobby and his various married friends is the setting for Stephen Sondheim’s Company. The single Bobby can’t stay in a committed relationship, much less marriage, and struggles to determine exactly what love, commitment and marriage means before he gets too old. Unlike most Broadway musicals of the day, Company is nonlinear, presented in non-chronological order, all tied together by Bobby’s 35th birthday party. Sondheim’s comment of throwing the upper-middle-class’s upper-middle-class problems back in their faces is genius, since most musicals of the day were meant to serve as an escape for these people and their problems. Company also contains another of the greatest finale songs in the history of musical theatre in “Being Alive,” as Bobby makes the arc of his journey complete, and rips our hearts out in the process. It’s a true realization of what it means to live and love in adulthood, and Company was the first one through the wall, tackling these issues head on, and to great effect. When it premiered in 1970, it won six Tony Awards, including best Musical, not to mention Best Book, Original Score, and Direction for the legendary Hal Prince . The 2006 Broadway revival, directed by the great John Doyle, starred Raùl Esparza, and a troupe of actor musicians. This production won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical.
1. A Chorus Line
A true musical about artists and why they do what they do, the story behind the creation of A Chorus Line is immaculate. Long sessions of taped interviews with actual Broadway chorus dancers were compiled to create the beloved characters of the piece, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1976. Through the actual words spoken by these people (many of whom went on to be in the original cast), we learn how and why these people left their homes without a dollar to their names and became Broadway dancers. It is an extraordinary study of what actors go through to achieve their dreams, and even how fast all of that can be taken away, in a split second. This all goes without saying that Marvin Hamlisch’s score is fantastic, accomplishing appropriate mood and tone in songs like “At The Ballet,” “What I Did For Love,” “The Music and the Mirror,” and the incomparable “One.” Anyone who is an artist, performer or otherwise, needs to see a production of A Chorus Line at some point in their lives. Now, get to it. “A-five, six, seven eight!”
What did we miss? What are your favorite original musicals? Leave a comment down below.
La La Land is in theatres beginning December 9th.