The 10 greatest musicals of all time

Do you agree with Dominic Cavendish that My Fair Lady is the queen of musicals? - Alamy
Do you agree with Dominic Cavendish that My Fair Lady is the queen of musicals? - Alamy

10. Anything Goes (1934)

Cole Porter’s 1934 musical has seen revisions to its (PG Wodehouse-initiated) book and additions to its song-selection over the years. But its first-class musical appeal and pure escapist charm (it’s set aboard a NYC to London liner, awash with assumed identities and romantic intrigue) remain intact. Porter’s lyrics fizz like ever-flowing champagne. Just the four numbers given to the heroine, night-club singer Reno (first played by Ethel Merman) are in themselves enough to banish the blues: I Get A Kick Out of You; Blow, Gabriel, Blow; You’re The Top; and the title song. Sometimes – not least after the past year – gaiety, wit and tap-dancing are what’s called for. At the moment, it’s one of the few musical ships on the horizon – Kathleen Marshall’s Broadway-admired revival is Barbican-bound (expected in June).

9. Fiddler on the Roof (1964)

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s inspired adaptation of Sholom Aleichem’s late-19th century tales of “Tevye the dairyman” is little short of a masterpiece. For all its Broadway friendliness – soulful, memorable songs, beginning with If I Were a Rich Man – it does the serious job of recreating Jewish life in a shtetl in repressive Tsarist times with ingenuity, fidelity and affection. The ebullient drama is centred on a traditionally minded, comically kvetching patriarch contending with the passing of time and rebellious daughters. The surrounding show preserves the modus vivendi of a community pulled apart by the forces of history. You mourn what the 20th century destroyed even as you marvel at the act of salvage.

8. Oklahoma! (1943)

There are all kinds of critic-pleasing reasons why Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical collaboration – a Pulitzer Prize-winner – should be on a top 10 list: not least that it hastened a breakthrough in the form’s development by integrating songs and storyline to create a coherent whole. But the simple truth is that this copper-bottomed classic (a favourite of the Queen) possesses an infectious spirit of American vitality as mighty as the fledgling state it celebrates, even if there’s a dark side to its tale of a farm-girl whose affections are fought over by a radiant cowboy and surly farmhand.

Sharp notes: Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel in Sweeney Todd in 2014 - Getty
Sharp notes: Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel in Sweeney Todd in 2014 - Getty

7. Sweeney Todd (1979)

All of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals warrant attention, most deserve the highest accolades. But anyone in doubt as to why he’s so revered need only refer to his self-styled “dark operetta”, a virtuosic musical evocation of the life and vengeful times of “the demon barber of Fleet Street”. He once described it as his “love letter to London”. It catches the fog-swirling grandeur of the city and its Grand Guignol horror; it’s the locus of entrenched injustice, which our escaped convict anti-hero pits himself against only to become ever more warped by viciousness. Morally complex, it’s ceaselessly – thrillingly – sophisticated in sound, and you could jump to any line and find razor-sharp wit: “Those who thought him a simple clod/ Were soon reconsidering under the sod”. Declan Donnellan’s chamber revival at the NT in 1993 has a claim to be the finest London production to date.

6. Les Miserables (1985)

Wretched Covid hiatus aside, Les Mis has been carrying all before it since its mid-Eighties London premiere (a substantial expansion of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s earlier Parisian effort), and will do so in seeming perpetuity now that it has become a globe-bestriding blockbuster. The fact that we care about the characters and a now remote period of political protest owes much to the vividness of Victor Hugo’s saga, and the timeless hold of its themes of unrequited love and collective yearning for change. Yet the musical craftsmanship too gives it an intensity and immensity that withstands repeated scrutiny – it’s stuffed with epic ballads, yet for all the bombast, is light on its feet. The most rousing anthem Do You Hear the People Sing? has become almost self-fulfilling – the people love it.

5. Jesus Christ Superstar (1970)

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice went on to create Evita, and Lloyd Webber to further transform the lowly status of the modern British musical with Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. But the pair’s big breakthrough show has a youthful elan and creative dynamism that makes it sound fresher than almost anything that has come since, from either him or others. The score has the wild, unfettered, playful energy of the 1960s and yet taps a more timeless quality of do-or-die feeling. It may be labelled “rock opera” but it’s sui generis; watching it at the Open Air Theatre in 2020, it looked like the harbinger of that deus ex machina Hamilton.

Making history: Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton (2015) - Disney
Making history: Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton (2015) - Disney

4. Hamilton (2015)

The biggest American musical of the century and a trail-blazing stand-out. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magpie-minded magnum opus – a bravura feat of rapier-sharp word-play and musical hybridity, steeped in hip-hop influences but conversant too with the Broadway canon - encapsulates and entrenches today’s revolutionary spirit of inclusivity in its radical form and via its mainly non-white cast. While it speaks to the present, it still honours the past through its fast and fastidious account of high-achieving if flawed founding-father Alexander Hamilton. In broad terms, it has helped America better understand where it has come from, and where it’s going to. And it has done so through a creative peppiness so addictive you can see why the album was streamed half a billion times in 2016.

3. Guys and Dolls (1950)

The show that ushered in a golden decade of American musicals, Guys and Dolls received an ecstatic set of notices when it opened in November 1950, and with good reason – it’s impossible to find fault with a romantic comedy that delivers unalloyed pleasure from start to finish. Abe Burrows re-wrote the book to work around Frank Loesser’s exemplary songs creating a seamless weave between the music and a pre-war Broadway storyline centring on a bet by inveterate gambler Sky Masterson that he can seduce an upright spiritual mission sergeant. Those skyscraper-big songs, including the roof-raising show-stopper Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, that ensure it never grows stale.

Begging bowl: Mark Lester in Oliver! - Alamy
Begging bowl: Mark Lester in Oliver! - Alamy

2. Oliver! (1960)

Lionel Bart’s irrepressibly entertaining distillation of Dickens captures the story’s swagger and sadness, its tenderness and violence in song after song that knock once on the door of your memory to be let in, and stay there. Amply holding its own beside Broadway big-hitters, it’s the perfect family show. Director Rupert Goold, who presided over the 2009 production (with Rowan Atkinson as Fagin), reflects: “From Consider Yourself to Be Back Soon [there’s] a clutch of songs that’s a half-hour run of total bliss.” I couldn’t agree more.

1. My Fair Lady (1956)

The finest American musical about a British subject is also the finest American musical tout court. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady honours the plot and provocations of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913) – about a poor cockney flower girl taken on and remoulded into a society lady by a snooty phonetics professor. But it unpacks both the themes and the drama of this satirical fairy-tale in tuneful ways that arguably improve on the original. I love it because it puts complex gender and class questions centre-stage, without ever smacking of the lecture-hall: the odd courtship/ contention between Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins has a zesty quality of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. “Wouldn’t it be loverly” to see it in London soon?

Radio 2 Celebrates Musicals begins today on Radio 2 and via BBC Sounds. Musicals: The Greatest Show is on BBC One on Sunday February 7 at 7.40pm

Which are your favourite musicals and which would you add to this list? Tell us in the comments section below