14 Classic Musicals To Watch Within Your Lifetime

There are more musicals than most people could feasibly watch in a lifetime—but if you want to narrow it down, below are 14 critically-acclaimed classics that every theater fan should add to their bucket list. 

Like the ambitious globetrotters of the world who want to soak up as many sights and sounds as possible, many fans of musical theater also want to experience all the best that the medium has to offer. However, the list of fantastic musicals, both on and off Broadway, is quite lengthy. For most people, watching every great show out there is an endeavor that will probably take years, and may not even be something they can complete within their lifetimes. 

READ ALSO: Setting The Stage: 5 Broadway Musicals To Look Forward To This 2024

Though if one were to choose among the many titles out there, 13 musicals stand out as must-see classics. Granted, some of them have closed their runs recently or a few years back, but should they get a revival somewhere in the foreseeable future, they’re not ones to miss. Those who’ve had the pleasure of watching at least a few of these productions will likely attest that if a person can only see a handful of musicals throughout their life, these are the titles to add to the bucket list (arranged alphabetically for easy reference):

A Chorus Line

First up on the list is A Chorus Line, the 1975 musical sensation that won a slew of accolades in the 1976 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the same year. Its story is a reflection of its own medium, a metafictional narrative that follows seventeen dancers vying for a spot in a Broadway chorus line. 

A scene from the 1975 stage production of “A Chorus Line”/Photo by Martha Swope from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

Though the premise seems simple, its narrative grows more complex as each dancer inevitably reveals more about themselves, including their past hardships and sources of inspiration—all done through catchy songs and fantastic dance numbers, of course. These include the ever-memorable opener “I Hope I Get It,” the popular “What I Did For Love,” and the epic finale, “One.” Behind every dancer is a story about the significance of art and pursuing one’s passions, as well as all the growing pains that come with them. 

A scene from a newer production of “A Chorus Line”/Photo from the Ivoryton Playhouse website

The musical got a second Broadway run in 2006, and according to a 2016 article by Nicole Rosky of Broadway World, a 50th Anniversary revival of the musical is set to take place in 2025. Though there hasn’t been an update on this, it’s still exciting news for those who’ve been hoping to see it. 

Chicago

Then there’s Chicago, the jazz age musical that took the world by storm when it first premiered in 1975. The show is America’s longest-running musical in Broadway history, and for good reason. Like many of the greatest productions to grace the stage, Chicago is a dramatic tale about the glitz, glamor, and dark sides of fame. 

Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart and Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly in the 1975 production of “Chicago”/Photo by Martha Swope from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

At the musical’s center are the fabulous yet dangerous rivals, aspiring chorus girl Roxie Hart and formerly-popular vaudeville performer Velma Kelly—both murderers who land in jail. The two begin to compete for the spotlight by sensationalizing and warping the stories of their misdeeds for the press, resulting in an entertaining ride filled with scandals, sabotage, and plenty of crime. 

Bianca Marroquín as Velma (center), with the cast of the new Chicago production/Photo from the Chicago the Musical website

Audiences loved the musical so much that Hollywood turned it into an Oscar-winning film adaptation in 2002—still, it’s hard to beat watching the show live on stage. With sultry costumes, fantastic acting, captivating choreography, and hits like “All That Jazz,” “Cell Block Tango,” and “Roxie,” it’s no surprise that the production has won six 1997 Tony Awards, two Olivier Awards, and a Grammy. 

Those who haven’t watched the musical yet are in luck, as Chicago’s latest production will be going on tour across the United States from February 22, 2024 to May 19, 2024. 

Evita

Like Chicago, the 1978 musical Evita holds a top spot on the major classics list. How can it not, with theater’s powerhouse pair Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber behind its creation. The two based the production’s story on real-life political figure Eva Perón, the former First Lady of Argentina. 

Patti LuPone as Eva Peron singing “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” in the 1979 production of “Evita”/Photo by Martha Swope from the New York Public Library Digital Collections 

The musical follows Eva’s rise to power as a beautiful young woman who works her way through the upper echelons of Argentinian society. She eventually enters a strategic marriage with Colonel Juan Domingo Perón, the future president of the country. Though Eva has long passed from a battle with cancer, many Argentinians still admire her for her philanthropic work, the very thing that makes her character in the musical all the more nuanced and compelling. Evita made waves when it became the very first British production to win a Tony Award for Best Musical, with several more Tony wins and nominations, as well as an Olivier Award for Best Musical

Evita has had more revivals since its first run, with a London one in 2006, a Broadway one in 2012, and more shows in West End from 2013 to 2014. There hasn’t been much news of an upcoming revival. However, those hoping to experience numbers like “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” will likely get to do it in the next few years given the production’s popularity. 

A Sidenote on Evita:

In the meantime, one can watch the movie’s 1996 movie, which features the film-exclusive song “You Must Love Me.” Most musical film adaptations tend to add new pieces to entice audiences with fresh twists. The Phantom of the Opera film adaptation did something similar, adding the song “Learn To Be Lonely” to the musical’s repertoire.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Those who’ve watched Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar may find themselves humming the title to the catchy tune of the musical’s hit song, “Superstar.” The story of the son of God has never been more exciting with a funky rock opera that boasts all the drama, foot tapping music, and extravagant choreography that makes for a stunning musical. 

The original Broadway cast of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971/Photo by Friedman-Abeles from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

There’s not much to summarize about the show’s story, since Webber loosely based most of it on gospel accounts of The Passion. Yet the production breathes new life into the stories, delving deeper into its characters’ feelings and psyche. Granted, certain religious groups and countries didn’t take too kindly to Webber’s creative liberties, but if one is up for it, the musical is sure to be an exciting and unforgettable ride with numbers like “Gethsemane,” “Could We Start Again Please,” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” 

The cast of the 50th Anniversary Tour of “Jesus Christ Superstar”/Photo via Instagram @jesuschristsuperstar

Jesus Christ Superstar has gone through several revivals over the years, and even has a Live in Concert iteration with John Legend and Sara Bareilles. Though it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s no denying its popularity, as the musical has won a fair share of awards. Those who want to see it can look forward to its North American tour and UK tour this 2024

Les Misérables

Fans of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (and even those who would rather not read the writer’s weighty tome) may want to check out its eponymous, critically-acclaimed musical adaptation. It’s arguably one of the most famous theater productions out there, with so many fantastic songs that it’s hard to keep count of them, from the ballad of heartbreak “On My Own” to the riveting “One Day More.” 

The “Les Misérables” original Broadway cast in 1987/Photo by LesMizkidz via Flickr

As the title suggests, the production’s story isn’t a particularly joyful one. Hopeful, but not necessarily happy, as it follows a cast of characters struggling amid poverty and political turmoil. At the center of the musical is a former convict, Jean Valjean, who worked his way into becoming a man of proper social standing after escaping incarceration. In the process, he raises Cossette, the young orphan daughter of the prostitute Fantine, as his own—yet his past comes back to haunt him as tensions rise with a looming French revolution. 

The 2013 Village Theatre mainstage production of “Les Misérables”/Photo by the Village Theatre via Wikimedia Commons

What makes Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s Les Misérables a powerful piece of art is its story of love, redemption, hope, and justice (or even the lack thereof), universal themes that resonate with audiences to this day. The musical experienced an impressive Broadway run from 1987 to 2003, marking more than a decade of theatrical excellence, with more revivals in succeeding years. An expanded version of the musical’s 2019 West End concert will be going on a 2024 world tour across 15 countries starting September 2024, reports Logan Culwell-Block of Playbill

Miss Saigon

Another hit from the legendary Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil partnership is Miss Saigon, a Tony-nominated musical that’s also cultivated a number of wonderful performers including the Philippines’ very own Lea Salonga. In fact, Salonga’s performance in the original production earned her a 1990 Olivier award, and shortly after, a 1991 Tony award.

The original 1989 production of Miss Saigon with Lea Salonga as Kim and Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer/Photo from the Miss Saigon Musical Facebook

The musical takes place in a war-torn Vietnam, and is a loose adaptation of the tragic yet memorable opera, Madam Butterfly. At the story’s center is a young Vietnamese woman named Kim, who works as a bar girl to make ends meet, placing herself in the hands of rowdy, oftentimes cruel American G.I.’s. However, she soon meets Chris, a G.I. with a soft heart who falls in love with her. Unfortunately, their relationship is anything but smooth in the face of conflict, as Chris unwillingly leaves her with their child Tam when the country’s political situation starts to worsen. So begins Kim’s sad yet moving journey holds onto her dreams and aspirations despite everything. 

Abigail Adriano and Nigel Huckle as the musical’s leading couple, Kim and Chris/Photo by Daniel Boud courtesy of GMG Productions

Luckily, Filipino audiences will soon get the chance to experience the musical, as it’s heading to the Theatre at Solaire this March 2024. The production has even extended its Manila run to May 12, giving more people the chance to witness numbers like “The Movie in My Mind,” “Sun and Moon,” “Why God Why?” and the goose-bump-inciting “I’d Give My Life for You.”

READ ALSO: This Is The Hour: Miss Saigon Extends Its Manila Run For The Final Time

Phantom of the Opera

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera takes inspiration from Gaston Leroux’s novel of the same name. Like the other musicals in this list, the production has won a considerable number of awards since its premiere in 1986. It’s also the longest-running musical in Broadway history, and just had its final run in 2023 before closing. 

Michael Crawford as the Phantom of the Opera and Sarah Brightman as Christine Daaé in the musical’s original Broadway production/Photo by Terry O’Neill from The Phantom of the Opera Facebook 

Anyone who’s seen the show can understand why it’s been a fan-favorite for 35 years. It has opulent costumes, amazing set designs, incredible songs, and an intriguing story of love, betrayal, and obsession. It also happens to feature some of the most technically-challenging numbers in theater, including “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Think of Me.”

Ramin Karimloo as the Phantom of the Opera and Sierra Boggess as Christine Daaé in the musical’s 2011 production at the Royal Albert Hall/Photo from IMDb

The musical’s story follows its titular character, a man with a face that’s partly damaged, hence his need to wear a mask. The Phantom is an enigmatic and talented singer who haunts the halls of the Paris Opera House, and has spent years pining over songbird Christine Daaé. They share a complicated, almost-romantic relationship, which is further strained by the Phantom’s mercurial nature and violent tendencies, as well as Daaé’s romance with childhood friend Raoul de Chagny. 

Though the musical recently had its final curtain call, it’s not the end. Audiences can expect it to make a comeback somewhere in the future, as producer Cameron Mackintosh tells Kevin Tran of Variety: “Of course it will return. All the great musicals do.”

Pippin

No list of classic musicals is complete without Stephen Schwartz and Bob Fosse’s Pippin, which first premiered in 1972. It’s the show that inspired a generation, with both the 1972 production and 2013 revival winning multiple Tony Awards. 

Ben Vereen (left center) as Leading Player and John Rubinstein (right center) as Pippin with the cast of the 1972 Broadway production of “Pippin”/Photo by Martha Swope from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

Audiences who saw the original run of the musical will remember it for its strange yet meaningful story about the titular lost prince finding his place in the world after killing his father, King Charlemagne. An omniscient character, Leading Player, tells the tale as part of a traveling performance troupe. It’s hard to forget the groovy opening number “Magic to Do,” as well as the soaring and inspiring “Corner of the Sky.” 

A part of the musical’s charm is its fourth wall breaks, presenting a story within a story in the style of a bildungsroman. The original run had understated yet enthralling production elements (with its heavy use of gestures, dance, and lighting), while the 2013 revival really brought out the spectacle of a performance troupe through fresh, acrobatic feats for a more circus-like atmosphere. 

Though there hasn’t been any news on another Pippin revival for Broadway, there will be a 50th Anniversary Concert for the show at London Palladium from April 1 to April 2, featuring a  20-piece orchestra and 50-strong choir to give people a taste of the musical’s amazing songs. 

Rent

Chances are, those who’ve watched Rent know how to measure a year in a life (525,600 minutes) thanks to its touching song “Seasons of Love.” As for those who haven’t gotten the chance to watch the musical (and its 2005 movie), now would be a good time to add it to their list of must-watch pieces.

Original Broadway Cast Recording of “Rent”/Photo from Spotify

The production is the brainchild of playwright Jonathan Larson (who recently got a film adaptation of his autobiographical musical, Tick, Tick…Boom!). It not only won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, but also multiple Tony awards in the same year, including Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Original Musical Score. Unfortunately, Larson passed away at 35, just months before his masterpiece reaped all these awards. While he never got to see its success, his legacy remains with gorgeous numbers like “Take Me or Leave Me,” “You’ll See,” “Out Tonight,” and the aforementioned “Seasons of Love.”

A scene from the 20th National Tour of “Rent”/Photo via Instagram @rentonstage

Larson loosely based the musical on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème, infusing his story with rock-inspired songs and grungy visuals. Set in the heart of New York City’s East Village, the musical tells the story of a group of bohemians trying to make it as successful artists. The creatives all struggle with the highs and lows of their chosen paths, as well as the relationships they forge. Much like A Chorus Line, the production’s appeal lies in its unraveling of individual narratives, which in turn, paints an elucidating picture of a particular zeitgeist (in this case, the late 1980s).

Rent has had both Broadway and West End runs, with an off-Broadway revival in 2011, followed by a 2016 20th Anniversary National Tour in London. Though there hasn’t been news of a new run since then, eager fans and newcomers can still hope for one in the coming years.

The King and I

Next is The King and I, another musical that’s gotten many adaptations and revivals over the years, including a successful 1956 film. The production tells the story of Anna Loenowens, a Welsh widow who finds herself becoming the governess of the wives and children of King Mongkut of Siam (now modern-day Thailand). The narrative is loosely based on the real-life accounts of Loenowens during her time as a tutor for the monarch’s children in the early 1860s. 

Constance Towers as Anna Leonowens and Michael Kermoyan as The King in the 1968 revival of “The King & I”/Photo by Friedman-Abeles from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

King Mongkut represents his country’s traditions and values, stubborn and hesitant to accept the modern and Western concepts that Loenowens is supposed to be teaching. In time, she begins to form a close relationship with his wives and children, and later on, the king himself. In fact, the two start developing romantic feelings for each other, but can’t openly express them due to their differing statuses and duties. 

Helen George as Anna Leonowens and Darren Lee as The King in the 2024 West End production of the musical/Photo by Matthew Murphy from The King & I Musical website

Even those who are unfamiliar with the musical will have likely heard its popular, peppy song, “Getting to Know You.” Though if one has the pleasure of watching the full production, they should certainly look out for numbers like “Something Wonderful” and “Shall We Dance.”

Audiences had the chance to experience the classic this 2024 in London’s West End, with its limited six-week season that began on January 20, 2024 and will end on March 2, 2024. 

The Lion King

Though many have certainly watched Disney’s animated film The Lion King, its musical adaptation is something theater fans should see at least once. If you think you’ve already heard the film’s fantastic songs, think again: there’s a reason why the musical has been on Broadway since 1997. Nothing can quite compare to the chills one gets when listening to a full cast of voices singing “The Circle of Life” with a live orchestra in perfect harmony. 

The Lion King musical is a must-see for its brilliant animal costumes and set design/Photo from the Lion King Musical website

Though the musical generally follows the story of the animated movie—with the young lion cub Simba’s journey of growth and ascension to the throne of Africa’s animal kingdom—it still offers plenty of fresh takes on the beloved title. Since real animals can’t sing, the show’s production team got creative with gorgeous costumes and face paint inspired by African culture, as well as fluid, powerful movements and choreography that bring the Pride Lands to life. As expected, this level of meticulous craftsmanship and creativity has earned the musical numerous accolades, including several Tony awards

At present, The Lion King is very much alive as the third longest-running production in the world. The last time it went to the Philippines was in 2018, but audiences can still catch it on Broadway with shows from February 27, 2024 all the way to August 11, 2024, and more show dates to come. 

The Sound of Music

Who can forget The Sound of Music, the touching and feel-good musical based on the 1949 memoir of Maria von Trapp. Its film adaptation is as iconic as the theatrical production, with Julie Andrews cementing herself as an unforgettable singer and actress when she played Maria von Trapp alongside Christopher Plummer as the dashing Baron Von Trapp. 

Mary Martin as Maria in the original 1962 Broadway production of “The Sound of Music”/Photo by Friedman-Abeles from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

The Sound of Music tells the story of Maria Rainer, a young woman who leaves her convent to work as a governess for the affluent Von Trapp family. Though the family’s patriarch and widower, Baron Von Trapp, is a rather stern man, Maria eventually manages to capture his heart and the hearts of his seven children, filling their lives with happiness and music despite the threat of Nazi occupation. 

The cast of the 2019 The Sound of Music Tour/Photo via Instagram @soundofmusicontour

The musical first premiered in 1959, and since then, it’s undergone many revivals and has continued to captivate audiences across generations. The Sound of Music’s international tour made a stop in Manila on March 2023; however, those who missed it can get another chance to hear “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Edelweiss,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” and all its other wonderful songs with its ongoing tour in China

West Side Story

We’re nearing the end of our list, and it would be remiss not to include West Side Story. Though one can watch its spectacular 1961 film, it’s still a different experience seeing actors perform fiery song and dance numbers on stage. West Side Story follows a cast of characters in the streets of New York’s upper west side, with two rival gangs competing for dominance over the territory. 

Jossie de Guzman & Ken Marshall in a scene from the 1979 Broadway revival of “West Side Story”/Photo by Martha Swope from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

It’s a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story, with a young woman named Maria and a man named Tony falling in love—the only catch is, they belong to opposite sides of the rivalry. As one might expect, its ending isn’t particularly happy; but the journey towards it is worthwhile. Beyond this star-crossed love affair is a narrative about belonging, one that delves into complex themes of race and privilege that still exist in today’s America. 

The cast of the latest production of “West Side Story” on Broadway/Photo by Jan Versweyveld from the West Side Story on Broadway website

Those looking for a chance to see “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Somewhere” in person certainly can this 2024, as West Side Story will be having full productions in the United States, Ireland, and United Kingdom

Wicked

Finally, there’s Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked, which like Phantom of the Opera, arguably has some of the most complex song numbers in musical history. No ordinary voice can hit the high notes of “Defying Gravity” and “What Is This Feeling?” the way Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth did when they played Elphaba and Glinda respectively during the musical’s first run in 2003. 

Idina Menzel as Elphaba and Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda in the original Broadway production of “Wicked”/Photo from Idina Menzel’s Facebook

Wicked takes inspiration from Gregory Maguire’s 1995 book of the same name, which crafts the untold story of Elphaba, a young woman who would eventually become the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Things aren’t black and white, as Maguire and the musical paint Elphaba in an empathetic light, narrating the story of her friendship with the kindhearted Glinda, the Witch of the South. 

McKenzie Kurtz as Glinda and Alyssa Fox as Elphaba in the 20th Anniversary production of “Wicked”/Photo via Instagram @wicked_musical

What results is a soaring musical about the importance of friendship and embracing one’s authentic self, even when the world is incredibly hostile towards those who are different. One won’t be able to see Baum’s time-old story in the same light after watching the musical, which questions the notions of good and bad. 

Wicked has earned countless nominations and awards since its first production, and has an upcoming film adaptation that’ll be coming to theaters this year. Those who want to watch the musical can look forward to its UK tour, with shows until January 2025. 

Banner photo via Instagram @officialevita

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