We might be living in an age of endless streaming, but no amount of Netflix and chill will ever compare to the transcendent experience that is watching live theatre. You never forget your first Broadway show, and sometimes you wish you could relive the experience all over again. Luckily for us, we have a little thing called Spotify.
The ability to stream music means we can listen to our favorite musicals whenever and wherever we want, even during global pandemics. It might not be as fun as seeing a show in person, but there’s no denying how lucky we are to have thousands of show tunes right at our fingertips. Here are the best musical cast recordings and soundtracks to keep you company until it’s safe enough to return to the theater.
Rob Marshall redefined the movie musical with his dazzling 2002 adaptation of Chicago nearly three decades after the show first opened on Broadway. It tells the satirical tale of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, two ambitious murderesses vying to escape death row and become famous in the process.
Whether you’re listening to the cast recording or the movie soundtrack, Chicago is bursting with hits, from “All That Jazz” and “Cell Block Tango” to “Roxie” and “I Just Can’t Do it Alone.” The showy, vaudevillian numbers are sexy, bold, and exciting — everything we want from a Kander and Ebb classic. The soundtrack of Marshall’s film beautifully showcases the vocal talents of cast members Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere, and Queen Latifah. It’s a gift when a musical can be successfully translated to the screen, and an even bigger one when the actors can actually sing.
Like Chicago, Hairspray is jam-packed with so many showstoppers that it’s hard to believe they all belong to the same musical. It takes place in 1960s Baltimore, where Tracy Turnblad dreams of dancing on the Corny Collins Show and racially integrating television forever. Composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman infused Hairspray with up-tempo songs in the style of 1960s dance music and rhythm and blues, creating an exciting lineup you can’t help but shake and shimmy to.
Staples like “Good Morning Baltimore” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” can be found on the show’s numerous cast albums, but the 2007 film soundtrack offers additional treats with songs like “Ladies’ Choice” and “The New Girl in Town,” which don’t appear in the stage show. Every song in Hairspray is a hit, making it one of the most irresistible cast albums of our time.
Into the Woods
If you’re in the mood for meatier, more thought-provoking fare than what you’d find in a traditional musical comedy, look no further than Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Don’t let Disney’s marketing of the recent remake fool you — the second act of this show is dark, taking classic fairy tale characters like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood and exploring what happens after Happily Ever After. Multiple cast albums have been released over the years, each with their own unique interpretation of Sondheim’s songs, but the common denominator among them is the depth of Sondheim’s lyrics. Like trying to discern the function of a magic bean, it takes time and attention to grasp the breadth of Sondheim’s genius.
With songs like “Moments in the Woods” and “No One is Alone,” he explores the human lessons the characters have to learn in order to navigate their changing lives, using the woods as a metaphor for the world. It’s one of the rare musicals you can listen to a hundred times and still learn from years later.
Fans of The Shirelles, The Supremes, and other R&B groups of the mid-twentieth century have plenty to celebrate when it comes to Dreamgirls. The show centers on Effie, Deena, and Lorrell, a trio of singers who are struggling to make it in the industry until they begin singing backup for James “Thunder” Early. Their trials and tribulations as they work to headline their own act creates powerful drama on stage and a cast recording that transports the audience to new vocal heights.
Effie’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” sung by Jennifer Holiday on Broadway and Jennifer Hudson in her Oscar-winning film debut, is one of the hardest musical theatre songs to sing, and also one of the most famous. The show juggles its epic ballads with up-tempo pop numbers, keeping the audience moving with songs like “Dreamgirls” and “One Night Only.” Featuring a nearly all-Black cast, Dreamgirls is packed with soulful songs and sensational voices.
The longest-running jukebox musical of all time, Mamma Mia has become an international phenomenon. It blends the music of ABBA — composed by former band members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus — with the story of Sophie, a bride-to-be living in Greece who invites three of her mother’s former lovers to her wedding in the hopes that one of them is her father.
The show explodes with an energy that few other musicals can match, weaving pop hits like “Dancing Queen,” “Lay All Your Love on Me,” “Voulez-Vous,” and of course “Mamma Mia” into its lighthearted narrative. A three-song encore at the end of the show shatters the fourth wall and invites the audience to sing and dance along with the characters. The film adaptation is as campy and lovable as the stage version, and its sequel added even more songs to the Mamma Mia repertoire, including a few that were cut from the first film.
Every now and then a musical comes along that forever alters not only the theatrical landscape but the way people live their lives. Rent is one such musical. Based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, it’s the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning rock opera about a group of bohemian artists trying to make ends meet and survive the AIDS pandemic in 1990s New York. Jonathan Larson, the show’s composer, lyricist, and book writer who tragically passed away just before the show was set to open off-Broadway, wanted to bring musical theatre to the MTV generation. By modernizing La Boheme and infusing it with rock music, he was able to do just that.
Rent is packed with fan favorites like “La Vie Bohéme” and “Take Me or Leave Me,” but it’s the anthems “Seasons of Love” and “No Day but Today” that get to the heart of the piece, urging us to measure our lives in love and live every day like it’s our last.
A mega-hit that has yet to be adapted into a film, Spring Awakening tells the story of nineteenth-century students coming to terms with their budding sexualities as they navigate what’s left of their adolescence. It fuses rock music with period drama, lending an intriguing flavor to the show and making it one of the most unique listening experiences you’ll have with a Broadway cast recording. With music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater, the show is based on the 1891 German play of the same name.
Spring Awakening possesses a musical edge that parallels its characters’ stirrings, balancing upbeat numbers like “The Bitch of Living” and “My Junk” with more serious ones like “Don’t Do Sadness” and “Those You’ve Known.” The score is often haunting, grounding itself in reality more than the world of musical comedy, which makes it a refreshing addition to the Broadway canon.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a larger-scale musical than Les Mis, the entirely sung-through adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel with an unforgettable score by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. This show was written for vocal powerhouses, and some of the best singers in the world have lent their voices to concert versions and stage productions alike. Audiences have yet to tire of Inspector Javert’s relentless pursuit of Jean Valjean, Marius, and Cosette’s quest for love, or Eponine’s wish for a happy ending, all against a backdrop of the French revolution.
This is largely due to the show’s never-ending supply of showstoppers, including “I Dreamed a Dream,” “One Day More,” “On My Own,” and “Bring Him Home.” As if the original musical wasn’t compelling enough, Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation features live singing from its actors as opposed to pre-recorded tracks, making it a one-of-a-kind listening experience never before attempted in a film. Les Mis is the second-longest-running musical in the world and one of the most gorgeous scores to penetrate our hearts and eardrums.
While we didn’t always know how much happened in Oz before Dorothy dropped in, we do now thanks to Wicked. With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, this Broadway smash inspired by Gregory Maguire’s novel explores what happens when green-skinned Elphaba goes to school with the popular and beautiful Galinda.
Their rivalry-turned-friendship was first brought to life by Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth, who sang some of the show’s biggest hits together, including “What is This Feeling?,” “Popular,” “For Good,” and the heart-pounding “Defying Gravity.” Schwartz’s songs are catchy, character-driven, and brimming with the timely themes of love, acceptance, and good versus evil, all of which greatly contributed to the musical’s mainstream appeal. Its memorable tunes and inventive take on characters we thought we knew (and didn’t) are what has made Wicked the fifth longest-running musical on Broadway.
Not every pop singer can casually pen the music and lyrics to a hit Broadway musical inspired by an independent film, but then again, Sara Bareilles isn’t just anyone. She managed to breathe new life into Waitress, a low-budget film about a small-town waitress named Jenna who begins an affair with a married doctor after being impregnated by her abusive husband.
Bareilles didn’t just set the movie to music — she sprinkled in her unique flair, deepening characters, and storylines with songs like “Opening Up,” “When He Sees Me,” “Bad Idea,” and the heart-wrenching “She Used to Be Mine.” It’s more than a Sara Bareilles concert on a Broadway stage; it’s an introspective character study that matches the dreaminess of her pop albums. As a special treat, she recorded a studio album called What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress that offers a glimpse into her songwriting process as well as the changes that were made to the show before it opened on Broadway.
A musical event that needs no introduction, Hamilton is still winning awards for its fusion of groundbreaking music, innovative storytelling, iconic choreography, and diverse cast. A meditation on liberty, legacy, and the personal life of one of our nation’s most illustrious Founding Fathers, Hamilton draws from a plethora of musical styles including hip hop, R&B, pop, and traditional Broadway show tunes.
The sheer magnitude of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece almost dares its audience to memorize all the words to songs like “My Shot,” “The Schuyler Sisters,” “The Room Where it Happens,” and “Washington on Your Side.” Never before has history been brought to life in such a relevant or culturally conscious way, and it’s thanks to Miranda’s musical genius that we now have this portal to the past. Like Jonathan Larson, Miranda has brought musical theatre into the mainstream, making Hamilton a household name and giving the world a bombshell cast recording that will be cherished for generations.
West Side Story
Hailed by fans and critics alike as the best musical of all time, West Side Story was brought to life by an extraordinary team of creators including Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book), and Jerome Robbins (direction and choreography). It’s a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet that centers on the rivalry between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks in 1950s New York.
The breathtaking score features some of the most famous songs ever written for the stage, including “Maria,” “Something’s Coming,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and “America.” Bernstein’s blending of Latin, jazz, symphonic, and musical comedy gives West Side Story an unprecedented sound that goes hand-in-hand with its progressive subject matter. The original production may have been ahead of its time, but the film adaptation garnered ten Academy Awards and has been reimagined for the screen by Steven Spielberg, whose version will hit screens in December 2021.