Musicals are kind of my jam. I have spent many an afternoon at work listening to an amazing show soundtrack in the same way my coworkers listen to audiobooks. As writer and music lover, I admire anyone who tell a complete story through lyrics and melodies. Not only do have to write a great group of songs, those songs have to convey a character’s feelings and push along a plot without confusing the listener.
Over the last year, I have explored this genre with great interest. I’ve always had my favorites, but my world was opened up when I downloaded a music streaming app. (I know. I finally joined the 21st century.) Utilizing the recommended section of the app and looking up some of my favorite Broadway stars, I have stumbled upon the good, the not so good, and some that I have completely fallen in love with. Several albums are on my repeat list.
Here is a round up of my absolute favorite musical soundtracks. I hope you love them just as much as I do.
What It’s About: Eight friends in the East Village learn how to measure a year in love as the struggle with paying the rent, their creative pursuits, and the AIDS epidemic.
The Essential Song: “Seasons of Love”
Why It’s Worth a Listen: Of all the musicals on this list, Rent is the closest to my heart. I have seen it on stage at least six times (once with the original Mark and Roger), and I own the motion picture, live recording of the stage show, the motion picture soundtracks (the full album and the highlights album), and the original cast soundtrack. Jonathan Larson (the’s show’s creator who passed away the night before it was set to open) skillfully uses high-energy pop-rock numbers and soulful ballads to weave a story that is both heart wrenching and hopeful. It gets seriously dark and delves into some very heavy topics, but the show’s message of “no day but today” shines through no matter how bleak it gets. Rent is an uplifting ride that will inspire you to live in the moment, love with everything you’ve got, and remind you to let that freak flag fly.
What It’s About: When the publisher raises the price of newspapers they are required to pay to sell, a group of boys plan an epic strike to protest unfair working conditions and exploitation.
The Essential Song: “Seize the Day”
Why It’s Worth a Listen: This is the Jeremy Jordan gateway drug of musicals. (I guarantee you will be looking up other things he’s done by the time the album finishes playing, and I’m not just saying that because he’s kind of the star and I may have a crush.) As union leader Jack Kelly, he leads the rest of the ensemble in this Disney-without-feeling-overly-Disney show. Newsies provides the perfect blend of action, heart, and cheese without ever feeling like a schmaltzy sap-fest for kids. It’s full of fun dance-worthy numbers like “Carrying the Banner” and “King of New York” and powerful ones like “Seize the Day” and “Once and For All.” Throw in a romantic subplot and musical musings on the power of the press and standing up for the little guy, and you have a David-versus-Goliath soundtrack you won’t be able to take off repeat. (The only downside is that you can’t see the exquisite dance numbers with an audio file.)
What It’s About: An ex-convict running from the law, a love triangle, and the French Revolution. Yeah, there’s a lot going on.
The Essential Song: “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
Why It’s Worth a Listen: Is Les Miserables a cliche choice? Yes, but it gets a pass for one reason: It is the most epic of all the musicals. Sure, it has almost a thousand plots (see description) and even more characters. However, don’t let that deter you. Les Miserables is meant to be a consuming and slightly overwhelming listening experience. Every song is a sweeping number that sends you an an emotional roller coaster you won’t get off until the very last note. Every character, no matter how small, matters to the overall storyline. From the lead Jean Valjean and Javert to side characters like Eponine and Enjolas, it’s hard not to want every character to somehow end up getting what they want. Like Rent, things get pretty bleak pretty fast, but a little ray of hope remains. Hey, there is a reason why theater lovers end up knowing this album by heart.
Bonnie and Clyde
What It’s About: The crime spree and love affair of America’s favorite romantically-involved criminals.
The Essential Song: “Dying Ain’t So Bad”
Why It’s Worth a Listen: Who doesn’t love the modern folktale of American outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow? This infamous couple who have become a pop culture staple, made a name for themselves by terrorizing the country on deadly crime spree that culminated in their deaths during a shootout with law enforcement. This musical stoves to paint these tragic young lovers as more human than than larger-than-life legends. Instead of two hardened criminals, you begin to see Bonnie and Clyde as two misguided kids in love trying to survive in a world that has dealt them a bad hand. The show’s music is a mix of bluesy jazz and country twang that will transport you back to Depression-era Texas. The show’s composer Frank Wildhorn knows how to strike the perfect balance between upbeat fun playful numbers, and the quiet more emotional ones. Even though you know how the story will end, Bonnie and Clyde will have wishing for a happier fate for these two young lovers. It a complex ride just like the real Bonnie and Clyde.
What’s It’s About: The life of the ten dollar founding father Alexander Hamilton.
The Essential Song: “My Shot”
Why It’s Worth a Listen: It’s freaking Hamilton. The hit hip-hop/R&B musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton has become a cultural phenomenon. However, this is much more than a flash-in-the-pan trend. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator, expertly blends modern, mainstream music with one of the most iconic moments in history The American Revolution. He turns presidential cabinet meetings into cabinet rap battles, duel rules into duel commandments, and how Hamilton impacted it all. Yet, this is not a a complete love fest for the the face that graces the ten dollar bill. The show also delves into Hamilton’s extramarital affair, the death of his son, and his public fall from grace. From the first song to its last notes, you will understand why Hamilton is sweeping the nation and so many are giving it a shot.
What It’s About: Orphan Anya travels to Paris with some newfound friends to see if she is the long-lost Princess Anastasia.
The Essential Song: “Journey to the Past”
Why It’s Worth a Listen: In many ways, this the sort-of real life fairytale we all need in our lives. Based off everyone’s favorite 1990s animated film, it’s the story of an orphan looking for her past, a couple of cons looking for a pay day, and the legend of Princess Anastasia Romanov. However, if you are looking for a carbon copy of the movie, this Broadway musical is not it. While it does feature the same basic plot lines and the most beloved songs, the show puts its own spin on the story. It changes the backstory between the main romantic interests Anya and Dmitry, plays with song placement, and introduces an entirely new villain and songs. Yet, at its heart, it remains the story of a girl looking for her place in the world.
What It’s About: The life and career of iconic actress Marilyn Monroe.
The Essential Song: “Let Me Be Your Star”
Why It’s Worth a Listen: okay, technically this is a fictional musical created for the television show Smash, but the soundtrack for Bombshell actually exists. It loosely follows the timeline of Hollywood’s original smart dumb blonde Marilyn Monroe, starting with her childhood adventures at the movies to her adult life as a starlet. The most unique thing is that the Marilyn role is split between tow female singers, who each have their own sound yet blend so well tother that their transitions between songs are seamless. There is is also an interesting interplay between Marilyn’s public and personal lives. You’ll notice the songs where she’s meeting the press or dealing with studio executives are sexed up melodies with Marilyn’s voice sounding much more airy and ditzy, while the songs about her romance with Joe DiMaggio and her relationship with her mother are quieter and much more raw. Bombshell is a beautiful portrait of one of the most fascinating actresses in Hollywood history.
What It’s About: A waitress in a loveless marriage gets pregnant by her husband, starts an affair with her doctor, and tries to find a way to get money to open her dream pie shop.
The Essential Song: “She Used to be Mine”
Why It’s Worth a Listen: Written by pop star Sara Bareilles and based off the 2007 film, Waitress is a fun musical romp with a serious amount of heart. Main character Jenna Hunterson spends her days making unique pies for Joe’s Diner and nights with her horrible husband. When she finds out she’s pregnant, she is anything but thrilled. Jenna is as messy as they come. She is reluctant to bond with her unborn child, begins an affair with her doctor, and struggles with what road her life should take. Yet, as the story unfolds, Jenna’s flaws are what make her so lovable. Sure, she screws up, but she’s just a woman trying her best. There is also some serious girl power going on. Jenna’s deepest relationships are with her mother’s memory and her best friends/coworkers as she embarks on her journey to motherhood. Waitress is the show you want when just want to feel good. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you just might crave some pie.
What It’s About: A group of teens at a Catholic boarding school exploring their sexuality and who they are and who they want to be after graduation.
The Essential Song: “Bare”
Why It’s Worth a Listen: Looking for a young adult musical swimming in teenage angst? Bare is the musical for you. While there are several teens involved, the central story focuses on Peter and Jason, who are roommates and lovers. Peter is ready to come out and go public with the relationship, but Jason cannot even begin to real with his own sexuality much less come out publicly. As Peter becomes stronger in his own skin, Jason becomes more and more lost. Rounding everything out are Ivy, the school slut who falls for Jason, Nadia, Jason’s sister who struggles with her weight, and Matt, who pines after Ivy. They all fall in and out of love, betray secrets, and face some pretty serious consequences of their actions. The show also touches upon recreational drug use and the role religion plays in each character’s life. The music catchy and poppy with a deeply emotional message of self-love and acceptance. A sort of Rent for teens, Bare is an emotional roller coaster that will leave you aching for everyone involved.
The Last Five Years
What It’s About: The rise and fall of the relationship between a successful novelist and a struggling actress.
The Essential Song: “The Next Ten Minutes”
Why It’s Worth a Listen: Bittersweet and heartfelt, The Last Five Years is the story of the falling in and falling out of love of writer Jamie and actress Cathy. It is told (or rather sung) between their alternating POVs and timelines to give listeners both sides of the story. Cathy’s version of the events is told in descending order, while Jamie goes chronologically. Jamie’s songs start from avery upbeat place then devolve into slower somber ones, while Cathy’s songs take the opposite path. The two never sing only one true duet right in the middle of the show, where their stories converge on the moment they decide to marry. The show takes great care not to paint either one as the “bad guy” in the situation, which makes the story even more tragic. You fall in love with both Cahty and Jamie in spite of their flaws, leaving you rooting for them to work it out even though you know it won’t. (I’m recommending that you listen to the movie soundtrack instead of the off-Broadway recording. The two albums are almost exactly the same, but I just prefer the Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick’s vocals.)