Best Musicals Of All Time: Top 5 Beloved Productions Most Recommended By Critics

From “The Sound of Music” to “West Side Story”, the stage is filled with big lights, dance and some of the best musicals of all time. Broadway shows have been inspiring generations with their incredible music, powerful messages, and timeless stories, many of which became some of the most iconic movies we know and love! 

Besides revisiting your favorite classic storylines, a recent study by French researchers on the brain reveals many people go into pleasure overload when their favorite tunes start playing. You know that chill you get when your song comes on? Study authors discovered specific electrical activity in the orbitofrontal cortex when music lovers experience this chill. This region is involved with emotional processing. There was also more activity in the supplementary motor area and the right temporal lobe, which handles auditory processing and musical appreciation on the right side of the brain.

Playing a part in a Broadway or off-Broadway musical is no easy feat. It can even be compared to a sport with all of the training, physical activity, and long practices players endure preceding a big show. In fact, researchers at Ohio University found a rising occurrence of head injuries and symptoms from potential concussions in theater crew members and others involved in performance arts. Not only have a “stunning” number of workers reported getting hurt during a performance, but many continue to carry on with their job without receiving treatment or reporting the injury.

Safety aside, each of these phenomenal performances are legends that will live on for decades in the film and theater industry. With so many to choose from, it is difficult to truly say which should be named as the greats. However, StudyFinds did the research to see what the critics and fans had to say! We reviewed expert 10 websites, including film and theater sources, to determine the best musicals of all time. Let us know if we missed one of your favorite productions in the comments below!

Broadway Theatre District in New York City
Broadway Theater District in New York City (Photo by Florian Wehde on Unsplash)

The List: Best Musicals of All Time, According to Theater Experts

1. West Side Story

“West Side Story” is one of the best musicals of all-time, and its unique storytelling has been captivating audiences since its debut in 1957. “West Side Story might well be the greatest musical of all time,” adds Classical Music.  “It’s got it all: thrilling choreography, a scintillating score, memorable songs and a heartbreaking story.”

Since the first stage show nearly 70 years ago, fans are still enjoying this story, which won ten Oscars in 1962, the year after the first movie version debuted. The 2021 adaptation has also won several awards, including AFI’s Movie of the Year Award in 2022. Arian DeBose has also gone on to win several awards for her role, including Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. 

Its modern take on the classic Romeo and Juliet story is truly inspirational, and its music is as timeless as ever. From the iconic “Something’s Coming” to the heart-wrenching “Somewhere,” the songs featured in the musical are memorable and powerful. “The innovative show shifted the way musicals were staged, breaking apart rules of choreography and storytelling,” says Rolling Stone. “One of its most thrilling contributions, however, are the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who had his big break with the show’s success and went on to write some of theater’s most challenging, moving and iconic pieces.”

The choreography is also stunning, with the famous “Dance at the Gym” sequence being a prime example. “Robert Wise’s electrifying musical of star-crossed love between rival street gangs is the most awarded musical in Oscars history (10 wins including Best Picture). If there is a flaw here, it’s that the supporting stars Rita Moreno and George Chakiris steal all the thunder whenever they’re on screen,” adds Parade.

Following its debut, Steven Spielberg’s eagerly awaited adaptation garnered a significant amount of awards-season buzz. “West Side Story” ended up being the cinematic stunner of 2021. “Perhaps it isn’t quite flawless— but the same could probably be said of the original. It’s mostly just exhilarating—with star-making, buzzy performances from Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose (the latter won an Academy Award). There isn’t a weak performance in the shimmering cast, but perhaps the most powerful standout is Mike Faist as Riff. Phenomenal,” exclaims Parade.

2. The Sound of Music

This beloved production is a timeless classic. It is a beautiful story of love, family, and music that resonates with generations of audiences. The iconic music by Rodgers and Hammerstein is instantly recognizable and transports viewers to a world of joy and happiness. “In one of the most classic musical films to date, Julie Andrews plays a governess who wins the hearts of the Von Trapp family in Nazi-era Austria,” explains Good Housekeeping. “The result is a beloved film that’s both epic and heartwarming, complete with some of the most iconic musical numbers of all time.”

“It’s hard to think of a better singer than Julie Andrews, who belts out ‘The hills are alive!’ with such force you can actually see the mountains move,” exclaims Yard Barker. “With beautiful backdrops, a charming romance, and songs that have withstood the test of time, the drama had a lot going for it,” adds Screen Rant. “The film won Best Picture (and a Best Music award) at the Oscars. Its legacy lives on as one of the best musicals of all time.”

Though the stage version was great, “the film version, starring Julie Andrews at her classy-tomboy best, struck a deep sentimental chord with audiences and raked in the box-office do-re-mi: Adjusting for inflation, it’s the third-highest-grossing movie of all time,” writes Time Out. The memorable characters, captivating plot, and heartwarming songs make it a must-see musical. Whether you’re a fan of musicals or not, you owe it to yourself to experience the magic of “The Sound of Music.”

3. Singin’ in the Rain

From its iconic Gene Kelly performance to its vibrant sets and costumes, to its clever choreography, this Oscar nominated classic has it all. “Stanley Donen‘s MGM musical spectacular is often cited as the best musical ever made,” says Parade. “Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Jean Hagen star in a showbiz rom-com set at the industry-shaking dawn of the talkies. The nuance and physicality of the dance sequences is still staggering to watch, and the witty comic script by Adolph Green and Betty Comden is one of cinema’s cleverest, most quotable. The final moments (‘Stop that girl!’) are so swoon-worthy it’ll still make your heart leap.”

Not only does it entertain with its captivating musical numbers, but it also has a heartwarming story that is sure to bring a smile to your face. “Is there a better rainy-day movie than this? Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s musical comedy about the birth pangs of ‘talking pictures’ is a rush of pure, undiluted joy,” adds Time Out

“The most beloved 12 notes in all of film history have got to be the bouncy refrain of the title song in the most iconic movie musical ever made. There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than a movie about itself, and not only did Singin’ in the Rain set the bar high, it set it celebratory,” adds Indie Wire. Singin’ in the Rain will never go out of style, but we could all use a little of Don Lockwood’s romanticism, Kathy Selden’s pluck, and Cosmo Brown’s joie de vivre right about now. The winning trio of Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor turned crackling onscreen chemistry into a game for three. O’Connor’s scene-stealing knockout, ‘Make ‘Em Laugh,’ turned unbelievable physical feats into gut-busting farce. It’s the coolest that clown work has ever looked.”

4. Cabaret

This production is a classic tale of the glamor and decadence of pre-WWII Berlin, as seen through the eyes of the cabaret performers. The show’s music and lyrics are captivating, and the combination of humor and tragedy make for an incredibly powerful story. The cast is full of talented singers and dancers, and the choreography is simply stunning. “Liza Minnelli takes center stage in this musical film that put her on the map (it swept up eight Oscars in its day),” says Marie Claire. “She plays a young American cabaret singer performing at the Kit Kat Klub in Nazi-era Berlin who gets caught up in a love triangle with a British academic and a German playboy.”

From the first notes of the iconic title song to the moving finale, “Cabaret” is guaranteed to leave a lasting impression. “Like many of the greatest musicals, Cabaret is about show business, but its hands grasp out luridly beyond itself,” adds Time Out. “In Bob Fosse’s sordid, magnetic, exhilarating depiction of a Weimar-era nightclub, the sexy and creepy entertainment onstage serves as a grotesque funhouse reflection of the darkening reality of Germany; the divinely decadent party of the Kit Kat Klub is on the verge of death, and the Nazi party—with its signature goose step, like a kick line gone bad—is waiting in the wings. Liza Minnelli, as the tragicomically delusional singer Sally Bowles, and Joel Grey, as the sinister Emcee, deliver John Kander and Fred Ebb’s razor-tipped songs with sensational verve.”

The story eventually moved to the big screen where it garnered even more attention. “The show originally hit Broadway in 1966, but its 1998 revival conceived and directed by Sam Mendes has become the the most iconic incarnation, burnishing the stars of Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming, while also becoming the third longest-running Broadway revival of all time,” writes Rolling Stone

5. The Wizard of Oz

This iconic musical in the land of Oz has enchanted audiences for generations. The classic story, memorable characters, and timeless music make it a must-see for anyone who loves the theater. “As iconic musicals go, The Wizard of Oz nearly takes the cake,” adds Indie Wire. “The Wizard of Oz has it all, from a truly terrifying Wicked Witch to a lovable ragtag team of misfit creatures who travel the yellow brick road singing along with Dorothy in her quest to get back home. The film’s enduring charm is its ability to help us see that what we seek is often already inside of us, but we sometimes need a nudge (or a trip to Oz) to tease it out.”

The original on-stage show has inspired numerous adaptations, from Broadway to movie screens, making it one of the most beloved and popular musicals ever created. “Based on L. Frank Baum’s children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this famous musical wasn’t deemed a classic until its re-release in 1949,” writes Vulture. “And even then, The Wizard of Oz needed the help of television stations like CBS and NBC to solidify its place as one of the greatest musicals of all time. With its use of Technicolor when Dorothy awakens from her black-and-white life to the rich colors of Oz, the film mirrors the industry’s very real shift away from black-and-white film.”

“While this musical fantasy starring Judy Garland was released decades ago, it remains one of the most beloved films of all time,” concludes Screen Rant. “The colorful visuals, heartwarming story, and charming melodies have made this one a favorite of many. It won the Best Music, Original Score, and Best Music, Original Song categories at the Academy Awards.” 

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  1. You should be clear that you are dealing with movie musicals, not stage shows. Sadly, the movie adaptation of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, understandably beloved as it is, messed with certain elements of the show, & can’t hold a candle to a really well done production of the ORIGINAL script & score (stage productions of it through the years have also been messed with, but the true original is unbeatable—also hard to find).

    CABARET is another movie version that is so different from the stage show. It’s saddening, & it might be good to see a movie that stays more faithful to the original show. But the movie, taken on its own terms, forgetting the stage version, is pretty excellent.

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