Top 10 Musical Theatre Songs of the 21st Century
As we near 20 years into the new century, I started thinking: what are some of the best songs written for the musical theater since the year 2000? The 20th century saw the formation of the now common musical theatre format and sound, and ushered in the golden age of musicals (1943-1959). For the next 40 years, the sound of theatre evolved greatly: Hair arrived with the first true rock n’ roll score, Sondheim emerged as an institutional figure, and a sung-through musical about cats became a cultural juggernaut. When Rent entered the scene, the genre finally began exceeding the definition of what could be a musical, and has caused a ripple effect in the space that is still being seen today.
Today, the ripples made my genre-breaking shows in the 20th century are becoming waves that define the sound of musical theatre in the 21st century. To track these waves, I started thinking about what I consider the best songs for the stage written in the past 20 years.
What I’ve learned is art, especially musical theatre, is extremely subjective and personal - there is simply no one way to measure the “best”. While I developed my own list, I wanted to reach out to my Twitter followers and see what their thoughts were on the subject. While song choices varied, there were specific shows that came up very often, including: Wicked, Matilda, Hamilton, Fun Home, The Light In The Piazza, and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Songs with notable impacts on the theatre community such as “She Used To Be Mine,” “Defying Gravity,” and “Wait For It” came up multiple times as well. The undeniable popularity (both within the theatre world and the general public) of the shows mentioned above showed that at a broad sense, status can equate to recognizability. The accessibility of these shows (cast albums, high social media presence, national tours) also promote them, while smaller shows and independent musical theatre writers were not as common in responses.
It wasn’t until completing my own list that I recognized the commonalities amongst the songs - most are sung as asides, or as inner-monologues. They (mostly) also explore deeper personal themes that may not come up in conversation, and have a strong narrative/plot-driven structure. This goes to show what I (apparently) value in a song, or what stands out to me when looking back. While I haven’t listened to every musical written in the 21st century, I’m sure I’m missing some gems that I may swap in later, but until then -
10) Without Love (Hairspray, by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman)
Most likely the strongest outlier on this list, metaphors have never sounded better than they do here. After watching these two couples pine after each other for two hours questing to overcome their forbidden love, “Without Love” offers a deeply fulfilling resolution to their stories. The structure of the song with each character getting their own (equally hilarious and heartfelt) verse, to the ensemble coming together for the final chorus is something that could only exist in a musical - it is so pure - even my cold heart can’t help but thaw each time I hear it.
9) Dust and Ashes (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, by Dave Malloy)
A song written for the Broadway production as a vehicle for Josh Groban, I ultimately picked “Dust and Ashes” out of the numerous equiste songs from Comet. In 6.5 glorious minutes, we go from an existential, unanswerable question (“Is this how I die? Was there any other way my life could be?”), to a deep-dive into Pierre’s psyche, and ultimately into a conversation about the struggles and dreams that exist in all of us. The length of the song is earned through its excellent pacing and build, and in a show with so many characters and so many plots, to have a single song stand for just one person, but also everyone, is just *chef’s kiss*
8) Omar Sharif (The Band’s Visit, by David Yazbeck)
The cathartic release “Omar Sharif” provides is a rare example of a singular theatrical moment - one that lifts you outside your body and into a new world. I’ve never watched Umm Kulthum or Omar Sharif, but the idea of watching grand, majestic stories as a kid, and then growing up and living an ordinary life is a universal theme. Unlike most of the songs on this list, to imagine anyone but Katrina Lenk singing it seems impossible - there’s a magic in her voice that is irreplaceable.
7) Another Life (The Bridges of Madison County, by Jason Robert Brown)
Having the ex-wife Marian, a character we’ve never met before or hear from again, sing us exposition about Robert, the mysterious new love interest, is ingenious. Further, having the song be told through a series of picture frames, to perfectly paint blurry, nostalgic memories for the audience to piece together, solidifies the brilliance of the song. Through a gorgeous guitar-led melody and poetic lyrics, we’re invited to empathize with 2 characters we hardly know, but now couldn’t know better.
6) Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind (Spring Awakening, by Duncan Sheik & Steven Sater)
Spring Awakening is one of my all-time favorite shows, perfectly blurring the lines between multiple genres into one kick-ass show. Spin a wheel, you could put any song for the show in this spot, but I opted for “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind”, as it highlights the two outcasts of the story and provides them a vehicle to lay their souls on the line. When the two come together at the peak of the song, you feel everything they do - the pain, the despair, the hope.
5) Michael In The Bathroom (Be More Chill, by Joe Iconis)
I first heard this song in June 2016, a month after graduating college and moving into my first apartment. Yes, it was pushed to me via Spotify. I remember walking through Prospect Park and stopping dead in my tracks at the final chorus - five and a half minutes of true manic, irrational anxiety coming to a release, at the helm of George Salazar’s bone-shaking belt. This song gets so many things about right when it comes to its theme, and Joe Iconis’s classic narrative structure and musical style is the perfect vehicle for such a story. I know every beat to this song, but getting to hear George (and Troye Iwata) sing it time and time again on Broadway had me on the edge of my seat with tears in my eyes each time.
4) 96,000 (In The Heights, by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
What I love about this song is that in the course of 5½ minutes, six characters get comprehensible narrative arcs, all while singing to a hook that could easily be on the radio today. At first listen, you probably won’t hear everything the individual characters want, because it exists as a cohesive theatrical piece so perfectly. As you further listen and realize they’re singing about just $96,000, you realize that for so many people that is a life-changing win...and maybe a misleadingly small amount of money. But the deeper understanding of each character we gain through hearing their truest dreams and desires, is priceless.
3) When I Grow Up (Matilda the Musical, by Tim Minchin)
There is something about this song that just takes a hold of your heart and squashes it to a pulp. In writing a song from the perspective of a 6 year old british child, Tim Minchin managed to write one of the most universal anthems (and commentaries) about adulthood and the realities of growing up. As the music swells and the harmonies blend, there is a feeling of freedom that fills you - longing to be a kid again, and questioning what you thought to be true at that age, too.
2) Changing My Major (Fun Home, by Lisa Kron & Jeanine Tesori)
There was a sense of shock that accompanied hearing this song for the first time off-broadway. Not in a negative way - the opposite. The shock that such a song exists. That a song about the immediate aftermath of a queer first sexual encounter exists and is exuberant, explicit, and harrowing. Medium Alison is a character often looked over (this song comes before “Ring of Keys” and “Telephone Wire”), but provides the show’s most raw and intimate moment, and acts as a direct connection with her father - they both sing “Am I falling into nothingness, or flying into something so sublime?” at the respective beginning and ends of their lives. There is a grandeur to the song, with its classic musical theatre sound and lofty chorus, that further fleshes out the world of Fun Home, while remaining fully relevant to every listener.
1) Satisfied (Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
“Satisfied” is a six minute thesis of forbidden love told from an alternate point of view to the song we just heard, presented via flashback. All while being in a ~3-hour musical about the founding fathers. It is a thrilling sequence, to both listen to and see. To rewind and see an entire song again from a new point of view proves not to be a gimmick, but a necessity in providing crucial development to the story. The music and dense lyrics (sung through rap) immerse you into Angelica’s life while still keeping your head bopping. As it builds to the final verse in present time, and we hear the same toast heard at the top of the song, this time with a heartbreaking power (& a fierce belt), we see the world crash around Angelica. A rare reminder to always look for the other side of every story.
Well, that’s my list! Can’t wait to hear yours.