Think of your favorite song. Chances are it’s a showtune and increasingly likely it was written by one of these composers. Who are the best musical composers?
There are plenty to choose from, but here’s a rundown of ten you really should know about. Some entered Broadway after careers in pop and film music, others confidently straddled the worlds of commercial and classical music. And there are many others we could name… Who have we forgotten? What are your favourites?
Best Musical Theater Composers
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
One of the great all-rounders, George Gershwin could be considered the father of American musical comedy. He composed more than a dozen performances in the 1920s and 1930s, while also composing music for films and concert scenes, not to mention opera. He worked regularly with his brother, Ira Gershwin, and gave Broadway the likes of Funny head (1927) and Crazy girl (1930). His work inspired new and revised musicals decades after his death, with performers like Crazy of you (1992) and An American in Paris (2015) proving immensely popular.
Frederic Loewe (1901-1988)
Born in Germany, Loewe formed a lasting creative partnership with lyricist Alan Jay Lerner in the United States (where he had lived since the 1920s). Together they created classics like Brigadoon (1947), my lovely lady (1956) and Camelot (1960), and less popular musicals like Paint your wagon (1951). Their 1958 musical film gigi was revised as a musical in 1973.
Richard Rodgers (1902-79)
It’s fair to say that Rodgers’ impact on musicals has been enormous. Early in his career he wrote some of the great standards of 20th century music – enough to give the Gershwins a run for their money. He wrote “Blue Moon” and “My Funny Valentine” with lyricist Lorenz Hart — indeed, “Rodgers and Hart” was as familiar to Americans as “Cookies and Cream.” Although their stage hits included classics Girlfriend (1926) and Friend Joey (1940), it was with his next writing partner that Richard Rodgers’ star truly blossomed. With Oscar Hammerstein II, Rodgers would give the world blow after blow, including Oklahoma! (1943), Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959).
Recommended registration: My Favorite Things – A Celebration of Richard Rodgers
John Kander (born in 1927)
Although he wrote more than 20 musicals, there are only two for which John Kander is rightly celebrated: Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975). Those, and the tastes of the lesser known Flora the red menace (1965), Zorba (1992) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), were written with lyricist Fred Ebb, whose name will forever be associated with Kander. The couple’s most recent musical dates back to the 2010s The Scottsboro Boys, while Kander created a new work in 2018: The beast in the jungle.
Recommended Recording: Chicago – Original London Cast Recording
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Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021)
The undisputed master of modern American musical comedy, Stephen SondheimThe artistic insight and imagination of seemed to know no bounds. Each of the 18 musicals he created was different, from frothy fantasy to political satire to deeply human drama. He also wrote his own lyrics, so his shows were 100% Sondheim. His first show, 1954 Saturday night, didn’t exactly light the stage and so he gave up composing to focus on lyrical writing. The two shows he wrote impacted the world and his career: West Side Story (1957) and Gypsy (1959). With hits on his resume, he gave Broadway A funny thing happened on the Path to the Forum (1962), followed – pretty much – hit after hit and dominated Broadway, becoming the creative genius that all composer-lyricists who followed aspired to be.
Recommended Recording: The Essential Stephen Sondheim
Jerry Hermann (1931-2019)
Through a handful of musicals, composer-lyricist Jerry Herman has made a name for himself on The Great White Way. Of course, he wrote more than that, but the jewels in his crown are Hello Dolly (1964), granny (1966), Mack and Mabel (1974) and La Cage Aux Folles (1983). Filled with eminently hummable melodies, Herman could always be counted on to bring a smile. Hello Dolly was Broadway’s longest-running show (now Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, which has performed at the Majestic Theater continuously since January 26, 1988).
Elton John (born in 1947)
No stranger to writing hit songs, Elton John has successfully transitioned into musical composer over the past 24 years. Helped perhaps by the collaboration he enjoyed on Disney’s 1994 animated film The Lion King, Elton John reunited with lyricist Tim Rice to Aida (1998) and later composed music and songs for the wildly popular stage version of Billy Elliot (2005). His original songs were used in the hit theatrical adaptation of The Lion King(1997). However, not everything was easy, because the composer’s musical in 2006 Lestat (based on Anne Rice’s vampire novels) sank without a trace after just a few weeks on Broadway. You can’t win them all!
Andrew Lloyd Webber (born in 1948)
Could he be the undisputed king of musical theatre? Since the beginnings of prog-rock Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) through the great romance of The Phantom of the Opera (1986) to a modern account of Cinderella (2021), Andrew Lloyd Webber has done it all. From Joseph’s multicolored coat to felines launching into a “Jellicle Ball,” the composer’s inspiration has seemed pretty limitless in the nearly 50 years he’s been doing his thing. And it shows no signs of stopping.
Recommended recording: Andrew Lloyd Webber – Unmasked: The Platinum Collection
Stephane Schwartz (born in 1948)
It was divine spell (1971) which launched Schwartz’s career (and won him a few Grammys), but oddly the works that followed would be forgiven for not hearing them. In the 1990s, after the death of lyricist Howard Ashman, he composed the lyrics for Alan Menken’s Disney musicals. Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1996). His own film music, The Prince of Egypt (1998) followed, and soon after, audiences remembered the composer’s prowess on the Broadway stage. Bad (2003) became one of the genre’s biggest hits, and Schwartz has recently adapted and expanded The Prince of Egypt for the scene.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (born in 1980)
There is no songwriter more in demand than Lin-Manuel Miranda right now. On screen, he wrote songs for Disney hits such as Moana and Encanto, plus Sony Pictures Long live, while on stage, he is responsible for one of Broadway and West End’s biggest hits: hamilton (2015). A decade before setting the stage on fire with this memorable ‘rap musical’, Miranda gave the world In the heights (2005), which was adapted for the big screen in 2021. We’re sure there’s plenty more music to come from this 21st century renaissance man – if he can squeeze it in between writing, acting, singing and directing.
advised recording: Hamilton – Original Broadway Cast Recording