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Monday to Friday

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9 Essential Musicals to Check Out

Are you a fan of musicals? If so, did you know that at CIRA High School, we have a performing arts stream? To apply, you just have to submit a short clip of you performing (along with the normal documents you need). You can show off your singing, acting, dancing or a combination of all of them! If you’re interested in musicals, but don’t know much about the history, check out this list. These musicals all shaped the musical theatre world in some way!

1. Oklahoma

Not the most interesting musical on the list, but an important one. Before Oklahoma, musicals were more about showing off a dance chorus and spectacular songs. Oklahoma changed the game by using songs to advance the plot and building dramatic tension that hadn’t often been seen. Not only the lyrics, but the choreography also built the story. While Oklahoma wasn’t the first to bring forth a musical that actually had a strong plot, its popularity made it the most well known. Oklahoma changed the scene of musical theatre. Not to mention it was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration,  who would go on to make hits such as The Sound of Music, The King and I, Cinderella and more. 

Take a listen to Hugh Jackman singing the iconic “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” here.

2. West Side Story

West Side Story is a twist on Romeo and Juliet, focused on the rivalry between two gangs from different ethnic groups. The exploration of racial tension reflected the environment of New York at the time. Musicals had been very lighthearted until then, and were not often critiquing real world issues. This musical is a rare one that has stood the test of time and continues to be relevant today. Of course, musically it is also quite impressive and how dance was used to inform the characters, and the story was revolutionary. 

Make sure to listen to “America” to get a sense of this musicals style and willingness to be critical of society.

3. Cabaret

Though this musical has been around for 50 years, it keeps getting put on today. If you’re a fan of Schitt’s Creek, you’ll recognize it as the musical they put on in town. But why? Cabaret introduced an even darker, grittier side to musical theatre that explored people’s desire to escape from the political world, and in turn becoming ambivalent. The musical is set at the time of the Nazi’s rise to power in Berlin. The show was not afraid to turn against its audience, using a giant mirror as a backdrop to let the audience face their reality and complacency.

Take a listen to this incredible rendition of “Cabaret” from the musical.

4. Hair

West Side Story may have been critical of society at the time, but Hair was a full out protest. Showing bisexuality, homosexuality and interracial relationships was taboo at the time. A part of the hippie movement, Hair was a defiance of society’s standards. Hair brought modern rock music into the musical and in doing so, ushered in a new audience to musical theatre. Even today, the musical stands as something more risque than we often see on stage and is relevant in so many ways. 

Check out this mashup of the iconic “Age of Aquarius” and “Let the Sun Shine” to get a feel for the style of Hair

5. Rent

Rent is a classic for a lot of people. It’s where our Elsa, Idina Menzel, got her Broadway debut. It’s the origin of the iconic song “Seasons of Love” came from – you know the one that starts with “525,600 minutes”. But more than any of that, Rent was not afraid to talk about homosexuality, poverty and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Talking about how income impacted access to healthcare was important, and they made sure to highlight the fact that this impacted straight people as well. Detaching the stigma of HIV/AIDS from only queer people was so necessary at the time. Kind of the “Hair” of this generation, in many ways, but also in how Rent brought rock music into the musical in a fresh way. 

Take a listen to “Seasons of Love” here.

6. The Lion King

The Lion King was not the first musical Disney put out into the world, but it is definitely the most artistically innovative. It made Disney’s role in the Broadway realm more legitimate through its incredible design. Utilizing puppets, incredible set and costume pieces to recreate the characters of The Lion King, this musical is truly a feat. This musical helped shift broadway into a place for families and tourists. 

Check out the opening number “The Circle of Life” to see the brilliant physicalization of the musical. 

7. In the Heights

The In the Heights movie will be coming out in June of this yea, so it’s the perfect time to introduce yourself to the musical. In the Heights, written by Lin Manuel Miranda, is a story of Washington Heights. This began the introduction of the “hip hop musical” into the mainstream. Beyond that though, In the Heights is a celebration of latin-american culture and a look at the “American Dream”. It’s about the hope to achieve the dreams your parents moved their lives for, hope to create better opportunities for those that come after you. It discusses gentrification and the struggles of immigrants in a way that is so rooted in reality. It is one of the best musicals on this list, and a definite must listen. 

Check out one of the most beautiful songs from the show that encapsulates the pressure of living up to expectations, “Breathe”.

8. Fun home

Fun Home was groundbreaking for a couple of reasons. For one, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori were the first female writing team to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score. For another, there hadn’t been a musical with a lesbian protagonist before. The coming of age story based on the life of Alison Bechdel discusses motives for suicide – not your typical Broadway blockbuster. 

Check out the Tony Award Performance here

9. Hamilton

Hamilton has received a lot more mainstream recognition in the past few years, which has made people quick to judge it. What people need to remember is that what Hamilton is at heart is about drawing parallels between marginalized BIPOC and America’s origin story. The “Great America” that so often hates immigrants began with immigrants. Lin Manuel Miranda saw bits of Alexander Hamilton’s story in the lives of people he grew up with. Glorifying the founding fathers isn’t great, but the point is that racialized folks are a huge part of the foundation of the nation. Also, before this musical, BIPOC were often only performing in shows about BIPOC, or in roles that necessitated it. Most roles were reserved for white people, unless explicitly stated otherwise.  Hamilton brought up the idea that BIPOC did not need to be excluded from traditionally white roles. 

Check out one of the first performances of the title song here.

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