Perhaps the most common misconception about musical theatre music is that it can all be grouped into a single musical genre. In reality, musical theatre is an art form that encompasses many, many styles of music. To demonstrate that fact, let’s go back a few years and examine some Broadway musicals that were nominated for Tony Awards in 2014 (along with the musical styles featured within each one):
- After Midnight (1920s-40s jazz standards)
- Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (1960s-70s pop/rock radio songs)
- A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (‘legit’/operetta-influenced theatre songs)
- Aladdin (1990s Disney tunes)
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1970s-style glam rock songs)
As we see, musical theatre music is incredibly diverse and incorporates many genres of music from the past of present. I created this post to provide a simple breakdown of the ten major music styles present within musical theatre today (there are others). I have also included some representative songwriters for each style. When building audition books, performers should consider including songs from each of the styles and periods below. Some pieces should be ballads, and some should be uptempo. Some should be dramatic in nature and others should be comedic. NOTE: These stylistic categories are only meant to be simplistic guidelines- there are always exceptions, crossovers, and other reasonable methods for organizing musical theatre music.
P.S. If you need further assistance finding songs for yourself or for your students, check out my Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology guides and my professional repertoire guides in the MTR store.
1. English Operetta Song (c. 1870s-1920s)
o Songs/arias from operettas. Gilbert & Sullivan, Franz Lehar, Sigmund Romberg, Victor Herbert, others
2. Jazz Age Traditional Musical Theatre Song (c. 1920s-40s)
o Older ‘traditional’ theatre & tin pan alley songs (i.e. many jazz/Great American Songbook standards). Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, Kurt Weill, Noel Coward, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern
3. Golden Age Traditional Musical Theare Song (c. 1940s-60s)
o ‘Traditional’ theatre songs from the early 1940s to mid ’60s. Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein, Alan J. Lerner & Frederick Loewe, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Loesser, Jule Styne, Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick, Richard Adler & Jerry Ross, Burton Lane, Meredith Wilson, Harold Rome, Jerry Ross
4. Post-Golden Age Traditional Musical Theatre Song (c. 1960s-70s)
o ‘Traditional’ sounding theatre songs from the mid-1960s to the ’70s and even ’80s. John Kander & Fred Ebb, Cy Coleman, Jerry Herman, Harvey Schmidt & Tom Jones, David Shire & Richard Maltby, Charles Strouse, Marvin Hamlisch, Stephen Schwartz (earlier works)
5. Sondheim Song (c. 1960s-present)
o Stephen Sondheim (yes, he earned his own category)
6. Contemporary Musical Theatre Legit* Song (c. 1980s-present)
o ‘Contemporary’ theatre songs heavily influenced by classical music styles and vocalism. Andrew Lloyd Webber (some shows), Claude-Michele Schönberg & Alain Boublil, Maury Yeston, Frank Wildhorn (some shows), Sylvester Levay & Michael Kunze, Lucy Simon, Jill Santoriello, Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Scott Frankel & Michael Korie, Ricky Ian Gordon, Paul Gordon
7. Contemporary Musical Theatre Character Song (c. 1990s-present)
o ‘Contemporary’ theatre songs that blend traditional musical theatre and pop music attributes + vocalism. Mel Brooks, Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens, William Finn, Jason Robert Brown, Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman, Robert Lopez, Jeanine Tesori, David Yazbek, Andrew Lippa, Matthew Sklar, Laurence O’Keefe, Tim Minchin
8. Contemporary Musical Theatre Pop/Rock Song (c. 1970s-present)
o ‘Contemporary’ theatre songs heavily influenced by pop, rock and other commercial music styles + vocalism. Gal MacDermot, Elton John, Henry Krieger, David Bryan & Joe DiPietro, Jonathan Larson, Michael Friedman, Tom Kitt, Stephen Trask, Duncan Sheik, Joe Iconis, Ryan Scott Oliver, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Damon Intrabartolo
9. Radio Pop/Rock Song (c. 1950s-present)
o Various Top 40-style radio songs from the commercial music industry. Choose songs from multiple decades and commercial music styles (i.e. pop, rock, country, hip hip, R&B, etc.).
10. Walt Disney Song (c. 1930s-present)
o Songs from Disney stage musicals, films, TV shows, etc. Alan Menken, Robert & Richard Sherman, Elton John, Robert & Kristen Lopez, Phil Collins, David Nessim Lawrence, Randy Newman, Lin-Manuel Miranda
* This category includes classical/operetta-influenced theatre scores by songwriters like Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon and Scott Frankel– alongside the ‘pop opera’ hybrid scores of 1980s-90s ‘megamusicals’ by songwriters like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Boublil & Schönberg, Maury Yeston, Lucy Simon, Frank Wildhorn and others (i.e. Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, The Secret Garden, Jekyll & Hyde, etc).
Hi Luke, see the footnote. Shows like Les Mis and Phantom fall into a sort of ‘pop opera’ category. The songs are usually written in a pop form/sensibility, but the shows themselves are sung through and typically feature more ‘legit’-type singing technique.
What about auditioning with Once Upon a Time from Brooklyn the Musical and The Boy Next Door from Meet Me in St. Louis
Never mind, that’s what I get for only reading your categories and not the full article; rock on!
Thanks Dan. You bring up a good point about song function vs style. I completely agree that performers should also know how each of their songs function (‘Story Song’, ‘I Want’ song, ‘Charm song’, etc). Might do another blog post on song type/function.
Good point, Dan. As I mentioned, these are extremely generalized categories. Several composers in that category could fit into other categories as well (or even have their own individual categories for that matter). I hope people will study each individual composer’s works to make the judgement calls for themselves- these are just suggestions.
I will be auditioning for Rocky Horror Picture Show next month and I am gunning for Magenta. What song would you recommend for my audition?
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Hey there, where would you place Andrew Lippa, Cunningham and saltzman?
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Hi there Kevin,
Thank you for helping me out with this! Great article. I was wondering how you tell whether a song by Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Jeanine Tesori, or Scott Frankel fits into the Sondheim Song category. I just learned the song “Light in the Piazza” from “Light in the Piazza” by Adam Guettel. What category would this fit in?
Thank you so much!