Musical Theatre For Dummies
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Whether you strive to become involved with musical theatre or you’re an enthusiastic fan who can’t get enough, you’ll want to know which shows truly made a difference in musical history. Want to star in a musical? Find out how to nail the audition! Want to impress even your most-in-the-know friends? Reference off-Broadway musicals!

Musical theatre productions that changed Broadway

Here are the shows that changed Broadway that you should know as a true musical theatre fan. Listen to the original cast recordings, buy the script and read it, see a local production, (and even watch the movie).

Do whatever you can do, so you know more than just the titles of these shows:

  • Oklahoma! incorporated story, music, lyrics, and dance. Its production marked the birth of the modern musical.
  • West Side Story brought gritty modern-day realism to Broadway, and it was Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway debut.
  • Hair is considered the first rock musical. And it’s the first musical with full frontal nudity!
  • A Chorus Line is a musical about the people who are in musicals and what it takes to get a job.
  • Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Miss Saigon brought the British invasion of the 1980s that started the mega-long-running musical trend.
  • Rent made musicals cool again.
  • Hamilton is the first successful musical to use a major amount of hip hop and rap in the score. This show is a worldwide phenomenon — a hit wherever it plays.

Auditioning tips for musical theatre

You’re finally going to audition for a musical. Uh-oh. Now what? What must you know before you walk into that room with the pianist and the powers-that-be? Here are some quick tips you can use, so no one knows it’s your first time:

  • Familiarize yourself with the show. Read a synopsis of the show and listen to the cast recording. Is there a role that you think you’re right for? Mention it when you audition.
  • Bring a song in the style of the show. Yes, maybe you sound amazing on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “People Will Say We’re in Love,” but that doesn’t have much to do with any of the songs in Rent. Similarly, if you sound amazing as a Schuyler sister, it doesn’t matter if the audition is for Cosette in Les Misérables.
  • Practice your music with a pianist. There’s nothing worse than showing up to an audition and finding out your audition song is in the totally wrong key.
  • Dress like the era of the show. I don’t mean to wear a costume, but if you’re auditioning for the Mad Men era musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, don’t wear a tank top and jeggings. As a matter of fact, don’t ever wear jeggings!

10 off-Broadway musical recordings you should know

Plenty of off-Broadway musicals are fantastic. Here’s a list of ten (just know that the list of off-Broadway greats is much longer):

The Last Five Years

This show has an interesting concept; it focuses on a couple whose marriage has ended, but the female character begins the show at the end of the marriage and the male character begins the show at the start of the relationship. Her journey travels backward and his travels forward.

The score has the wonderful songs of Jason Robert Brown and the recording is wonderful. The two stars, Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott, are at the top of their game, and Brown, the composer himself, is on piano!


Music and lyrics are by William Finn and story by Finn and James Lapine. This became Act Two of Broadway’s Falsettos, but it was a stand-alone musical Off-Broadway in the late 1980s.

Ultimately, it’s the incredibly sad story of Whizzer contracting AIDS and how that affects his ex (and then current) boyfriend Marvin and Marvin’s family. Yet, even though it’s sad, it also has so much comedy. It’s a beautiful and stunning masterpiece. Listen to the cast album from start to finish, and you’ll get the entire show — it’s all music!

Forbidden Broadway

This show began in the early 1980s because Gerard Alessandrini, then a struggling actor, was always rewriting comedy lyrics to Broadway songs.  He took a bunch of his parodies and put it into a four-person show at Palsson’s Supper Club (now called The Triad).

This show has many versions because it’s been updated so many times. Get a bunch of the CDs (or stream them or whatever), and you’ll hear so many funny parodies.

The original lyric in Les Miz is “At the end of the day you’re another day older,”  but Allesendrini changes it to comment on how the show was three hours and 15 minutes, and it becomes “At the end of the play you’re another year older.” Hilarious!

The Wild Party

An incredible score by Andrew Lippa and an incredible cast singing it, including Brian d’Arcy James, Taye Diggs, Julia Murney, and Idina Menzel.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

So many charming and sweet songs, like “Happiness” (“Happiness is two kinds of ice cream”) and my favorite, “The Book Report.”

This one has every character writing a book report on Peter Rabbit, and each character is so clear. Linus is writing a PhD level thesis; Schroeder is obsessed with Robin Hood and keeps turning the report back to that plotline; Lucy is obsessed with the word count; and Charlie Brown spends the entire song procrastinating. So brilliant!

The Fantastiks

The longest running off-Broadway musical was longest running for a reason. It truly is fantastik (sic!). Each song has beautiful/jazzy melodies and extremely clever yet simple lyrics and tells a lovely story that’s summed up in the opening lyrics, “without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris

With a cast of four, this show features an entire score of songs written by French music writer/singing star Jacques Brel and translated English lyrics by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. It has light songs like “Madeline” and “Jackie” and devastating songs like “Sons of” and “The Old Folks.”

Altar Boyz

Most of the shows in this list have lots of humor within them, but this one is a pure comedy. Altar Boyz is about a Christian boy band, and, boy, the singing is so great. It’s all in five-part harmony and sounds like all those great boy band songs you loved when you were a teenager.

The talented cast is filled with great comic actors who are also great singers. And the songs aren’t only really melodious but also have so many super-funny lyrics parodying what a Christian boy band would sing, like “Jesus Called Me on My Cell Phone” and the love song one of the boyz sings to his girlfriend: “Girl, You Make Me Wanna Wait.” Hi-lar!

Zanna, Don’t

This is a wonderful cast album of a very special show. Tim Acito wrote the book, music, and lyrics to this musical about a high school where two people fall in love — what’s sometimes called “forbidden love.” But it’s not a gay love affair, it’s the opposite.

In the world of Zanna, Don’t!, everyone is gay. That’s the norm. And when a boy and a girl fall in love, and their fellow students find out, what happens to them sadly mirrors what happens to many gay teenagers.

Despite the profound message of this show, it also has so much joy in it, especially within the score. What’s also fun is some dialogue on the album where you can hear how Devanand Janki (who directed and choreographed) kept the style so consistent, almost representational and yet real.

The whole cast is fantastic, but pay special attention to the high beltin’ ladies, Shelley Thomas and Anika Larsen, (who went on to be nominated for a Tony Award for playing Cynthia Weil in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) in the song “Ride ‘Em” and “Whatcha Got.” So good!

Bat Boy

Those who were around in the 1980s might remember the tabloid called The Weekly World News. A common cover feature about Bat Boy told the story of a half boy/half bat who was on the run and “very dangerous” according to police.

The story of Bat Boy was turned into a musical that could have been a one-joke Saturday Night Live sketch. Instead, it’s consistently filled with humor, along with  depth and pathos. The music is so tuneful, and the lyrics are so extremely clever (both by Laurence O’Keefe).

If the show had transferred to Broadway, Deven May probably would have been nominated for a Tony Award (and quite possibly won) for his brilliant, comedic performance as the Bat Boy, going from a wild animal to an educated young man with a British accent.

And the same goes for Kaitlin Hopkins who stopped the show every time with her high camp, yet very real performance as the woman who adopts — yet ultimately rejects — the Bat Boy.

Listen to the song “Three Bedroom House” and enjoy her yell “Shelly, NOOOO!” sounding like a classic B movie. And then she hauls out her amazing belt on the final note. Brilliant!

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon host of “On Broadway” on SIRIUSXM®. Seth has played piano for and/or conducted more than a dozen Broadway shows, including Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Grease. He co-wrote and starred on Broadway in the New York Times Critics pick musical DISASTER! During the COVID lockdown, he and his husband James Wesley raised more than $1 million for the Actors Fund with their online show Stars In The House. For more information, go to

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