Curtain up, light the lights: 6 musicals that have stood the test of time

Curtain up, light the lights

6 musicals that have stood the test of time


Share this article on Social Media

With theatres in the West End and across the country finally opening up after being closed during the Covid lockdowns, we can now get back to enjoying the magic of musical theatre.

There’s nothing quite like a night at the theatre. That feeling of anticipation when the overture starts playing and the lights start to dim. The bustle of intermission where you can have a good chat with your companion about what you enjoyed and what you think is going to happen in the second half, the dancing, the singing, the impossibly long-held notes, the standing ovations, the curtain calls – it truly is like stepping into another world.

Below and in no particular order, we take a look at six musicals that over the years, have become bona fide classics, wowing audiences young and old.

1. Les Misérables

Premiered: 1980 in Paris, France.

Current performances: Les Mis, as its shortened to, has been performed continuously on the West End since it initially opened there in 1985. It is the West End’s longest-running musical to date.

Synopsis: Les Mis is based on the 1862 novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. It tells the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant released from prison in the early stages of the show, after serving 18 years hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Unable to find any reputable work as a result of his parole conditions, Valjean goes on the run and attempts to live a reputable life. He catches the attention of police inspector Javert who pursues him throughout the show, determined to bring Valjean to justice for breaching his parole.

Fleeing to Paris, Valjean and his adopted ward, Cosette find themselves embroiled in the 1832 French Rebellion where a group of student activists and idealists build a barricade and attempt to overthrow the oppressive government with fatal results.

Famous songs: I Dreamed a Dream, Bring Him Home, One Day More, Do You Hear the People Sing?, On My Own, Master of the House – Les Misérables is completely sung-through (no dialogue, only singing) and as such is jam-packed with well-known musical theatre anthems.

Film: A film adaptation of Les Misérables was released in 2012. It starred Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe as Javert as well as Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen in supporting roles. Anne Hathaway received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Fantine and masterful rendition of I Dreamed a Dream, despite only being on screen for a total of 15 minutes.

2. The Phantom of the Opera

Premiered: 1986 on London’s West End.

Current performances: Like Les Mis, ’Phantom’ has been performed continuously on the West End since its initial opening. It is currently the longest running show in Broadway history and the second longest-running West End musical to date.

Synopsis: Phantom is based on the 1910 novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux. It follows the story of a bitter, masked figure deformed since birth and known only as the Phantom who lives in the sewers beneath a Parisian opera house. He develops an obsession with chorus girl, Christine Daaé, demanding she be given the lead role and privately tutoring her. Much to the Phantom’s ire, Christine is reconnected with her childhood love the Viscount Raoul de Chagny. The Phantom kidnaps Christine and imprisons her beneath the opera house, where Raoul must rescue her.

Famous songs: The Phantom of the Opera, Music of the Night, All I Ask of You – The song, The Phantom of the Opera is infamous for its haunting use of the organ as well as it’s requirement for the actress portraying Christine to hit an extremely high E6 note.

Film: A film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera was released in 2004. It starred Gerard Butler as the titular Phantom and Emmy Rossum as Christine. The film was produced with a budget of $80 million USD (approximately £58 million GBP).

3. Cabaret

Premiered: 1966 on Broadway, New York City.

Current performances: A 2021 UK tour of Cabaret has recently been announced starring Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley. The show will premier in London in November 2021 before touring throughout the UK into 2022.

Synopsis: Cabaret is based on the play I am a Camera by English playwright, John Van Druten. It’s set in 1930 Berlin as the Nazi Party are ascending to power. It juxtaposes the alcohol-fueled bohemian lifestyle of a cabaret show inside the Kit Kat Club with the authoritarian and discriminatory changes happening across Berlin and Germany. American, Cliff Bradshaw begins a relationship with outgoing English cabaret performer Sally Bowles whilst the show also explores the forbidden and dangerous love existing between a German woman and a Jewish man.

Overseeing the show is the mysterious Master of Ceremonies of the Kit Kat Club (‘The Emcee’) who pops up throughout to perform songs that provide social comment and reflect important themes within the plot.

Famous songs: Wilkommen, Mein Herr, Maybe This Time, Tomorrow Belongs To Me, Cabaret – The song, Cabaret and it’s famous line ‘“what good is sitting alone in your room, come here the music play, life is a cabaret old chum, come to the cabaret’” is commonly performed as a desperate attempt to willfully ignore and distract oneself from the increasing terrors that were occurring at the time in German society.

Film: A film adaptation was released in 1972 starring Liza Minnelli in the lead role of Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as The Emcee. The plot of the film differed greatly from the stage musical, notably switching the nationalities of two of the main characters. Cabaret remains an incredibly successful film and one of Minnelli’s most recognisable roles. It won eight Academy awards including Best Director, Best Actress for Liza Minnelli and Best Supporting Actor for Joel Grey.

4. The Sound of Music

The Sound of Music musical poster

Premiered: 1959 on Broadway, New York City.

Current performances: A UK tour was slated to occur in 2020 but was interrupted due to Covid. No further updates of a new tour have been given.

Synopsis: The Sound of Music is based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp. Set in Austria just prior to WW2, the show tells the story of Maria, taking the job of governess to seven children while she decides if becoming a nun is truly what she desires. She soon develops feelings for the children as well as falling in love with their widowed father, Naval Captain Georg von Trapp.

As Germany invades Austria and prepares for war, Captain von Trapp is ordered to take up his post in the navy. He refuses as he opposes the Nazis. The musical closes with Captain von Trapp and Maria (now married), fleeing Austria along with the children, for the safety of Switzerland.

Famous songs: The Sound of Music, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, My Favourite Things, Do-Re-Mi, Sixteen Going on Seventeen, Edelweiss, Climb Every Mountain – similarly to Les Mis, The Sound of Music is renowned for being jam-packed with incredibly popular and well-known musical theatre anthems.

Film: Perhaps one of the most famous musical theatre film adaptions of all time, The Sound of Music was released in 1965 starring Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp and Christopher Plummer as Captain Georg von Trapp. The film remained the highest grossing film of all time for five years after its release and won five Academy Awards including Best Picture. It remains one of Julie Andrews’ most notable film roles.

5. Cats

Premiered: 1981 on London’s West End.

Current performances: No current UK shows. Cats is the fourth-longest-running Broadway show and the fourth-longest-running West End musical to date.

Synopsis:  With a notoriously strange (or perhaps non-existent) plot, Cats is based on the 1939 poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. Essentially, the musical follows a group of cats known as the ‘Jellicles’ as they hold their yearly ‘Jellicle Ball’ to decide which cat will ‘ascend to the Heaviside layer’ (die and go to heaven). The sung-through musical then continues with each cat introducing itself before the leader cat chooses who will ‘ascend’.

Famous songs: Memory – there really aren’t many songs from Cats that could be classed as famous but Memory, sung by derelict cat Grizabella, makes up for it by being an absolute showstopper of a number and a glorified musical theatre staple. Elaine Paige who originated the role of Grizabella on the West End, released a version of Memory which reached #6 on the UK Singles Charts in 1981.

Film: A film adaptation of Cats was released in 2019 with an all-star cast including Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, Ian McKellen and Idris Elba. However, the film was universally panned by critics and audiences alike with many touting it as the worst film ever made. It is estimated that Cats generated a financial loss for its production studio in excess of $114 million USD (approx. £82.7 million GBP). Perhaps the less said of this film adaptation, the better.

6. My Fair Lady

Premiered: 1956 on Broadway, New York City.

Current performances: No current UK shows. My Fair Lady is embarking on a US tour in September following a 2018 Broadway revival.

Synopsis:  My Fair Lady is based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion.  It follows the story of cockney street urchin Eliza Doolittle who gains the attention of confirmed bachelors and esteemed phoneticians Professor Henry Higgins and Colonel Hugh Pickering.

In a fit of arrogance, Higgins makes a bet with Pickering that through elocution and deportment lessons, he can transform Eliza into a ‘lady’ and pass her off as a duchess at the embassy ball.

Suitably gentrified, Eliza catches the eye of Freddy Einsford-Hill but Eliza is confused and frustrated in her new life and by her potential feelings for Higgins.

The show is infamous for its ambiguous yet enjoyable ending.

Famous songs: Wouldn’t it be Loverly?, The Rain in Spain, I Could Have Danced All Night, On the Street Where You Live, Get Me to the Church on Time – famously, Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison originated the roles of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in both the West End and Broadway premieres of the musical.

Film: A film adaptation of My Fair Lady was released in 1964, controversially starring Audrey Hepburn in the role of Eliza Doolittle and with Rex Harrison reprising his stage role of Henry Higgins. The film was an incredible success, becoming the second highest grossing film in its year of release and winning eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Harrison.

The casting of Hepburn was controversial as she could not sing and as such had to be dubbed throughout the film. Julie Andrews who was passed over in favour of the ‘bigger star’ of Hepburn, was thus free to accept the role of Mary Poppins for which she would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, beating out the un-nominated Audrey Hepburn.

Have you seen these six classic musicals?

Or have any favourites that aren’t on the list?

We would love to hear about them.