10 of the best songs from musicals
By BBC Maestro
From The Lion King to Hamilton, there are so many amazing musicals out there that it’s nearly impossible to narrow it down to a definitive list of the best musical songs.
Everyone has different tastes, after all – but if you’re an aspiring musical theatre writer, we think you can’t go wrong with these ten show tunes.
1. Hakuna Matata
“It means no worries for the rest of your days.” If you’ve seen The Lion King (either the film or the stage show), you probably had this song stuck in your head for hours, if not days, afterwards.
The song, which was written by Elton John and Sir Tim Rice, is as catchy as any pop song – but more than that, it introduces two of The Lion King’s most beloved characters, Timon and Pumbaa. This dynamic duo of meerkat and warthog befriend Simba after the death of his father, and the song introduces their simple philosophy, as well as giving some backstory to the two characters.
2. Don’t Cry for Me Argentina
This classic song from Evita, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (and later turned into a film version starring Madonna) is based on the life of Eva Perón, the former First Lady of Argentina.
The song appears three times during the show, each at a pivotal moment. It’s sung in the opening of the first and second acts, and near the end of the show; during Eva’s iconic speech from the balcony of the presidential mansion, during her final broadcast, and by the spirit of Eva after her death as she urges the Argentine people not to mourn her.
3. Any Dream Will Do
This song, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, is from one of the best British musicals of all time: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. It’s both the first and last song sung in the show and carries a message about following your dreams that applies not only to the titular character of Joseph, but also to every one of us.
No wonder it’s been so enduringly popular since the musical was released in 1968, with cover versions by the likes of Jason Donovan and Donny Osmond topping the charts.
4. Defying Gravity
This song is the finisher for the first act of Wicked and is one of the show’s most popular songs. It’s mostly a solo performed by Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, as she realises that the Wizard of Oz isn’t the hero she thought he was.
She vows to do everything she can to bring the Wizard down and sings about how she’ll go against the rules that have been set for her by others – making the song a real anthem for outsiders.
5. I Dreamed a Dream
We could easily fill this full list with songs from Les Misérables. But this solo by Fantine is surely the showstopper – and the tear-jerker.
It comes during the first act after she loses her job at the factory. Out on the streets, Fantine laments her fate and thinks about all of the things that have gone wrong in her life – and of the dreams she once held.
6. He Lives in You
Like Les Misérables, every song from The Lion King could easily be added to the list of best musical songs, but special mention must go to this emotional song that appears twice in the show.
First, it’s sung as They Live in You by Mufasa to Simba as he explains how all the previous kings live on in the stars, and that’s where Simba can find his father if he ever needs him once he’s gone – foreshadowing the guidance that Simba will indeed need from his father later in the show. It’s then sung again as He Lives in You, by Rafiki who explains to the young Simba that his father lives on, helping him come to the realisation that he must challenge Scar.
7. Alexander Hamilton
The very first song in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is also one of the show’s very best. In the show’s hip-hop style, the song tells the backstory of Alexander Hamilton and introduces several supporting characters.
In just a few minutes, the audience learns all they need to get up to speed with the iconic character and his relationship with various side characters. It’s so loved that it’s the most-played song of the Hamilton collection on Spotify.
8. Seasons of Love
This uplifting piano tune is sung by the whole cast and has become an anthem for AIDS awareness – as has the entire musical of Rent, which highlights the lives and experiences of those dying from the disease.
The song asks how to quantify the value of a year in a human life, concluding that the best measure of life is love. It may not be a traditional love song, but to “measure in love” is something we can all get behind, perhaps why this anthem has become so well-loved.
9. One Day More
This rousing anthem is sung by the entire cast of Les Misérables and was recently voted the all-time best song from a musical by the listeners of BBC Radio 2.
Its message of hope is one that resonates far and wide and is proof that even after the trials and tribulations of life, such as those faced by the Les Misérables characters, hope springs eternal.
10. All That Jazz
Even if you’ve never seen Chicago, you probably know this song. Unlike some of the other songs on this list, it carries no deeper meaning, but it’s a razzle-dazzle jazz number that’s unforgettable. As the show’s opening number, it perfectly sets up the world of Jazz-age 1920s Chicago and has stood the test of time since the show’s stage debut in 1975. Jazz hands at the ready!
Did we feature your favourite musical song on the list? If you’re inspired to write the next great musical theatre song, take some tips from industry legend, Tim Rice in his upcoming BBC Maestro course, Writing and Performing Musical Theatre. And in the meantime, take a look at this playlist of some of Tim Rice's best musical hits.