A street with lots of signs for musicals

10 British musicals you must see

By BBC Maestro

If you’re an aspiring musical theatre writer, you probably already spend your spare time watching as many musicals as you can. But in case you’re in need of a little extra inspiration, here are some of the best British musicals you must see.

A History of British musicals

Although Broadway may automatically spring to mind when you think of musicals, there’s a long history and tradition of musical theatre in the UK, too.

Musical double act Gilbert and Sullivan are often considered to have set the hallmark for how to seamlessly integrate songs into theatre shows and still tell a coherent story. Their shows included H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado, which were huge hits on both sides of the Atlantic. The Savoy Theatre in London’s West End, which today is home to popular musicals like Pretty Woman, was built specifically to showcase Gilbert and Sullivan’s comedy operas.

By the 1890s, musical theatre was popular in London and has been on an upwards trajectory ever since. 

A theatre stage with a red curtain

10 British musicals worth seeing

Here are some of the best British musicals to add to your must-see list – in no particular order.

Les Misérables

Although the novel by Victor Hugo and the original musical adaptation were French, it is the British adaptation into English that we all know and love today.

The original French musical premiered in 1980 in Paris, and the English-language adaptation by Cameron Mackintosh premiered in London in 1985. It’s been running ever since, making it the longest-running musical in the West End.

It tells the tale of a French peasant, Jean Valjean, who was released from prison in 1815 after serving 19 years for stealing bread. He decides to break his parole and start a new life, but he’s pursued by the police every step of the way – all while being swept up in the French Revolution.

The Lion King 

The Lion King musical is based on the Disney film of the same name and has been delighting theatregoers since 1997. Although it debuted in Minneapolis, we’re including it in the list of best British musicals as the music was written by Elton John and the lyrics by Tim Rice.

It opened in the Lyceum Theatre in London’s West End in 1999, where it’s still running today. The musical tells the story of lion cub Simba, his power-hungry uncle Scar, Simba’s friends Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog, as well as a whole cast of enchanting supporting characters.

The musical has won a slew of awards over the years, including Tony Awards for the original Broadway production and Laurence Olivier Awards for the original London production – and it continues to be a fan favourite to this day.

A silhouette of a lion stands in front of a sunset

Phantom of the Opera

Based on the 1910 novel of the same name by Gaston Leroux, this award-winning musical tells the tale of soprano Christine Daaé who becomes embroiled with the mysterious, masked Phantom who lives beneath the opera house where she’s performing.

Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the musical opened in London’s West End in 1986 and on Broadway two years later. It’s the second longest-running musical in the West End, and the longest-running Broadway show. It played its final Broadway show in April 2023, marking a 35-year run and 13,981 performances.


Many of the musicals on this list are classic hits that have been playing in the West End and on Broadway for decades, but Six is a brand new musical that’s made a huge impact since it premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017.

Written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss in their final year at Cambridge University, the musical tells the story of the lives of Henry VIII’s six wives, with each of them telling their story (through the medium of pop songs) to see who had the worst time with their common husband.

It’s been nominated for many awards in its short lifespan, and has won several, including 2022 Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Costume Design in a Musical.

theatrical masks in a shop window


Another of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous musicals, Cats is based on T.S. Eliot’s poetry collection Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It tells the story of the Jellicles, a tribe of cats who come together at the annual Jellicle Ball, to decide which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer (the Jellicle version of heaven).

The musical premiered in London’s West End in 1981 and had a profound impact on the musical landscape. It’s sometimes described as the first mega musical, a term used for musical theatre designed to be produced on a large scale and for commercial profit – similar to blockbusters in the movie world.

Billy Elliot the Musical

The film Billy Elliot came out to widespread acclaim in 2000, and the musical version followed suit five years later.

It largely follows the same plot as the film – perhaps unsurprisingly, as it’s written by the film’s screenwriter, Lee Hall, with music by Elton John. It’s set against the backdrop of the 1984/85 minors’ strikes in County Durham, and tells the story of Billy, a young British boy who secretly begins taking ballet lessons.

It premiered at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End, and immediately became a hit. It was nominated for nine Laurence Olivier Awards and won four including Best New Musical.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat

A collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), this musical tells the story of Joseph from the Bible’s Book of Genesis, who is given a multi-coloured coat by his father, Jacob – much to the jealousy of his brothers.

It premiered as a 35-minute version at the 1972 Edinburgh International Festival, before being produced in its full format in 1973. It’s still an extremely popular musical to this day, especially with schools and amateur drama groups, thanks to its catchy songs and family-friendly story.

The rocky horror show on a theatre board

The Rocky Horror Show

Both the musical and film versions of Rocky Horror have become cult classics – but did you know that the movie is based on the musical theatre version? The Rocky Horror Show came first, premiering in London, and was followed in 1975 by the movie version, both of which were written by Richard O’Brien.

It’s a wacky homage to science fiction and horror B movies and tells the story of a young couple who get caught up in the mad world of scientist Dr Frank-N-Furter. Fans of the musical often dress up as its various characters for shows, and there’s a tradition of call-backs and audience participation, which makes it popular for those who love interactive theatre.

Starlight Express

Starlight Express is the world’s only musical performed entirely on roller skates. Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Richard Stilgoe (music), it tells a thrilling tale of the young steam engine, Rusty, who enters a race against modern trains – all in the hope of impressing a first-class observation car, Pearl.

It premiered in 1984, and closed in London in January 2002, after running for 7,409 performances. That made it the ninth longest-running West End show – and it’s still showing in other locations around the world, so you can still catch this one-of-a-kind musical elsewhere.

Mamma Mia!

Packed full of love songs, ballads and songs to get you dancing, this jukebox musical features all of ABBA’s greatest hits. It was written by British playwright Catherine Johnson and composed by the band’s very own members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.

It made its West End debut in 1999, 11 years before the hit film of the same name was released. Both the film and theatre production follow the same plotline, with a young woman who wants her father to walk her down the aisle at her forthcoming wedding – but there’s one problem. She doesn’t know who her dad is, out of three possible contenders. The action then follows her as she tries to figure it out – with plenty of familiar ABBA hits along the way.

If these lyrical stories have you hankering to tell your own, explore Tim Rice’s BBC Maestro course, Writing and Performing Musical Theatre. Get yourself in the mind of the audience and arrange a theatre trip, too.

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