The 5 Greatest Musical Theater Composers You Should Know
The world of musical theater is one that has produced some of the most iconic and enduring tunes in history. From “Oklahoma!” and “West Side Story” to “Les Miserables” and “The Sound of Music” these musicals have made their mark on Broadway, the West End, and around the world.
But with so many composers out there, where do you start? In this article, we’re going to introduce you to 10 of the greatest musical theater composers who were behind all these catchy songs.
1. George Gershwin
One of the greatest musical theater composers that every student of musical theater and patron knows is George Gershwin.
An American composer, Gershwin’s work covered classical and contemporary styles.
Originally from Ukraine, Gershwin’s parents moved to New York before their children were born, are their Ukrainian-Jewish heritage informed much of George’s music.
He’s most known for composing Broadway songs with his brother Ira Gershwin and Buddy DeSylva and was heavily influenced by jazz.
With songs like “I Got Rhythm,” “They All Laughed,” and “Summertime,” he has an extensive discography of work that has defined a generation of music.
Today, he is well-known for his Broadway jazz, and his music has been used extensively on stage and in film adaptations.
George Gershwin died in 1937 of a brain tumor, leaving behind an incredible and lasting musical legacy.
2. Stephen Sondheim
Born into a Jewish family in New York, Stephen Sondheim is an American composer and lyricist.
He had quite a tumultuous ionclub childhood as his parents divorced when he was ten, and he hated his mother. Instead, he found mentorship with another composer, Oscar Hammerstein II, and developed his love of musical theater.
Sondheim attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he studied composition. He then studied under Milton Babbitt and composed an adaptation of Beggar on a Horseback by George S. Kaufman, which had a limited run.
While not every endeavor found success, Sondheim persevered and created a name for himself alongside his mentor and friends.
His list of famous works includes A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Into the Woods, and West Side Story which he wrote the lyrics to, among many others.
In 2014, he wrote a new song for the film adaptation of Into the Woods, which did not make it into the film but showed he was still a strong writer.
3. Leonard Bernstein
Born in Massachusetts, Leonard Bernstein is another Jewish-American composer who changed the world of musical theater.
As a child, his only music was on the radio, but when he was 10-years-old, his sister delivered an upright piano, and the rest was history with Bernstein teaching himself to play the piano despite his father’s lack of support.
Eventually, his father realized that music was Bernstein’s future and took him to concerts where they attended the Boston Pops Orchestra, which heavily influenced Bernstein.
He was also significantly impacted by the composition of George Gershwin, who he saw as a role model.
Bernstein attended Harvard University and later the Curtis Institute of Music, where he decided he wanted to be a conductor.
In 1943, he made his conducting debut at the New York Philharmonic after the original conductor caught the flu.
He worked with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, among others.
His musical theater composing credits include “West Side Stor,” “On the Town,” and Peter Pan, among others.
He worked a long and extensive career until his retirement in 1990, when he died of a heart attack.
4. Andrew Lloyd Webber
Famous British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber was born in Kensington, London, and his name is synonymous with Broadway’s musical theater.
He began composing music at age nine and put on performances with his friends and family.
At 17 years old, Lloyd Webber met Tim Rice, with whom he would collaborate on many plays, including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Likes of Us, and Evita.
In 1986, perhaps his most famous play debuted: The Phantom of the Opera.
Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera has been performed in theaters worldwide and has seen several film adaptations.
In 2001, the New York Times called Andrew Lloyd Webber “the most commercially successful composer of all time.”
His plays have held the longest-running titles, and many have been made into films as well.
He is still actively composing and plans to open Cinderella in London in 2021.
5. Richard Rodgers
An American composer with 23 Broadway musicals and over 900 songs in his pocket, Richard Rodgers was born into a Jewish family in Queens, NY.
He began playing the piano at six years old and wrote many songs while at summer camp.
In 1919, he partnered with Lorenz Hart, writing such songs as “My Funny Valentine,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” and “Wait Til You See Her.”