Top Ten Greatest Composers of Musical Theater

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Paul W. Thompson
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Some of you may have seen Anthony Tommasini's recent series of articles in the "New York Times," leading up to his announcement of his ranking of the top ten non-living composers of classical music. This has produced a great deal of discussion in the classical world (always a good thing, in my opinion).

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/23/arts/music/23composers.html?_r=1

At the risk of creating a monster, I was wondering what BWW readers thought about such a list of musical theater composers (or composer-lyricist teams, if need be). Most of the rankings on this message board tend to be rankings of shows, or of performers. I can't find one about composers. (I'm a little torn about making it only about deceased folks, too.)

It's my impression that many such rankings come from students, or other young people excited to get involved in Broadway musicals. Again, nothing wrong with that at all.

But I would be interested to see some discussion from us older types as well, in the manner of Tommasini's scholarly, serious series of articles.

I don't want to start off with my list, but give me a few minutes and I just might!
Q
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Paul - there is no way I'm going to wade anywhere near your proposed discussion, but I must thank you for linking the classical article and related discussions. Great reading!
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themysteriousgrowl
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"It's my impression that many such rankings come from students, or other young people excited to get involved in Broadway musicals. Again, nothing wrong with that at all.

But I would be interested to see some discussion from us older types as well, in the manner of Tommasini's scholarly, serious series of articles."

Well, that's not at all offensive.

Anyway, if this goes well, I'll eat my hat!
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Paul W. Thompson
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Hmm. Tough crowd! But I knew that going in.

There is obviously no right or wrong in this. Discussion is good. And, M. Growl, I ADORE postings from kids whose favorite shows are the ones they just saw or listened to or were cast in. But if you are a young person just starting out, you can't necessarily be expected to be familiar with Kurt Weill or Arthur Schwartz. That's where the rest of our community picks the ball up, so to speak!
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themysteriousgrowl
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"And, M. Growl, I ADORE postings from kids whose favorite shows are the ones they just saw or listened to or were cast in. But if you are a young person just starting out, you can't necessarily be expected to be familiar with Kurt Weill or Arthur Schwartz."

Oh, dear. Oh, dear.
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jv92
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I still wouldn't consider Weill or Schwartz to be what Rodgers, Kander, Sondheim or Kern are. A lot of greats (and favorites of mine) were left off the Times list, Rachmaninoff and Ravel for example. Even Copland and Bernstein (I'm a sucker for American concert music). I would consider them great. In fact, I'd consider Ravel to be greater than Debussy (Sorry, sorry). So, it's all opinion here. Nothing is set in stone. I mean, obviously you'd be daft not to include Bach or Beethoven on such a list, just as you'd be daft not include Rodgers or Kern on a musical theatre list. But the other details are all sort of opinion-based.
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themysteriousgrowl
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Out of sheer curiosity, are you a trained musician?

And if so, what is (are) your area(s) of expertise?
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qolbinau
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1. Frank Wildhorn
2. Andrew Lloyd Webber
3. Stephen Schwartz
4. Laurence O'Keefe
5. Barry Keating
6. ABBA
7. Alice Ripley
8. Phil Collins
9. Irving Berlin
10. Stephen Sondheim
"It’s the fractured quality in [Bernadette Peters'] singing voice and line readings that puts across the character as someone for whom resentment is sliding into madness." - NYtimes on Follies (2011).
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themysteriousgrowl
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Now let's all guess qolbinau's age based on his post!
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Paul W. Thompson
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Who, me? Why, yes.

https://www.broadwayworld.com/author.cfm?authorid=133

Not that it matters. And now, back to a discussion of musical theater composers!
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themysteriousgrowl
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Goodness gracious. Awfully smug, too!

Did you write the bio yourself? Because to my eye, you've got a couple of general theater degrees, have sung in a choirs, and done some music-directing. Your composition credits "in various musical genres" certainly do nothing to convince me that you can elaborate in a "scholarly" way on the subjection of composition, let alone in a *more* scholarly way than, say, most 20-year-old composition majors in reputable music schools.

But I shall sit back and watch and hope to see some of this erudite discourse on the technicals of composition. I wish you luck in your endeavors!
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twinbelters
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I'm not afraid:

1. Stephen Sondheim
2. Rodgers and Hammerstein (and Hart, Charnin, Harnick... the team thing can get confusing)
3. Bock and Harnick
4. Kander and Ebb
5. Harburg and Fain
6. Wright and Forrest
7. Lionel Bart
8. Dietz and Schwartz
9. Jerry Herman
10. William Finn

I would put Jule Styne, Jerome Kern, and George Gershwin in the list but oh well, guess they don't make the cut. Lerner and Loewe would maybe be at 11 or 12. I don't think their work holds up.
With Irma you gotta do something!
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themysteriousgrowl
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How old are you? We have to see if it counts.
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Paul W. Thompson
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YAY, twinbelters! Nice list.

Harburg and Fain, interesting.

Wright and Forrest, hard to defend, right? Of course, they did write some of their own music, but depended heavily on Borodin for their biggest hit.

No Porter or Berlin, well, ok....

Flaherty and Ahrens? Adam Guettel? Too soon?

Lloyd Webber?

Top Ten Greatest Composers of Musical Theater
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IdinaBellFoster
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No Order, just my personal taste:

Sondheim
Kander & Ebb
Rodgers & Hammerstein
Bernstein
Herman
Porter
Lloyd Webber
Guettel
Flaherty & Ahrens
Yeston
"Oh look at the time, three more intelligent plays just closed and THE ADDAMS FAMILY made another million dollars" -Jackie Hoffman, Broadway.com Audience Awards
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uncageg
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Wow, the man gets asked a question, answers it and still gets bashed.

Glad you took the high road PWT.
Just give the world Love.
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themysteriousgrowl
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Hey, I just wanna see some music-theory talk.

EDIT: And you're right. He did answer the question. He is not a trained musician.

That kind of horrid discrimination just grinds my gears. It would be bad enough if it came from someone actually qualified to speak on the subject, but that nonsense elitist talk is tenfold worse coming from a theater enthusiast.

Carry on.


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Updated On: 1/25/11 at 06:42 PM
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Paul W. Thompson
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Thanks, un!

Idina, nice list as well. Balanced.

I'm wondering if a case could be made for Elton John, David Yazbek or others of our rock-to-Broadway brethren.

What of Jones and Schmidt? Or Adler and Ross? How many successful shows must one have in order to be considered? Jonathan Larson? Michael John LaChiusa? Alan Menken? Krieger and Eyen?
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In no particular order:
Jerry Herman
Stephen Sondheim
Jule Styne
Cole Porter
Irving Berlin
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
John Kander and Fred Ebb
Leonard Bernstein
George Gershwin
Frank Loesser


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I took a different approach to this. Instead of thinking about who I consider to be great, I pulled up my iTunes to see who I actually listen to the most. The list, in order, is as follows:

1. Tom Kitt
2. Lin-Manuel Miranda
3. Jason Robert Brown
4. Jeff Bowen
5. Stephen Sondheim
6. Jonathan Larson
7. Andrew Lloyd Webber
8. Kander & Ebb
9. Lerner & Lowe
10. Marc Shaiman

Of this list, I'd say Sondheim is the best, but (even adding up all of his shows) I don't listen to him as often as I do Next to Normal, In the Heights, The Last 5 Years, or [title of show].

P.S. For the record, themysteriousgrowl, you're the one who's coming off smug here.
Updated On: 1/25/11 at 07:01 PM
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I went with a gut reaction, so yeah, no Porter or Berlin. I would probably trade someone out with Porter. Berlin, not so much.

Honestly what I'd like to do is a list of greatest composers separate from a list of greatest lyricists. Harold Arlen has a home in the former, and E.Y. Harburg should get separated from Fain and put in the latter. I just love Flahooley, so it got a top spot.

Wright and Forrest still did amazing original composition work, and I consider Magdalena (with Heitor-Villa Lobos) to be a strong score.

I almost forgot Herman! He is not an ingrained favorite but has grown on me.

Harold Arlen really needs to be on that list, though....
With Irma you gotta do something!
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Mine would probably be:

1. Leonard Bernstein
2. Claude-Michel Schonberg
3. Andrew Lloyd Webber
4. Stephen Sondheim
5. Richard Rodgers
6. Jonathan Larson
7. John Kander
8. Jule Styne
9. Jerry Bock
10. Jason Robert Brown

By the way, Paul W. Thompson, I have nothing to hide, I am part of the younger people you refer to. You can see, however, that my taste is not limited to Wicked and Next to Normal (*gasps*) even though you might assume this.

And in direct response, the very first song I performed (and used to audition) was Brecht & Weill.
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About Arlen, I wanted to put him on my list but I had second thoughts, even though I love House of Flowers, I think his best work belongs on film, if this was a list of best film musicals composers he would surely be up there.
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uncageg
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My list is short.

1. Sondheim
2. Rodgers & Hammerstein
3. Bernstein
4. Kander & Ebb

Honorable mentions, just for one show, for me, would be Jeanine Tesori for "Caroline or Change" and Guettel for "..Piazza"
Just give the world Love.
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GatorNY
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I think Qolbinau was joking.
"The price of love is loss, but still we pay; We love anyway."
Updated On: 1/25/11 at 07:32 PM