The Best Musicals for High Schools: A Comprehensive Guide

School musical auditions will soon be upon us, which means directors are finalizing this year’s show selections. There’s no doubt that each year’s production leaves a lasting impact on all involved, after all, you can’t just erase thousands of hours of running lines and mastering choreography. Musicals for High Schools

The Musicnotes team got to talking about our most memorable productions, and noticed quite a few of us, from all over the country, had performed in the same shows during our school days. That got us wondering: what are the most popular high school musicals of all time? Well, a quick internet search pointed us to this article, which compiles 75 years of data from Dramatics magazine to determine each decade’s most performed plays and musicals.

What are the Most Popular Musicals in High School?

When we began the exploration of popular high school musicals, we knew we were in for a few surprises. The data shows just how far modern musicals have come in the last 100 years, including the explosive popularity of modern classics (so many, in fact, that we couldn’t fit them all on this list). But some older classics are still popular in high schools today, and are still performed even in schools with almost exclusively classic productions. So, without further ado, let’s get right to it.

According to this list, the two most popular musicals for high school students of the past decade were West Side Story and Oklahoma!

According to this list, the most popular musicals of all time are:

As expected, the top two are of the classic variety: Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music.

How to Pick a Show

And now we present the definitive guide to picking your own (or the class’s) musical. Whether you’re seeking a classic tale of girl meets boy and finds true love, a funny satire or emotional coming-of-age story, or a fun ensemble piece, these are the best options.

The Sound of Music

Director Robert Wise’s 1961 adaptation of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is possibly the most beloved musical of all time. It’s an ideal introduction to the genre, and features some of the most memorable songs of the entire 20th century. The incomparable Julie Andrews is not far behind, either. In fact, her standout performance can be seen in five other musicals: The Music Man, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Mary Poppins, Evita, and The Sound of Music.

Auditions and Rehearsals

Of course, not everyone can be a star of a professional production like Les Miserables or A Chorus Line, but everyone can partake in the seemingly endless amount of fun and excitement that comes with participating in a high school production. Whether it’s high school drama club, band, dance squad, or a mere back-up cast member, auditioning and rehearsing is a fun experience.

Puberty and Performance Anxiety: The Urgency to Perform

In the teen years, a lot of changes occur. Especially in the case of pre-teens, it’s important to find something to offer them to fill the emptiness, even if that just means making new friends or playing a few elementary school sports.

On the other hand, puberty can trigger a lot of emotions in adults. One of those emotions is fear.

A List of Popular Shows from Different Decades

Decade Years

1930s

By far, the most performed plays are the classics: the ancient Greek tragedies, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1939) is even ranked as the 10th most performed play of all time. By the 1950s, the two aforementioned plays were completely out of favor and Shakespeare would only make the top 50, with The Merchant of Venice (1953) and King Lear (1961) taking the crown for the most popular plays of the decade. Shakespeare and music often go hand-in-hand, so no surprise it’s the most popular Shakespeare play ever.

By the 1960s, Shakespeare was considered by many to be outdated and slightly sexist. While most productions were still of his classical plays, an entire page was dedicated to “hippie-era” musicals in a 1970 magazine.

1940s-1950s

We can already predict who’ll be nominated for this category: This list consists entirely of musicals. All five of the highest-rated plays of the decade, along with the fifth-highest-rated musical of the same decade, are musicals. It is the golden age of the musical, when Broadway musicals were grabbing Broadway audiences like never before and the Great Depression was still a distant memory.

Chaplin

Released in 1947, the biopic of the famous comedian was the highest-rated play of the decade. It remains the highest-rated play on IMDb’s list.

Look Away Now

Based on the popular Richard Adams novel of the same name, the play was the highest-rated musical of the decade, and holds the record for the longest running musical on Broadway.

Annie Get Your Gun

1. Annie Get Your Gun, 1939

Top Musical

1. West Side Story, 1957

2. Oklahoma!, 1955

3. Guys and Dolls, 1950

4. Bye Bye Birdie, 1961

5. My Fair Lady, 1964

6. Pippin, 1971

7. Chicago, 1975

8. Man of La Mancha, 1973

9. Fiddler on the Roof, 1969

10. Paint Your Wagon, 1971

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Waitress

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Monty Python and the Holy Grail

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My Fair Lady

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The Music Man

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Grease

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Chorus Line

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Carousel

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Oklahoma!

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Guys and Dolls

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Babes In Arms

The Washington Post even declared this musical “America’s Favorite High School Musical.” The musical follows the many loves and travails of the all-American girl, Dorothy Gale. The plot is old-fashioned and often saccharine (thus the title), but the score is catchy and the performances stellar. So much so that a TV special was even made featuring some of the cast.

Bye Bye Birdie

We know this one’s a classic. It’s been performed more than 2,600 times in high schools and colleges across the nation and by tourists all over the world. And although it’s quite a jazzy show, we think it has more heart than the lyrics might indicate.

Guys and Dolls

By far, the most-performed high school musical of all time is Guys and Dolls, the Frank Loesser and Jule Styne show that celebrates the positive, can-do spirit of the American Dream.

There were more high school productions of Guys and Dolls than any other play in America during the first half of the 20th century. It’s been in circulation every decade since its premiere in 1955, except for the late 1980s and early 1990s. You can thank a Broadway sensation that’s playing until March 2017 for all those years of high school productions.

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book has been around since the late 1960s, but it really took off in the late 1980s when it became a huge international hit.

1960s-1970s

Here are the top 10 schools from the 1960s, based on highest amount of students auditioning and receiving a part:

1. Cal State Northridge

2. New York University

3. Howard University

4. University of Houston

5. University of Maryland

6. Northwestern University

7. University of San Francisco

8. American University

9. Brown University

10. University of Georgia

1970s

Here are the top 10 schools from the 1970s, based on highest amount of students auditioning and receiving a part:

1. University of Miami

2. American University

3. Cornell University

4. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

5. University of Chicago

6. University of Georgia

7. University of California Berkeley

8. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

9. Columbia University

Bye, Bye Birdie

As a student, most of us participated in a musical during our time in the school production. It was one of the first times that our peers saw us for more than just that kid in chorus who has terrible stage fright. Sometimes, the whole cast is stuck with the dreaded role of chorus member, or a character without much in the way of dialogue. For those cases, students are put in those situations so they can learn the value of being the ensemble member, especially since many of us have been in high school plays for more than a decade.

All in the Family

Perhaps one of the most quintessential productions to hit our high school stages, All in the Family came out in 1970 and featured the Belushi family.

West Side Story

If you want to put a spin on that 1942 classic, check out “West Side Story: The Complete Disney Musical,” available at iTunes or Amazon.

Cinderella

Dozens of productions of “Cinderella” have sprung up over the decades, making this one of the most performed of all time. It’s been a part of many high school productions, from high schoolers to community theater.

Annie

This iconic musical of the ’40s received its premiere in 1949, when it was adapted into the movie version starring Greta Garbo. Now you can catch “Annie” at professional theaters nationwide.

My Fair Lady

Auditions for “My Fair Lady” can be tough. But it’s an iconic piece that’s been making audiences laugh for decades.

Ubsection 5.3

The Broadway hit from 1994 and 1998. Nearly 60% of shows that had a cast record charting were from this decade. The theater score isn’t available for these titles, but the music book reveals that every show featured the music of Elton John.

A Little Night Music

The third most performed play of the 1970s, after The Music Man and West Side Story. The musical marked the Broadway debut of director Tommy Tune, who has since gone on to direct and choreograph many hit Broadway shows. The sets, costumes and overall musical-theater style remain the same from the 1970s to now.

Grease

Perhaps the best known title on this list, The Beatles classic and classic rock soundtrack Grease has become a favorite for all high school productions since its Broadway debut in 1978.