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broadway songs

The 50 best Broadway songs of all time

We rank the 50 greatest Broadway songs from classic Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim to Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda

By David Cote and Adam Feldman
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When it comes to naming the best Broadway songs of all time, we could make a list ten times as big as this one and still not satisfy many aficionados. Let’s face it: Favorite show tunes are highly subjective. With that in mind, we've come up with these 50 tracks. The resulting lineup is a mix of classic musical-theater numbers from 1927 through 2015. A few come from cast recordings of the 21st century; others are from shows that swept the Tony Awards decades ago. We've tried to go broad, with a deliberate balance of obvious and less-obvious choices and a desire to mix it up in terms of style. We gave ourselves a few basic guidelines: Only one song per musical was allowed, and we have not included many Great American Songbook standards that technically debuted in Broadway musicals, in the 1920s through the 1940s, but have largely been forgotten as Broadway songs. Unless you’re Broadway geek, many of these titles may be far less familiar to you than, say, the entries on our best party songs roundup. But maybe you’re not going to the right parties.

RECOMMENDED: Full listing of Broadway musicals

Best Broadway songs of all time

broadway songs

11. “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd (1979)

Since we can’t include the entire score of Sweeney Todd, let this first-act finale serve as a synecdoche for Stephen Sondheim’s Grand Guignol masterpiece. Rising out of the harrowing “Epiphany”—in which Sweeney vows to become a serial killer—“A Little Priest” finds his compatriot, Mrs. Lovett, suggesting that they recycle his victims as meat for her struggling pie shop. In a dazzlingly witty comic waltz, they muse about the kinds of people they might cook up (“shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top”). But it’s not just a mordant comedy number about cannibalism; it also serves as a character song, with the nattering Lovett set against the fulminating Sweeney, that pushes the plot forward while touching on larger themes: “The history of the world, my sweet / Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” Has wickedness ever been quite so delicious? —Adam Feldman

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12. "Memory" from Cats (1982)

Much like the blockbuster show it's from, "Memory" is one of those songs that people either love or loathe. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melody is loosely inspired by various classical sources, and Trevor Nunn's melancholy lyrics draw from T.S. Eliot's poems. There's an undeniable chemistry in the combination, which has helped "Memory" transcend its Broadway roots. You don't need to be a theater queen to know how to belt out the climax: "Touch me / It's so easy to leave me / All alone with the memory / Of my days in the sun." But of course, it probably sounds a lot better when Betty Buckley does it.—Raven Snook

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13. “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from Annie Get Your Gun (1946)

Irving Berlin’s high-stepping paean to entertainment has a cynical undercurrent: “Even with a turkey that you know will fold, you may be stranded out in the cold / Still you wouldn't change it for a sack of gold.” In the context of Annie Get Your Gun, members of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show use the song to get Annie Oakley to join the troupe. (It’s part of a kind of backstage subgenre, like Cole Porter’s “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” and Pinocchio’s “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee.”) The instantly catchy song is reprised three times and has passed into iconic status on stage and screen.—David Cote

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14. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel (1945)

The best of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s secular hymns had a dual purpose in its original setting: as grief counseling for newly widowed Julie Jordan after her husband’s suicide, and as a climactic high school graduation anthem for their daughter. To meet both demands, Hammerstein contributed almost entirely monosyllabic lyrics and Rodgers banked his fire, keeping things folk-simple until the title phrase, for which he unleashed a cloud-bursting chord per syllable. The song’s repurposing has continued: It’s the official club anthem of Liverpool’s football team.—Rob Weinert-Kendt

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15. “One Day More” from Les Misérables (1987)

At once a summary and a cliffhanger, the Act I finale of Les Miz offers a thrilling compression of the musical’s epic narrative. In turn, eight main characters sing melodies we’ve heard throughout the first act (notably as “Who Am I?,” “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Master of the House”); then they sing them all at the same time, in a counterpoint of clashing wills that converges into unison. With powerful force, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer sweep the show into a ball and hurl it out into intermission.—Adam Feldman

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16. “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity (1966)

In this steamy come-on, partners-for-hire in an old Times Square dance hall try to squeeze some bucks out of the schlubs in attendance. The bump-and-grind stripper beat came from composer and jazz pianist Cy Coleman; Dorothy Fields provided the comically hard-boiled words of seduction; and Bob Fosse gave the girls their slithery, syncopated moves. “Big Spender” portrays ‘60s New York as a sexed-up fast lane where love is for sale and the naïve—like the show’s lovestruck lead character, Charity Hope Valentine—get clobbered.—James Gavin

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17. "Don’t Rain on My Parade" from Funny Girl (1964)

There's a reason this rousing power ballad is the closing number in both acts of the Fanny Brice biomusical. Thanks to Jule Styne's soaring melody and Bob Merrill's defiant, I'll-do-what-I-want lyrics, it's an iconic female-empowerment anthem—despite the unlucky-in-love comedian’s decision to run off with a gambling cad. Not that anyone could convince her to do otherwise: "Don't Rain on My Parade" is Fanny's YOLO cry as she chases what her heart desires. The 22-year-old Barbra Streisand's breathtaking vocals on the original cast album have inspired many a wannabe stage star, not to mention karaoke queens of all genders.—Raven Snook

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18. “Aquarius” from Hair (1968)

For a musical purportedly running on hippie flower power and gloopy starshine, it’s striking that Hair's bookends are a pair of bad-ass minor-key blues chorales: this funky, driving opener and the rafter-shaking closer “Let the Sunshine In.” Wafting in like stage fog over a brooding organ and a siren-like wail of guitar feedback, “Aquarius” may proffer dubious astrology and peacenik platitudes (courtesy of lyricists James Rado and Gerome Ragni), but composer Galt MacDermot’s churning, darkly tuneful music both grounds and elevates it.—Rob Weinert-Kendt

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19. "All That Jazz" from Chicago (1975)

Those high-pitched brass bursts! That tuba underscoring! The come-hither, babyish vocals by original star Chita Rivera, and Bebe Neuwirth’s growlier take in the 1996 revival! This sexy yet sinister opening number brilliantly sets the mood for Chicago’s darkly comic satire of the good ol’ American goals of fame and fortune. You can’t see Bob Fosse's legendary choreography on the cast recording, but somehow you can feel it in the bump-and-grind of John Kander's jazzy melody and Fred Ebb's suggestive lyrics, which conjure a sultry picture of an illicit night out on the town.—Raven Snook

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20. “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess (1935)

Despite the ear-splitting volume with which most sopranos sing it, this standard is a lullaby, written by George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward for their fabled folk opera about embattled blacks in the 1930s Deep South. “Summertime” is a young mother’s promise to the infant in her arms that “nothin’ can harm you / So hush, little baby, don’t you cry.” Gershwin, a Brooklyn-born Jew, drew upon blues, spirituals and folk to compose a song so lushly melodic that he surprised even himself, and Stephen Sondheim has called Heyward’s words “the best lyrics in the musical theater.”—James Gavin

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