10 of the 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 (1898-1937)

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 (1930-)

Born into a Jewish family in New York, Stephen Sondheim is an American composer and lyricist.

He had quite a tumultuous 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 (1918-1990)

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 Story”, “On the Town” and Peter Pan among others.

He worked a long and extensive career until his retirement in 1990 where he died of a heart attack.

4. Andrew Lloyd Webber (1948-)

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 (1902-1979)

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.”

When Hart died in 1943, Rodgers found himself partnered with Oscar Hammerstein II.

Rodgers and Hammerstein became unstoppable, with hits like The Sound of Music, The King and I, and Cinderella, which became film or TV adaptations.

Rodgers continued composing until his death, having received the Lawrence Langner Memorial Award for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in the American Theatre.

6. Irving Berlin (1888-1989)

Irving Berlin

One of the greatest composers of all time, Irving Berlin wrote almost 1,500 songs for 20 Broadway plays and 15 Hollywood films.

Remembered more as a poet, Irving Berlin was born in the Russian Empire to a Jewish family and five years later, his family immigrated to New York.

His father died when he was 13, and Berlin took on delivering newspapers to help his mother and along his route, he discovered the joys of music.

At 14, he dropped out of school and quickly learned that his only marketable skill was his voice.

He taught himself piano and continued to sing in saloons until 1909 when he took a job with the Ted Snyder Company as a lyricist. 

He founded the Music Box Theater on Broadway, which was incredible considering that he could not even read sheet music for most of his life.

Some of his most famous songs include “White Christmas,” “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better),” “Blue Skies,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.”

He lived a very long life eventually passing away at the age of 101 in 1989.

7. Cole Porter (1892-1964)

Cole Porter

Next, we have Cole Porter who was born in Indiana and was the only surviving child in his family.

His grandfather had wished for him to become a lawyer, but Porter was drawn to musical theater instead.

His mother encouraged his musical dreams and he learned the violin when he was six, the piano at eight, and wrote his first operetta when he was ten.

Although his mother helped him write his first operetta she also falsified his birth certificate, so it appeared he was more of a prodigy than he was.

He attended Worcester Academy, where he made friends and quickly found that entertaining came naturally.

He moved to Paris in 1917 when the US entered WW1 and stayed there after throwing lavish parties and studying orchestration.

Upon his return to America, he returned to Broadway with his first full musical in 1928 titled Paris.

Then, by the 1930s he was a hugely popular broadway composer with musicals such as “Anything Goes,” “High Society” and “Kiss Me, Kate.”

Porter sadly was in a riding accident in 1937 which eventually led to him having his leg amputated.

He released one more hit “Can-Can,” in 1953 but eventually died in 1964 at the age of 73.

8. Elton John (1947-)

Born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in Pinner, England, fewer modern composers have more stage presence than Sir Elton John with his talent being hard to contain from an early age.

At age 15, he became a pianist in a local pub, where he began performing his own music and by 1967, he answered an ad to compose music for Liberty Records.

They gave him an envelope of lyrics written by Bernie Taupin, who had responded to the same ad.

From there, Elton John and Bernie Taupin launched a decades-long musical partnership. 

As well as a hugely successful pop career, he has composed the music for a number of musical theater productions including The Lion King (1997), Aida (2000), Lestat (2006), and Billy Elliot the Musical (2008).

With awards from Grammys, Tonys, and Academy Awards, Elton John’s opulent career had spanned more than 50 years before he announced his final tour in 2020.

9. Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960)

Oscar Hammerstein II

Holding eight Tony Awards and two Academy Awards, Oscar Hammerstein II is one of the most well-recognized musical theater lyricists of all time.

Vocalists use his songs for auditions and performances because of their beauty and lyrical jazz.

Born in New York, Hammerstein’s parents were both involved in the theater, introducing him to the stage early.

He attempted law school, but the call of the theater inspired him to drop out, returning to open his first Broadway play in 1920.

His long collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers led to the well-known “Rodgers and Hammerstein” names in Broadway lights for many years.

Some of his famous musicals include “Oklahoma!” “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “Cinderella” and “The Sound of Music.”

He was an advocate for writer’s rights on Broadway and was president of the Dramatists Guild of America until his death in 1960.

The York Theater Company of New York City offers an Oscar Hammerstein Award, a Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theater award each year. 

10. Jeanine Tesori (1961-)

Jeanine Tesori is an American composer who has written five Broadway musicals and has earned five Tony Award nominations.

In 1995, she debuted as a dance music arranger for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

She received accolades for her subsequent work Violet, which ran off-Broadway but earned her an Obie award as well as several others. 

In 2000, she wrote new songs for an update of Thoroughly Modern Millie with Dick Scanlan. This collaboration led to her first Tony Award nomination.

Shrek: The Musical debuted in 2008 and earned her another Tony nomination.

Tesori composed music for the films Nights in Rodanthe, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, Shrek the Third, Mulan II, and The Emperor’s New Groove II: Kronk’s New Groove.

Jeanine Tesori’s opera Blue, which addresses the issues of police brutality with young black men, debuted in 2019 at the Glimmerglass Festival in New York.

Summing up our List of Famous Musical Theatre Composers

That wraps up our article on the most famous musical theater composers of all time and we hope it’s helped to put a face to the amazing music that you know and love.

Whether you’re a die-hard fan of Broadway, or just like to sing along with your favorite musicals from time to time, it’s important that we recognize and honor the legacy left behind by some of the world’s most talented composers.

One of the best ways to enjoy these composers’ work is by watching their plays or musicals so go book some tickets and enjoy.

There are lots more composers we’ve not included on this list but we’ll be updating it so let us know who you think we should add.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.