21 Lesser-Known Musicals: How Many Do You Know?

actors on stage in a musical

Beyond classic Golden Age shows and contemporary Broadway hits, there’s a whole world of lesser-known musicals just waiting to be discovered. Whether you’re looking for musicals for high school and community theater, or you just want a new cast album to listen to, these underrated musicals are the perfect place to sart.

Of course, the whole idea of obscure musicals is completely subjective — it all depends on your personal experience. With that in mind, we’re including shows from across the spectrum so there’s something for everyone. (Bonus points if you know them all!)

Top image courtesy of Prayitno Photography under CC BY 2.0

Underrated and Lesser-Known Musicals

1. The Clockmaker’s Daughter

This is one of our favorite lesser-known musicals; we love that it’s from a young musical theater writing team. It combines the vibe of Golden Age musicals with a hint of Disney — soaring ensemble numbers, lush harmonies, and super singable pieces — but it doesn’t feel dated. The story follows Abraham Reed, a clockmaker who has lost his young daughter. To cope, he makes a wind-up, clock-like machine that looks just like her; magically, she comes to life. It’s not all sunshine and roses, though. You can watch the whole thing here. (Don’t miss John Owen-Jones’ breathtaking opening song.)

Music, Lyrics, Book: Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn
Licensing: Webborn and Finn (sheet music only)

2. In the Green

There’s nothing quite like In the Green in all of musical theater. The story is based on the real life of Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval nun — and eventual Catholic saint — who lived in the 1100s. That’s not all: she was a mystic, natural healer, writer, and composer. In short, a badass. As the 10th child in a noble family, Hildegard was sent to study in a bare, solitary cell with an anchoress named Jutta. That cell is the setting for this obscure musical, which has a wild, unexpected score that combines religious chants, beatboxing, looping, and plenty of dissonance (and some grunts). It’s exactly as weird as it sounds, but also magical and inventive and beguiling.

Music, Lyrics, Book: Grace McLean
Licensing: Dramatists Play Service

3. It’s Only Life

It’s Only Life is a musical revue featuring the music of John Bucchino. If you don’t know Bucchino’s music, it’s worth a listen — it’s distinctly modern, but also considerably more sophisticated than the majority of the modern Broadway musicals. (In other words, the composition is strong enough to stand on its own; it doesn’t need to rely on screamy belts or constant riffs.) We love that every song has a different vibe.

Music and Lyrics: John Bucchino
Conceived by: Daisy Prince, John Bucchino
Licensing: Concord Theatricals

4. The Rink

An estranged mother and daughter reunite at the family’s dilapidated Coney Island roller rink. On paper, this musical seems like a sure winner — Kander and Ebb wrote the music and lyrics, and Terrence McNally handled the book. The 1984 Broadway production starred Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera…and still, the show received rotten reviews. The setting and the story are bleak, but the score holds its own. In particular, the song “Colored Lights”; it’s a gorgeous audition song for altos.

Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Book: Terrence McNally
Licensing: Concord Theatricals

5. The Robber Bridegroom

The Robber Bridegroom is on the higher (lighter?) end of the spectrum of lesser-known musicals. If you’re a staunch fan of modern musicals or classic musicals, though, you might not even know it exists. But when you’re ready to branch out, this is a great place to start; it has a strong bluegrass score, a backwoods Southern setting, and a zany cast of characters. The show is fun and absurd — and even better, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Music: Robert Waldman
Book and Lyrics: Alfred Uhry
Licensing: MTI

6. Two Gentlemen of Verona

If you’re a fan of Hair, you might like the vibe of Two Gentlemen of Verona (they share a composer, after all). This largely ignored rock musical is a retelling of the Shakespeare play with a distinct 70s twist. The Shakespearean tropes are all there — concealed identities, overbearing fathers, young lovers — but they’re muted by an aggressive score. Though it might feel strange to modern audiences, Two Gentlemen of Verona won the Tony for Best Musical in 1972, beating out Follies and Grease.

Music: Galt MacDermot
Lyrics: John Guare
Book: John Guare, Mel Shapiro
Licensing: Concord Theatricals

7. Children of Eden

Children of Eden is a big, Genesis-inspired musical that’s been described as a “gentle epic.” The music has a childlike feeling — it can feel jarringly earnest and literal, almost saccharine, especially if you’ve been steeped in modern musicals. There’s not much in the way of depth or complexity, but this niche underrated musical might be a good choice for a church theater group or a Christian school.

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Book: John Caird
Licensing: MTI

8. 35mm: A Musical Exhibition

In the words of the composer himself (or at least his website), 35mm highlights the place where “pleasures visual and aural” meet. It’s not technically a musical — it’s a multimedia exhibition. During the show, audience members see projections of the photos that inspired the music. It’s not an easy piece to perform, but it can make an interesting addition to your theater season.

Music and Lyrics: Ryan Scott Oliver
Based on: Photos by Matthew Murphy
Licensing: Concord Theatricals

9. Scottsboro Boys

Scottsboro Boys is the last Kander and Ebb musical. The script is based on the terrible true story of nine Black men who are wrongfully accused and sentenced to death. Despite its excellent music (check out the Tony Awards performance), this underappreciated musical isn’t performed often enough — perhaps for the same reason the show didn’t last long on Broadway. The material is direct and unflinching in its criticism of the system that failed the real-life Scottsboro Boys, and though the story is set in the 1930s, many of the themes are still horribly and uncomfortably relevant. It’s a tragedy, examined through the lens of a minstrel show (and yes, that combination is as jarring as you might expect).

Music and Lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb
Book: David Thompson
Licensing: MTI

10. Cry-Baby

Hands up if you’ve ever seen a live stage production of Cry-Baby the musical…yeah, we’ve never seen one, either. That’s because this weird little musical isn’t produced nearly often enough. The 1990 movie musical version (which predated the stage version) is a fantastic cult classic, and the stage version is among the most underrated musicals out there. Just as in Grease, the story follows a good girl who gets mixed up with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. It’s packed with fun, quirky characters, a heavy-handed dose of camp, and irreverent humor (our favorite kind). You can watch the full musical here

Music and Lyrics: Adam Schlesinger, David Javerbaum
Book: Thomas Meehan, Mark O’Donnell
Licensing: MTI

11. Of Thee I Sing

If you love Gershwin musicals, head straight for Of Thee I Sing. The score has a charming Sousa-esque Americana vibe — it’s an exceptionally pleasant listen. Set in the world of a presidential campaign, the story takes plenty of jabs at politicians. It’s clearly vintage (one of the female characters sings a song called  “Jilted, Jilted”) but still relevant. If the delightful Gershwin tunes aren’t enough to lure you in, consider this: Of Thee I Sing was the first-ever musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1932). It’s also one of just 10 musicals that have ever won a Pulitzer. 

Music: George Gershwin
Lyrics: Ira Gershwin
Book: George S Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind
Licensing: MTI

12. Canterbury Tales

Haven’t thought about The Canterbury Tales since high-school English? Neither have we. If you’re ready to revisit this sometimes bawdy collection of travelers, the musical Canterbury Tales is a fun place to start. It’s a lesser-known musical, but that hasn’t always been true — the show premiered in England in 1964, moved to the West End in 1968, and played more than 2,000 performances! You can hear the British roots and the 1960s in the music, which is boisterous if not memorable.

Music: John Hawkins, Richard Hill
Lyrics: Nevill Coghill
Book: Martin Starkie, Nevill Coghill
Licensing: MTI

13. Amen Corner

There aren’t enough gospel musicals in the world, but Amen Corner is holding down the fort. It’s no secret why this is an obscure musical — it lasted just 12 previews and 28 performances on Broadway in 1983. Based on a play by James Baldwin, the story is one of faith and difficult marriages. We’d love to find a cast recording, particularly of the beautiful, “It Ain’t No Fault of His,” but this is one of the most challenging musicals to find. It’s almost never performed, and even YouTube is light on options. 

Music: Garry Sherman
Peter Udell
Book: Peter Udell, Philip Rose
Licensing: MTI

14. Minnie’s Boys

If you’re interested in the Marx brothers, check out the Minnie’s Boys musical. It tells the story of the Marx family — in particular, the matriarch, Minnie, who was the driving force behind her sons’ careers.  The book is co-written by Groucho Marx’s son Arthur, and offers an intimate look into the brothers’ lives as children.

Music: Larry Grossman
Hal Hackady
Book: Arthur Marx, Robert Fisher
Licensing: Concord Theatricals

15. Happy Hunting

A rich widow falls for a secretly penniless man in this lesser-known vintage musical. To make matters worse, the man in question was intended for the widow’s daughter. This frothy and fun little musical is overflowing with jaunty melodies and comedic moments; it was originally written for Ethel Merman, after all. If you’re on the hunt (get it) for a musical with an older, low-voiced leading lady, Happy Hunting is a contender.
Music: Harold Karr
Matt Dubey
Book: Howard Lindsay, Russell Crouse
Licensing: MTI

16. Octet: A Chamber Choir Musical

Have you ever despaired about how most new musicals sound the same? (We’re right there with you.) Octet is worth checking out. It’s among the lesser known contemporary musicals, but it’s exceptional in that it actually feels like something we haven’t heard before. This chamber musical doesn’t break new ground, plot-wise — a support group tackles the negative effects of the internet on humanity — but musically, it’s an original. The music uses the chamber singers to exceptional effect; they create rhythms, provide accompaniment, and set the mood with more than a few well-timed “oohs” and “ahhs.” If you’ve ever sung in a chamber choir, the bizarre “Fugue State” is sure to sound familiar. You can find the album on most streaming services and Dave Malloy’s Bandcamp page.

Music, Lyrics, Book: Dave Malloy
Licensing: Not yet available

17. Mass

If you love Leonard Bernstein’s music — think West Side Story, On The Town, Candide — you can’t miss Mass. Originally written at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, this soaring piece offers a fascinating perspective on the liturgy of the Catholic church, complete with crises of faith and public pushback. But the real reason to listen is to hear Bernstein’s masterful music. In “God Said,” in particular, you can hear the same type of  joyous orchestrations that bring life to West Side Story.

Music: Leonard Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Schwartz
Licensing: Boosey & Hawkes

18. Ride the Cyclone

Wonderfully weird, Ride the Cyclone tells the story of a choir that dies while riding a rollercoaster. Six of the students are stuck in limbo, where they’re forced to tell stories to a mechanical fortune teller to win a ticket back to their lives on Earth. This obscure musical boasts one of our favorite legit soprano musical theater songs, “The Ballad of Jane Doe.” Glorious.

Music, Lyrics, Book: Brooke Maxwell, Jacob Richmond
Additional material: Alan Schmuckler
Broadway Licensing

19. The Grass Harp

Based on the Truman Capote novel by the same name, The Grass Harp is one of the most underrated musicals Broadway has ever seen. Even though it opened with Barbara Cook in the leading role, the show lasted for just seven performances before closing. Two elderly sisters have a feud over a secret recipe for dropsy medicine, and one goes off to live in a treehouse with her orphaned nephew and servant. With its colorful characters, gorgeous music (did we mention that Barbara Cook sang it?), and charming story, this sweet musical is worth reviving.

Music: Claibe Richardson
Book and Lyrics:
Kenward Elmslie
Source material: Truman Capote
Licensing: Concord Theatricals

20. Ghost Quartet

Dave Malloy strikes again with Ghost Quartet, a beguiling four-person song cycle. It doesn’t have a typical musical theater sound — modern or classic — but that’s what’s so intriguing about it. The story jumps through time and space, exploring concepts of love, death, and yes, ghosts. Each of the four performers also play instruments, which adds an extra level of interest.

Music, Lyrics, Book: Dave Malloy
Licensing: Not yet available (sheet music)

21. Marie Christine

Marie Christine was nominated for a Tony during its 1999 Broadway run, but has since faded into relative obscurity. This Michael John LaChiusa musical mingles Medea with the voodoo-laced charm of New Orleans in 1894. A young, privileged woman falls in love with a sea captain and follows him to Chicago…and if you’ve ever read Medea, you can guess what happens next. The cast is massive and the music is bold — a thrilling combination.
Words and music: Michael John LaChiusa
Licensing: Concord Theatricals