Top 10 Most Heartbreaking Musicals



Top 10 Most Heartbreaking Musicals

VOICE OVER: Emily Brayton WRITTEN BY: Tiffany Dai
The saddest musicals will fill the theater with tears. Our countdown includes "Fun House," "Parade," "West Side Story," and more!

Top 10 Saddest Musicals

Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Saddest Musicals.

For this list, we’ll be looking at shows that have delved into emotionally intense topics or explored the more difficult realities of life.

Expect spoilers ahead, as we’ll be talking about plotlines and what makes these musical theater performances uniquely heartbreaking. Spoilers to follow!

Let us know in the comments which of these shows have made you shed a tear.

#10: “Carousel”

When Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan fall for each other, their romance costs both of them their line of work. Over time, the difficulties of married life settle in, and the struggles with unemployment and domestic violence become real. Things only get more complicated when Julie finds out she’s pregnant, and Billy decides to get involved with a robbery to provide for his child. When the plan goes wrong and Billy dies, he’s given a second chance in the afterlife: if he can help his now teenaged daughter, he’ll be allowed into heaven. This Rodgers and Hammerstein musical may explore the darker side of life and love, but it still carries a message of hope through Billy’s redemption.

#9: “Next to Normal”

With many rock musicals, the intensity of the genre can communicate overwhelmingly emotional storylines. “Next to Normal” follows Diana, as she copes with bipolar disorder while mourning her son Gabe, who passed away 16 years ago and appears in her hallucinations. The story follows the effects of grief on Diana and her family, and even tackles aspects of her psychological treatment, including medication and therapy. From the show’s debut and throughout its Broadway run, Alice Ripley delivered a layered and passionate performance as Diana, and she even won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.

#8: “Rent”

In loving memory of his friends who contracted HIV, Jonathan Larson created this musical depicting a group of young, struggling artists who try to survive in New York's East Village during the 1980s and 90s. Based on Puccini's “La Boheme”, the characters live with addiction, the stigma of being HIV-positive, the threat of eviction, and death in their community. When Angel dies of complications from AIDS, she is mourned by her friends, which encourages them to cherish their time together. In the face of this disease, legendary songs like “Seasons of Love” remind us to find value in life through measures of love.

#7: “Fun Home”

Developed from Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, this Tony winner follows her coming out journey as she explores her relationship with her father up until his death. The musical is narrated by an older Alison, who introduces scenes of “Small” and “Medium” versions of herself to describe her life as a child and as a college student. Over the course of the story, her father’s hidden life slowly reveals itself, and Alison discovers that he’s gay at the same time that she realizes her own sexuality as a young adult. The heavy themes of this musical are driven by passionate performances from actors like Sydney Lucas, who was only 10 when she debuted in the role of Small Alison.

#6: “Miss Saigon”

Based on Puccini's Madame Butterfly, “Miss Saigon” takes place during the Vietnam War and follows the romance between Chris, an American Marine, and Kim, a teenaged Vietnamese bargirl. When they’re separated for three years, Kim continues to believe that Chris will return to Vietnam for her and their young son, Tam. With the song “I’d Give My Life For You,” actresses like Lea Salonga have performed Kim’s fierce dedication and sacrifice for her child. However, when she finds out that Chris is already married, she realizes that she will not be brought to America, and shoots herself so her son will be given a better life with his father.

#5: “Parade”

Based on the events of a real trial, this tragic musical follows the life of Leo Frank, a young Jewish factory manager in Georgia. In the musical, he is wrongfully accused of murdering a teenage girl under his employment. His trial attracted great media attention, and gave rise to antisemitic reactions in Georgia. Leo is found guilty, but his appeal causes his case to be re-opened, eventually leading to his kidnapping and murder by an angry mob. Even in the face of injustice, Leo’s relationship with his wife Lucille shines through this musical’s tragic ending.

#4: “Ragtime”

Even with its deceptively cheerful title, this musical is anything but. Right at the start of the 1900s, “Ragtime” follows the experiences of three contrasting social groups: African-Americans, new Eastern Europeans immigrants, and the white, suburban upper class. Despite their differences, their lives intertwine throughout the turmoil of poverty, discrimination and other societal troubles of the early 20th century. Prominent historical figures such as Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, and Booker T. Washington are driving forces for the narrative, up until the events of World War I. In the despair and uncertainty of the turn of the century, many of the characters of “Ragtime” manage to keep hope and find love.

#3: “Spring Awakening”

Inspired by a German play of the same name from 1891, this rock musical adaptation captures the frustrations of adolescent angst. In its 2006 Broadway debut, you might recognize voices from performers like Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, and Skylar Astin in the show’s original cast. Taking place during late 1800s Germany, a group of repressed teenagers struggle with the chaste way of life that their parents and teachers insist on. While they’re curious, they’re also completely in the dark about the changes they’re going through. Inevitably, they begin to figure things out for themselves and are confronted with death, pregnancy, and guilt.

#2: “West Side Story”

When a musical is based on Romeo and Juliet, you can guess how the story will likely end. This take on a Shakespearean classic is set in the Upper West Side of mid-20th century Manhattan, and sees the Puerto Rican Sharks face off with the white, working class Jets. On opposite sides of this gang rivalry, Tony falls in love with Maria, the younger sister of the Sharks’ leader. Their forbidden romance is caught up in the anger and violence between the groups, and ends when Tony is shot. Maria’s pain is overwhelming when she finds him dead, and results in the end of the feud.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

“Dear Evan Hansen”
Teenage Outcast Evan Hansen Is “Waving Through a Window”

Cabaret Performer Sally Bowles Desperately Hopes Her Love Will Last

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”
Hedwig Is Stuck in a “Wicked Little Town”

Giorgio & Fosca Find Forbidden Love

Whizzer Faces Death with Dignity

#1: “Les Misérables”

As one of the longest running musicals in the West End, “Les Mis” has been bringing audiences to tears since the 1980s. Set in the years surrounding the 1832 Paris Uprising, the musical is based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, and depicts the suffering and oppression of its characters while they continue to seek out redemption, hope, and love. “Les Mis” proves that the tragedies of political revolution and injustice can be communicated in a musical form. With a powerful cast and heart-swelling songs, you can’t help but be moved when you hear Éponine’s “On My Own” or Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream”.