7 Must-See Jazz Musicals: A Ranking of the Best in American Musical Theater History

Jazz music is one of America’s most iconic and influential cultural exports, with a rich history that spans over a century. Jazz has also played an important role in the development of musical theater, with jazz musicals becoming an enduring and popular genre of American musical theater. Jazz musicals incorporate elements of jazz music and dance into their soundtracks and choreography, and are beloved by audiences for their infectious rhythms, swinging melodies, and dynamic performances. In this article, we will explore some of the most famous jazz musicals in history.

  1. Chicago

“Chicago” is one of the most iconic and beloved musicals of all time, featuring a jazz-influenced score by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Set in the roaring 1920s, “Chicago” tells the story of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, two women who are accused of murder and use their notoriety to become stars of the vaudeville stage. The musical features iconic jazz tunes like “All That Jazz,” “Razzle Dazzle,” and “Cell Block Tango,” and has been adapted into multiple film and stage productions.

  1. Ain’t Misbehavin’

“Ain’t Misbehavin'” is a musical revue that celebrates the music of jazz legend Fats Waller. The musical features classic jazz tunes like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “The Joint is Jumpin’,” and tells the story of the Harlem Renaissance through the music and dance of the era. “Ain’t Misbehavin'” has been a popular and enduring favorite of musical theater audiences since its debut in 1978.

  1. Jelly’s Last Jam

“Jelly’s Last Jam” is a jazz musical that explores the life and music of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. The musical features a score that blends jazz, blues, and ragtime, and features iconic tunes like “King Porter Stomp” and “Doctor Jazz.” “Jelly’s Last Jam” premiered on Broadway in 1992, and was praised for its innovative choreography, bold storytelling, and energetic performances.

  1. Swing!

“Swing!” is a musical that celebrates the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s, with a score that features classic jazz tunes like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” The musical features high-energy dance routines and a cast of talented performers who bring the joy and exuberance of the swing era to life.

  1. Sophisticated Ladies

“Sophisticated Ladies” is a musical revue that pays tribute to the music of jazz legend Duke Ellington. The musical features hits like “Take the A Train,” “Mood Indigo,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and celebrates the elegance, style, and sophistication of Ellington’s music. “Sophisticated Ladies” premiered on Broadway in 1981 and was praised for its innovative staging, stunning choreography, and dynamic performances.

  1. The Wild Party

“The Wild Party” is a musical based on a 1928 narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March. The musical explores the seedy and decadent world of the Jazz Age, and features a score that blends jazz, vaudeville, and burlesque influences. The musical features iconic tunes like “Queenie Was a Blonde” and “When It Ends,” and has been praised for its daring and provocative storytelling, innovative staging, and dynamic performances.

  1. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill

“Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is a musical drama that explores the life and music of jazz legend Billie Holiday. The musical features some of her most famous songs, including “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” The musical is set in 1959 at a small Philadelphia club, where Holiday is performing some of her greatest hits and sharing stories from her life. “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” is a moving and powerful tribute to one of the most influential and iconic jazz singers of all time.

These are just a few examples of the many jazz musicals that have captivated audiences over the years. Jazz musicals have a rich and diverse history, and have been used to explore a wide range of themes and topics, from the glamour and excess of the Jazz Age to the social and political issues of the Civil Rights era. Jazz musicals continue to be a popular and enduring genre of musical theater, and have helped to cement jazz music’s place as one of America’s greatest cultural exports.