Photo: Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton (via Joan Marcus)

Though it gets vastly overshadowed by other genres, musical theater remains an important part of the music scene, with composers and performers doing work that’s just as exciting or meaningful as their equivalents in the pop music space. Given how difficult they are to see for those who live far from Broadway, most musicals remain under-heard and under-seen, but every few years a Rent, Les Miserables, or Wicked proves that musical scores can have crossover appeal. The latest cast recording to achieve mainstream success is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical, Hamilton, which debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard chart and hit No. 1 on the chart of rap albums. Starting from there, here are other songs from the past 20 years of musical theater that deserve to find similar mainstream success. The list is by no means exhaustive, but each of these can easily hold their own against what’s airing on the radio or who is currently packing concert halls.

1. “Wait For It,” Hamilton

“My Shot” is the Hamilton song most likely to become a hit single—it was even named one of our favorites of 2015—but “Wait For It” may be the track that best expresses the show’s complex perspective. Performed by tortured villain Aaron Burr, the song finds sympathy for Burr’s chronic caution; with a legacy and reputation to protect, he can’t risk as much as the ambitious Hamilton, and what will become a murderous rage begins here as mournful jealously over his rival’s ability to openly work for what he wants and believes in. This is a far more forgiving take on Burr than the man is typically afforded, and Leslie Odom Jr.—one of the standouts of a stacked cast—mesmerizes in what is one of the catchiest, most haunting numbers of an already landmark show. [Ryan Vlastelica]

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2. “It’s All Happening,” Bring It On

Adaptations of popular movies are the sequels and reboots of Broadway, a too-prevalent trend that has nevertheless yielded some exciting work. A musical based on the Kristen Dunst cheerleader film, an eye-rolling prospect when first announced, proved thrilling thanks to athletic choreography and lyrics by a pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda. The characters were right in his wheelhouse of ambitious multi-cultural youths expressing themselves through modern music. The insanely catchy “It’s All Happening”—where students in a lower-class school decide to form their own squad—proudly showcases its musical influences, moving between R&B ballads and intricately worded rap solos that thrill with both their complexity and character insight. You don’t need to know the story to dance to the narrative-heavy song, which could be pumped into any club with no changes, and no complaints. [Ryan Vlastelica]

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3. “Gimme Gimme,” Thoroughly Modern Millie

Even with major advances in modern musical theater, the art form is still heavily rooted in the conventions of the past, but that’s not always a bad thing. Inspired by the 1967 film, the 2000 musical adaptation of Thoroughly Modern Millie has a classic sound thanks to Jeanine Tesori’s score, which makes the show feel like an artifact of the Jazz Age. “Gimme Gimme” is a quintessential 11 o’clock number, a brassy ballad that proclaims the title character’s need for love with an earworm melody that burrows deep into the mind. Perfectly tailored to the strengths of Broadway’s original Millie, Sutton Foster (who won her first Tony for the role), the song is a strong showcase for a powerful belting voice, and it’s an extremely popular solo piece. Tesori’s score and Dick Scanlan’s lyrics make the character’s passion contagious when handled by the right performer, and in a live environment, it compels the audience to satisfy Millie’s desire for affection with applause. [Oliver Sava]

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4. “Children, Children,” Bat Boy

Though usually associated with jazz hand-filled production numbers or overly earnest sentimentalism, you can actually find just about any tone represented in the expansive genre of musical theater. Take, for instance, the cult classic Bat Boy, based on a tabloid story about a half-boy, half-bat discovered living in a cage. Sardonic, satirical, and incredibly twisted (incest, bestiality, and familicide are just a few of the topics it explores), Bat Boy’s dark subject matter is balanced out with an imminently hummable pop score by Laurence O’Keefe. That’s especially true of “Children, Children,” which sounds like a catchy love song, but is actually a celebration of inter-species mating. In other words, it’s basically the “Blurred Lines” of musical theater (catchy but troubling), although, thankfully, Bat Boy’s creators were intentionally aiming for that dissonance. [Caroline Siede]

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5. “I’m Alive,” Next To Normal

A thrilling trend in recent theater has been musicals that stray from familiar narrative and musical genres to tell new stories with unique tones and styles. 2009’s Next To Normal, a rare Pulitzer-winning musical, uses rock to explore themes like drug addiction and mental illness; it takes the distance between a song’s tempo and content to add a layer of meaning that would be difficult with a more conventional musical theater score. “I’m Alive,” which is sung by Diana’s dead son Gabe (who appears as a hallucination), initially sounds like a Blue Oyster Cult tune, but the upbeat tempo forms an ironic counterpoint to how deeply guilt and despair are running in the family. Not only is it an accomplished song in its own right, but it makes a solid case for how music can be used to tell all kinds of stories. [Ryan Vlastelica]

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6. “There’s A Fine, Fine Line,” Avenue Q

Avenue Q is rightly remembered for its raunchy puppet humor and bawdy songs like “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet Is For Porn,” but located right at the end of the first act is a surprisingly contemplative ballad that makes the perfect anthem for anyone who’s ever had to make a tough choice in a relationship. After her boyfriend panics about commitment and asks to keep things casual, Kate decides she doesn’t have time for his waffling and breaks things off permanently. With incisive lyrics that never feel too on-the-nose, composers Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx pen a break-up song worthy of Adele’s next single. After noting there’s a fine line between “a fairy tale and a lie,” Kate magnanimously admits, “I guess if someone doesn’t love you back, it isn’t such a crime / But there’s a fine, fine line between love and a waste of your time.” [Caroline Siede]

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7. “Your Daddy’s Son,” Ragtime

The challenge of “Your Daddy’s Son” is incredible. Over the course of four minutes, Sarah details the series of events that drive her to bury her newborn son alive, requiring the performer to go on a harrowing emotional journey to make the character’s intentions ring true. (Audra McDonald won her third Tony Award for her performance in the 1998 Broadway production of Ragtime.) Based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel about American race relations at the turn of the 20th century, the musical by Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens features a number of stirring solos, and “Your Daddy’s Son” sets the bar high at the start of the show with a ballad about romance that leads to tragedy. It tells a complete narrative when separated from the larger plot, and while it’s not a great pick for casual listening, it’s an outstanding example of how musical theater can draw the listener into a character’s thought process to build empathy. [Oliver Sava]

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8. “Breeze Off The River,” The Full Monty

Though it’s an easy trend to make fun of, turning popular movies into Broadway musicals has actually led to the creation of some lovely pieces of theater (many of which are mentioned here). Among those successful adaptations is this reworking of the 1997 film The Full Monty, which follows several down-on-their luck steel workers who decide to raise money by putting together a male striptease act. The musical moves the film’s British setting to Buffalo, New York, and offers a slightly more boisterous tone befitting its American locale. But at his best, composer David Yazbek encapsulates the quiet heart of the original film in songs like “Breeze Off The River,” a lovely ballad that protagonist Jerry sings about his complicated relationship to fatherhood. Fargo’s Patrick Wilson, who originated the role on Broadway, is on record as saying he sings it as a lullaby to his real-life kid, and it’s easy to imagine many other parents following suit. [Caroline Siede]

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9. “Solidarity,” Billy Elliot

Elton John is so entrenched as Liberace’s heir in gaudiness that it’s a little surprising to remember he penned the music for this defiantly working-class show (the lyrics are by Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay to the original film, also great). “Solidarity” is Billy Elliot’s key number, with sections that alternate between its titular hero, a British boy who discovers an unexpected love of ballet, and the union mining town that is the show’s setting. While Billy struggles under his instruction, the union struggles under Thatcherism, going on strike and finding a common voice as angry as it is defiant. It’s easy to imagine Bruce Springsteen covering at least that half of the song, which churns with a furious, uncertain energy that reflects both the passion and long odds faced by those who fight against their circumstances. A rousing and depressingly timely rallying cry, “Solidarity” is honest enough to admit that even though the miners have each others’ back, that may not be enough. [Ryan Vlastelica]

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10. “Run And Tell That,” Hairspray

On its surface, Hairspray is an upbeat celebration of the 1960s, but it also has a slightly subversive edge that befits a musical based on a John Waters film. In “Run And Tell That”—one of the many catchy songs written by composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman—Seaweed J. Stubbs and his friends celebrate black excellence (“the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”) and criticize the prejudiced society that holds them back. Though the song gained a little widespread attention thanks to Elijah Kelley’s energetic performance in the 2007 movie adaptation, it deserves to be a full-blown crossover hit, especially now that Kelley is back in the public eye for his scene-stealing turn as the Scarecrow in The Wiz Live! [Caroline Siede]

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11. “Totally Fucked,” Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening made a huge splash when it hit Broadway in 2006, thanks to its racy subject matter and alt-rock score by Duncan Sheik (best known for his 1996 single “Barely Breathing”). It turned Frank Wedekind’s 1891 drama about blooming adolescent sexuality into one of the definitive teen musicals of the new millennium. The show’s attitude is put front-and-center in “Totally Fucked,” a raucous, nihilistic number where the German schoolchildren realize that they are doomed no matter what path they take in life, a discovery paired with aggressive music that pumps up the angst. It’s the kind of song perfect for decompressing after a particularly stressful day at school or work, especially when blared at full volume in the car or in an empty house where you can scream the chorus as loud as you want. [Oliver Sava]

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12. “Another Life,” The Bridges Of Madison County

One of the reason musical theater songs rarely break through to wider audiences is the perception that they can’t be removed from their narratives, that no matter how catchy or beautiful the song, it won’t make sense out of context. That’s not wrong in all cases, but it’s a non-issue with the gorgeous “Another Life,” a self-contained rumination on lost love that’s heartbreaking in its simplicity and wise about the versions of one’s self that are lost when relationships end. The song is removed from the show’s primary story of doomed love—it is sung by Robert’s ex-wife, who barely gets a mention in The Bridges Of Madison County novel—but is nevertheless indispensable for the mood it casts over what will inevitably follow. Get Taylor Swift to cover this, and watch it become one of her signature hits. [Ryan Vlastelica]

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13. “I’d Rather Be Sailing,” A New Brain

“I’d Rather Be Sailing” is another musical theater song that works incredibly well out of context because it was written for a show that isn’t particularly interested in narrative to begin with. William Finn’s deeply personal 1998 musical A New Brain centers on a songwriter named Gordon who’s diagnosed with a deadly brain disorder. Finn wrote the show after surviving a similar illness and it functions as a reflection and refraction of his harrowing experience. The songs range from upbeat to contemplative to frantic, but few are as gorgeous as “Sailing,” a ballad sung by Gordon’s boyfriend Roger. Both melancholy and hopeful, the song touches on themes of comfort, happiness, and longing, all while demonstrating why Roger’s calm presence is so important in Gordon’s anxiety-filled life. [Caroline Siede]

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14. “Higher Love,” Honeymoon In Vegas

Elvis may simply be too iconic for performers to reference and not come off as impersonators, a fact that gave composer Jason Robert Brown some cover in his underrated take on the 1992 Nicolas Cage comedy, as “Higher Love” is actually performed by Roy and his pack of skydiving Elvis wannabes. Brown clearly relishes the chance to write a Presley number that’s both self-conscious (with the stereotypical “Elvis laugh” built into several stanzas) and sincere. He uses the King’s infectious persona as the perfect base for the show’s 11th-hour number, where Roy teaches Jack that if he’s going to win back his beloved Betsy, he’ll have to overcome his fears and “jump jump, jumpity jump.” Brown captures Elvis’ vibe well enough that if an oldies station played the song, you might confuse it for the real thing. Goofy but ridiculously fun, “Higher Love” harkens back to rock ’n’ rock at its most irresistible. [Ryan Vlastelica]

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15. “When I Grow Up”, Matilda The Musical

Broadway loves musicals with little kids. Based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel, Matilda The Musical follows in the tradition of classics like Oliver! and Annie, exploring the joys and challenges of youth through lush, expressive music by Tim Minchin. “When I Grow Up” is the highlight of the show, a bittersweet group number where the children sing about their hopes for adulthood, which are delightfully ignorant of what being an adult actually entails. The song plays differently depending on the age of the listener, and there’s a mournful element that emerges for those that understand the reality of adulthood and the complications that these children don’t consider at their young age. The music embraces the thrill of getting older, but it’s presented with a deliberate naïveté, adding a layer of irony that enriches the themes of the song. [Oliver Sava]

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16. “Run, Freedom, Run,” Urinetown

Another musical with a surprisingly dark and subversive edge (not to mention a delightful meta streak), Urinetown takes place in a dystopian future in which water has become so scarce that a megacorporation has privatized bathrooms, forcing people to pay for the privilege to pee or risk being sent to the penal colony “Urinetown” for public urination. The score by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis works equally well as a send-up of musical theater conventions and a celebration of them. That’s especially true of the best number, “Run, Freedom, Run,” in which the show’s hero Bobby Strong explains to his rebel friends that his earlier panicked instruction to “Run for your lives” was actually a rousing battle cry. Though his explanation is basically nonsense, Bobby’s stirring gospel song nevertheless reinvigorates the rebels, giving Urinetown a flashy but substantive critique of the fact that musical theater is often more flash than substance. [Caroline Siede]

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17. “Everybody’s Got The Right”, Assassins

No living figure in musical theater is more revered than Stephen Sondheim, and for good reason. The depth and specificity of his songwriting is unparalleled, and his work changed the course of musical theater as his influence spread to the younger generation. While nearly all of his works have aged wonderfully, one show in particular becomes more relevant with each passing year: his 1990 musical Assassins with writer John Weidman. Telling the true stories of nine people who attempted to kill U.S. presidents (some successfully), Assassins is a chilling examination of the dark side of the American dream, an idea encapsulated in “Everybody’s Got The Right,” the song that opens and closes the show. Sung by all the assassins, the number posits the shooting of a president as the ultimate expression of American freedom, a chilling message tied to a rousing melody. In an American landscape where gun violence is a deadly epidemic, “Everybody’s Got The Right” is essential listening that uses music to highlight the dysfunctional relationship American people have with their guns and authority figures. [Oliver Sava]

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18. “My Nose Ain’t Broken,” Rocky

Creed has reminded audiences that despite the montages, Russians, and robots, the story of Rocky Balboa is an achingly heartfelt one, built on the all-too-relatable struggle between the belief that you could be a success and the fear you won’t. This made the original Rocky an inspired choice for musical treatment, and the show’s scale was epic—the theater transformed into an arena for the climatic bout. But the show’s heart was found in the country-esque “My Nose Ain’t Broken,” Rocky’s early affirmation that he’s still around, if battered. (The Italian Stallion is so lonely at this point in the show that the song is actually performed to his pet turtles.) In the film, Rocky claims he boxes “because I can’t sing or dance,” something that can’t be said about star Andy Karl, whose soulful performance makes the underdog all-too-easy to root for. After the spectacle, this is what lingers: a good man, defiantly not giving up. [Ryan Vlastelica]

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19. “Life Of The Party,” The Wild Party

Based on a 1928 narrative poem that has actually inspired two musicals of the same title, Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party is a tragic examination of the debauched excesses of the 1920s. And its radio-ready number “Life Of The Party” could easily serve as the next single for party-enthused artists like Katy Perry or Kesha. The song—particularly as performed by Frozen’s golden girl Idina Menzel—is equal parts sexy and frantic as Kate tries just a little too hard to explain why she’s the life of the party. Though some of the irony might be lost without an actress adding the right notes of desperation to the performance, the song would work equally well as a showstopper for a strong belter who really does think she’s the shit. [Caroline Siede]

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20. “Keys (Marianna/It’s Alright),” Passing Strange

One of the few musicals on this list that isn’t an adaptation of existing material, Passing Strange is an autobiographical exploration of the adolescence and early adulthood of its creator Stew, who won a 2008 Tony Award for Best Book. The music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald navigates a multitude of genres, blending rock, soul, and punk elements with musical theater storytelling, and “Keys (Marianna/It’s Alright)” is the strongest example of the show’s bold musical dynamic. The first part is a dreamy ballad from a woman offering the keys to her Amsterdam apartment, creating a detailed picture of a living space that highlights the show’s emphasis on building environments through music, and the song gathers more energy as Stew’s younger self is swept up in the excitement of this foreign world. The music explodes into a joyous rock ’n’ roll celebration as Stew and the cast repeat “It’s all right!” over and over, and the musical shift captures the huge emotional release Stew experiences as he indulges in the myriad pleasures of Amsterdam. Spike Lee brilliantly captured that energy in his recording of Passing Strange, but you don’t need visuals to fully feel the impact of Stew and Rodewald’s songwriting. [Oliver Sava]

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