Early 20th Century Broadway Composers and Lyricists You Should Know

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

January 11, 2017

The musicals we love today — Wicked, Hamilton, Book of Mormon — were all influenced by the musicals of the early 20th century. The success of the musical theatre industry can be attributed to the hard work and dedication of the men and women who were pioneers in the American musical theatre world. Check out some of our early heroes below!

Cole Porter (1891 – 1964)

Porter wrote all the music and lyrics to his musicals, and he won the first Tony Award for Best Musical in 1948 for Kiss Me, Kate. Despite the wishes of his grandfather, he took up music as his profession and went on to gain success on Broadway and London’s West End throughout the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Many of his songs have been popular outside of their musical theatre productions like “I Get a Kick Out of You” (Anything Goes) and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Born to Dance).

Sheet music: Kiss Me, Kate, Anything Goes, The Gay Divorce, Born to Dance, Can-Can

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) and Ira Gershwin (1896 – 1983)

George was the composer and Ira the lyricist in this dynamic duo. George published his first song at 17 years old, and his score for Shall We Dance (1936) married ballet and jazz stylings to create a soundtrack that runs over an hour in length. Ira was known for loving the ordinary sounds of everyday life, and he loved listening to loud music. Their opera, Porgy and Bess, is now considered one of the most important operas of the twentieth century.

Sheet music: An American in Paris, Porgy and Bess, and Crazy for You

Richard Rodgers (1902 – 1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895 – 1960)

Rodgers, a composer, was the first person to win all four major music awards for his contributions to music: an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for South Pacific. Hammerstein, a lyricist, won eight Tony Awards and two Oscars for Best Original Song, and his collaboration with Rodgers resulted in the creation of many plays that addressed politics and social conventions. (Hammerstein also quit law school to pursue theatre — don’t let anybody make you feel bad about your theatre career.)

Sheet music: South Pacific, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, The King and I, Show Boat, Carousel

Meredith Willson (1902 – 1984)

Twice nominated for Academy Awards, Willson attended Juilliard and was a member of John Philip Sousa’s band from 1921 to 1923. Willson wrote the score to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and the cast recording of his musical The Music Man won the first every Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album. He is also the author of the famous Christmas tune “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas.”

Sheet music: The Music Man, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Here’s Love, 1491

Dorothy Fields (1905 – 1974)

One of the first successful female Hollywood and Broadway writers, Fields was connected to the theatre from an early age by her producer father, but he did everything he could to stop her from becoming an actor. She then secretly started submitting written work to magazines behind his back. When she met Jimmy McHugh in 1928, they began working together on musicals. She also wrote the books for three Cole Porter shows: Let’s Face It!, Something for the Boys, and Mexican Hayride.

Sheet music: Annie Get Your Gun, Redhead, Sweet Charity

Frank Loesser (1910 – 1969)

In addition to writing Broadway musicals, Loesser wrote the hit holiday number “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. He won Tony Awards for his music and lyrics in Guys and Dolls and Tony Awards and the Pulitzer for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Bob Fosse called Guys and Dolls the greatest American musical of all time. In addition to his monumental successes on Broadway, he also wrote songs for production overseas for World War II soldiers.

Sheet music: Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Neptune’s Daughter

Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990)

In addition to Broadway musicals, Bernstein also wrote for ballets, film, operas, and chamber music. He was the long-time director of the New York Philharmonic, and his music blended elements of jazz, Jewish music, musical theatre, and classical orchestrations. His music for West Side Story helped fuse the gap between theatre music and pop music.

Sheet music: West Side Story, On The Town, Wonderful Town

John Kander (1927 –      ) and Fred Ebb (1928 – 2004)

Kander, the composer, and Ebb, the lyricist, are two of Broadway’s most beloved artists. They first worked on an unproduced musical called Golden Gate — a story that was said by their producer Harold Prince to be “a test” to see if they worked well together. They worked regularly with sensations Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, and the team would meet at Harold Prince’s home to have “what if” sessions where they would brainstorm ideas and write music.

Sheet music: Chicago, Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Curtains

Hungry for more theatre history? Check out our other stories below!

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and PerformerStuff.com’s Editor. 
Thumbnail: Photo by Dolo Iglesias on Unsplash