t’s one thing to belt out a ballad in the shower. It’s an entirely different ball game if you have to sing while being hoisted into the air in a harness; or after a two minute-long dance solo that includes a backflip.
Even if they’re not running around the stage working up a sweat, no one puts emotion behind a song like musical performers. Theatre composers don’t make it easy – Stephen Sondheim can’t resist ramping up the number of syllables-per-second and Andrew Lloyd Webber is all about the high notes. It means that the ones who do pull it off are the best of the best.
We’ve had a listen around for the hardest musical theatre songs out there. As much as we’d love to be singing experts, we thought it best to enlist the help of West End vocal coach Natalie Andreou to talk us through each song. As well as teaching, she’s starred in Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages, as well as playing standby Elphaba in Wicked, so she knows a thing or two about how to hit the high notes.
"The intensity of the vocals is why they are so difficult to sing," says Andreou. "Most contain belt (a thrilling call), which if used untrained can be damaging to the voice. Pushing a voice to the very edge night after night requires serious security, and if you're not feeling on top form one day, it can result in cracks, warbles and all sorts." That's why it's them and not us!
Here are the hardest musical theatre songs to perform:
Defying Gravity, Wicked
Elphaba's big moment is every musical theatre fan’s go-to karaoke song – because of the big aaaah at the end (and imagining you can fly like a witch).
"She's is a passionate and fiery character so vocal demands are high for this show in general," says Andreou. "This song signifies a moment of empowerment; an incredibly poignant part of her story. Throw in multiple microphone packs in the hat, a weighted broom, 20 something feet in the air whilst belting a top F… and this is no easy feat."
Stand-out performance: Idina Menzel in the original Broadway cast, and Rachel Tucker in the London cast (see her performing above in Dancing on Ice)
And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going), Dreamgirls
Since Jennifer Hudson nailed this in the 2006 film, everyone’s been trying it but few hit those dizzying heights. "This song requires delivery of nimble riffs, growling distortion and thrilling belt within an authentic gospel style," says Andreou. "The emotional intensity required to deliver this number truthfully is relentless, a real marathon that requires stamina and agility."
Stand-out performance: Amber Riley and Marisha Wallace, both of whom starred in the London run.
The Phantom of the Opera
Christine is a very specific role – she’s an opera singer so only really an opera trained actress can play this part. The top note is a high E6, which even many of the most expert musical theatre performers couldn’t reach. "The actress required to play this role requires an incredible soprano ability," says Andreou. "One of the highest notes in musical theatre, this song ends on an E6 with vibrato, being a stretch for most but the classically trained."
Stand-out performance: Sarah Brightman in the original London cast.
(Not) Getting Married Today, Company
Sondheim really doesn’t want to make it easy. This Company song has Amy (or Jamie in the gender-switched version) freaking out about getting married. "In this patter song, 68 words are sung in a total of 11 seconds!," says Andreou. "Notable for being one of the most difficult musical songs with the fastest verse in history, it depends on clear diction, implicit pitch accuracy and breath support alongside imperative comedic timing."
Stand-out performance: Jonathan Bailey in Marianne Elliot’s 2019 production; Katie Finneran in a 2011 New York Philharmonic concert version, but honourable mention to Jane Shaw, a Guildhall drama student who sang it in front of Sondheim himself as part of a live lesson – talk about nerve-wracking.
Pity the Child, Chess
It’s not just female roles that get the high notes. The song keeps creeping up and up, until the final line in Chess’s Pity the Child (“just in case she said...WHO”), which is reserved for the pros. It’s not only high, it’s full of runs and sustains for far too long.
"The belted notes here are a C♯5, which is really high for a guy," says Andreou. "Much like sopranos are physiologically suited to singing high coloratura, this kind of range isn’t suitable for all male voice types. Throw in some rocky growls and rasps (qualities that require specific training) and eight shows a week, you could be sailing pretty close to the wind with this one."
Stand-out performance: Adam Pascal, at Chess in Concert in 2003.
Electricity, Billy Elliot
The amount of stamina required for musical theatre is astonishing – and one of the most exhausting must be Electricity, the climax of the show in which Billy has to perform an impassioned dance routine mid-song.
"Dancing and singing simultaneously is extremely difficult and can leave you tired and breathless, as any musical theatre performer will tell you," says Andreou. "If you’re the only person onstage, then all eyes are on you. It’s very exposing which can subliminally add to the feelings of pressure. A tough ask of any seasoned performer, let alone a young teen in what would probably be his first leading role."
Stand-out performance: Every single Billy!
Glitter and Be Gay, Candide
This song from Leonard Bernstein's operetta is full of intricate passages. It is what is called a coloratura, an elaborate sung melody full of embellishments. "In this marathon coloratura of around six minutes, the soprano is required to transition between flowing legato, speech quality and melismatic trills up to Eb6," says Andreou. "Performing such diverse musical elements requires an incredible synergy between breath support, vocal cord action and resonance."
Stand-out performance: Kristin Chenoweth in Candide in Concert in 2005 (with a wonderful entrance by Patti LuPone)
Gethsemane, Jesus Christ Superstar
Gethsemane is Jesus’s real time to shine in this musical. Not only is there that one note everyone is waiting for, the song carries on and on for three more minutes after that, making it a real feat of endurance. "To play a role such as Jesus holds huge responsibility alone," says Andreou. "Knowing his fate, this song has to show pure, raw emotion. The actor has to show desperation through belt and vulnerability through falsetto. The iconic, rocky G5 wail performed here is usually within the highest notes for a high trained lyric baritone."
Stand-out performance: Steve Balsamo, who played Jesus in the 90s West End revival.
Rainbow High, Evita
The pressure is on for the actress playing Eva. The role is a huge undertaking, not least because the whole show revolves around this character. "This solo is short. But the role of Eva is a marathon, she barely leaves the stage the entire show," says Andreou. "That can be physically exhausting due to fewer opportunities for time out. Not only does this actress have to demonstrate an intense belt throughout this song, but juggle numerous key changes, interacting with multiple characters, all whilst completing a costume change on stage."
Stand-out performance: Elaine Paige, the original Eva in 1978.
Bring Him Home, Les Miserables
Much of Les Misérables is guns and bombastic group numbers, but Bring Him Home is a combination of delicate and powerful and requires huge control. "This song demonstrates the actor's falsetto," says Andreou. "Sensitive and at times desperate, the song builds in intensity and requires great dynamism from anyone who takes on the role. Aside from being an incredibly complex vocal quality to master, this incredibly emotional moment is also sung whilst sitting down, midway through what is a real endurance role."
Stand-out performance: Alfie Boe in the concert version.
Natalie Andreou teaches one-on-one musical theatre technique as well as a mentoring service. Find out more: natalieandreou.com