NOTE: To balance things out, I restricted this list to one song per musical.
49. “The Last Night of the World” (Miss Saigon)
Look, you either go for the sweeping Boublil and Schönberg duet, or you don’t. It’s very much emblematic of a Cameron Mackintosh show: Some would criticize its simplicity, but it’s undeniably stirring. (Feel free to swap it out with “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera if that makes you feel better.)
48. “So in Love” (Kiss Me, Kate)
For a Cole Porter song, “So in Love” is fairly straightforward. At the same time, it’s lush and surprisingly sexy (that saxophone!), which adds to its enduring appeal.
47. “Unexpected Song” (Song and Dance)
While the sound is very much of the ’80s, the lyrics of “Unexpected Song” speak to the timeless experience of being surprised by love. The unnamed woman at the heart of Song and Dance doesn’t know how to process the love she’s feeling, so she sings about it — a musical theater standby.
46. “Till There Was You” (The Music Man)
This is a perfectly lovely if not terribly complex song. It would be higher on the list but for the fact that it actually works better outside of the context of the show. (See also: “My Funny Valentine” from Babes in Arms, a musical most people don’t remember.)
45. “(You’d Be So) Easy to Love” (Anything Goes)
Cut from the original production of Anything Goes but restored in subsequent revivals, this is another charming Cole Porter love song. Who can’t relate to the lyrics “So sweet to waken with / So nice to sit down to the eggs and bacon with”?
44. “You Matter to Me” (Waitress)
There is something so poignant about the statement “you matter to me”: “Simple and plain and not much to ask from somebody.” The emotional potency of this gorgeous Sara Bareilles song is in its restraint — he’s not offering her the world, he’s just reinforcing her worth. And that’s more important.
43. “Vanilla Ice Cream” (She Loves Me)
OK, this is more of a “like” song than a love song, but anyone who’s seen She Loves Me (or any of the story’s iterations, including The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail) knows exactly where this is headed. Like the title song “She Loves Me,” it’s about realizing that the person you loathe is actually someone you’re rather fond of. Imagine that!
42. “I’ll Cover You” (Rent)
Let’s be honest, “I’ll Cover You” is good, but it’s really all about the reprise. Still, in a happier context, it’s a sweet declaration of commitment between two people who have fallen head over heels for each other over the course of one night. It’s also perhaps the best-known queer musical theater love song.
41. “Song on the Sand” (La Cage aux Folles)
While much of the gayness in La Cage aux Folles is played for laughs, the unmistakable sincerity of “Song on the Sand” underscores the genuine and enduring love Georges feels for Albin. Even removed from the context of the show, it remains lovely and moving.
40. “Loving You” (Passion)
To call the relationship at the center of Passion fraught would be an understatement. But this is a Sondheim musical, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Nevertheless, there is tremendous power to the declaration “Loving you is not a choice, it’s who I am.”
39. “If I Were a Bell” (Guys & Dolls)
There are several love songs in Guys & Dolls. “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” is sweet. “Sue Me” is funny. “If I Were a Bell” is a silly drunken ramble that somehow captures the feeling of sparks perfectly.
38. “Whizzer Going Down” (In Trousers)
Yes, this is a song about getting a blow job. Yes, it counts. Although sexual encounters aren’t always about love — not by a long shot! — Marvin’s budding affection for Whizzer creeps in throughout: “I found your door” is genuinely romantic. (See “What More Can I Say?” below for more Marvin and Whizzer, and the interplay of “hot” and “sweet.”)
37. “Hey #3/Perfect for You (Reprise)” (Next to Normal)
You won’t find a messier song title on this list — the song is a little messy, too, by design: “‘Cause crazy is perfect / And fucked up is perfect.” It’s the love song every neurotic longs to hear.
36. “What About Love?” (The Color Purple)
The Color Purple is largely a musical about Celie learning to love herself. But that’s not to say other forms of love don’t matter — the familial love between Celie and her sister Nettie, and the romantic love between Celie and Shug Avery. This song is a stunning reflection of the latter.
35. “So Many People” (Saturday Night)
Stephen Sondheim was only 23 when he wrote the music and lyrics to Saturday Night, one of his least-known musicals. Among the many gems of the score is this pitch-perfect love song.
34. “I Chose Right” (Baby)
Honesty is hard but ultimately deeply romantic, and grounds “I Chose Right,” a song that opens with the admission “As I leave my single life behind / Thoughts are kind of spinning in my mind.” The internal conflict makes the conclusion that much sweeter: “I look at you / And I know I chose right.”
33. “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened” (Road Show)
The only expressly gay love song Sondheim has written wasn’t even originally conceived as a duet between two men. But thank god it became that, because it’s one of Sondheim’s sweetest, and now it’s ours.
32. “People Will Say We’re in Love” (Oklahoma!)
No one writes a conditional love song like Rodgers & Hammerstein: These are songs in which the characters sing about how they’re totally not in love, and the audience reads between the lines. There are others on this list, but “People Will Say We’re in Love” is one of the most delightful.
31. “Do You Love Me?” (Fiddler on the Roof)
For much of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye and Golde don’t even seem to like each other very much, let alone love each other. That’s how “Do You Love Me?” catches you off guard. It’s funny, but it’s also surprisingly poignant.
30. “With So Little to Be Sure Of” (Anyone Can Whistle)
Another Sondheim song, and one that feels especially relevant for these turbulent times: “With so little to be sure of / If there’s anything at all / If there’s anything at all / I’m sure of here and now and us together.”
29. “My Man” (Funny Girl)
The love depicted in “My Man” is far from ideal, but the song is rich and emotionally raw in a way that reflects the reality of a complicated love affair. (And yes, the inclusion here is a bit of a cheat, as this was a Fanny Brice standard added into the film version of Funny Girl. But it’s beautiful, so deal with it.)
28. “No One Else” (Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet)
Never mind that Natasha is a bit…flighty when it comes to her affections. “No One Else” is a stunning recent addition to the musical theater love-song canon. It’s a thrilling ode to what it feels like to fall hard for someone: “And the world opened wide / And the world was inside of me.”
27. “On the Street Where You Live” (My Fair Lady)
You know that feeling when you’re so into someone that just knowing they’re somewhere nearby is enough to make you giddy? Lerner and Loewe did. They wrote this song about it. And it’s loverly.
26. “Johanna” (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street)
There’s something insidious about the lyrics to “Johanna”: “I’ll steal you, Johanna / I’ll steal you / Do they think that walls can hide you? / Even now I’m at your window / I am in the dark beside you.” Yikes! And yet, that overwhelmingly beautiful Sondheim music somehow makes it OK. Kind of.
25. “Ten Minutes Ago” (Cinderella)
There’s nothing conditional about this Rodgers and Hammerstein love song. It’s pure fairy-tale magic, and sure, in that context, we can buy that all it takes is 10 minutes.
24. “How Could I Ever Know” (The Secret Garden)
“How Could I Ever Know” is not a traditional love song, in the sense that it’s a duet sung by a dead woman and the husband she left behind. It’s about the conflict between the necessity of moving on and holding on to love: “And hold me in your heart / And find some new way to love me / Now that we’re apart.” You will cry.
23. “My Junk” (Spring Awakening)
Sure, “My Junk” is really a song about crushes — but when you’re a teenager, what’s the difference between a passing obsession and enduring forever love? This is one of the bubbliest songs in an otherwise pretty heavy show. Plus, masturbation references, because Spring Awakening.
22. “I Won’t Send Roses” (Mack & Mabel)
Hey, it’s nice to see a guy being up-front about his limitations. But perhaps more to the point, “I Won’t Send Roses” is in the tradition of the conditional love song. He’s pushing her away, but of course he doesn’t really want her to leave. (He’s not kidding about being an asshole, though.)
21. “Sailing” (A New Brain)
Is “Sailing” a song about love for another person or love for…sailing? Maybe it’s a little of both. No matter. In the context of the show, we know Roger really loves Gordon, and this is more what’s playing out in Gordon’s head. And out of context, it’s simply one of the most swoon-inducing songs ever written.
20. “All the Wasted Time” (Parade)
“All the Wasted Time” is unbearably sad, even if you don’t know what happens in Parade right after it’s sung. (Spoiler alert for history and one of the most tragic musicals ever written: Things do not end well for Leo Frank.) Still, it’s a powerful reminder to not take enduring love for granted.
19. “You Walk With Me” (The Full Monty)
You might be surprised to find such a tender song in the middle of a musical about male strippers, but that’s what happens when you underestimate a David Yazbek score. It actually catches you even more off guard in the context of the show, where it doesn’t start out as a love song at all.
18. “On My Own” (Les Misérables)
There are certainly happier love songs in Les Misérables than “On My Own” — “In My Life,” “A Heart Full of Love.” But while Eponine’s lament is about an unrequited crush, it’s perhaps the purest articulation of all-consuming love.
17. “Origin of Love” (Hedwig and the Angry Inch)
“Origin of Love” is a song about love, but it’s also about Hedwig finding her other half: “Last time I saw you / We had just split in two / You were looking at me / I was looking at you.” It’s a mythological story with a grand scope that then focuses on an appeal for personal connection, and it’s gutting.
16. “The Proposal/The Night Was Alive” (Titanic)
This is, of course, two songs — Barret’s is a love song for the woman he wants to marry, Bride’s is a love song for human connection. Like much of Maury Yeston’s stunning score for Titanic, it’s a emotionally rich, overwhelmingly moving piece of music. If you can make it through “The Proposal/The Night Was Alive” without crying, you’re a stronger person than I.
15. “Somewhere” (West Side Story)
There are many beautiful love songs in West Side Story, but it’s hard to compete with the plaintive longing of “Somewhere,” made all the more devastating by the fact that — spoiler alert for Romeo and Juliet — things don’t work out for Tony and Maria.
14. “Unusual Way” (Nine)
More Maury Yeston. Nine is a musical filled with complicated relationships — that’s kind of Guido’s M.O. And “Unusual Way” is a complicated love song, documenting an affair that alternately enriches and destroys Claudia: “In a very unusual way I think I’m in love with you / In a very unusual way I want to cry.”
13. “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles” (Bridges of Madison County)
Choosing the best love song in Bridges of Madison County is a challenge — it’s a show with more love songs than not, and it’s one of Jason Robert Brown’s most relentlessly gorgeous scores. But you can’t really argue with “Before and After You” leading into “One Second and a Million Miles,” which really makes it two songs. (Sorry for cheating.) Francesca and Robert don’t end up together, but as he sings, “We are tied, we are locked, we are bound / This will not be reversed or unwound.”
12. “Unworthy of Your Love” (Assassins)
In shows like the Sondheim revue Putting It Together, with some minor lyric changes, “Unworthy of Your Love” becomes a tender love song between a man and a woman. In its original context, Assassins, it’s sung by two would-be presidential assassins to Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. What’s remarkable is that, despite its darkness — “Let me feel fire / Let me drink poison / Tell me to tear my heart in two” — it’s still completely lovely.
11. “Suddenly Seymour” (Little Shop of Horrors)
There are few musical theater heroines more beloved than Audrey. “Suddenly Seymour” is a song about being seen — like “You Matter to Me” in Waitress, its aims are simple and pure. But given how much we’ve seen Audrey be mistreated, abused, and underestimated, it’s a moment of tremendous catharsis.
10. “Some Enchanted Evening” (South Pacific)
And we’re back to the unmitigated pleasure of a Rodgers and Hammerstein love song. “Some Enchanted Evening” does not try to explain love — in fact, it argues against it: “Who can explain it? / Who can tell you why? / Fools give you reasons / Wise men never try.”
9. “The Next Ten Minutes” (The Last Five Years)
As in Bridges of Madison County, it’s hard to pick just one love song in The Last Five Years, another heartbreaking Jason Robert Brown show. All are tinged with the knowledge that Jamie and Cathy are doomed, but even that can’t undo the beauty of their only duet, “The Next Ten Minutes.” The lyrics are sweet even as they predict the end: “I don’t know why people run / I don’t know why things fall through / I don’t know how anybody survives in this life without someone like you.”
8. “Changing My Major” (Fun Home)
Finally, a fun love song — they do exist! “Changing My Major” is joyful and hilarious, but it’s also a poignant song about self-discovery. Lisa Kron’s lyrics are clever and sharp. Amid Alison’s lustful exuberance are real truths about the transformative power of her first queer experience: “Am I falling into nothingness / Or flying into something so sublime?”
7. “Too Many Mornings” (Follies)
Follies is a musical about looking back to the past — and the regrets that come with that. That’s the painful reality of “Too Many Mornings,” a song about everything Ben and Sally have missed, and how little they might have left. “How much time can we hope that there will be?” they sing. “Not much time, but it’s time enough for me.”
6. “Say It Somehow” (The Light in the Piazza)
“Say It Somehow” offers that perfect blend of sweet and sexy, as Clara and Fabrizio struggle to articulate their feelings for one another despite a language barrier (and uh, some other issues). The limitations of their language don’t take away from the clarity of their passion.
5. “Bill” (Show Boat)
“Bill” is one long backhanded compliment: “And I can’t explain / It’s surely not his brain / That makes me thrill.” It’s not about a real person in the show, although when Julie sings it, it’s hard not to think about her love for Steve. Like so many of the best love songs, it’s sweet and funny and subtly sad.
4. “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (Pal Joey)
This song became such a standard that including it here is maybe a little unfair. Whatever, it’s one of the wittiest love songs ever written for a musical. The Lorenz Hart lyrics are delightfully frank and surprisingly saucy, including, “When he talks, he is seeking / Words to get off his chest / Horizontally speaking, he’s at his very best.”
3. “What More Can I Say?” (Falsettos)
Bill Finn’s lyrics are so grounded that they capture the truth of love better than many of his contemporaries can manage. And “What More Can I Say?” is one of his finest achievements. Marvin’s attempt to summarize his feelings for Whizzer is deliberately inarticulate: “It’s been hot / Also it’s been swell / More than not / It’s been more than words can tell.”
2. “If I Loved You” (Carousel)
There may be no better example of the Rodgers and Hammerstein conditional love song than “If I Loved You” — I mean, it has “if” in the title! Carousel’s iconic bench scene is a masterpiece of musical theater writing (so is the rest of the show), and “If I Loved You” is pure perfection.
1. “Something Wonderful” (The King and I)
There are a few great love songs in The King and I, but “Something Wonderful” is peerless. Though not sung by Anna or her King, Lady Thiang’s honest assessment of her complicated husband — a man with other wives and concubines! — is a powerful reflection of an enduring if not enviable relationship. It’s not about the King, but about the love Lady Thiang feels for him. Her devotion, however unwise, is stirring to behold.