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The Saddest Musicals Ever Produced: A Definitive Ranking

Why do we enjoy feeling sad? Our penchant for depressing stories, music, and art has mystified scientists and psychologists for centuries. Some theorise that the “sadness paradox” provides an opportunity for catharsis, relieving the build-up of negative emotion. Others suggest that gloomy stories have a relatability factor, enabling us to understand characters and their experiences more profoundly. Regardless of the rationale, directors, writers and artists have always relied on tragedy to form meaningful connections with their audiences.

Musical theatre is no exception, with the majority of the highest-grossing productions on both Broadway and the West End eliciting feelings of sadness and despair. Over the years, many articles have sought to rank the most tear-jerking shows of all time. With most of these lists based on the opinion of a single author, researchers at Buzz Capital have decided to produce a definitive (and very scientific!) ranking of the saddest shows ever produced. 

We ranked shows using a number of factors: 

  • Romantic tragedy 
  • Number of character deaths 
  • Troubled romantic relationships
  • Instances of unrequited love 
  • Orphaned children 
  • The loss of a child 
  • Troubled or abusive relationships with parents
  • Addiction and mental health issues 
  • Discrimination of minorities 
  • Imprisonment/physical isolation 
  • Overarching conflict 
  • Poverty 
  • Theme of the central song 
  • The ultimate ending 

Read on to discover our findings! 

The Most Frequently Searched Musicals

Over the decades, there have been 300 musicals performed on Broadway alone. This, in combination with off-broadway, off-west end, touring and amateur productions means it would be impractical to rank every show. Instead, we used keyword search term data to identify the 100 most frequently googled musicals. 

The Top 10

Unsurprisingly, Lin Manuel Miranda’s smash-hit Hamilton ranked highest for the most frequently Googled musical, with an astonishing 1.7 million searches per month. Hamilton, which was critically acclaimed and won 11 Tony awards, tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, America’s forgotten founder. In The Heights, which was also penned by Miranda, claimed second place. This moving musical, recently made into a motion picture, revolves around twelve characters as they navigate life in the neighbourhood of Washington Heights. 

Exploring themes of culture, identity and belonging, this 2005 musical is certainly a tear-jerker. 

Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story also placed highly, with 1.1 million searches made per month. Spielberg’s remake of the famous musical, lauded by casual viewers and professional critics alike, probably contributed to this. When the original West Side Story picture premiered in 1962, it won a staggering 10 Oscars. Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz also scored highly, with 622 000 and 376 000 searches respectively. 

The Top 20

Name of ProductionAverage Monthly Searches 
Hamilton1700000
In the Heights1400000
West Side Story1100000
Mamma Mia762000
Mary Poppins622000
Wicked344000
Les Miserables329000
The Lion King315000
Phantom of the Opera294000
My Fair Lady219000
The Sound of Music215000
Rock of Ages196000
Dear Evan Hansen180000
Little Shop of Horrors176000
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang165000
Come From Away155000
Singing in the Rain141000
Jesus Christ Superstar123000
The Rocky Horror Picture Show110000
Evita102000

Our Analysis – Determining the Saddest Musicals 

The Top Five

Of the 100 musicals analysed, we crowned Les Miserables as the saddest. Experienced by over 70 million people globally, Les Miserables – which literally translates as “the miserable ones” – features the death of seven central characters, unrequited romantic fixations, troubled relationships with parents, poverty, imprisonment and an overarching conflict between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Even the eventual marriage of Marius and Cosette, which occurs in the penultimate scene, is overshadowed by the loss of innumerable lives on the barricade. 

Schönberg and Boublil’s Miss Saigon also scored highly on the misery scale, securing second place. Set in 1975’s Vietnam, just prior to the fall of Saigon, Miss Saigon follows the poignant tale of Vietnamese teenager Kim and her American lover Chris. As the Viet Cong enter the city, the majority of American forces are evacuated. Chris is forced to return to the US, leaving a pregnant, impoverished Kim at the mercy of the People’s Army of Vietnam. The show features romantic tragedy, the deaths of two central characters and highlights the discrimination of the “bui doi” and the prevalence of violence against women. 

Notre Dame de Paris, arguably one of the more obscure musicals on our overall list, placed third. Penned by Cocciante and Plamondon, Notre Dame de Paris is based on the novel of the same name. A French musical set in 1482 Paris, Notre Dame de Paris narrates the story of Esmerelda, a vulnerable refugee seeking shelter in the city. Over the course of the show, three men – Quasimodo, Frollo and Phoebus – grapple with their desire for her, with devastating consequences. This sombre show features captivating choreography and a breathtaking score alongside unrequited love, the deaths of central characters and the discrimination of minority groups. 

Determining the Top 3 – An In-Depth Look

Les Miserables Miss SaigonNotre Dame de Paris
Romantic Tragedy 02 – Kim and Chris0
Number of Central Character Deaths*7 – Fantine, Eponine, Gavroche, Enjolras, Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert 2 – Kim and The Engineer3 – Esmerelda, Clopin and Frollo 
Minor Character Deaths 7 – General Lamarque, Bossuet, Feuilly, Courfeyrac, Combeferre, Joly and Grantaire0
Troubled Romantic Relationships 02 – Kim and Chris, Kim and Thuy 1 – Esmeralda and Phoebus 
Unrequited Love2 – Eponine (unnamed partner) and Fantine (Marius)1 – Thuy 2 – Esmeralda (Phoebus) and Quasimodo (Esmerelda)
Orphans 1 – Cosette 1 – Kim1 – Esmerelda 
Loss of a Child1 – Gavroche1 – Kim loses Tam 0
Troubled Relationship with Parent(s)1 – Eponine 00
Addiction/Mental Health Issues 1 – Inspector Javert’s eventual suicide, prompted by a fixation on Jean Valjean01 – Frollo’s fixation on Esmerelda
Discrimination 2 – Violence/prejudice against women and ex-convicts2 – Violence/prejudice against women and the Vietnamese3 – Violence/prejudice against women, disabilities and refugees
Imprisonment/Physical Isolation1 – Jean Valjean 1 – Kim 1 – Esmerelda 
Conflict 1 – Conflict between Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie 1 – The Vietnam War 1 – Conflict between the refugees and the inhabitants of Paris 
Poverty 1 – Experienced by the majority of central characters 1 – Experienced by the majority of central characters 1 – Experienced by the majority of central characters 
Theme of Main Song6 – Do You Hear the People Sing 10 – The Movie In My Mind10 – Belle 
Ultimate Ending7 – Marius and Cosette’s marriage is overshadowed by countless deaths and little opportunity for retribution10 – Kim, realising that she cannot be with Chris, commits suicide, leaving Tam behind and Chris devastated9 – Esmerelda is betrayed by Phoebus, who executes her and elopes with Fluer-de-lys Clopin is killed and Quasimodo, in mourning, pushed Frollo down Notre Dame’s staircase, killing him

Our complete analysis can be found here

The Top 20 Saddest Musicals

Name of ProductionScore 
Les Miserables42
Miss Saigon36
Notre Dame de Paris35
West Side Story33
Blood Brothers32
Sweeney Todd30
Into the Woods28
Hamilton25
Sunset Boulevard25
Hadestown24
Oliver24
Jesus Christ Superstar22
Love Never Dies21
Parade21
Rent21
Jagged Little Pill20
Hair19
Cabaret18
Phantom of the Opera18
The Band’s Visit18

The Most Popular Musical in Each State 

We also explored the most commonly Googled musicals in each US State. We identified the highest-grossing Broadway musicals and current Broadway musicals and explored keyword search term volume for each production. Our findings are shown in the map below:

Hamilton had the highest number of impressions overall and was found to be the most commonly searched musical by inhabitants of Alabama, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Washington and Wyoming. Hadestown was found to be most popular in Arizona, California, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Utah and Virginia. 

Company, which has recently reopened on Broadway, was found to be the most searched musical in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont and West Virginia. The Multi Tony award winner The Lion King was found to be most popular in just two states; Kansas and Oklahoma. The Music Man, meanwhile, was found to be the most commonly searched musical in Delaware, New Jersey and New York. Maryland and Florida were something of an anomaly. In Maryland, Tina – The Tina Turner Musical was found to be the most commonly searched. In Florida, it was Cats. 

Methodology

Identifying Our Data Set

We narrowed down our data set by manually processing keyword search term data from Ahrefs to identify the 100 most commonly googled musicals around the world. A comprehensive list, along with the total number of search impressions, can be found here

Scoring Productions

We scored our chosen titles based on the following criteria:

  • Romantic tragedy – We awarded a point for each romantic tragedy. West Side Story, for example, was given two points. Tony and Bernard die, leaving Maria and Anita behind. 
  • The number of central character deaths – To emphasise significance we counted the number of central character deaths and multiplied this by two. In Les Miserables, for example, seven characters die, resulting in a final score of 14. 
  • The number of minor character deaths – We awarded a point for each minor character death. The Phantom of the Opera, for example, scored two points, with the deaths of Joseph Buquet and Piangi. 
  • Troubled romantic relationships – We awarded one point per couple. Come From Away, with the eventual breakup between Kevin and his partner Kevin, scored one point. 
  • Instances of unrequited love – We awarded one point per instance of unrequited love. Whistle Down the Wind was awarded one point for the unrequited love between Candy and Amos.
  • Orphaned children – We awarded one point per orphaned child or teenager. Annie, for example, received six points. 
  • The loss of a child – We awarded one point per child’s death or irreconcilable loss. Hamilton, which features the death of Alexander Hamilton’s son Philip, scored one point.
  • Troubled or abusive relationships with parents – We awarded one point per person with a troubled or abusive relationship with a parent. Mary Poppins was awarded two points in this category, due to Jane and Michael’s distant relationship with their father. 
  • Addiction and mental health issues – One point was awarded per character with overt addiction or mental health issues. Next to Normal, for example, was awarded two points for Diana’s Bipolar Disorder and Natalie’s depression and anxiety. 
  • Discrimination of minorities – We awarded one point per oppression of a minority group. This category included discrimination on the basis of sex, religion and ethnicity. Kinky Boots, for example, scored a point due to homophobia. 
  • Imprisonment/physical isolation – If the show featured imprisonment or physical isolation, we awarded one point. Blood Brothers, which depicts Mickey in prison, received a point. 
  • Overarching conflict – If the show featured an overarching conflict, we awarded a point. Miss Saigon, for example, was overshadowed by the Vietnam war, so received a point.
  • Poverty – If the show featured poverty or significant economical hardship, we awarded a point. Shows awarded a point included Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Oliver and Jesus Christ Superstar.  
  • The theme of the central song – We found the most popular, or most commonly recognised song from the show and ranked it between zero and ten based on musical composition and lyrics. Movie In My Mind, which is the most listened to song on Spotify from Miss Saigon, scored ten for its depressing lyrics and highly emotional score. 
  • The ultimate ending – Finally, we ranked each musical from zero to ten based on its ultimate conclusion. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which concludes with a decidedly positive note, scored zero. Blood Brothers, meanwhile, scored ten, concluding with the deaths of the two young protagonists. 

An In-Depth Exploration of Production Popularity: Identifying the Most Commonly Searched Musical in each State

To discover the most commonly searched musical in each state, we explored keyword search volume for some of the highest-grossing productions on Broadway in combination with current Broadway productions. These productions included The Lion King, Wicked, Les Miserables, Come From Away and Cats.