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Back-To-School Broadway: 5 College Musicals

Category Broadway

|by Mark Robinson |

Get ready to hit the books with these school-themed shows

It’s nearly back-to-school time! From School of Rock’s groovy grade-schoolers to Dear Evan Hansen’s hyper-connected high schoolers to Avenue Q’s perplexed post-grads, Broadway currently offers plenty of relatable fare for students of all ages. But the college-age musical is actually a time-honored Broadway tradition in its own right. ShowTickets Contributor and Broadway expert Mark Robinson walks us through five shows that celebrate the college experience.

The cast of ‘Wicked’ on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The cast of ‘Wicked’ on Broadway (Photo: Joan Marcus)

College students will soon be making their way to their institutions of higher learning, whether for the very first time or as returning sophomores, juniors or seniors. As the time approaches for students to begin their fall term, we embrace the spirit of their academic journeys by exploring some musicals that take place at colleges and universities.

Leave it to Jane
Considered by many to be one of the first “college musicals,” Leave it to Jane opened on Broadway in 1917. With music by Jerome Kern (Show Boat) and lyrics by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, it drew its inspiration from the 1904 George Ade play The College Widow. The show concerned the rivalry between two universities, Atwater College and Bingham College, vying for prowess in college football. When the star player from Atwater falls in love with a girl from Bingham, he transfers to her school, and plays for the once-opposing team. Lighthearted and tuneful, Leave it to Jane boasts such song hits as “Cleopatterer” and “The Football Song.” 

Good News
Football seems to be the go-to sport, and winning the “big game” the prevalent plot point, in early musicals set at colleges. The 1927 musical Good News is no exception. The story this time focuses on star football player Tom, who won’t be allowed to play if he can’t pass astronomy, falling in love with his academically minded tutor, Connie. Good News may be where the cliché of the popular guy falling in love with the nerd was born. The DeSylva, Brown and Henderson score is full of exuberantly youthful numbers, but “The Best Things in Life Are Free” and “The Varsity Drag” are the musical’s standouts.

All American
Students aren’t the only people who have to return to college in the fall. Professors do, too! All American (1962) is set at the fictional Southern Baptist Institute of Technology, the story follows the newly arrived Professor Fodorski, a Hungarian engineering instructor who uses his understanding of science to turn the school’s failing football team into champions. The musical features a score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (Bye Bye Birdie) and a book by Mel Brooks (The Producers). Though one song “Once Upon a Time” enjoyed some popularity, the musical folded after 80 lackluster performances, thanks to tepid reviews. The musical did, however, feature a Tony-nominated performance by Ray Bolger (The Scarecrow in the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz) as Fodorski.

Who can forget dear old Shiz University, where the denizens of The Land of Oz go to study? In Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holtzman’s 2003 musical Wicked, based on the book by Gregory Maguire, the young Elphaba arrives on the scene and experiences all the challenges of college life: fitting in, dealing with a roommate, finding your talents and potential, dabbling in romance and political issues. From the school’s alma mater “Dear Old Shiz,” to the frustrated “What is this Feeling?,” Wicked’s first act captures the ups and downs of adjusting to the world of academia.

Legally Blonde
The perfect musical to complete this list of collegiate musicals is Legally Blonde, the 2007 Broadway show based on the 2001 film of the same name. Elle Woods may seem like a shallow party girl from the world of sororities, but when she is spurned by her long-term boyfriend who is leaving for Harvard Law School, she decides to follow him and enrolls herself. She proves that labels and stereotypes mean nothing, succeeding as a law student and graduating. Nell Benjamin (lyrics) and Laurence O’Keefe (music) assembled the musical’s score, which includes the college-themed songs “Daughter of Delta Nu” and “The Harvard Variations.”

Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at


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