Life and music are both about moments—and nowhere is that connection clearer than in music written for movies, TV, and theater. The perfect song can take an ordinary scene and render it instantly iconic, while evocative original scores add emotional texture that transcends language. Music and storytelling have been interwoven for ages, but it wasn’t until the 20th century—with the rise of musical theater and the advent of movies and TV—that their connection combusted with new possibilities. Musical theater chronicles the arc of the century itself—the Roaring Twenties '20s featured frothy, dance-driven shows like Show Boat and Funny Face, spawning countless standards written by the likes of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. America’s optimistic postwar glow can be seen in the colorful exuberance of Golden Age classics like Guys and Dolls and Paint Your Wagon, while the social unrest of the ‘60s is reflected by poignant explorations of race, class, and ethnicity in such classics as Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, and Hair.

Decades after Porgy and Bess, African-Americans regained the spotlight in the post-–Civil Rights rights Era era ‘70s with Dreamgirls and The Wiz, while rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Picture Show rewrote the rules of musical theater. The glamorous ‘80s excess of The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon gave way to the piercing, profound rallying cry of Jonathan Larsoen’s Rent in (1994). Meanwhile, film soundtracks evolved to encompass everything from sweeping original scores from epics like Gone with the Wind and John Williams’ Star Wars to no-filler mixtapes packed with scene-strengthening magic, such as Saturday Night Fever’s disco dazzle and The Big Chill’s Boomer nostalgia. Who among us can hear the Irish flute at the beginning start of “My Heart Will Go On” or Whitney Houston’s a cappella intro to “I Will Always Love You” without starting to choke up? From stage and screen, from the ‘20s until today, musical numbers define moments in the tales from which they spring, as well as in our own lives. These are the songs, scores, and compositions that have told unforgettable stories—and continue to resonate today.

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