Musical Month Week 1: Picking Favorites

For no real reason other than I thought it would be fun, I’ve decided that October will be Musical Month! All month, I’ll be writing posts about musicals. For the first week, I thought we’d take more general look at musicals and songs from musicals I love.

I would call myself a casual musical fan. I’m generally last to the party when it comes to appreciating them. But for those select few I really love, I’ll listen to them over and over again and excitedly sing them with friends.

To be frank, my first plan for this post was going to be a sweeping Top 30 of all songs in musicals but… after trying my hardest to compile a list of all my favorites, it became clear to me that it was a near impossibility. I think songs from musicals are even harder to rank than regular songs, because in a lot of cases I judge them differently from song to song. They often depend heavily on context of the the story, and staging, and the way I connect to the characters singing that song… it’s just hard to put everything on a level playing field. So, instead, here’s my three favorite songs from a few of my favorite musicals. I hope this provides a suitable alternative and a good opening to the month.

(As a note: I will most likely not be talking about specific plot details in my reviews. However, be warned that the songs could contain spoilers for the musical as a whole. In addition, for some of the songs, it’s kind of impossible not to spoil things a little in the review. I’ll try my best, but be warned.)

Be More Chill

“Be More Chill” is still more or less an underappreciated fave. It first appeared on my radar because it often gets compared to the monumentally popular (and honestly a little overrated) “Dear Evan Hansen.” To be quite frank, “Be More Chill” is like “Evan Hansen” in the same way apples are similar to oranges. Both musicals about high school, both fruits. But otherwise, completely unlike one another.

If I were going to compare this musical to any other musical, I’d compare it to “Heathers.” They both take a dark, funny look at high school drama. Both create intrigue by introducing fantastical elements to the generally overplayed setting. Both feature a dissatisfied protagonist who gets taken advantage of by a malevolent but seemingly helpful force. Also, both are excellent musicals.

If you love “Heathers,” or just think you’d enjoy a unique twist on the usual high school coming-of-age, try this one out.

(Shout-out to my boyfriend Kirby, who finally convinced me to listen to this musical. I’m gonna see if I can convince him to come out of his cocoon and help me write a post for this month focusing on it. Stay tuned!)

3. Do You Wanna Ride?

I had a hell of a time figuring out which song would take the number three spot. Finally, though, I had to look deep within myself and determine which song it was that could so easily implant itself into my head on a near daily basis. And wow, this song is ever catchy.

I love how straight it’s played. There’s no doubt that the subject matter in it is goofy but the sensual performance of Lauren Marcus and Katlyn Carlson creates the kind of beautiful dissonance that really sells its humor. Plus… those vocals are gorgeous! I’ve never heard the word “Pinkberry” sung in such a pure, pleasant way.

This song is short, but it really leaves an impression.

2. The Smartphone Hour (Rich Set a Fire)

Big ensemble numbers can be pretty hit-or-miss for me. I feel like a lot of times they can just sort of exist as a means to move the plot forward. In that way, they can sometimes sacrifice quality for story. That’s not always a bad thing, but it does make for some forgettable songs.

And then there are those beautiful ensemble numbers that stick with you forever. This one does that and more. I’m not always a big fan of the “darn millennials and their ding dang social media” idea, but I feel like this song doesn’t fall as easily into that trap. It’s certainly critical of the quickly-spreading and salacious nature of social media in teenage lives, but it doesn’t do that by being preachy. Instead, it presents the scene as it is and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions.

It’s funny, dark, fast-paced, and a little overwhelming. The instrumentals and the vocals are top notch and only serve to heighten the emotions and ideas being presented. It’s a beautifully-written song, and serves as a great microcosm of the strengths of the musical as a whole.

1. Michael in the Bathroom

To no one’s surprise, everyone’s favorite song from this musical is also my favorite. George Salazar, man. George freaking Salazar. His voice is just beautiful. It’s perfect for Michael – very “nerdy” – but it’s also emotional, and dynamic, and just… ugh.

This was the first song I heard from this musical, and it really piqued my interest. It’s just so cleverly written. It’s so relatable (anyone who has even a shred of social anxiety would definitely agree.) It’s so darkly funny. (Are you picking up a pattern in the songs from this musical?) It characterizes Michael so perfectly. A character who has mostly played second fiddle to Jeremy and is then discarded gets his shining moment and it’s unforgettable.

If you listen to no other song from this musical, listen to this one. There’s just so many moments you can’t possibly miss… the builds, the “Knock-knock” part, Michael breaking off mid-sentence in a sob, the sarcastic finality of the last lines… it’s all so good. I have a hard time describing it because it’s really something you have to listen to. Listen to it. You’ll agree, I promise.

(By the way, if you’re interested in admiring George Salazar’s incredible vocal talents and his range of emotion check out this video. Just ignore the horrible lady cackling throughout the entire performance.)

Heathers

Ah, Heathers.  A movie I haven’t seen, a musical I adore. For those familiar with the cult-classic movie, I’m sure you already know what this musical is about, but for those who don’t, it involves high school drama and MURDER MOST FOUL. It’s a dark, funny, emotional journey filled with deep, complicated characters. It’s also absolutely ridiculous at times.

It’s not a musical I would recommend to everyone, but if you can enjoy the sort of jokes that make you feel bad for laughing, you’ll find a musical chock-full of showstopping numbers you’ll never forget. I had a rough time sorting through a million favorites on this soundtrack.

I plan on writing a post later this month about some of the fascinating themes contained in this musical, but it’s a dense beast with a lot of fascinating places for analysis. For that reason, I think it might be my favorite musical of all. Maybe. Don’t quote me on that.

3. Lifeboat

While giving a villain a backstory isn’t exactly groundbreaking, I have to hand it it “Lifeboat” for being so unapologetic about it. Okay, sure, Heather McNamara is not exactly the biggest villain of this musical, but she is complicit in a lot of awful things. Yet, this song is slow and beautiful. It explains her motivations so well without really explaining it all. It’s an extended metaphor that explains so much about McNamara both explicitly and implicitly (I mean, it speaks volumes of her fear of being honest about her situation that she never outright states what is going on, using the lifeboat metaphor instead.)

Similar to “Michael in the Bathroom,” “Lifeboat” is poignant for how relatable it can be for someone with deep, terrifying anxieties. However, I think the thing that makes it stick out the most in my mind is how dynamic it is – leaping from quiet piano ballad to loud, turbulent wailing. It’s moving and incredible, and provides a fascinating view on one of this musical’s fascinating characters.

2. Meant to Be Yours

Speaking of fascinating characters… oh JD. I have a lot to say about JD, but that’ll be for a later week. The true antagonist of “Heathers,” JD is one of those characters you either hate to love or love to hate. Either way, he’s a fascinatingly complex character, and “Meant to Be Yours” is his breakdown, his villain song, his master plan. It’s frenetic and surprisingly happy-sounding, even as he speaks about blowing up his school and murdering hundreds.

I love the vocal performance of this song. There’s so many points where the vocals say so much more than the lyrics do, and I think that’s one of the best parts of this song. Certain lyrics are screamed, certain lyrics are crooned, and it all goes together to paint a startling, complex image of a deeply troubled individual.

And even if others might disagree… I love how explicitly this song states how unhealthy his relationship with Veronica is. I very much appreciate when a piece of media is self aware about the harmfulness of the tropes it follows. No one with an ounce of critical thinking could listen to this song and truly believe they’re a happy couple.

(Well, except for those YouTube commenters but… YouTube commenters are barely human anyway.)

1. Dead Girl Walking

It’s songs like these that make me wish I was a better singer. I’d belt this song all day if I could. It’s intense and unforgettable. And yeah, it’s about terrible decisions, but it’s the most beautiful, powerful song about terrible decisions ever.

I count it as a major accomplishment for this song that I can love it so much even though it’s entirely about sex. Even as it is about sex, and does contain some rather lewd jokes (not the worst in this musical, though), it also has a lot to say about Veronica’s character. We know her to be smart and savvy, but it’s fascinating to see how easily she’s fooled into maybe the worst decision of her life just due to the normal pressures of high school.

The insights into how she views JD as beautiful on the inside is interesting in hindsight considering the content of the rest of the musical. Is she wrong? Or did JD never get a chance to be better? Who knows, but the audience gets to ruminate on it. I think “Heathers” is notable for how frank and honest it can be about some very heavy subjects historically mishandled by media, and this part of the song is just a microcosm of this fact.

And, okay, it’s fun. It’s a fun, catchy song, and it’s so well performed, and everyone should listen to it! Well… everyone within reason.

Hamilton

What is there to say about “Hamilton” that hasn’t already been said thousands of times? It’s just so good. It’s one of those rare media phenomenons that deserves every inch of praise it receives. It’s a monument of fantastic writing and storytelling. I already wrote a whole post about this musical when I went to see it in Chicago, and while I can say it doesn’t define my daily life as much as it used to back then, I still look back on this musical as the behemoth of my junior year in high school it was. I remember whole bus rides to and from marching band competitions belting the songs with my best friend. I remember sitting around a bonfire in my backyard assigning different roles to friends so we could perform the songs right then and there (we all had the lyrics memorized, anyway).

I’m sure just about everyone who will listen to “Hamilton” has, but if for some reason you haven’t, do. It’s going to go down as a classic in history, for one, but also it’s just amazing. I would pay a lot to go back and listen to this musical again for the first time. You’ll learn things, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you might even feel a little patriotic. I know, crazy, right?

3. Non-Stop

This was another difficult third song to assign, but I think I cheated a little with this choice. “Non-Stop” kind of combines all the best elements of all the songs in the first act into a fast-paced act one finale. So in picking this song I kind of picked them all.

Remember what I said earlier about ensemble numbers? This is another good one. It’s vast and grand, and ends the first act on such a high note. There are so many great moments: Hamilton’s “I was chosen for the Constitutional Convention!”, Burr and Hamilton’s conversation, Hamilton being a butt in court, George Washington, basically everything Eliza and Angelica do in this song, the ending part where everyone is singing and you want to sing along but you can’t pick which part to sing along with… wait, what was I talking about?

Oh, right. “Non-Stop.” Er… well… let’s talk about that ending, though. The chaos, and the twisting of “I am not throwing away my shot” to become a forboding omen hanging over Hamilton’s head. It’s masterful and sets the stage so well for the tragedy of act two. Just amazing.

2. Burn

I was going back and forth over whether I wanted to pick “Helpless” or this one for the second spot. Eliza is unabashedly my favorite character in this musical, so there was no way I was leaving out one of her two solos. But it eventually came down to emotional impact and just why I love Eliza so much that finally helped me make the decision.

I read a post on tumblr recently that discussed how “Hamilton” is the story of narrative control. It is a constant battle for who gets to tell the story. However, it’s Eliza who seems the most content to stay out of the battle. She purposefully makes herself a part of her husband’s narrative, content to stay in the background and do her best to help out.

And yet, it is in this song that Eliza first decides to take control of her role in the narrative, by forcefully cutting herself out of it, and taking with it many of the positive information about her husband. She exercises her power in the only way she feels she can. It’s powerful and beautiful and it’s a great precursor to the ending, where it’s revealed that it was through Eliza’s efforts that Hamilton’s name is ultimately kept alive. She’s a fantastic historical figure and an incredible character in this musical.

But as for the song itself… what can I say? Phillipa Soo is a goddess, and her vocals are perfect. The song is sweeping and tragic and beautiful and also kind of badass. A masterful work.

1. Satisfied

“Satisfied” has always been one of my favorites – from the beautiful piano in the background, to Angelica’s clever, rapid-fire lines, to the really fascinating motif of “rewinding” time and regretting your actions, it’s clearly a strong point of the musical. But that was all it was for me, “one” of many favorites.

And then I saw this song live.

It’s hard to describe to you in words what it was that made the difference from listening to this song over and over and seeing it live so huge for me. I have some suspicions, mostly involving what was happening in my life at the time I saw it, but regardless of what it was, it moved me to tears. The staging was just so beautiful, and the music and the vocals of the actress playing Angelica struck me to my core. I had definitely expected to cry at the performance, but I hadn’t expected to cry so early on.

Either way, it will always be a high point of the musical for me, perhaps my favorite part. The emotions of regret and nostalgia evoked by this song are just so gut-wrenching, and every part of the song comes together to make you feel every twinge of pain Angelica feels.

I don’t know if listening to the soundtrack will ever be able to match the experience of seeing it live at that very moment in my life, but I’ll never forget it. It’s the reason this song is my favorite in this musical, and most likely will be for the rest of time.

Legally Blonde

I think of all the musicals represented on this post, “Legally Blonde” is probably the most… light-hearted. It’s sort of a guilty pleasure of a musical, but I can’t help but love it. It’s certainly goofy, but it has a lot of heart and surely appeals to my “rah rah feminism” core.

It’s a classic, really! How can I argue with a classic? It’s a musical with music that never fails to make me happy. I have a hard time really saying much more about it. It’s a very simple joy of a story. For that reason, my reviews of these songs will most likely be a little shorter than the rest. There’s just not much to parse here besides pure enjoyment and amusement.

3. There! Right There! (Gay or European)

I feel like even if you aren’t familiar with “Legally Blonde,” there’s a good chance you’re familiar with this song. I’d call it infamous. It’s certainly erm… heavy handed with its portrayal of a gay man, but I still can’t help but enjoy the overwrought drama of it all. I want to acknowledge that this song is not exactly the best example of respectful LGBT representation but… okay, it’s funny. It’s funny and I enjoy it. I’m so sorry. So very, very sorry.

2. Whipped Into Shape

I’m not a big fan of diet and exercise video culture, but come on. This song is just so catchy. The lyrics are catchy and clever, and I find the way they connect her exercise routine to her possible guilt in the murder of her husband is hilarious. Plus, for those who have actually watched this musical, the way the actors perform the action of getting “paused” by Professor Callahan is so well done. Speaking of – I absolutely adore Professor Callahan’s interjections. The contrast between his parts and Brooke’s create a kind of dissonance that makes this potentially one-off number an absolute star on this soundtrack.

1. Legally Blonde (Reprise)

My choice for the top spot is almost entirely based on the fact that Vivian is maybe one of my favorite characters in this entire musical. Her beginning part in this song makes me so happy. Women supporting other women… dumping their awful frat boyfriends and becoming successful lawyers… what’s not to love? Also, basically everyone who deserves it gets their fun happy endings. (Paulette and Kyle!!!!) This is a triumphant song that gets everyone in the audience happy and bopping along. It’s just so good. Listen to it and try to keep a smile off your face. I dare you.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

The most recent favorite on this list, “Great Comet” is most certainly a musical unlike any other. It barely rhymes, and it shares more similarities with an opera than with a musical. And yet there’s something so irresistibly charming about it. Perhaps it’s that the characters are all so very alive and complicated, or that the music so often defies regular rules in order to make a thematic point. No matter what it is, it’s an experience unlike any other.

I’m forever sad there’s a very slim chance I’ll ever see this musical live, because it involves its audience more than any musical I’ve ever heard of. Actors dance around the audience, offer them food and drink, and dance with them. Honestly, that’s a microcosm of one of the biggest strengths of this musical. Despite its dense source material (War and Peace, anyone?) it’s inviting and never too pretentious. In fact, it’s much the opposite. It states what is going on in the characters’ heads outright with great simplicity.

And it’s that grand simplicity that endears this musical to me, I think. If you do anything else, take a few hours out of your life and listen to this journey.

3. Prologue

Remember what I said about this musical going out of its way to be inviting? “Prologue” is the song that makes that abundantly obvious from the get-go. It’s essentially a cheat sheet for the characters and the story in song form, presented outright to the audience as a tool for remembering everyone, as well as their relationship to each other. It accomplishes the monumental task of introducing everyone to the audience through repitition – think “Twelve Days of Christmas.” It’s very effective.

Plus, it breaks the fourth wall and pokes fun at itself. The musical is fully aware that its very premise makes it sound too complex and pretentious for an audience to enjoy, but this song welcomes everyone into its story, and sets the stage for what the musical will be. Friendly and inviting and relatable and unabashedly human.

Considering how very “utility” this song is, it’s honestly a crime how good this song is. It has no business being as catchy or as delightful it is! I’ve listened to this song so many times, sung it out loud in the car with friends so many times… and it’s just a list of names! In song form! What the heck?!

2. No One Else

I cannot even begin to guess how many times I’ve listened to this song. There’s just something about it that compels me to hit the repeat button over and over and over again. And that’s especially surprising considering it took me quite a few listens just to have this song click for me. But once it did… oh man.

I guess it helps that I adore Natasha’s character, and I think this song really highlights a lot of the fascinating things about her. Her childish naivete, her idealism, her wide-eyed wonder at the world… all is present in this sweet, crooning melody. The song takes on an even more fascinating meaning once you’ve gotten to the end of this musical, but I don’t want to spoil anything.

The lyrics are intimate and honestly adorable. I love seeing Natasha’s lovestruck view of her fiance. Plus, that ending… perhaps one of the most brilliant endings of any song. Such a unique gut-punch. Ah. So good.

1. Pierre & Natasha

If “No One Else” punches you in the gut, “Pierre & Natasha” grabs your heart, rips it out, stomps on it a few times, and shoves it back into your chest. This is the song that had me in literal tears the first time I listened to it. (Of course, this was in public, sitting on the floor in Woodburn Hall… yeah.)

It’s a very subtle song. The instrumentals are just a few piano notes repeated. And honestly, that’s all this song needs. The focus is absolutely on the lyrics, the heartbreaking conversation between Pierre and Natasha. And of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the only spoken lines in the entire show. These lines are particularly brilliant for how earnest and honest they sound once the melody has been stripped out of them. Ugh, just brilliant.

I have a lot more to say about what I feel this song means for both Pierre and Natasha’s characters, but I’ll save that for a post later this month, I think. But Tl;dr… I think there’s a lot more to this song than just romance. But hey, we’ll get to it.

Next to Normal

On the subject of being moved to tears by a musical… here’s “Next to Normal”! This musical is a brilliant study of a family affected by mental illness. To say much else about the plot would take away some of its impact. The characters are incredibly real, so flawed and beautiful and deeply fascinating.

I’ve always admired how grounded this musical is. It wants to depict its characters as realistically as possibly, both the good and the bad. And though that truth is ultimately pretty sad, it also doesn’t revel in its tragedy too much. Ultimately, it’s actually a hopeful musical.

I feel like a lot of musicals try to make themselves into one or the other – unabashedly positive or unbelievably tragic. “Next to Normal” toes the line between, choosing instead to be honest always. And that’s really the tear-jerking part. It’s too real, man. Too real.

3. Superboy and Invisible Girl

Probably my favorite character in the entire musical is Natalie, the daughter. It’s pretty obvious why – I mean, age-wise, that is. She’s a really well-written teenage girl in a genre of music that doesn’t always lend itself to well-written teenage girls. I feel like this song is a fantastic representation of her depth and how much the musical values that depth.

Unfortunately, a lot of the great things about this song are tied into the biggest spoiler in the entire musical, so I won’t go too into detail about the meaningful lyrics and interesting motifs present in the song. However, I can talk about how it sets up more of the conflict between Natalie and her mother, which I think is one of the most intriguing parts of the entire musical.

This was also the very first song from this musical I ever heard! It was enough to intrigue me into investigating the rest of the musical further, so that of course earns it brownie points.

2. Who’s Crazy / My Psychopharmacologist and I

Although, in my praise of Natalie, I forgot how great Dan is as well… and Diana, of course, the powerhouse and center of conflict in this musical… ahhh!

This song represents one of the biggest strengths of this musical, representing deep, complicated conflicts between characters musically, often through competing and combining musical motifs. In this song, we see the conflict between Diana and Dan. I love how well it demonstrates Diana’s relative disregard for her husband’s emotions through her focus on her medication as Dan stresses about her.

And that brings me to a second point. This musical is never fully clear on who the audience should root for among the cast. Diana goes through so much with her mental illness, and feels Dan doesn’t understand her, and yet Dan is doing his very best to provide for her while also not feeling any support from her anymore. There are arguments for both sides, and both sides are represented equally.

1. Hey #3 (Perfect for You Reprise)

Oh wait! Is Henry my favorite character? Oh no, Henry might be my favorite character… Okay, every character is my favorite character. But Henry. I love Henry. Henry is kind of the outsider of the cast, the only one not a member of the family. His relationship with Natalie is another really excellent and complicated part of the story. His somewhat awkward conversations with Natalie progress steadily throughout the musical until he becomes one of her most important supportive figures, and it’s a joy to see.

This song is the culmination of this musical, where we get to see some hope for Natalie in the future. While her parents are resigned to their unhappy relationship, this song makes it clear that Natalie doesn’t have to consign herself to her parents’ fate. It’s beautiful how this song emphasizes Henry’s support of her no matter what as a true indicator of how much they care for each other.

Plus, the music is simple and pretty, tying this subplot together in a beautiful little bow. A beautiful bow that makes me cry like a child.

Waitress

I talked about how wonderful Sara Bareilles is in my Women in Music post, so when I heard that she wrote a musical based on a lightly successful romantic comedy movie of the same name, I was all in. And “Waitress” feels like the musical version of Sara Bareilles’ whole career. It’s simple and romantic and sweet and ultimately positive. It makes me want to jump up and dance (and also eat pie).

Despite the cherry tone, “Waitress” has a cast of really interesting and flawed characters. It plays with the idea that happiness doesn’t only come from the most perfect situations. It instead preaches happiness through finding happiness in the life you’re given. It’s a lovely message for a lovely musical.

3. Opening Up

And nothing sells this tone immediately like the opening song. You get your introduction of most of the major characters, as well as the idea that everyone in the musical is unhappy with their lot in life but willing to work to better themselves. That’s admirable, and it’s also expertly depicted in this cheery opening number.

I love how every character gets their own little line or two that hints at their character conflicts. Jenna and Becky implies that they’re willing to do what she must to derive pleasure from her “small town” life, Dawn remarks on her comfort with sameness, suggesting she’ll have to learn to be brave… plus, pie! Gotta love that pie motif.

It’s a sweet, upbeat song that works so well to introduce this sweet, upbeat musical.

2. She Used to Be Mine

And now we take a hard left into the tearjerker of the musical. The show-stopper. The one everyone remembers. And honestly, it’s pretty easy to tell what makes this song the bombshell it is. Jessie Mueller’s original version is so subtle at points, but then grows to a powerful crescendo, but every version of the song has its own emotional value.

The idea of looking at oneself in the third person is an idea that really appeals to me. After all that’s happened to her, Jenna steps out of her own person and laments the parts of her life and personality she has lost. It’s such a beautiful concept, and it’s performed so well and so emotionally that even if you’re not liable to cry over songs, you’ll still probably get close.

And like, just watch the performance from the Tonys. Watch how vulnerably Jessie Mueller performs it. It’s just, ugh. It’s so good.

1. When He Sees Me

And now, for the song that makes me really cry. Embarrassingly enough. Or not? I can’t actually figure out if how hard I relate to this song is something to be ashamed of or not. Either way, Dawn’s conflict over making herself vulnerable without knowing all the facts is so relatable.

And I mean, this song is adorable. Kimiko Glen’s little southern twang tied with her sometimes ridiculous worries over her blind date plus the romantic backing instrumentals of the song ties together in the most adorable package. Plus, her friends’ mostly futile attempts to talk her off the ledge is hilarious.

Again, I have to point to the performance of this song. Dawn dances with random patrons of the diner, swooning and swaying to her own vulnerabilities… ahh it’s so sweet. It makes me sob like a baby, really. Ugh.

And that’s where we end it for now! I was planning on writing a lot more on a few other songs from musicals I didn’t get a chance to talk about… but this post is already a monster so I’m not gonna continue. But never fret! More musical coverage is coming this month! Stay tuned!

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