HERE IS A FACT: The world is a richer, less terrifying place when you can call on musical theatre to remind you there are others who feel the same as you, who have lived what you’re living, who are by your side, and who want the things you want. That is an absolute fact. Yes, it is. It’s basically scientific and there are equations to prove it which I can show you via a short interpretive tap dance I’ve prepared. No? You’ll have to take my word for it, then.
Some people may be put off by the ‘theatre’ part, and I get that. The beauty is, though: You don’t ever have to go and watch the shows live if you don’t want to. Listening to songs from musicals can provide next-level escapism at home or on da move. I always say it’s like putting on a hella immersive, big-budget audiobook set to music. You become invested in the lives of the characters and take part in their journeys, which can be super handy if your own existence is going through a rocky patch and you need reassurance or a get away. My passion for musicals is so ruddy fervent because they have been my enduring inspiration and private solace since a young age. They always offered someone I could relate to even if I couldn’t find that connection in the real world. These days I might listen to one to get pumped for a certain task, or (far more often) run away to hide within when I get depressed or bogged down by current affairs. Essentially, listening to musicals is my most effective coping mechanism.
I’ve tried to cover all the bases with this playlist. If you like the sound of a certain song, maybe have a peek at the whole cast recording (all of which are available on Spotify). It’s an entire world to be opened up, and it welcomes you in with perfectly-choreographed open arms.
“Hmmm, I dunno. You kinda sound like a square… Musical theatre is for squares!” WRONG. Musical theatre is for everyone. That is what makes it so, so incredible. It doesn’t discriminate. There’s something for everybody, and anybody is welcome. Believe me when I tell you that no one is too cool for musical theatre, and, unlike some other genres, musical theatre doesn’t ever want to be too cool for anyone, either.
So, you better strap yourself in because we’re about to embark on an emotional and eclectic journey, after which you may never be the same.
Waving Through A Window – Dear Evan Hansen
“On the outside always looking in / Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?”
Before they deemed Huge Jack Man the Greatest of all the Showmans, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul first created a show which I fondly refer to as ‘the tumblr of musicals’. Dear Evan Hansen possesses a plotline that makes even I (The Musicals Overlord) raise a slightly sceptical eyebrow, but it has some important messages and some outright bangers.
Equal parts introspective and escalating, ‘Waving Through A Window’ is without question an unrelentingly wonderful and spiriting anthem for the new generation of musical theatre lovers – of which you are now a part! DEAL WITH IT.
Does anybody notice me? Does anything I do or say make a difference? Hello? Who even am I? I don’t know, but let’s sing about it and try to work it out together along this journey. This is how we do stuff in musicals. Take my hand, let’s go.
Take Me Or Leave Me – RENT
“Take me for what I am / Who I was meant to be”
Warning: Incoming car karaoke classic. ‘Wait, why is that voice so gosh darn familiar?’ I hear you cry. Well, prior to painting the town green in Wicked and letting it all ruddy go in Frozen, the powerhouse that is Idina Menzel (or “Adele Dazeem”, if you’re John Travolta) was the feisty (read: irritating) Maureen in RENT, an extremely influential rock musical set amidst the 1980’s AIDS epidemic.
Demanding acceptance is the name of the game in this canonical duet, and throughout the entire show for that matter. These ladies gonna show ya: We make ourselves small for nobody!
When I Grow Up – Matilda
“When I grow up I will be brave enough to fight the creatures / That you have to fight beneath the bed / Each night to be a grown up”
Category is: ADULTING. I’m not sure I will ever get through this song without wistful tears filling my eyes. We’re all in it right now – grappling with the notion of becoming ‘grown up’, and what the heck that even means anyway. The comedian and frickin’ mega skilled composer, Tim Minchin, piles on the metaphors in this mid-show hit, masterfully pinpointing the naivety of youth and our shared misconceptions about how it’ll be when we finally reach supposed adult status.
We may continue to feel small, scared, weak, and lacking control sometimes, and we still need to wear SPF, because it turns out adults are just, like, taller kids who have to get jobs. Who knew?
Ring of Keys – Fun Home
“Do you feel my heart saying ‘hi’?”
Now onto the winner of the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical, Fun Home. This musical is impressive for many reasons, including the fact that it is adapted from a graphic novel of the same name – the memoir of real-life genius and idol, Alison Bechdel. (Some may recognise this name from the Bechdel Test – a tool measuring the representation of women in fiction… I mean, she’s incredible. Let’s all read more about her life and work later on.)
This song, written by composers Tesori and Kron, is a moving moment of sexual and emotional realisation for the ten year-old Alison. A butch lesbian delivery driver enters the diner in which she is sat with her father, and an awe-inspiring awakening takes place. It’s beautiful writing that we can all relate to on some level. What a relief, to understand yourself a bit better.
Totally F*cked – Spring Awakening
“Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah!”
A song for when only teen angst and kicking stuff will do. Spring Awakening is just your typical alternative musical set in 19th Century Germany, focusing on teenage sexuality… Sure.
Adapted from a 1891 play of the same name, this beautiful and haunting show tackles serious subject matter (trigger warnings apply in relation to suicide, child abuse/sexual abuse, abortion, death and loss) and the dangerous effects a repressive, close-minded society can have on young people during their formative years. This song – performed as the male protagonist learns he has been expelled from school – is a handy tune for when le poo hits le fan.
This original Broadway cast starred Glee alumni Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff, whilst the subsequent West End production saw an Olivier Award triumph for Iwan Rheon (aka, Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Bolton, née Snow).
Move On – Sunday in the Park With George
“Anything you do / Let it come from you / Then it will be new”
Here we have the lord and saviour, Stephen Sondheim, working his magic and offering us a lesson in shaking off self-consciousness and self-doubt, in both work and life in general. George, struggling with artist’s block, receives an enduring reminder that whilst history is vast and something may have been done previously, his own interpretation and voice are still valuable and important. George, don’t let that negative inner-voice stifle your productivity, mate!
Whilst I’m sure a few friends will chastise me for choosing this production over the iconic original cast, I needed y’all to hear Jake Gyllenhaal’s dulcet tones. P.S.: This exact production, including Jake G, is transferring to London’s West End for a limited run in 2020! (Bonus fun fact: This part was originally played by Saul off of Homeland, so… Everyone and their dog is popping up here, aren’t they? I told you musical theatre was for everyone.)
Stars and the Moon – Songs for a New World
“I looked up, and all that I could think of / Was the life I had dreamt I would live”
So, it’s 2019. I feel like most of us understand that money, lifestyle and belongings are not all that matters. We totally get that experience and kindness are worth their weight in shoes and cars. But, also, the Kardashians exist and somehow continue to leak into our day-to-day experience, so it doesn’t hurt to have a folky tune to remind us of what really matters, right? This is fable-telling at its best. My primary school would have 100% done an assembly on this story, I’m telling ya.
Jason Robert Brown manages to write all sorts of magic, in all sorts of ways. One of the things that sceptics don’t realise about musical theatre is that it’s not all classic show tunes featuring brash, belting broads with their jazz hands and tap shoes. Story-telling through music and acting can traverse genres and movements, as this and the next song will show. Catch me passing this one off as a Joni Mitchell B-Side at the next open mic.
My Shot – Hamilton
“I’m past patiently waiting / I’m passionately smashing every expectation / Every action’s an act of creation!”
Ohhhh heck, it’s Lin Manuel-Miranda and his modern masterpiece, Hamilton. I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to get to him, to be honest. This man changed musical theatre forever. By forgoing the somewhat archaic conventions of the industry, LMM chose to cast those who could best rap and perform his songs, creating an inclusive, talent-centred cast. This show sees people of colour taking on roles such as George Washington, which traditionally would’ve only been portrayed by white performers. This show achieved so much and continues to make a long-needed statement about representation in theatre.
Often referred to as a ‘global phenomenon’, Hamilton tells the story of the founding fathers of America through R’n’B and hip hop. The show is legit like a fun short course in (one very small corner of) American political history. In ‘My Shot’, a song from near the beginning of the score, a young (scrappy and hungry) upstart known as Alexander Hamilton approaches his peers and asserts himself as an ambitious force to be reckoned with. The narrative that follows is almost confoundingly enthralling and emotional. I first listened to it from start to finish whilst teaching myself to knit beanies. I was an inconsolable mess by the end of it. A blubbering mess wearing a new hat.
This is a great track for when you’re presented with an opportunity that may seem daunting. Go for it with all the determination of a rapping congressman!
Everything’s Coming Up Roses – Gypsy
“You can do it / All you need is a hand”
Remember when I said not everything in musical theatre has that classic show tune vibe? WELL HERE’S THE MOST MOTIVATIONAL CLASSIC SHOW TUNE OF ALL TIME, CHUMS.
I have been known to state there is a show tune for every circumstance in life. This one, for instance, is good to sing aggressively at a friend when they are doubting their performance in an end of year exam. Yes, I am speaking from experience.
I like to think of this character, Mamma Rose, as my very own Jiminy Cricket. Sure, she’s slightly abrasive and unrelenting, but she cheers me on through it all! Listen to this song and get yourself a mini Mamma Rose to keep in your pocket in times of doubt!
So many powerful and inspirational women have played Mamma Rose, a bulldozing mother with Broadway in her sights. This production saw Imelda Staunton (AKA, Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potts) take to the role, and I love her brash vocals. There are rumours that Barbra Streisand is gonna star in a potential movie remake, so if you need me I’ll just be watching that for the rest of my life, thanks.
I Have Confidence – The Sound of Music
“Whilst I show them / I’ll show me”
It’s a pretty self-explanatory one, this. Richard Rodgers wrote this additional song for the 1965 film adaptation of the stage show and it is a feel-good hit. A bit vanilla, sure. But a truly golden gem. Let Julie Andrews’ absolutely flawless voice fill you with self-belief. YOU GOT THIS!
Don’t Rain on My Parade – Funny Girl
“I’m gonna live and live now”
And now, the pièce de résistance in this trio of legendary motivational classics; a true belter from the queen herself. (Please note: I have done extremely well to not make every other song on this playlist a Barbra banger.) Funny Girl is one of my favourite films and this legendary song serves as a turning point for the lead character, Fanny Brice, as she decides to take control of her own fate.
Filmed in 1968, Funny Girl challenged established cultural stereotypes and gender roles, depicting a strong and successful, Jewish female lead, who was totally unreliant on men. After winning a Best Actress Oscar for Funny Girl, Streisand’s life continued to imitate art as she went on to become the first woman to win an Oscar for composing music (for A Star Is Born in 1976). She also remains the only woman to ever win a Golden Globe for film directing (for her 1983 film, Yentl, which she also wrote, produced and starred in). What a woman. Ain’t nobody raining on her parade lemme tell ya.
Wait For It – Hamilton
“I am not standing still / I am lying in wait”
Aaaaand back to Hamilton. (I couldn’t wax lyrical about this masterpiece and only include one song.) In our technological age where we expect everything to HAPPEN RIGHT NOW IMMEDIATELY PLZ, this song is like the modern equivalent of the old adage, ‘patience is a virtue’.
As we’ve already heard, Alexander Hamilton radiates tenacity and ambition. Throughout the narrative he becomes frustrated by his rival, Aaron Burr, who he sees as lacking conviction or momentum. Some of us take more time to realise our potential, though, innit?
In this absolute banger (covered by Usher on the Hamilton ‘Mixtape’ album don’tchyaknow) Burr assures the audience he is not inactive, but merely keeping his head down, working hard, dormant until his own time to ascend. (Unfortunately for Hamilton, that time ended up being when Burr shot him dead, but that’s another matter. Also, this doesn’t count as a spoiler – Burr states in the opening number of the show that he shoots Hamilton. Also, it happened in 1804, so, like, history spoilers are not a thing, c’mon now.)
I Am Moana – Moana
“Nothing on Earth can silence / The quiet voice still inside you”
Okay so I was going to avoid all Disney film soundtracks as, whilst many of them are totes obvs musicals, they do not fit the specific theatre vibe I’m going for here. However, who can resist this empowering culmination in Moana’s journey to self-discovery? (And anyway, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote music and lyrics for this film, so it can be included in this list due to its Broadway royalty associations. I make the rules here, don’t @ me.)
In her very own ‘Mufasa moment’, Moana is visited by her beloved late grandmother who reminds her of that inner voice and hidden strength. And she totally finds it in that big last note… Wooo!
Not While I’m Around – Sweeney Todd
“Others can desert you / Not to worry, whistle, I’ll be there”
Well whaddyaknow, it’s my boy Sondheim… Again.
Providing some soothing relief from Sweeney Todd’s generally terrifying and dissonant vibe, this lovely number demonstrates the unshakeable, protective love we feel for those dear to us. I definitely don’t sing this to my cats whilst they sleep, I don’t know where you got such an idea.
Apologies for using the movie version. Believe me when I say that stage productions of this amazing show do its score and writing 10000000% more justice than Tim Burton ever could, but the recordings tend to include a lot of dialogue, so I had to go with this one for the sake of the playlist. (I do enjoy Helena Bonham-Carter’s delivery of that disconcerting, ominous key change, though, the creepy queen.)
No One Is Alone – Into The Woods
“Someone is on your side / No one is alone”
If I were to hold a music awards ceremony inside my own brain, this would win the prestigious accolade: “Song Which Soothes My Anxiety Most Effectively and Immediately”.
The eventful plot of this busy musical sees various fairytale characters journey through the tangle of the woods, a metaphor for life’s journey. As someone whose depression has at times told them that life is a profoundly lonely experience, this beautiful work by Sondheim (yep, him again) acts as a reminder that none of us are alone in this world. Even when we feel utterly isolated, someone will hear our voice. There is also commentary here on how our actions impact others, and we are reminded that we must all be accepting of each other’s mistakes. We are all only human, just tryna navigate these tricksy woods.
Now, let’s all just pretend the 2014 film never happened.
You Give A Little Love – Bugsy Malone
“We could be the best at being good guys”
Now onto a comedy musical about murderous gangsters, played by a cast comprised entirely of children, shooting each other with whipped cream splurge guns… What’s not to love?
The film featured a young Jodie Foster, acting the cotton socks off the rest of ‘em, with all songs bizarrely dubbed over with odd adult voices. It’s a wild ride which reaches its climax with this instantly recognisable number about spreading love. The notion of striving to ‘be the best at being good’ fills my heart with so much joy. Gonna make it my new life goal.
You Will Be Found – Dear Evan Hansen
“When you’re broken on the ground / You will be found”
May the Musical Gods bless you if you read this far. Your reward is to weep uncontrollably to this ridiculously emotive last song. This playlist – a slightly ludicrous labour of love – concludes as it began, with an epic number from Dear Evan Hansen. And what better finale than one insisting that a light will shine through in even the darkest times.
Hearing so many voices sing out powerfully against depression and isolation is just sheer magic. You can almost feel the warmth of the sun on your face as the song builds. I cannot resist that spine-tingling climb to a full company sound, packed with tear-jerking lyrics and harmonies. Sure, it’s a bit cheesy, but it’s what musical theatre is all about (with a few slightly cringe social media references chucked in for the kidz).
10/10 will sing on my drive to work tomorrow morning and will remember to appreciate the world around me.
Our Time (Merrily We Roll Along) – The finale from an amazing Sondheim musical (the narrative of which runs backwards in chronology) set to be adapted for the big screen by director Richard Linklater, starring Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen, The Politician, Pitch Perfect), to be filmed over the next twenty years!
She Used To Be Mine (Waitress)
You’ll Never Walk Alone (Carousel) – A beautiful finale from this classic show long before Liverpool adopted it for their soccer game.
I Sing The Body Electric, Out Here On My Own (Fame)
Falsettos – A truly beautiful, highly emotional, funny and intelligent musical set in a late 1970s America on the precipice of the AIDS crisis. One of my favourites of all-time, but so narrative-heavy it didn’t seem to fit in this list. A great one to listen to from start to finish. The revival cast featured Andrew Rannells who stars as Elijah in HBO’s hit show Girls. Also, FYI, Falsettos is now making its UK debut in London’s West End for a limited run until November 2019!
Book of Mormon – From the creators of South Park. Hilarious, clever and outrageous in equal measure. Book of Mormon expertly parodies classic shows whilst demonstrating Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s genuinely awesome musical prowess. Nervous about causing offense, I avoided putting any of the songs on this playlist, but check it out for huge lols and maximum singalong hits (and extensive use of profanity).