I love musicals. I see the world through stories and musicals tell stories through music. They transport you to a hyper version of our world, where the rules, dilemmas and lessons are the same, but they come packaged in vibrant, melancholy, pitch perfect songs. During my teenage years I formed bonds with musical soundtracks that transported me away from my life as a high school student or presented a version of a high school experience with the monotony removed and the problems creating music. Musicals are often derided, yet through the show tunes they present interesting themes and nuanced perspectives.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat
When I was about 8 years old, I went to see Joseph. I don’t remember much about the experience, but I do remember belting out the songs afterwards whilst listening on a Walkman. I initially thought my love of musicals started in my early teens, but it clearly started earlier. Then again, I’m sure songs from Disney movies also got me hooked on musical storytelling.
High School Musical
I was one of those 13 year old girls who were obsessed with High School Musical. I am not at all ashamed of it. I think society insults teenage girls for their interests and obsessions way too much, which does not help their feelings of worth and confidence, and perpetuates the idea that only the things guys like are cool. I would listen to the soundtrack on repeat when I came back from school every day. Every so often I play the songs and I still know every word and every pause. High School Musical is seen as a big joke, but I think it valued the worries and doubts of teenagers struggling to find their place.
I also belted out Good Morning Baltimore a hell of a lot and I played the Hairspray soundtrack so much that I broke the CD case. Hairspray brought in my interest in American History and my love of early 60s rock and roll to the musical genre. The story puts faith in a teenage girl’s optimism and stubbornness and is actually one of the few films with an overweight female star. It respected the idea of having dreams, but that there are big problems in our world that need solving too. The story is fairly simple but the music packs a punch and I’d love to see it on stage one day. Good Morning Baltimore is one of my favourite opening songs of any musical and I Know Where I’ve Been shows the strength and patience of those seeking justice.
I’ve seen Wicked on stage three times and even though I know the soundtrack so well I still find new themes in the show each time. Female friendship is at the forefront of Wicked and that’s so much rarer to find in stories than you’d hope. Defying Gravity has been covered a million times, but the original still hits me hard. I think Wicked is underestimated because it is a musical, it’s quite cheesy at times and it’s about young women, but it is incredibly clever and has a lot to tell about the world around us. Listening to the soundtrack the other day it felt so contemporary to Trump’s America. It’s not the biggest stretch as the musical includes literal scapegoating, but there is also a whole element of the story that is about alternative facts and how those in power are able to call anything they want the truth. Wicked always brings me back to Earth whenever I get pretentious about the arts.
I first saw Billy Elliot on the West End and I saw it for a second time in December last year. The best thing about Billy Elliot is the dancing, but I enjoy the songs too even if they benefit from a repeat listen. Solidarity is particularly clever for its blend of Billy’s ballet class with the picket line of the miners’ strike. The story is mostly uplifting but the best song, Once We Were Kings, is heart-wrenching for its simplicity.
I went to see Les Miserables when it was on tour in Manchester when I was in my late teens. It’s my mum’s favourite musical so she gave me high expectations, but the intensity and the emotion of the songs are hard to match. I was very impressed by both the stage musical and the film version I saw a couple years later. I don’t listen to the soundtrack a lot because of the tone of the musical, but it has some of the best songs in all of musical theatre.
Hamilton is my current musical obsession. It’s so good that it’s the only one on this list that I’ve come to love without seeing on screen or on stage, but purely from the soundtrack. The music spans genres, the lyrics are dense, fast-paced and perfectly chosen, the story is huge yet intimidate. It’s a completely sung and rapped through musical so the soundtrack provides a whopping 46 tracks. With the other musicals on this list, I have my favourite songs, but with Hamilton, my favourite songs change constantly. Hamilton is able to both respect and reinvent the musical genre. I can’t wait to see it at the West End in March 2018.
I know musicals aren’t for everyone, but they are for me, and singing along to their soundtracks provide me with a lot of joy. I’m a big lover of theatre in general and I love seeing something truly innovative, but I’ll never stop watching musicals. If you love them too, let me know your favourites!