Musical Notes

I’m putting my cards on the table from the jump: I do not have a long history with the musical genre. Of course I’d always loved music, and I’d mostly loved live theatre, but I’d never shown much interest in what their combined powers could do. In fact, until the last few years I’d only seen a stray musical here and there, and I’d never explicitly sought one out.

As music streaming services became more prevalent however, original cast albums did too, and as the barriers to entry softened, both my first-hand exposure and personal interest in the genre deepened.

What follows is an assortment of songs from some of my favorite musicals, each meant for either standalone consumption or as an entry point into the show itself. Perhaps the only theme amongst the ensuing group of tunes is my deep passion for them, so keep an open mind and enjoy!

Groundhog Day (2017)

I know I know, is the first entry on this list really a musical based on the 1993 Bill Murray comedy “Groundhog Day”? Hear me out. Yes, the movie is terrific and should never be the victim of a remake, but the musical adaptation of the story stands on its own in a legitimate way. Between Tim Minchin’s superb score and a poetically circular story by Danny Rubin (who also wrote the film), Groundhog Day the musical does an excellent job of lacing comedy into tragedy, and tragedy into comedy.

While neither of the songs below are outright farcical, I’m drawn to them because of how expertly they vacillate between heartfelt and ironic emotion.

Hope

In Hope, Phil Connors (brilliantly played by Andy Karl) is trying to stay positive in the face of ongoing disappointment that suicide isn’t enough to release him from the insanity of living the same day over and over. Phil ponders whether he should just give himself over to his new reality and let the madness take him, but he chooses to fight that urge and continue to attempt new methods of self-destruction in hopes that he’ll escape the darkness.

It’s a grim premise for a song, but Minchin has appropriately chosen to refer to it as “bleakly ironic”. The second clip was pirated from the Broadway show, and I included it because it demonstrates how the show takes pleasure with the choreography, and how the staging actually coaxes a dark song into a lighter tone.

Seeing You

For this number, I chose a version sung by Minchin himself, because of the excellent soul he brings to his rendition. Seeing You is the final song of the musical, and it’s here when the audience finally sees Phil Connors as the genuinely changed man he has become. Due to this triumph, this moment is also very satisfying because it’s Phil’s final inside the time loop, and when he awakes the next morning the calendar has flipped to February 3rd.  

The lyrics of this song are particularly good, but the sound mixing on the video is a little quiet, so turn the volume up!

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1973)

Created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and based on Joseph’s story from the Bible, I became acquainted with this musical during the Covid-19 quarantine when the show was released on YouTube for free to encourage donations for those who had effectively lost their jobs when live theatre was forced to shut down.

Initially I put the show on in the background, but the show slowly pulled me in over the course of Act I, and by the beginning of Act II I was starting to understand what the “Donny Osmond-hype” was all about. His excellent portrayal of Joseph in the 1999 filmed version wasn’t the only thing the show had going for it though, as it also does a great job highlighting its supporting players, assigning some of the best songs to minor characters.

Perhaps the most well-known song from the show is also Joseph’s introduction, “Any Dream Will Do”, but that song is fairly standard as musicals go, and the reason I was drawn into “Dreamcoat” as a whole was due to the extremely varied musical genres it showcases.

Those Canaan Days

The unconventional sound of Those Canaan Days is very indicative of the boundless creativity that can be found in the musical as a whole. The brothers, who have never left Israel, are humorously bemoaning the sad state of their lives to the tune of a French ballad.

It’s also the beginning of redemption for Joseph’s brothers, who in Act I are responsible for selling him into slavery due to their shared jealousy of him.

Just lay back and let the song rock the cradle.

Benjamin Calypso

If Those Canaan Days demonstrates to the audience that Joseph’s brothers are changed men, then Benjamin Calypso is where they prove it to Joseph himself.

Joseph, in an attempt to test whether his brothers have truly turned over a new leaf, plants a golden cup on the youngest and most innocent brother, Benjamin, and then accuses him of theft. To Joseph’s surprise and the brothers’ credit, they immediately jump to Benjamin’s defense, singing another delightfully offbeat and endlessly catchy song.

Song Of The King

Though Song Of The King appears before the previous two in the narrative of the musical, it’s inclusion here is to reinforce the chameleon-like nature of the show. The reveal of Pharaoh as Elvis is nothing if not delightful.

Immense extra credit for The Narrator’s ripping vocals at the beginning of the song.

Come From Away (2017)

This true story from Irene Sankoff and David Hein takes place in the days following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, told from the perspective of a small Canadian town situated near the Atlantic Ocean called Gander. In the wake of the hijackings, for the first time in United States history all airspace was closed and planes that were in the sky were indefinitely grounded at their nearest airports.

Though given the impossible task of welcoming and supporting the 7,000 passengers and crew aboard the 38 commercial planes that were grounded at Gander International Airport, the islander citizens rallied together and made the absolute best out of the absolute worst.

Come From Away has many worthwhile messages in it, but at its core the show is about hope – hope that we’ll always make time to listen, hope that we can summon bravery when others can’t, hope that we’ll always lead with love.

Welcome To The Rock

It’s tricky to pick a single song to stand alone as a representative of the whole show, because altogether the songs add up to one amazingly true story. For that reason, it’s only natural to choose the show’s opener, Welcome To The Rock, as the delegate.

This song is all about establishing the time and place for what’s to come, and the way it builds curiosity and momentum into the narrative is exactly the kind of energy fit for an introduction.

Spring Awakening (2006)

Based on a German play of the same name written in 1891, the story is broadly about young people taking their first steps into adulthood by way of exploring their blossoming sexualities. With book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, though the musical remains set in the late 1800s, it has a modern twist in that the characters croon in a “2000s alt-rock” style.

The original Broadway cast is loaded with actors who would go onto bigger things too, including the likes of Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele, Skylar Astin and John Gallagher Jr.

The Bitch Of Living

I love this song as an introduction to the men of the show, showcasing the looming stories for each guy. On top of that, as someone who always welcomes a little emo in his rock, there’s more than enough of it in this song to satiate my personal appetite.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)

The second Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical featured on this list and their second produced work altogether (how good are these guys?), JCS is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. In particular I like the version from 2012, which updates the story and costumes for modern times, maintaining the drama’s relevancy with the perhaps less-religious audience of today.

Heaven On Their Minds

In addition to ALW/Rice, I’ve also included Tim Minchin for a second time on this list as well. The first big tune of JCS is an electrifying song by Minchin’s Judas, as he worries about the trajectory of his friend Jesus, who Judas believes is putting himself at risk of upsetting the dangerously fickle nature of “the people”. Of course, it’s this exact capricious human quality that Jesus is aiming to connect with on his journey to heal the world of its sins, and it’s here where he and Judas diverge.

Heaven On Their Minds is a tremendous song with which to kick off a musical, and this version would be nearly perfect if only the recording hadn’t been needlessly auto-tuned in a couple sections. Only God knows why that choice was made, but he’s not in this show.

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 (2017)

It’s undeniably an odd choice to create an “electropop opera” (as composer Dave Malloy refers to his show) based on a 70-page chunk of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, but no one can ever accuse Malloy of mimicking the sound or style of anyone else. That sentence also understates what Malloy has created, because those who enjoy The Great Comet, really enjoy The Great Comet.

Pierre

While listening to this song again, it dawns on me suddenly that Josh Groban is a tremendous Pierre because he so deftly embodies the sad heart of the show while also loading serious spirit into it. Unfortunately, Groban’s name was also the reason the show was staying afloat with tickets sales, and it permanently closed shortly after he departed the musical.

Sunday In The Park With George (1984)

A friend of mine had been encouraging me to watch this Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine show for years, but a synopsis of “George Seurat painting his master work ‘A Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte’” never managed to get me over the hump. For the sake of the friendship though, I could only resist watching it for so long, and when I finally carved out the time for the original production I was immediately struck by the soaring talent of Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.

Move On

Move On has become a regular revisit for me personally, and anyone who has dreams of undertaking some creative endeavor can relate to this song.

 In Act II, Patinkin shifts from playing George Seurat to playing the man’s great-grandson, an artist also named George. He’s frustrated and worried that whatever he creates has been created before and therefore it’ll never be original. Bernadette Peters, now back in character as George Seurat’s mistress Dot, appears as a vision in front of her great-grandson and reminds him that so long as the art originates from George, it will always be original. She continues on, saying that George must stop stressing over every minor choice if he’s going to overcome being creatively blocked, and that he should simply make a decision for the sake of moving onto the next question.

The same as in life and art, oftentimes done is better than perfect.

Summation

Musicals are a powerful method of storytelling, and when they’re done well they succeed at delivering their message using stylized spectacle and remarkably memorable tunes.

If any of these songs stood out in a positive way, full cast albums can be unearthed on any streaming service, and filmed productions can be found online in full or in clips.

As a call to action, I urge everyone to expand their horizons, and take a risk on a new musical today!

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