Musical theatre has been an enormous part of my life since I discovered it as a young teenager. Granted, of course, I’d seen a lot of the classics around Christmas as a kid. Grease, The Sound of Music, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and of course, plenty of Disney movies, not that I recognised them as musicals at the time. And while my opinion on the mentioned titled has soured over the years (Disney movies aside), performing in musicals and watching a larger variety over the years has given me a much deeper appreciation for the genre. The introduction of music gives musical theatre an extra tool in story-telling, and when used effectively, can create truly spine-chilling moments and performances that cannot be replicated by any other form of media. That is not to suggest that shows that don’t do this for me or failures – there is merit to the more light-hearted and “frivolous” and some shows just don’t benefit from those types of moments – The Producers and Avenue Q spring to mind, despite being two of my favourites. To celebrate and demonstrate this, I wanted to list off (in no particular order) ten of my favourite moments that really do give me those chills and bring out stronger emotions that simply couldn’t have worked for me without music.
Beginning with the most recent addition to my list and most recent ear-worm, Hamilton is a brilliant piece of theatre told in an incredibly innovative manner, and I cannot praise it enough. I’m really not a hip-hop or rap fan and yet I honestly cannot get enough of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece. But the moment that gives me chills above all others from Hamilton (and it would be easy for me to just stick the whole thing here) comes from the close of Act One and Non-Stop, detailing the titular character’s tireless work ethic and his incredible rise to power and prominence as America begins to set itself up having defeated the British. Narrator and rival Aaron Burr describes it brilliantly in the coda, and his delivery truly sells both how impressed he is and the incredible feats Hamilton is capable of.
“Alexander joins forces with James Madison and John Jay to write a series of essays defending the new United States Constitution, entitled The Federalist Papers. The plan was to write a total of twenty-five essays, the work divided evenly among the three men. In the end, they wrote eighty-five essays, in the span of six months. John Jay got sick after writing five. James Madison wrote twenty-nine. Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one!”
Moving back a good 50-60 years now to a musical I’m proud to have performed in and respect hugely, though I strongly question its structure. In most stage performances of West Side Story, the interval is after the rumble and the deaths of Riff and Bernardo. In the performance I worked on, it was instead set after the quintet and before the rumble, allowing the tension to be kept over the break. But I digress. The reprise of Tony and Maria’s romantic duet allows for outstanding harmonies that, as said, dramatically ramp up the tension before the fight between the Jets and Sharks and create contrast between the purity of Tony and Maria’s infatuation and the violent hatred and racial tensions between the two gangs.
This one is slightly more personal – while I was working on a performance of Rent, my great-uncle passed away, the very day that our cast was learning this song and the routine to go along with it. As such, it always brings back memories of how he was after having his stroke, permanently bed-ridden at home. Even without that though, the round creates arguably the most human and tragic moment of Rent. The story of the main cast screeches to a halt as the members of the AIDS support group stare their mortality in the face and question what’ll happen to them as their health inevitably deteriorates. The way the round builds is what sells it for me, growing each verse.
Javert is one of my favourite characters in musical theatre, and every confrontation between him and Jean Valjean offers a critical eye on his zealotry, unflappable determination and belief in the justice system, even when it is shown to be wholly and unnecessarily cruel, something Hugo critiqued for a good hundred pages in his original writings. Seeing the character as this moment of vulnerability, worn down from his repeated encounters with Valjean and grappling with his moral quandary shows his resolute stubbornness to adhere to his principles at the effective cost of his life, and the mirror with the show’s opening as he leaps from the bridge to his death is one of Les Mis’ highlights.
I will never forgive Russell Crowe for his mangling of it.
Defying Gravity is the obvious choice, and indeed, it has that effect on me as well, particularly in its final verse, but No Good Deed comes at the lowest point of Elphaba’s life and is all the better for it. The ice in her voice as she declares herself evil because she has no other option is palpable. It’s a very bitter song, full of years’ worth of resentment towards everything that has backfired on the Witch of the West and cost her friends, family and her lover and can hit very close to home for anyone who’s felt similarly misfortunate despite their best efforts. The vocals are incredibly challenging, but very rewarding for any actress who can pull them off, and her pure despair can make for haunting and chilling performances.
- The Hunt from Whistle Down The Wind
Another tension-building song, The Hunt is perhaps an unusual choice, but I love the way that the townspeople’s bloodlust reaches its peak here. But juxtaposing it with the children’s innocence and determination to protect The Man, whom they fervently believe is Jesus reborn (literally), and having the adults reprise No Matter What is a brilliant stroke that underpins many of the themes of Whistle Down The Wind, as is highlighting the conflict between Sparrow and her father Boone. It’s the show’s dramatic high point, and is sold almost entirely by performance, as the vocals aren’t especially challenging or interesting – this just speaks to the strength of the lines and music as well as actors’ ability, and is one more wonderful phenomenon within musical theatre.
Take my word for it, I can’t find a link for this one.
The musicality of Phantom makes any of its numbers excellent choices for this list but Music of the Night plays to its biggest strength – the Phantom himself and his incredibly alluring character and underpins a lot of what the show is about – the beauty of music in itself. It’s a melodious and gentle piece that directly contrasts with the Phantom’s mighty introduction and is more about his character than his mythos. The contrast is perfect and the wonderful musicality combined with quite soothing vocals make for one of Phantom’s most spellbinding moments.
The Last Five Years’ unique structure is at its peak here, as the midpoint of the show and the midpoint of their relationship allows for the only point of the show where Jamie and Kathy sing together (though not at the same time). It makes for one of the most romantic pieces in musical theatre, made all the more poignant by the audience’s certain knowledge that things will all end horribly. All at once both beautifully heartwarming, and sure to make the eyes water, The Next Ten Minutes is a romantic duet that pulls at every heartstring it can to drive daggers into the audience’s chests, making the most of dramatic irony.
Mister Cellophane is a rather unassuming number – much like the character performing it. It’s a very quietly resentful and self-loathing song from musical theatre’s biggest doormat, but utterly showstopping in its own right and it’s oddly inspiring in that way. In a show full of over the top characters, sex appeal and bombastic jazz numbers, Amos apologises to the audience for taking up their time, but refuses in his own small way to go quietly into the night and stands up for himself by complaining – possibly for the first time in his life. Granted, I’m perhaps reading too deeply into it, but it strikes a chord with many people frightened of confrontation and who consider themselves doormats like Amos. It’s a song that conveys a lot of sadness and his final “never even know” is frequently a haunting moment and highlight of any performance.
I really like the songs where everything just goes to hell, if you can’t tell. Another piece where dramatic tension is built up as high it can go before the finale, Madman is notable for being the culmination of the Narrator’s ominous prophecies – the Devil has Mrs. Johnstone’s number. I’ve had the pleasure to play this part myself, and it’s very hard not to get into it and be almost pleased that things are coming to an end this way. The bombastic vocals are an excellent tool and give off the impression of madness that matches both Mickey’s bloodlust and the mood of the show as Mrs. Johnstone and Linda panic and rush to stop him from shooting his brother dead.
In concluding, writing this post finally got me to put words to exactly why I love musical theatre, why it is so valuable and how strongly it can affect our emotions. May it never cease to do so.