Five Inspirational Musicals (Other Than Hamilton) to Help You Fight the Power
In times of oppression and fear, art has always been there to inspire us. For musical fans old and new, Hamilton has become even more of a touchstone in recent months, but it’s not the first and it certainly won’t be the last musical to tackles issues of race and poverty or tell a story of rebellion. When you think musical theater, you might automatically think of cheerful farmers or singing cats, but musicals have always been about important issues, often ahead of their times. Here are five shows to listen to when the world is getting you down. We’ll go through these in chronological order and, obviously, there are going to be some spoilers.
I know, you thought I was going to start with The Sound of Music. I’ll admit, the story of music versus Nazis is inspiring, but it’s a bit too on the nose right now. Instead, I’ll direct you to South Pacific. Though it’s remembered for hits like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” and “Some Enchanted Evening,” it was famous in its time – which was 1949 – for addressing issues of racism head on when such things just weren’t discussed. The romance between a Navy nurse and a French ex-pat is complicated by his mixed-race children, and a sailor falls in love with a Tonkinese woman. As one of many Rodgers and Hammerstein classics that tackled complex and controversial issues like racism and war (see also: Flower Drum Song, The King and I and the one I already mentioned with the kids and the nuns), it still has important things to say along with some immortal music.
Inspirational song: “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”
The most controversial song of the show, garnering both praise and criticism, this ballad is a searing indictment of racism that is just as resonant today and it was nearly seventy years ago. It reminds us that no one is born racist, and that hate is something learned. It’s something we need to be aware of, but also take hope from, because prejudice can be unlearned as well.
There’s no musical more fitting for this list. Jean Val Jean’s epic journey through the struggles of the “wretched of the earth” in post-Napoleonic France is one of the most popular musicals in the world for good reason. It is the story of the poor, the forgotten, the marginalized, the used, and the defeated; the very voices those in power wish to ignore now. The struggles of the student rebels, who fight seemingly in vain for a better world, are especially poignant now. It might seem depressing, given its astronomical body count (spoiler, sorry) but Les Mis a story about hope—the hope found in forgiveness and compassion, in sacrifice and selfless love, and the hope for a better tomorrow that lives in us all. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
Inspirational song: “Do You Hear the People Sing (Reprise)”
While the first rendition of this song will get your blood pumping and your soul riled for revolution, it’s the reprise that we all need to hear these days. The full cast appears from the afterlife to remind the audience of the simple truth that hope never dies and that even the darkest time can promise a better tomorrow.
This musical is a product of its time in the best way. This fusing of Puccini and pop with the story of a crew of East Villagers dealing with poverty, AIDS, homophobia, and addiction took the world by storm, earning Tonys, a Pulitzer and fans sleeping in the street for tickets 20 years before Hamilton. Everything Rent has to say still matters today, whether it be the message of living life to the fullest in the face of suffering and impermanence, or standing up boldly for what you believe even when the folkz with all the money and power want to bring you down. Especially now, when gay rights and HIV research are at stake and opioid addiction is surging, Rent remains an essential story of vitality and hope – one that you can really tap your feet to.
Inspirational song: “La Vie Boheme”
This song is the perfect, jubilant middle finger to prudery and hate. It’s about art and love and celebration mattering more than ever in the face of intolerance and darkness. If there were a song to stage as a flash mob in front of Mike Pence’s house, this would be it. Bonus if it includes a solo played backward through a vocoder accompanied by electric cello.
Yes, really. Theater newbies might not get how extremely political this show is, but politics is the main plot. Elphaba, the titular wicked witch, is a rebel against the Wizard of Oz’s corrupt government, which is seizing power by vilifying the talking animals of Oz and taking their very ability to speak. It’s a commentary on authoritarian regimes that sounds sort of familiar right now. Elphaba is only “wicked” because the government says she is. She uses all her power to fight for what she believes is right, even when faced with losing everything. Elphaba is a hero because she defies not just gravity but her own fears, insecurities and every limitation placed on her to try to change the world for the better. Right now, those are the kind of heroes we need.
Inspirational song: “For Good”
It was a close one between this and the literally soaring power of “Defying Gravity,” but this song gets to the core of Wicked: the power of friendship and how knowing someone can change not just your life, but your point of view. When faced with tyranny, all we have is each other, and sometimes the best way to change someone’s mind about an important issue is to get to their heart.
Originally a flop Disney live action movie, this show was finally retooled for Broadway in 2011 and fangirls could not have been happier. Based on the true story of the newsboys strike of 1899, Newsies is about a few idealistic young people, including a plucky girl reporter, who stand up to a dickhead millionaire and win the day. Many of the shows on this list aren’t necessarily success stories (heck, neither is Hamilton, really, unless you stop after act one), but Newsies is Disney and it’s exactly the kind of light and inspiration you need when it seems like change is impossible. By daring to dream and coming together, young people change the world for the better in the face of impossible odds. That’s the kind of story I want to keep seeing.
Inspirational song: “Seize the Day”
A rallying cry to fight against the people in their ivory towers that think they can hurt and use without consequence, it’s the kind of song we need to be singing on Fifth Avenue in front of Trump tower every day. When we fight together, nothing is impossible.
There are many shows that didn’t make this list (Cabaret, Evita, Fiddler on the Roof, and so many more), so just take it as a starting point to get your spirit in gear. Unless you plan on spending the next four years living under an opera house, you’ll need a soundtrack that reminds you to hope and not give up.
(featured image via Flickr/Matt Johnson, other images via screengrab)
Jessica Mason is a writer and lawyer living in Portland, Oregon passionate about corgis, fandom, and awesome girls. Follow her on Twitter at @FangirlingJess.
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