One of my friends has a birthday coming up in May. Back in November, she jokingly told me I should make her a mixed CD of Broadway songs for her birthday, since I’m so obsessed with them and she knows very few of them.
Obviously, I did not take this as a joke. I took this as a very serious assignment, and I’ve been carefully considering song choices for months. While making a prioritized list of songs, I noticed some things about my top five choices.
Firstly, not one of my “top six most-listened-to” musical songs comes from my three favorite musicals (Les Misérables, Next to Normal, and Rent). Perhaps, it’s because I love basically every song from each of those musicals. They work so well together as a whole; how could I ever choose a favorite song from any of those three? I almost never listen to just one song from them. Once I hear one song, I just need to hear the whole album!
Secondly, all of them share thematic elements. They are all songs about hopes and dreams, but those dreams are marred by the knowledge that they can never be real. In two of them, the characters sing with utter joy; they truly believe these things can come to pass. Only the audience knows they’re wrong. In the other songs, the characters are aware that their dreams will probably never come true.
So let’s look at the songs:
- “The Wizard and I” from Wicked – Elphaba dreams of putting her magic to use by working with the Wizard of Oz. The most brilliant thing about this song is the dramatic irony built into it.
At one point she sings, “But I swear, someday there’ll be a celebration throughout Oz that’s all to do with me!” The audience knows that there will be a celebration…when she dies.
Other examples include, “I’d be so happy I could melt!” (referencing the death in the classic Wizard of Oz) and “When people see me they will scream” (she means they’ll scream in excitement, but they will actually scream in fear).
- “Wheels of A Dream” from Ragtime – Sarah and Coalhouse are a young black couple dreaming of how their son’s life will be so much better than their own. The audience doesn’t even need to know the tragic end of the show to know it won’t quite work out that way. Standing on the other side of history, the audience knows that racism didn’t magically disappear in the early 20th century, but that knowledge just adds poignancy to their beautiful dream.
My eyes well up every time during the final lines: “With the promise of happiness and the freedom he’ll live to know, he’ll travel with head held high, just as far as his heart can go. And he will ride – our son will ride – on the wheels of a dream.”
- “A New Life” from Jekyll and Hyde– Lucy wishes for a new start in life, but she doesn’t truly believe she’ll get one. She even sings “a new love, though I know there’s no such thing as true love.”
- “The I Love You Song” from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – When asked to spell the word “chimerical,” Olive day dreams about her parents telling her how much they love her. When she repeats the definition of the world (“unreal, magical, visionary, wildly fanciful, highly unrealistic”), Olive makes it clear that the day dream is simply a product of wishful thinking.
These last two are a bit more metaphorical.
- “Don’t Do Sadness” from Spring Awakening – Moritz would love to be as carefree as a butterfly or the wind, but despite his statements to the contrary, it is clear that Moritz is deeply miserable (especially if you know what he does immediately after this song).
- “Falling Slowly” from Once – The chorus goes “Take this sinking boat and point it home. We’ve still got time.” There’s really nothing more hopeless than trying to sail home in a sinking boat.
What does this pattern of song choices say about me? Nothing that I didn’t already know: I’m at once a cynic and a romantic, trapped in one contradictory body.
Now obviously I have room for more than 6 songs on the birthday CD. What songs do you think I’m missing? Which songs should I pick from Les Misérables, Next to Normal, and Rent? I have such a hard time choosing!!! Though perhaps I should include some happy songs as well?