feature image credit: Maciej Bledowski / Shutterstock
A series in which we use the power of song to share a multimedia slice of our memories and experiences across time and bandwidth. Do you remember where you were when you heard this one, or this one? We do.
When I was 12, my parents took my sister and me to see the Phantom of the Opera at the Pantages Theatre in Toronto, Canada. I remember being completely overwhelmed. It was like the movies, but more intense, more real, more tangible. When Christine hit those high notes, when the Phantom played his own death knell song, the music became a thunderous vibration, filling the whole theater. It lifted me, made me catch my breath, holding a fullness in my chest that was new and thrilling.
Though Phantom is one of my least beloved musicals now, musical theatre is one of my favorite hobbies. I’m not a particularly skilled vocalist. I’m an OK actor. After failing high school musical auditions more than once, I settled for running the lightboard. My relationship to musical theatre is as audience member, listener, sing-a-long-in-the-shower belter, and devotee of contemporary and weird musicals. Musicals are escape and transformation and connection to your deeper self. As someone who is always thinking of the next 10 things I have to do — or that are overdue — good theatre forces me to pause and sit and become immersed in fantasy.
There is nothing I love more than sharing a deafeningly silent, poignant moment with 300 other audience members; grinning wide through a rousing musical number that makes me want to stand and cheer; or tearing up at a matinee with the gray-haired woman seated beside me. In that spirit, I want to share some of my favorite musical moments with you. Here are some of my favorite things from my favorite shows, the songs that embrace me in the tender places of my steely heart.
Ring of Keys from Fun Home
Let’s just start here, because everyone has cried to this song. If you haven’t, you are probably going to right now. Or you are a cyborg incapable of emotion, which is understandable.
Do you remember the first time you saw a visibly queer person? A beautiful butch? The first time you felt that glimmer of recognition or tingling of desire. For many, this song is about self-realization. For me, it’s more about naming my desire. I remember the first time I saw a woman with short hair and men’s clothes and a cocky swagger in her walk. She was a manager at the McDonald’s I worked at in high school. She was bisexual and had a boyfriend and was in her twenties and a huge flirt. I’d known I was bi for a while, but I had never flirted with a woman before. I didn’t know what I even liked in a woman, what I was attracted to, until I met Stacey. I didn’t know a woman could be like her, look like her, make me blush like her. It switched something on for me that couldn’t be un-switched. When I listen to “Ring of Keys,” my heart just stops for a second. It makes think about coming into my own identity, about seeing someone and suddenly having my whole future open up before me. It’s a song about unlocking all those lonely queer places in your closeted heart, finding your people and your self.
“I know you. I know you. I know you.”
Good Morning Sunshine from Hair
I was not yet born to see Hair in 1967, the musical that set the stage for rock musicals and was billed as the “American tribal love-rock musical.” (That “tribal” part’s a bit awkward, but hippies, amiright?) So I watched the 1979 movie version on VHS, over and over and over. Sometimes I think about how Hair defined my mom’s generation and I knew it as video and about how Rent defined my generation and teens today know it as a video. What I’m saying is, I’m sure the movie was nowhere near as impactful and moving as the original stage version. There is no way I could understand the racial tensions of the 60’s, the toll of the Vietnam War, and the beauty and trappings of the sexual revolution. Similarly, I grew up in the angsty aftermath of the AIDS epidemic and I doubt today’s teens could really understand that from watching Rent.
I loved Hair, the movie. As a teen who was both really sexually curious and terrified of my sexuality, watching Hair with my friends and singing along to “Sodomy… fellatio… cunnilingus…” and “I’ve got life, life, life, life, liiiiiife!” felt really good. It’s a musical that made me feel a way about politics, about our role in effecting change, and about our responsibility to each other. Years later, I was carrying a cardboard coffin through the streets of D.C. during a Bush inaugural anti-war protest in my bright red faux fur coat, shouting “No Justice! No Peace!” into a megaphone. I think it’s safe to say that my obsession with Hair was because it shouted about sexuality at a time in my life when I was afraid to whisper and it called me into my activist soul.
Satisfied from Hamilton
Methinks I relate a little too much to Angelica Schuyler, as portrayed by the super-talented Renee Elise Goldsberry. Not because I’m potentially in love with my sister’s husband. No, I relate to Angelica because she is a smart, witty, independent woman who is always pushing herself and her politics, who really struggles to put her own needs first. She’s always reaching for more, more, more, and she’s so strong in her convictions. I’m pretty sure Waffle has actually said to me, “You’re never satisfied with what you have.” I am always thinking about, “OK. What do I want to be doing in five years? What else can I do to make change? Am I doing enough? Could I do this one more thing?” and I am less inclined to think, “Am I taking care of myself? Is this too much?” Dating me can be a challenge for a romantic. I’ve scheduled outreach programs on the same night as my spouse’s birthday. I’ve gone to out-of-town lobby days on our anniversary. I may be out of town for our anniversary again this year. Like Aaron Burr, sir, I’m the worst. Too bad Angelica wasn’t into gal pals and/or isn’t alive anymore, because we could definitely hang. I feel like we’d get each other on a deep sisterly level.
People Like Us from The Wild Party
“Oh, the city. So many lights you can actually pretend one of them’s shining on you.”
Toni Collette, you gorgeous femme fatale. I don’t even know why I like this song so much, other than that it’s fucking beautiful. This musical was genius and had an incredible cast including Collette, the incomparable Eartha Kitt as a Vaudeville diva, and Mandy Patinkin as the abusive boyfriend. It’s based on a controversial 1928 narrative poem of the same name by Joseph Moncure March, that was banned and impossible to find in print until it was reprinted in 1994. There is some bad representation. The lesbian is aggressive and possessive. The bisexual is a sexual predator. But again, in 2000, we were still in the dark ages. The fact that a character even was bisexual, that there was a love song by a woman for another woman, made me feel less alone.
There’s a Fine, Fine Line from Avenue Q
Driving through the woods and farms on Route 3., white-knuckling the steering wheel, crying into the hair falling across my face. That’s what this song is to me. It was my go-to breakup song during the year of on-again-off-again, the track I screamed into the nothingness expanding endlessly in front of me as I drove as far as I could go until I had to turn around and head back home again.
Last Night of the World from Miss Saigon
First off, this musical is my problematic fave. Oh dear, it’s such a mess. It is the white savior-est of the white savior stories. Its portrayal of Vietnamese people is awful. It literally upholds the Asian virgin/whore stereotype. It’s the actual worst.
Tell that to 12-year-old me, who picked this soundtrack up right when I was starting to get into musicals, right after Phantom. When you don’t have any media representation that looks vaguely like you, you grab onto what you can.
Lea Salonga, who played the lead role, enchanted me with her voice and her power. She was 18 when she originated the incredibly difficult role in London and then on Broadway, showcasing her impossibly wide vocal range. Beyond being a popular recording artist in the Philippines, Salonga was also the first Asian woman to play a lead role in Les Misérables on Broadway. She is the singing voice behind Disney’s Jasmine and Mulan and she is currently back on Broadway in the original cast of Allegiance. Her voice and her story as Kim in Miss Saigon brought me to adolescent tears, laying on my bed, reading along from the liner notes as I played the double-disc CD.
When I first started becoming friends with my spouse in college, this was one of the musical soundtracks we discovered we both loved. On a car ride to Hamilton College to see Dorothy Allison speak, we put this CD in and belted along to the songs and this was our favorite song. Despite all the reasons it should be problematic, I will always have warm fuzzy feelings for this song and it will always make me think of my love.
Miss Saigon is coming back to Broadway for a revival. I think it should probably stay in its racist past, but I also know that deep in my heart, I am totally going to want to see it again.
Out Tonight from Rent
Mimi. Mimi. Mimi. I know I should have latched onto Joanne and Maureen. I KNOW. And I did. I mean, I loved every character in RENT, every song. RENT was the musical of my teen years. Everyone who went to high school circa 1996-2000 sang “Seasons of Love” in chorus as some point. It was the 90’s. It was the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic. ACT UP and Queer Nation was a little before my time, but RENT was, in many ways, a slightly sanitized version of the radical queer heart of the 90’s. Maureen was the first bisexual character I saw in popular media. Mimi was everything I wanted to be when I grew up, though looking back, I suppose she was supposed to be somewhat of a cautionary tale. It didn’t matter. She was free in ways I wanted to be free and for me, she was 100% about owning your sexuality, owning your body, being shameless. I wanted her and I wanted to be like her.
The movie never quite meant the same to me as the stage version did and as the music did on it’s own. I was a senior in college when the movie came out. Rosario Dawson absolutely killed it in the movie performance (the clip above), but Daphne Rubin-Vega was my one and only true Mimi. I was lucky to see her a few years later as Magenta in the Rocky Horror Picture Show revival and she slayed my heart.
Carrying the Banner from Newsies
This dumb-ass musical about some hot guys who kind of look like dapper lesbians was a staple of my puberty years. My two best friends and I would watch it every weekend, sing all the parts in harmony (sort of). We had Newsies doppelgangers. Cat was Sarah, the hot chick and the only girl in the whole damn show. Heather was Davey, the sensible one who took care of the less sensible ones. I was Racetrack, the funny wise guy. I was always the funny wise guy growing up. The cool friend who my friend’s boyfriends enjoyed hanging with. The funny fat girl Korean sidekick to my white friends who I felt sure had so much more sexual capital than me. I digress. This song is just so fun. I have to admit that I mostly like the movie version of Newsies. I saw the Broadway show and it was… I dunno… too cheesy for me as a stage show. Maybe I just grew up a bit and had a harder time finding myself in it. I don’t know. This song still reminds me of sitting on the floor in Heather’s den, watching this tape and rewinding to watch this song over and over and discussing which dancers were the hottest.
Touch Me from Spring Awakening
I intentionally linked this newer version of “Touch Me” from the 2015 Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening. I saw the Deaf West production twice this past year and I honestly loved it more than the original production, which I also saw on Broadway. In the Deaf West revival, the whole show is performed (not interpreted, performed) in ASL and spoken English, with a half-hearing and half-deaf cast. It brings another layer of intimacy and meaning to the show, which is at its heart about teens being cut off from knowledge and self-autonomy. It’s also historically accurate, as deaf kids were often and still are forced to adapt to oral communication for the comfort of hearing people.
This musical is for millennial misfits what RENT was for my teen years. Spring Awakening is a powerhouse. It’s the musical that launched Lea Michele’s career. It’s about teens rebelling and bursting into their sexuality at a time when adults refuse to listen to them and trust them. It’s still very relevant today. “Touch Me” brings me back to my childhood bedroom, where I privately and guiltily explored the pleasure of my body while being absolutely sure it was wrong and dirty. It’s about that time in your life, whether it is in your teens or after you come out in your later years, when you are aching to be touched, ripping out of your skin, throbbing with desire, and kind of afraid of what giving in to your desires might do do to you, too. It gives me chills every time.
Say It To Me Now from Once
Can you tell that I like emotional power ballads? Actually, I knew my spouse and I were going to be friends for life when I realized we liked all the same belt-it-at-the-top-of-your-lungs musical tracks from all the same musicals. This song is like that moment when you’re with that person you like and you think they like you, too, but neither of you can find the words. And you’re looking down at your hands and wondering if they will touch and hoping, hoping that they will. It’s the moment right before I sloppily kissed my boi on the sweaty dance floor of that drag bar, even though we were both in long-term relationships with other people, even though it was a huge risk, even though I didn’t know if he’d kiss me back. It is the moment just before I took the leap and in my mind there is always two versions of that story, the one that really happened and the one that could have happened if I’d stopped myself before my lips reached his neck.
“This is what you’ve been waiting for…”
I could go on forever and ever and ever and ever. I have so many favorites that it’s impossible to put them all here. Let’s keep the mixtape going in the comments. I’d love to hear about your favorite musical tracks and artists and your favorite musical moments. What songs make your heart soar?